Leading Child Development Theories

Benna Crawford
Close up of newborn baby's face

Since the mid-nineteenth century, theorists have tried to capture the trajectory and influences of child development, although the definitive measure of a child is elusive. However, some noteworthy theories have influenced child psychology and education and continue to shape society's thinking about childhood today.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev Vygotsky's analysis of cognitive maturation is known as social development theory. His work is based on two main principles:

  • At different ages, children will develop specific ranges of skills.
  • Social interaction is a prerequisite for cognitive development.

Vygotsky believed that play was the main work of preschool-age children and that through play they learned to master their world. His theories on development are central to the educational philosophy of constructivism - that human experiences are the key to ideas and knowledge.

Three Themes of Social Development

The social development theory can be divided into three main themes:

  • The social interactions of the child are crucial to acquiring the capacities for voluntary attention, logical memory, and conceptual thinking.
  • Learning takes place in the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD), the space between mastery of a skill or subject and not-knowing. In this zone, the More Knowledgeable Others (MKO) are mentors, adults, and peer collaborators who introduce and model new thoughts and behaviors that children then use to expand their capabilities. Guided learning and the environment are essential for development.
  • Language merges with thought at around age three, leading to "inner speech," the verbal thought that comes from an internalization of language. For Vygotsky, this was the beginning of true consciousness.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erik Erikson's work centers on psychosocial theory. Erikson went beyond Freud to look at the formation of a personal sense of identity, from cradle to grave. He was concerned with the aspect of development that encouraged people to function in a healthy way in society. The full spectrum of psychosocial adaptations includes:

  • Trust versus mistrust
  • Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  • Initiative versus guilt
  • Industry versus inferiority
  • Clear identity versus confusion
  • Intimacy versus isolation
  • Generativity versus stagnation
  • Integrity versus despair

Early Childhood Psychosocial Stages

From birth through childhood, the stages he designated as crucial involve positive interaction with caregivers and teachers.

  • Baby girl with pacifier in mouth
    Trust vs Mistrust - From birth to one year, babies need their physical needs met: warmth, food, cleanliness, comfort, caring touch, and attention. If this happens, the baby develops trust and a sense that the world offers them good things, essential to eventual positive self-image and supportive relationships.
  • Autonomy vs Shame/Doubt - From ages one to three, children need a safe space to make choices, to experiment, to become familiar with their physical world and their ability to master it, to solve problems, to be encouraged and not shamed. A child who is made fun of or punished for failing to do something perfectly, or even correctly, will internalize that they are stupid and incapable of functioning in their environment. Total killer of self-esteem.
  • Initiative vs Guilt - From ages three to six, the growing child should engage in unfamiliar activities, explore an ever-widening world, and experience some success in those efforts. Kids are naturally curious and love to learn - unless someone unnecessarily restricts them or routinely gives them more than they can handle. That results in a poor self-image, apathy, fear of or aversion to learning new things, and a crippling lack of confidence.

John Bowlby (1907-1990)

John Bowlby proposed a comprehensive attachment theory. Bowlby thought the scientific emphasis on behavior and psychoanalysis was missing a key ingredient in the development of a fully functioning and emotionally healthy human - a significant bond with a main caregiver (typically the mother). Absent this relationship, the developmental pitfalls were apt to be depression, aggression, a decline in intelligence, delinquency, and affectionless psychopathy - a coldly sociopathic personality lacking in empathy.

Bowlby's Attachment Stages

Bowlby's research with institutionalized children and monkeys resulted in a theory of stages of attachment.

Pre-attachment - From birth to six weeks, newborns are calmed by the familiar presence of their mothers, or another attentive human, and perform ritual activities to attract caregiver attention: cooing, crying, smiling and making eye contact.

  • Early attachment formation - From six weeks to between six to eight months, the infant begins to trust the mother or main caregiver to meet their needs. The baby smiles more around this person and calms more readily in her/his comforting presence.
  • Clear-cut attachment - Between six to eight months and eighteen months to two years, the baby becomes firmly attached. The child has a clear preference for its mother or main caregiver and has separation anxiety when that attachment subject leaves. Separation anxiety can be a very big deal, depending on the personality of the little person.
  • Formation of reciprocal relationship - From around 18 months to two years or so, the child begins to understand language and speak. Now she can grasp the concept of "coming back" and is secure in her attachment, even when the mother/caregiver isn't there.

Levels of Attachment

Bowlby's theory allowed him to determine levels of quality of attachment that predicted emotional maturation success for the child. The attachment styles he identified are the result of the quality of maternal or main caregiver attention to the child.

  • Mother holding baby on her shoulder
    Secure attachment - child is happy, trusting, and curious about its environment, and understands the mother/caregiver will always return.
  • Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment - child does not entirely trust the mother/caregiver to meet his needs, is emotionally indifferent or distant, shows no joy in the mother/caregiver's presence, and is timid about exploring the environment.
  • Anxious-resistant ambivalent attachment - child is passive, angry, anxious, and apathetic in the presence of the mother/caregiver. There is no sense of security or trust; they don't feel they have anyone to rely on.
  • Disorganized/disoriented attachment - child is confused, depressed, raging, apathetic, incurious, emotionally inconsistent, passive in relation to environmental stimuli. The emotional prognosis for this child is not good. Children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused fall into this category and may require therapeutic intervention.

