3.1 Child Development: What are the various theories of child development? What are the differences?

Chapter THREE


3.1 Describe the various theories of child development

3.2 State the main differences between different kinds of theories


People, who interact with children such as parents, caregivers, siblings, etc, have many questions regarding them.  Questions they ask include how they grow and develop. Issues about children’s growth and development are of major concern. Often opinions have been offered for answers to these questions.  However these answers do not always adequately explain children’s behaviour and development.


There is a need to go beyond subjective opinions and personal experience.  This is achieved by theoretical explanations. A theory is a statement or set of assumptions offered to explain why something happens or works the way it does.  It consists of objective ideas organized to provide a more complete understanding of the phenomenon.


We rely on theories to provide direction for action everyday.  Theories of children’s development help us to understand why children act the way they do.  They objectively answer most of the questions that people continually ask in their efforts to understand children.


In this section, I will describe some theories that have significantly guided the understanding of issues in the study of child development.  Theories of child development differ in content and in the positions they take on certain fundamental issues about the development particularly: Is development continuous or discontinuous?  Are there critical periods in development? What are the influences of development? And do children play any role in their own development? We have different groups of theories that attempt to explain behaviour. In this Chapter I will introduce you to some of the major theories of child development.


Many theories attempt to explain how children grow and develop. Each represents a lens through which we can view children and the changes that accompany their growth. However each taken alone is inadequate for explaining all behaviour. Combining aspects from several theories can help us to make sense of the changes that in the child during infancy.


I will introduce you to four groups of theories: psychoanalytic theories, maturational theories, behavioural theories and Cognitive-developmental theories


3.2 Highlight the various psychoanalytic theories. Describe Freud’s psychosexual stages of development.


What are Psychoanalytic Theories?

These are theories that focus on the affective aspects of development (social and emotional). There are two main psychoanalytic theories: Freud’s psychosexual theory and Eriksson’s psychosocial theory. I want us to describe these two theories now.

Psychosexual Theory

This theory was developed by a Viennese neurologist, Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939).  He believed that unconscious processes govern behaviour. He also believed that early experiences with parents extensively shape a child’s development.


Freud was concerned with personality development since personality can cause a person to grow up emotionally healthy or not He suggested that personality has three structures: the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the structure of personality that is totally unconscious. It has no contact with reality. It operates according to the pleasure principle. Its aim is to seek immediate (instant) gratification. A child operating at this level wants to have his needs met on demand. For example if such a child is hungry while in church, he or she will demand to be fed there and then. This child does not care that it may be difficult to obtain food in such a context. He or she can not defer gratification. He does not consider the reality of the situation. During infancy the child finds this instant gratification at the mother’s breast.


Parents soon begin to socialize their infants to delay gratification and seek pleasure in more acceptable ways. These demands promote the development of the ego. The ego is the structure that deals with the demands of reality. It makes rational (reasonable) decisions. It operates on the reality principle. It tries to find gratification in appropriate ways that will not be punished. The child     who is operating at this level can wait to eat the food at the appropriate context without giving the mother a hard time. The id and the ego have no morals (concept of right or wrong).


As the parents teach the child what is socially acceptable and what is unacceptable, the superego emerges. The superego considers the moral values. At this level, the child though hungry may not demand to eat in the church because he knows that the habit is not socially acceptable. Freud believed that children’s development occurs in stages.


Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development.

According to Freud, development occurs in five psychosexual stages: Oral stage, anal stage the phallic stage, the latency stage and the genital stage. During each stage a person experiences pleasure in one part of the body. Freud thought that adult behaviour is determined by the way the conflicts between the early sources of pleasure- the mouth, the anus and then the genitals- and the demands of the reality are resolved. If the conflicts are not resolved, the individual’s energy may become attached to a particular part of the body. The individual becomes over concerned with activities related to that part of the body. Freud called this fixation.


Let us look at these stages now. Note that we are only going to have a detailed look at the stages that are related to infancy: the oral and anal stages. You will be able to study the other three stages in detail in the child development 2 unit.

A. Oral Stage (Birth – 1 year)

The child finds pleasure through activities centred on the oral region – the mouth, the tongue and lips. Some of these activities are sucking and feeding.  The child develops strong emotional ties with the person who provides pleasure in the mouth, usually his mother (Bee, 1995). For normal development, the infant requires some optimum (not too much and not too little) amount of oral stimulation.  If there is too little oral stimulation the child may becomes fixated in the oral mode of gratification. Such an individual will continue to have a strong preference for oral pleasures in later life. For example a mother who stops to breast feed a child too early can cause the child to become fixated in the oral stage. As an adult such a person tends to exhibit behaviours that that are centred on the mouth such as smoking and sucking of the tongue.


