5 Important Child Development Theories

(Last Updated On: March 6, 2019)

What do psychologists have to say about how kids develop? There are a number of different child development theories that focus on different areas of growth and development.

Psychologists and development researchers have proposed a number of different theories to describe and explain the process and stages that children go through as they develop. Some tend to focus on the developmental milestones or specific achievements that children reach by a certain age. Others focus on specific aspects of child development such as personality, cognition, and moral growth.

The following are just some of the major ways of thinking about the stages of child development.

Child Development Theories: A Brief History

Psychologists and other theorists have proposed a number of different theories centered on how children develop. Some of these theories are known as grand theories and attempt to explain almost every aspect of how people change and grow over the course of childhood. In other instances, these theories focus on a more narrow aspect of development.

Some of the greatest minds in the history of psychology contributed a few of the best-known developmental theories.

Throughout psychology history, a number of different child development theories have emerged to explain the changes that take place during the early part of life. In the modern study of child development, we simply take for granted the fact that children are fundamentally different than adults.

Yet for much of human history, kids were simply seen as smaller versions of their adult counterparts. It has only been relatively recently that the field of developmental psychology has helped us understand the way children think is very different from how adults think.

Thanks to the work of some pioneering psychologists and other researchers, we now have a much deeper and richer understanding of how kids grow.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key theories of child development.

Psychoanalytic Child Development Theories

The psychoanalytic theories of child development tend to focus on things such as the unconscious, and forming the ego. The two primary psychoanalytic theories of development are Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development and Erik Erikson psychosocial theory of development.

1. Freud’s Psychosexual Child Development Theory

The theories proposed by Sigmund Freud stressed the importance of childhood events and experiences, but almost exclusively focused on mental disorders rather that normal functioning.

According to Freud, child development is described as a series of ‘psychosexual stages.’ Each stage involves satisfying a libidinal desire and can later play a role in adult personality. If a child does not successfully complete a stage, Freud suggested that he or she would develop a fixation that would later influence adult personality and behavior.

Freud believed that children progress through a series of psychosexual stages. During each stage, the libido’s energy becomes centered on a particular area of the body.

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The stages of Freud’s child development theory are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. During each stage, the pleasure seeking energies of the id drive for satisfaction based on a particular erogenous zone. During the oral stage, for example, a child derives pleasure from activities that involve the mouth such as sucking or chewing.

Conflicts associated with stage must be successfully resolved in order to develop a healthy adult personality. Failing to resolve these conflicts can result in a fixation at a particular point in development.

2. Erikson’s Psychosocial Child Development Theory

Erik Erikson was influenced by Freud’s work, but his own child development theories focused on the importance of social experiences in shaping a child’s psychological growth.c

Like Freud’s theory, Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development lays out a series of stages the people go through. Unlike Freud’s theory, Erickson’s theory covers development for the entire lifespan from birth until death. Freud believed that development was largely complete by age 5, while Erikson believed that people continue to develop and grow well into old age.

At each stage of development, people face a crisis that they must master. Mastering the crisis leads to the development of a psychological virtue.

For example, the primary conflict during the adolescent period involves establishing a sense of personal identity. Success or failure in dealing with the conflicts at each stage can impact overall functioning. During the adolescent stage, for example, failure to develop an identity results in role confusion.

Erikson’s theory begins at birth, as children start out in the trust versus mistrust stage. During this early stage of life, it is important for children to receive consistent care so that they can learn to trust the people in the world around them. Development continues as children grow, and at each stage the face new conflicts and learn new skills that serve them well throughout life.

Behavioral Child Development Theories

Behavioral child development theories center on how children learn through their interactions with the environment. Early in the twentieth century, the school of thought known as behaviorism took hold in psychology. The behaviorist believed that learning and development were the result of associations, rewards, and punishments.

According to behaviorist John B. Watson, any behavior can be learned. “Give me a dozen healthy infants…and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors,” he famously suggested in 1930.

