List of Child Development Theories (Definition and FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 13, 2022

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Theories can provide a useful framework for understanding how development processes operate. A major goal of child development theories is to identify how children change and develop as they mature. Understanding the various theories of child development can help you gain a better understanding of psychology and child development. In this article, we explain what child development theories are, explore the seven major theories of child development, and review answers to a few frequently asked questions.

What are child development theories?

Child development theories seek to understand and explain how children change throughout their childhoods. Psychologists and developmental researchers have several theories to describe and explain the process and stages through which children develop. Some theories seek to explain almost every aspect of how human beings change and mature. Other theories focus on a narrower aspect of human development.

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Theories of child development

Here are explanations for the seven primary theories of child development:

Freud's psychosexual theory

Freud's clinical experience with patients suffering from mental illness led him to believe that childhood experiences and unconscious desires have a significant impact on behaviour. Freud's psychoanalytic theory states that individuals form most of their personalities by the age of five. According to Freud, conflicts that occur during different stages of childhood can have a long-term impact on personality and behaviour. Depending on their resolution, conflicts can either contribute to growth or stifle it at each stage of development. Psychologist Sigmund Freud asserts that a healthy individual results from having passed each stage of psychosexual development.

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Erikson's psychosocial development theory

Erikson's eight-stage theory of psychosocial development focuses on the interaction among individuals at different stages of life and the conflicts that arise during these stages. According to Erikson, experience and social interaction play an important role in the process of psychosocial development. Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory places a greater emphasis on development across the lifespan than on other developmental theories.

Throughout childhood and adulthood, people experience developmental crises that serve as essential turning points. As an example, defining one's identity is the primary conflict during the adolescent period. The success or failure of resolving conflicts at each stage can influence the overall effectiveness of development. For example, if adolescents have difficulty defining their own identities, they may become confused about their roles.

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Behavioural child development theories

Child development theories focus on how children learn through their interactions with their environment. According to behaviourists, learning and development result from associations, rewards, and punishments. When someone reinforces a behaviour, there's a greater likelihood of the behaviour recurring in the future. If someone punishes a behaviour, it's less likely to occur again in the future.

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two important behavioural processes that influence development. When you learn by classical conditioning, you pair an automatic response with a specific stimulus to produce certain behaviour. An operant conditioning method involves teaching humans how to act in such a way as to receive rewards and avoid punishments.

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Piaget's cognitive developmental theory

The cognitive theories of child development focus on how the thinking processes of a child develop throughout childhood. According to Piaget's theory, children think differently from adults. He proposes that they actively construct their knowledge and understanding of the world. The development of a child involves four distinct stages, from birth until adulthood. The four stages in Piaget's theory are:

  • The sensorimotor stage: During the sensorimotor stage, children are between birth and two years of age. During this period, a child notices the world through sensory perception and motor interaction.

  • The preoperational stage: This stage occurs between the ages of two and six and is also a period of rapid growth and development. As children progress through this stage, they still lack the ability to manipulate information and have difficulty understanding other people's perspectives.

  • The concrete operational stage: Between the ages of seven and 11, a concrete operational stage occurs, during which logical reasoning is at its peak. Kids can reason about concrete events but struggle with abstract concepts.

  • The formal operational stage: From approximately age 12 to adulthood, the emergence of hypothetical thinking marks the formal operational stage. During this stage, children can reason about abstract concepts and make systematic plans.

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Bowlby's attachment theory

One of the earliest theories of social development was Bowlby's. According to Bowlby's theory, early relationships with caregivers have a significant impact on a child's development, and these relationships continue to influence social relationships throughout a child's lifetime. Bowlby's attachment theory suggests that children are born with the ability to form attachments. Distinct behavioural and motivational patterns also characterize these attachments.

An individual with secure attachment develops loving and secure relationships with others. An anxiety-driven attachment manifests as feelings of worry, insecurity, and fear of abandonment. A key characteristic of avoidant attachment is a lack of trust, a lack of emotional availability, and the fear of intimacy. Disorganized attachment manifests itself as a mixture of desire and avoidance.

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Bandura's social learning theory

Bandura was a psychologist who developed the theory of social learning. According to Bandura, the conditioning and reinforcement processes aren't sufficient to explain all aspects of human learning. Social theories of child development emphasize the influence of parents, caregivers, peers, and other social influences on the development of children. Some studies emphasize the importance of attachment in child development, and others that emphasize how children learn information by observing their peers. Social learning theory is a synthesis of behavioural and cognitive theories that emphasize the role social experiences play in children's learning and development.

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Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist, wrote a seminal and ground-breaking theory of learning that has influenced many fields, particularly education and psychology. According to Vygotsky, the best way for children to learn is through hands-on experiences. According to his sociocultural theory, parents, caregivers, peers, and society's norms were all responsible for the development of higher-order functions.

From Vygotsky's perspective, learning is an inherently social process. By interacting with others, learning becomes part of an individual's awareness of the world. Vygotsky's theory also introduces the concept of the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development represents the area between what a child can do with help and what they can do for themselves.

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FAQs about child development theories

Here are some frequently asked questions about theories of child development:

Why is child developmental psychology important?

Human development pertains not only to psychology but also to biology, anthropology, sociology, education, and history. The goal of developmental psychology is to better understand how people grow and change. They then apply this knowledge to help us reach our full potential. Psychologists who specialize in development can examine how people mature and the different factors that impact their growth and changes.

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What do child developmental psychologists do?

Individual developmental psychologists may perform specific tasks depending on their area of specialization. Some developmental psychologists specialize in a particular aspect of development, such as children with developmental delays. Another alternative is to specialize in a particular age range, such as adolescence or old age. The following are some examples of what tasks a developmental psychologist may perform:

  • Develop educational plans in collaboration with other professionals

  • Consult with private health care practitioners

  • Teach undergraduate courses and conduct research

  • Consult with parents regarding their children's development during home visits

  • Conduct research on cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, personality, and emotional development

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Where do child developmental psychologists work?

A developmental psychologist can work in a variety of settings. Many professionals work in educational settings at colleges and universities, researching developmental subjects and teaching courses. A developmental psychologist may also work in government agencies, evaluating, assessing, and treating people with developmental disabilities. Development psychologists may also work in teen rehabilitation centres, homeless shelters, psychiatric clinics, and hospitals.

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