 B. The Anal Stage (1 year to 3 years)

The baby becomes more and more sensitive in the anal region.  The child may want to touch, talk about and joke about the anus during this time.  Parents emphasize toilet training and show pleasure when the child relieves himself or herself at the right place at the right time. The key to the child’s success in this stage is sufficient anal exploration and pleasure. The parents need not get overwhelmed by the child’s seemingly over concentration on the anal region.  If too much pressure is exerted on toilet training, the child may become fixated. Adults who consciously swing this part of their bodies as they walk may have become fixated in the anal stage. Other behaviours as a result of fixation in this stage include such tendencies as orderliness, stringiness or their opposite extreme like being extremely messy.


The other stages of development in this theory are the phallic stage (3-5 years), the latency stage (5 – 12 Years) and the genital stage (12 – 18 Years and older). These stages will be discussed in detail in the next child development course as I mentioned earlier.


3.3 Outline Erik-Eriksson’s Psychosocial Theory

Erik-Eriksson’s Psychosocial Theory

Erik Eriksson proposed that personality evolves through systematic stages. Social and cultural influences are important in shaping personality. Eriksson believed that human beings face eight major psychosocial crises or conflicts during their    life. Whether or not the conflicts of one stage are successfully resolved, the individual is pushed by both biological maturation and social demands to the next stage. Thus unlike Freud the individual is not fixated.


The first stage in this theory is the Trust vs. mistrust stage (Birth to 1 year). This time the infant is fully dependent on others. For example they need someone to meet their needs such as feed them, relieve their discomfort etcetera. When the primary caretaker is responsive to the needs of an infant, the infant learns to trust her. This trust is extended to others. If a caregiver neglects or responds inconsistently to the infant’s needs, he or she will mistrust her thus extending this mistrust to others. There should be a healthy balance between the terms of the conflict. Trust should outweigh mistrust. However some little mistrust is healthy as the child should not become too trusting (over trusting). Positive resolution in this stage results in the ego virtue (personality strength) of hope.


Between 1 and 3 years the child is in the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage. Autonomy refers to a need to govern oneself. The child has a clearer sense of himself as an individual separate from the caregiver.  He or she can recognize the self in the mirror. The child wants to do things himself to demonstrate independence for example. The child may want to feed, dress or even clean him or herself. If children are denied opportunities to do things on their own for example. if they are humiliated or punished when they accidentally spill milk as they try to feed themselves, they doubt their competence or believe that they are fundamentally bad people. On the other hand if encouraged the child develops a sense of autonomy. The positive outcome of this stage is will. The society clearly influences the course of ones development through all stages.


The other stages in this theory include: initiative versus Guilt (3 – 6 years), Industry versus Inferiority (6– 12 years), Identity versus Role confusion (adolescence), Intimacy versus Isolation (young adulthood), Generativity versus Stagnation (mature adulthood) and Integrity versus Despair (old age).


3.4 Give context to the maturational theory and its place in child development

Maturational Theory

Maturational theory was born in the late nineteenth century.  It grew out of the work of Charles Darwin on evolution (1859) and the work of his cousin, Francis Galton.  Galton was a British investigator who found that people who are genetically similar have comparable abilities.  If one member of a family was intelligent, other members tended to be intelligent too. If one member was short, others were likely to be short.  Galton concluded from his studies that intellectual abilities are inherited and fixed at birth.


According to this theory, heredity may influence the individual in two ways:  (1) Some characteristics believed to be fixed by genes are present at birth – for example, eye color. (2) Other characteristics aren’t present at birth but are believed to be fixed by genes anyway.  They unfold according to an inherited timetable that regulates developmental processes. For example children learn to walk and talk by a certain age. The adult height is also attained at a certain age.


Maturation is the process of biological change and development during which new behaviours steadily emerge one after another.  Maturational theory suggests that the appearance of a particular behaviour depends on time, not on experience or environment.


The most prominent American advocate of Maturational Theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844 – 1924) .  He expounded a biological view of human behaviour with an emphasis on stages of development unfolding in a predetermined way.


One of Hall’s most famous students was Arnold Gesell, a physician whose work was influential in the 1920s and 1930s.  Gesell observed and described the ages at which different behaviours emerged, such as walking and talking. Like other Maturational Theorists, he believed that these skills developed in accordance with the individual child’s inner timetable, regardless of learning or experience.  Learning could occur only after the individual was biologically ready.