Other theorists including Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner also contributed significantly to behaviorism, driving this school of thought to become a dominating force in psychology for many years.

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Two important behavioral processes that influence development are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves forming an association between a previously neutral stimulus and a stimulus that naturally and automatically produces a response. After an association has been formed, the once neutral stimulus now produces the response all in its own.

Operant conditioning involves learning as a result of reinforcement or punishment. The consequences of a behavior determine how likely it is for that behavior to occur again in the future. When a behavior is reinforced, or strengthened, then it is more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a behavior is punished, or weakened, then it is less likely to occur again in the future.

Cognitive Child Development Theories

The cognitive theories of child development focus on how a child’s thought processes change over the course of childhood. One of the best-known cognitive theories is Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Theorist Jean Piaget suggested that children think differently than adults and proposed a stage theory of cognitive development. He was the first to note that children play an active role in gaining knowledge of the world. According to his theory, children can be thought of as “little scientists” who actively construct their knowledge and understanding of the world.

Early thinking tended to assume that the way kids think is pretty similar to the way adults think, but Piaget helped change this. He concluded that the way that children think is fundamentally different from that of adults.

His cognitive theory quickly became one of the most influence child development theories. His approach focuses on four distinct stages that kids go through as they progress from birth to adulthood.

Concepts such as schemas, egocentrism, accommodation, and assimilation are central to Piaget’s theory. Each stage of development is marked by distinct changes in how children think about themselves, others and the world.

The four stages in Piaget’s theory are:

  1. The Sensorimotor Stage, which takes place early in life between the ages of birth and two. During this time, a child learns about the world through their sensory perceptions and motor interactions. It is a time of astonishing cognitive change as children gain a great deal of knowledge about the world around them.
  2. The Preoperational Stage, which occurs between the ages of 2 and 6, is also a time of rapid growth and development. At this stage, children still lack the ability to mentally manipulate information and struggle to see things from other people’s point of view. A great deal of language development takes place during this stage.
  3. The Concrete Operational Stage, which takes place between age 7 and 11, involves the emergence of more logical thought. Kids are able to think rationally about concrete events, although they struggle with abstract concepts.
  4. The Formal Operational Stage, which lasts from roughly age 12 and into adulthood, is marked by the emergence of hypothetical thought. Kids are able to reason about abstract concepts and make systematic plans about the future.
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Social Learning Theories of Child Development

Social theories of child development tend to focus on the role that parents, caregivers, peers and other social influences impact development. Some focus on how early attachment influence development, while others are centered on how children learn by observing people around them. A few examples of these social theories of child development include attachment theory, social learning theory, and sociocultural theory.

Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed what is known as social learning theory. According to this theory of child development, children learn new behaviors from observing other people. Unlike behavioral theories, Bandura believed that external reinforcement was not the only way that people learned new things. Instead, intrinsic reinforcements such as a sense of pride, satisfaction, and accomplishment could also lead to learning.

Bandura’s social learning theory combines elements of behavioral theories as well as cognitive theories while accounting for the powerful influence that social experiences have on how kids learn and grow. Bandura believed that behavioral processes alone could not account for how kids learn. How, he wondered, could we explain learning that occurred without any direct association or reinforcement?

He noted that observation and modeling play a major part in the learning process. In his famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that kids could learn aggression by watching the actions of an adult model. Observational learning can involve directly observing another person, but it can also take place by listening to someone else explain how to do something or even reading about it in a book.

Final Thoughts on Theories of Child Development

There are many different child development theories that have emerged to explain how kids learn and grow over the course of childhood. Some of these theories attempt to be all-encompassing and explain many different aspects of the human experience, which is why they are often called “grand theories.” In other cases, child development theories attempt to explain a fairly narrow aspect of the developmental experience, which is why they are referred to as “mini theories.”

In either case, each of these child development theories has helped add to our understanding of how children grow, think, learn, and change over the years from birth until adulthood.


Keenan, T, Evans, S, & Crowley, K. An Introduction to Child Development. SAGE; 2016.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.