Jean Piaget (1896-1990)

Jean Piaget is well-known for his cognitive development theory. Piaget was interested in how children interacted with their environment. He proposed the novel idea that kids don't think the same way adults do, and they don't see the world as adults do either. Only from interacting with that world, do children develop a grasp of reality and a lively intelligence. Play is very important in Piaget's view of development. He believed children play to make sense of and master their world. He recommended that parents and teachers provide young children with appropriate-age challenges and a rich learning environment filled with manipulatives, collaborative activities with other children, and field trips for in-person discovery learning.

The Four Stages of Cognitive Development

He separated his cognitive development theory into four stages.

  • Sensorimotor - from birth to age two, children use their bodies and all their senses to apprehend their world. They experience hot, cold, sweet, sour, harsh noise, soothing sounds, gentle touch, rough textures, pleasing and nose-wrinkling smells, colors, light, and dark. They crawl, stagger off-balance and walk. The wildly waving arms learn to point and then grab.
  • Pre-operational - from two to as late as seven, children master language and pretend play. They begin to understand and use symbols.
  • Concrete operational - from about seven to age eleven, children develop logical thinking, problem-solving skills and the ability to organize new information. Piaget believed abstract thinking was only rudimentary in this group.
  • Formal operational - from age eleven through adolescence, children develop solid problem-solving and abstract thinking skills and become adept at thinking symbolically (working with ideas when the objects are not physically present).

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005)

Urie Bronfenbrenner created ecological systems theory. Bronfenbrenner was all about context. He studied human development through the lens of environment and the ecology that surrounded the child -- nature affected by nurture. His theory exposed the shortcomings of viewing a child's development in isolation. Bronfenbrenner wrote that beginning in infancy, the concentric layers of a child's environment strongly affect development and the maturing person's interactions with the world.

Bronfenbrenner's Five Ecological Systems

For Bronfenbrenner, there were five layers of this system and the developing child encountered them both sequentially and simultaneously -- the innermost circle or layer having the most direct effect on the infant and subsequent encounters with a wider world having greater and greater influence.

  • Microsystems - the immediate environment: family, friends, school, church, neighborhood. From infancy on, the daily interaction with these systems directly impacts the emotional, physical and intellectual development of the child.
  • Mesosystem - the connections and interactions between elements of the microsystems: home and school, church and neighbors. A child who is neglected at home may do poorly in school. A child who is bullied in school or in the neighborhood may withdraw socially or fail to learn in his classes.
  • Exosystem - the relationship of a personal microsystem to another system unrelated to the child: family and breadwinner's workplace, church and government agency, legal services, health care agencies. A child who is attached to a parent who is deployed overseas in the military has no relationship with the military. But that family connection may estrange a young child from a parent, strengthen the bonds with the remaining parent, or result in an emotional grieving that affects a school child's enthusiasm or grades.
  • Macrosystem - the culture in which the child is immersed: ethnicity, nationality, social or economic class, church or religious group. A poor child may not have the enrichment opportunities to take advantage of intelligence or interests - or even a parent home early enough from working two jobs to read a bedtime story or check their homework. A particular ethnicity may enjoy privilege or experience disadvantage in the surrounding society.
  • Chronosystem - these are shifts in circumstances over time. A family divorce has both a short term and long term effect on a child.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927 - 1987)

Kohlberg's stages of moral development focused on children and adolescents and the age-related differences in their reasoning about right, wrong, justice, and injustice. His theory, based on testing both children and adults, concludes that children advance through distinct stages in moral thinking, similar to Piaget's stages of purely cognitive development. Kohlberg believed these stages to be consecutive, each replacing the one before it, with no variations possible in moving through them. He did not think children, or anyone, could understand moral reasoning much beyond one stage further than their own but he did determine that a person would be attracted to the next level up from theirs. He asserted that physical maturity and moral maturity did not necessarily keep pace and that moral maturity would lag if conditions to stimulate its progress were absent. Kohlberg identified three main levels of moral development encompassing six stages.

Level One - Pre-conventional Morality

This level pertains to children about nine and under. Kohlberg didn't feel young children had a personal moral code. Instead, he saw them as mirroring adult authority, rules and consequences in their decision-making.

  • Stage One - Obedience and Punishment Orientation. Punishment indicates wrongdoing so be good and avoid punishment.
  • Stage Two - Individualism and Exchange. There is an understanding that there may be more than one point of view and that authorities may not have all the answers.

Level Two - Conventional Morality

Kohlberg is getting to adolescent and adult thinking here and that involves the acceptance of role model concepts of morality. Group-think, in one's peer group or social group, is important. Convention and authority are not seriously questioned.

  • Stage Three - Good Interpersonal Relationships. The child behaves or chooses good in order to win the approval of others. External validation is a reason for morality.
  • Stage Four - Maintaining the Social Order. The rules of the broader society are compelling. Obey the rules to respect the law and avoid experiencing guilt.