3.5 Analyze the various Behavioral theories

Behavioural Theories

In contrast to Psychoanalytic Theorists, who focus on inner personality developments over time and Maturational Theorists who believe biological influences determine development, Behavioural Theorists pay little attention to inner influences.  They focus instead on observable, external behaviour and how specific environments affect it. They believe that only observable behaviour can be understood and explained. Behavioural theory recognizes no biological base for development. Behavioural theory originated in studies with animals, and it has been known by various names over the years, including learning theory, S-R theory, and behaviourism.  The name “Learning Theory”, refers to the focus on how a new behaviour can be acquired. The name “S-R” Theory” refers to the connection between a stimulus (“S”) in the environment and a response (“R”) on the part of the organism. The name “behaviourism” reflects the belief that psychological theories should be based only on observable behaviour and should not include references to inner states, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, anxieties and so on.


A. Classical Conditioning

The roots of Behavioural Theory can be found in the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936).  Pavlov showed that under certain circumstances an animal could learn a new physiological response to a stimulus with another stimulus that produces a particular response naturally.  After repeated pairings, the new stimulus produces the same response as the original stimulus. The response to the new stimulus is “conditional” on the previous pairing of the two stimuli.  This type of learning is known as classical conditioning.  Pavlov called the stimulus that produces the response naturally the unconditioned stimulus (often abbreviated UCS) and the new stimulus that is paired with it, or presented slightly before it, the conditioned stimulus (CS).


Pavlov’s most famous illustration of classical conditioning involved teaching a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.  He rang a bell at the same time that he gave the dog some food (the unconditioned stimulus) which naturally causes the dog to salivate (the unconditioned response, or UCR).  After several of these learning situations, the sound of the bell alone caused the dog to salivate (the conditioned response, or CR). The sound of the bell  is the conditioned stimulus.


We often see apparent examples of classical conditioning in child development.  Placing a nipple in a baby’s mouth naturally elicits sucking. After the baby repeatedly sees the nipple just before it’s placed in her mouth, the sight of the nipple alone may cause sucking movements in the baby. The sensation of the nipple in the mouth is the unconditioned stimulus that elicits sucking, the unconditioned response.  The sight of the nipple is the conditioned stimulus that also comes to elicit sucking, which in this situation is a conditioned response.


Another idea related to classical conditioning is that of secondary versus primary rewards.  Primary rewards reduce the physiological tensions of hunger, thirst, sex and pain. Secondary rewards come to have rewarding qualities by being associated with primary rewards.  For example, a mother’s smile may become a reward after being paired with food and other primary rewards.


B. Instrumental Conditioning

Pavlov studies how behaviour was influenced by stimuli that occurred before the behaviour.  An American psychologist, Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949), was interested in how behaviour was affected by events that occurred after the behaviour.  He showed that he could increase or decrease the frequency of a voluntary behaviour if he followed it consistently with regard or a punishment. This type of conditioning is known as instrumental conditioning, and it provides the basis for behaviour modification programs.


Another American psychologist, John B. Watson (1878 – 1958), was sharply critical of the introspective methods of studying human behaviour used by other psychologists.  He felt that there were bound to be inaccuracies in people’s own reports of their own reactions to various stimuli, and these procedures couldn’t be used with children or animals, the subjects in whom he was most interested.  Above all, Watson wanted psychology to be a science of behaviour, which he called Behaviourism. He believed that valid data could be obtained only from the observation of behaviour, those things that people actually say or do.  Because of his revolutionary work Watson is known as the “Father of Behaviourism”.


C. B. F. Skinner

The most influential, and probably the most radical, contemporary behaviourist is B. F. Skinner (1904).  Skinner’s brand of Behaviourism completely rejects such concepts as drives that are in some sense inside the organism and therefore unobservable. Instead, he attempts to explain behaviour only in terms of what can be observed.


Skinner replaces the concept of reward with the concept of reinforcement.  A reinforcer is defined as any observable stimulus that increases the frequency of a response when it’s presented after (following) the response.  Skinner called this process of increasing the frequency of behaviour by adding a reinforcing stimulus operant conditioning.  (Thorndike had referred to the same type of learning as instrumental conditioning).


Some reinforcers are positive – they consist of something added to the environment following a response.  If a child asks politely for a sweet, for example, and her parent gives her one, the child is positively reinforced for being polite.  If the child begs and shouts for the cookie and gets one, she’s positively reinforced for begging and shouting. The cookie is the positive reinforcer that increases the likelihood that the behaviour – whether polite or shouts – will occur again.


Other reinforces are negative – they consist of removing something from the environment following a response.  Let’s consider the case of the child and the sweet again but from the parent’s point of view.  If the child is shouting, and the parent promises her a sweet, the shouting stops. Something offensive (crying) has been removed from the parent’s environment.  If the parent then gives and then gives sweets frequently to stop the shouting, we say that the parent’s sweet–giving behaviour has been negatively reinforced because it was not her (parent) preferable habit. However the child’s shouting in order to get a sweet has been positively reinforced. Both positive and negative reinforcers increase the likelihood that certain responses will occur again, the former by adding something and the latter by removing something.


