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Child Development Theories Essay

While theorists have different ideas and perspectives, insight on child and adolescent development can assist teachers and parents in helping children reach their full developmental and learning potential. Having knowledge about the development of a child and adolescent provides clues in understanding behavior and what is “normal,” or typical, in growth and development in the early months and years of life.

Three developmental theories are broken down to understand the concepts, points of similarity and difference, and the interaction of cognitive, physical, and emotional development of a child. The three theorist perspectives analyzed in this essay include Erikson, Kohlberg, and Piaget.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stage Theory

Erikson’s view

Erikson’s theory is from a psychoanalytic perspective, which believes that development forms by uncontrollable forces that drive human behavior. He expands on Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages, but Erikson focuses on social changes instead of sexual (Heffner, 2004). Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development breaks down in eight stages throughout the human lifespan, and believes “personality is influenced by society and develops though a series of crisis” (Papalia, D. & Olds, S. & Feldman, R., 2006). Each of Erikson’s stages are described as a crisis in personality requiring a positive and negative trait. When the outcome of each stage (or crisis) is successful, a virtue (or strength) develops. The eight stages include:

Basic trust vs. mistrust (birth to 12-18 months); baby develops sense of whether the world is a good and safe; the virtue is hope

Autonomy vs. shame (12-18 months- 3 years); child develops balance of independence and self-efficiency over shame and doubt with virtue of will

Initiative vs. guilt (3-6 years), child develops initiative without guilt with the virtue being purpose

Industry vs. inferiority (6 years to puberty),child must learn skills of culture or face feelings of incompetence; the virtue is skill

Identity vs. identity confusion (puberty to adulthood), adolescent must determine sense of self, or confusion about roles may be experienced; the virtue is fidelity

Intimacy vs. isolation (young adulthood), person seeks to make commitments to others and when unsuccessful, isolation and self-absorption may result; the virtue is love

Generativity vs. stagnation (middle adulthood), adults are concerned guiding the next generation or feels personal impoverishment; the virtue is care

Integrity vs. despair (late adulthood), acceptance of own life and death, or despairs over inability to relive life; the virtue is wisdom

(Papalia, et al., 2006, table2-2)

Kohlberg’s Moral Understanding Stage Theory

Kohlberg’s view

Kohlberg builds off of Piaget’s moral reasoning theory, but Piaget’s viewed the concepts of development of children as fairness through interaction of peers; whereas, Kohlberg thought “all social relationships offer opportunities for social role-taking—taking the perspective of others—and thus stimulate moral development” (Papalia, et al., 2006). Kohlberg’s focus was a child’s development of right, wrong, and justice; he argues that child developments progress consecutively, and are based on spirituality and God through stages of “thought processing, implying qualitatively different modes of thinking and of problem solving” (Cory, 2006). Kohlberg explains moral reasoning in three levels and divides each into two stages. The first level, from ages 4 to 10, Kohlberg calls preconventional morality. Stage one of reasoning in preconventional morality level is a child’s orientation toward punishment and obedience. In this stage, children obey rules to avoid punishment. In stage two, instrumental purpose exchange, children “conform to rules out of self-interest and consideration for what others can do for them” (Papalia, et al., 2006).

Conventional morality is the second level, reached after age 10. Maintaining mutual relations and getting approval of others, wanting to please and help others happens at stage three. In stage four, an individual begins social concern and having a conscience, and understanding the principles of authority. In level three, post-conventional morality, development is in early adolescence, young adulthood—or never. Stage five of level three describes a person developing, or understanding morality of contract, individual rights, and democratically accepting the law. In this stage, people are aware of principles and think rational deciding between human need and the law. Morality of universal ethical principles is the concept of stage six.

Piaget’s Cognitive Development Stage Theory

Piaget’s view

Jean Piaget’s theory focused on cognitive development as mental operations mature based on “simple sensory and motor activity to logical, abstract thought” (Papalia, et al., 2006). Piaget’s view was that growth occurs as a child matures and interacts with his or her surroundings; he looks at the human mind as a focal point and base for everything around it (Heffner, 2004). Cognitive development occurs in three interrelated processes, according to Piaget. The interrelated processes are organization, adaptation, and equilibration. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are broken down and explained in a web page created by James Atherton:

(0-2 yrs) Differentiates self from objects and recognizes self as agent of action and begins to act intentionally: e.g. pulls a string to set mobile in motion or shakes a rattle to make a noise; Achieves object permanence: realizes that things continue to exist even when no longer present to the sense

(2-7 years) Learns to use language and to represent objects by images and words. Thinking is still egocentric: has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. Classifies objects by a single feature: e.g. groups together all the red blocks regardless of shape or all the square blocks regardless of color.

Concrete operational

(7-11 years) Can think logically about objects and events; Achieves conservation of number (age 6), mass (age 7), and weight (age 9) .Classifies objects according to several features and can order them in series along a single dimension such as size.

Formal operational

(11 years and up) Can think logically about abstract propositions and test hypotheses systematically; becomes concerned with the hypothetical, the future, and ideological problems. (Atherton, 2009)

Similarities, differences, & key concepts

The major points of similarity, or agreement, in each viewpoint are; development occurs in stages in all three perspectives, and all theorists believe development begins from birth. One of the differences is each theorist’s interest. Erikson’s interest was in how children socialize and how this affects their sense of self. His concept was that if a stage of crisis were unsuccessful, the result would be an inability to get to the next stage; which in turn contributes to an unhealthy personality and sense of self.

Kohlberg’s interest was how children get a sense of right and wrong, with a theory that originates from character of God. Piaget’s interests were intellect and the ability to see relationships mature, with a concept based off sensory and motor activity. A difference between Kohlberg and Piaget’s theory is that Kohlberg’s theory may not apply equally to genders and cultures; whereas, Piaget’s theory is believed to be a fixed order in all children and cultures, with ages of each stage varying from child to child.

The importance of understanding normal child and adolescent development


Indeed, while theorists have different ideas and perspectives, parents and teacher who have some knowledge have a better chance in helping children reach their full developmental and learning potential, and they will be more aware when development and growth are in the normal range.


Cory, R. (2006, August 13). Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved June 29, 2009,

From Aggelia Internet Publishing: http://www.aggelia.com/htdocs/kohlberg.shtml

Heffner, C. L. (2004, March 21). Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Retrieved

June 29, 2009,from All Psych Online: The Virtual Psychology Classroom:


Papalia, D. & Olds, S. & Feldman, R. (2006). A Child’s World: Infancy Through
Adolescense .

NY, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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