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Child Development Theories
And Major Contributors

Child Development Theories And Major Contributors...

Child development theories

What Is Child Development Theories?

Child development theories are an organized set of principles that are designed to explain and predict something. Over the years, psychologists and other scientists have devised a variety of theories with which to explain observations and discoveries about child development.

In addition to providing a broader framework of understanding, a good theory permits educated guesses—or hypotheses—about aspects of development that are not yet clearly understood.

These hypotheses provide the basis for further research. A theory also has practical value. When a parent, educator, therapist, or policymaker makes decisions that affect the lives of children, a well-founded theory can guide them in responsible ways.

Child development theories can also limit understanding, such as when a poor theory misleadingly emphasizes unimportant influences on development and underestimates the significance of other factors.

It is therefore essential that theories are carefully evaluated and tested through research, whose results often lead to improvements in theoretical claims. In addition, when theories are compared and contrasted, their strengths and limitations can be more easily identified.

There are four primary child development theories: psychoanalytic, learning, cognitive, and sociocultural. Each offers insights into the forces guiding childhood growth.

Each also has limitations, which is why many developmental scientists use more than one theory to guide their thinking about the growth of children.

Below are some major child development theorists and their theories.

Arnold Gesell

Main Theory
Development is genetically determined by universal "maturation patterns" which occurs in a predictable sequence.

Gesell's classic study involved twin girls, both given training for motor skills but one given training for longer than the other.

There was no measurable difference in the age at which either child acquired the skills, suggesting that development had happened in a genetically programmed way, irrespective of the training given.

A child learns to whether or not an adult teaches him/her, suggesting physical development at least is largely pre-programmed.

By studying thousands of children over many years, Gesell came up with "milestones of development" - stages by which normal children can accomplish different tasks. These are still used today.

Sigmund Freud

Main Theory
Experiences in early childhood influence later development. Assumes sexual factors are major factors, even in early childhood.

Freud's work was heavily criticised for lack of substantial evidence. He regarded basic sexual instincts as being the driving force behind virtually all behaviour.

He regarded the development of personality as being the balance between the ID, the Ego and the SuperEgo. The ID strives for unrealistic gratification of basic desires, the SuperEgo strives for unrealistic moral responsibility and conscience while the Ego acts to compromise these two opposing forces.

There are many unproven aspects to Freud's work, for example Freud theorised that characteristics like generosity or possessiveness were related to childhood factors like parental attitudes to toilet training.

Click here to learn more about Sigmund Freud. [Opens in new window]


Main Theory
Reinforcement and punishment moulds behaviour. Children are conditioned by their experiences.

Skinner maintained that learning occurred as a result of the organism responding to, or operating on, its environment, and coined the term operant conditioning to describe this phenomenon.

He did extensive research with animals, notably rats and pigeons, and invented the famous Skinner box, in which a rat learns to press a lever in order to obtain food.

Alfred Bandura

Main Theory
Learning takes place by imitation. This differs from Skinner's "conditioning" because there is more emphasis on inner motivational factors.

Bandura's theory known as "Social Learning Theory" has been renamed "Social Cognitive Theory" to accomodate later developments of the theory.

Bandura is seen by many as a cognitive psychologist because of his focus on motivational factors and self-regulatory mechanisms that contribute to a person's behaviour, rather than just environmental factors.

This focus on cognition is what differentiates social cognitive theory from Skinner's purely behaviouristic viewpoint.

Lev Vygotsky

Main Theory
Development is primarily driven by language, social context and adult guidance.

Lev Vygotski was a Russian psychologist who died prematurely. His most productive years were at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow (1924–34), where he developed ideas on cognitive development, particularly the relationship between language and thinking.

His writings emphasised the roles of historical, cultural, and social factors in cognition and argued that language was the most important symbolic tool provided by society.

Click here to learn more about Lev Vygotsky. [Opens in new window]

Jean Piaget

Main Theory
Development takes place in distinct stages of cognitive development. Adults influence but the child is building their own thinking systems.

Jean Piaget is known for his research in developmental psychology. He studied under C. G. Jung and Eugen Bleuler.

He was involved in the administration of intelligence tests to children and became interested in the types of mistakes children of various ages were likely to make.

Piaget began to study the reasoning processes of children at various ages. Piaget theorized that cognitive development proceeds in four genetically determined stages that always follow the same sequential order.

Click here to learn more about Jean Piaget. [Opens in new window]

Erik Erikson

Theorist Erik Erikson also proposed a stage theory of development, but his theory encompassed development throughout the human lifespan.

Erikson believed that each stage of development is focused on overcoming a conflict. Success or failure in dealing with conflicts can impact overall functioning.

Click here to learn more about Erik Erikson. [Opens in new window]

See Also

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