One of Skinner’s interest was how new behaviours are acquired.  He and his followers became well known for teaching a new behaviour by taking an existing, similar behaviour and reinforcing successive approximations until the desired behaviour appears. This is known as shaping. Parents do this all the time with their infants. An example is when they get excited and raise them for their efforts to walk and talk.


D. Social Learning Theory

Some Behavioural Theorists, particularly Albert Bandura, have been much more willing to discuss thinking, reasoning, and other conscious mental processes than earlier Behaviourists were. Their ideas have been labelled Social Learning Theory.  Bandura proposed that much behaviour is learned not gradually through shaping but quickly through observation and imitation. It’s unlikely, for example that many of us could learn to write through shaping, which depends so heavily on trial and error.  Instead, we learn through the cognitive (mental) processes of observation and imitation.


Children learn to do many things by observing and imitating the behaviours of others particularly adults.  I am sure you have seen children try to do what adults do. A two-year-old child for instance will take a book and pretend to read though he does not exactly understand what adults do in reading.  This is called imitation and it occurs after attending to the action of the adult observation. Children consistently observe and imitate others. After several such attempts the imitated behaviour is added to the child’s behaviour repertoire. This kind of learning takes place in a social context so it is referred to as social learning. Social learning accounts for a great deal of learning in children.


3.6 Discuss Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Interaction Theory

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive-Interaction Theory

Since the 1930’s until his death Swiss psychologists and biologist Jean Piaget had been studying the development of cognition (the process of thinking and understanding).  His work proved to be very important for the insight it provided into children’s behaviour. Piaget wanted to understand what knowledge is and how people acquire it, and he approached the question of adult knowledge by investigating children’s knowledge.  He asked two basic questions: Why do children and adults think differently in similar situations? What causes human knowledge to change over time?


In his studies, Piaget found that children have different levels of understanding at different ages.  Their responses to a situation are determined not just by the situation alone but by how they understand the situation.  This is the heat of the Cognitive –Interaction theory. Piaget does not think of knowledge as something that exists independently in the external world and that a person can simply acquire. To him, knowledge is a creation resulting from the interaction of the person and the environment. He sees knowledge as constructed or created gradually as the child interacts with the environment.  The Child is therefore active in the construction of his own knowledge.


Piaget proposed two processes to explain how knowledge is created and changed over time.  Assimilation is the process of taking in information about the environment and incorporating it into an existing knowledge structure (scheme). A scheme is a way of thinking about something or about an event. For example,  a child that has seen dogs can be said to have a dog scheme, which may cover medium-sized, four legged animals found in people’s houses.  The first time this child sees a cat, she may call it a dog because that’s the most appropriate scheme she has. Gradually, as she sees more cats and notices how they are different from dogs, she develops two schemes, one for cats and one for dogs.  This process of changing knowledge structures in order to incorporate new knowledge is known as accommodation.


Our schemes are always inadequate to handle all our experiences (Piaget, 1963), so assimilation tends to distort information from the environment to make it fit available schemes.  Eventually, these distortions are corrected as we change schemes to accommodate the new information. In this way our schemes come to conform more closely to the world around us. The 2-year old changes her “dog scheme” to exclude animals that meow and climb trees, and she develops a ‘cat scheme” that includes these characteristics.  Eventually her schemes will accurately reflect all the characteristics of both types of animal.


The processes of assimilation and accommodation occur simultaneously. Piaget uses the term equilibration to refer to the process by which assimilation and accommodation attempt to balance each other. Piaget came up with a stage theory of development.


Piaget’s Stages of Development

Assimilation and accommodation lead not just to more knowledge but also to reorganizations of knowledge and different ways of thinking.  The points at which this reorganization takes place marks the beginnings of different stages. Each stage is characterized by a unique way of thinking.


The first stage is referred to as Sensori-motor Stage. It corresponds to the age of 0 to 2 years. During this stage the child learns through senses and actions. Thus the schemes are tied to action. The child learns by doing.  From the age of 2 to 6 years the child is said to be in the Preoperational Stage during which knowledge is acquired through symbols. A symbol is something that is used to represent another thing. A good example of a symbol is a word. The name of a person is not the person. It is simply a language symbol that represents the person. The 7 to 12 years old child is said to be in the Concrete Operational Stage. The child continues to acquire knowledge symbolically. However he is now capable of thinking logically but is limited to concrete objects and events. Finally the child enters the Formal Operational Stage at approximately 12 years of age. A major achievement in this stage is the ability to think abstractly. Piaget believes that cognitive development is a product of the environment and the biological factors. It is therefore referred to as a Cognitive-Interaction theory.

Definition of key terms

Further Reading



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