Level Three - Post-conventional Morality

The individual develops a personal moral code from the focus of individual rights. Justice follows from the observation of this code. Excepting the rare child with flashes of moral insight, empathy and sensitivity, this is a stage for adults and, according to Kohlberg, few make it to Stage 5 and fewer to Stage 6.

  • Asian toddler catching soap bubbles
    Stage Five - Social Contract and Individual Rights. The understanding dawns that, while justice and rules are set up for the greatest good, sometimes those rules are not fair to individuals. This requires abstract thinking and an ability to mentally handle complex and conflicting ideas.
  • Stage Six - Universal Principles. This involves a higher definition of morality - one which applies to everyone and may not always agree with conventional thinking about justice and existing laws. Examples might be a stance against war or an embrace of human rights. Kohlberg thought most people never reached this level of sophisticated moral development.

Kohlberg's work has been robustly criticized for its male-centric, western-centric bias and limited socioeconomic parameters. Simply put, the objections are to values he identified for boys socialized in a patriarchal western culture, with no allowance for the compassion, caring, collaboration and sensitivity typically assigned to the socialization of girls.

Albert Bandura (1925 - )

Bandura's social learning theory (SLT) owes something to Vygotsky. Social learning holds that children observe others and then model their behaviors in a new situation. There is an ongoing reciprocal interaction among environmental, behavioral and cognitive (thinking, reasoning or remembering) influences. This constant dynamic Bandura called "reciprocal determinism," meaning the world and the individual have an effect on each other. The child learns in a constant interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (environment).

Four Meditational Processes

But Bandura added a step to acknowledge that small humans do not merely mimic what they observe. He calls this mediation - the child is increasingly adept at evaluating behavior and consequence. She thinks about what she sees and experiences. This thinking, in Bandura's theory, consists of four mediational processes.

  • Attention - how well or how often a child notices the new behavior. (If a child is distracted, sleepy or sick, attention suffers and so does learning.) Another observation is how readily the behavior is mimicked by others, social validation of the behavior.
  • Retention - how well the child remembers the behavior. If a memory of observed behavior is retained -- either as an image or verbally -- it can be recalled and repeated. If not, no imitation takes place and a new behavior is not learned.
  • Reproduction - the child must have the ability to imitate the observed behavior or he may not even attempt it. A real impediment or lack of skill, or a perceived one, can interfere with the performance of a novel behavior. A rudimentary skill can improve after a demonstration of mastery of that skill.
  • Motivation - the child must want to imitate the new behavior. But that child has also observed the consequences to the original model. If the behavior seems rewarding, the child will attempt it. If there is no reward, or if the behavior is punished, the child won't be interested and will not try it.

In the development of his theory, Bandura recognized that the mental life of his subjects affected their learning as much as the external behaviors did. He now refers to his work as Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), a study in cognitive-behaviorism.

Howard Gardner (1943 - )

Howard Gardner is the author of multiple intelligences theory. Gardner's revolutionary theory has influenced the way the developing mind and ability of a child is viewed, the way children are taught, and the way society honors and rewards distinct capabilities. His idea challenges the one-size-fits-all, definitive-stages, cognitive theory of Piaget and refutes traditional definitions of intelligence that measure solely linguistic and logical-mathematical competence. Gardner believes that the human mind, from birth, holds a variety of talents, predispositions, and capabilities and that, at any one stage in development, one or more of them might predominate. He expands upon this idea to insist that people should be taught and guided according to their innate intelligence, be that musical, interpersonal, linguistic, athletic or any of a number of different learning models. He also rejects the idea that one style of intelligence is superior to any other. In his view, a person may excel at more than one kind of intelligence and all are equally valuable.

Gardner's Original Intelligences

Since Gardner's original theory was published, he has identified more than the seven intelligences he began with, but it is possible to grasp his theory by reviewing the original seven.

  • boys on bed playing with tablet
    Linguistic - talent for spoken or written words
  • Logical-mathematical - abstract pattern recognition, inductive and deductive reasoning, logic and computation
  • Visual-spatial - mental visualization of objects and spatial dimensions
  • Musical-rhythmic - ability to master (and express) music, rhythms, tones and beats
  • Bodily-kinesthetic - control of physical motion and understanding the "wisdom" of the body
  • Interpersonal (social) - effective communication with other people and a talent for forming relationships
  • Intrapersonal (understanding of self) - talent for self-reflection, and understanding your own emotions, motivations, and inner states of being.

Growth and Development

It might seem needlessly complicated to pursue the strands of so many theories about how a child develops. However, child development theory supplies keys to unlocking human potential, understanding the puzzling behavior of small obstinate people, avoiding the harm unthinking neglect or mistaken notions of age-appropriate behavior can inflict, optimizing that shiny new baby's chances for living a rich, satisfying, productive life. Child development theory isn't just a theoretical map of linear growth and chronological skill mastery. It's the story of humans, of why they are what they are -- and what they could be.

Leading Child Development Theories