The theories of child psychological development pay attention to how children grow and develop throughout childhood in different areas: social, emotional and cognitive.

Many researchers have focused on learning more about this stage of life, and the results of a wide range of studies in the fields of anthropology, medicine, sociology, education and, of course, developmental psychology, have highlighted the importance of childhood in the formation of intelligence, personality and social behaviour.

Psychological theories of childhood development

Psychologists like Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget or Lev Vygotsky have tried to explain the different aspects through their theories. And although not all of them are fully accepted nowadays, the influence of their perspectives has been of great help to understand how children grow, think and behave .

The following are some of the many theories of child development that have been proposed by theorists and researchers.

1. Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development

Freud is considered the father of Psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic theory of child development tends to focus on such things as the unconscious, drives, and ego formation. Although its proposals are not very popular at present, few doubt the importance that the events and experiences of childhood have in the future development of the child.

According to Freud, child development is described as a series of psychosexual stages : oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital . However, this conception of the development of mind and personality is a child of its time, and is currently outdated.

To know more about this theory, in this article we explain it in detail: “Sigmund Freud: life and work of the famous psychoanalyst”.

2. Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development (by clicking on the link you can access a magnificent summary prepared by psychologist Bertrand Regader) is one of the most widespread and accepted theories in Developmental Psychology . It is also a psychoanalytic theory, and this theorist, like Freud, proposed that there are different stages of development.

Erikson believes that the resolution of the different stages gives rise to the acquisition of a series of competencies that help resolve the goals that will be presented during the next life stage. In this way, psychological growth occurs.

For example, the main conflict during the period from 6 to 12 years old, called Laboriousness vs. Inferiority , involves the mastery of social experience. In this stage the child begins his preschool and school instruction, and is eager to do things together, to share tasks, etc. If the child does not manage to overcome this stage in the appropriate way, that is, if he or she feels inferior, this will negatively affect his or her general functioning.

3. Jean Piaget’s Theory of Learning

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, considered the father of constructivism, suggested that the cognitive development of children occurs following a series of stages . He observed that children play an active role in obtaining knowledge of the world, that is to say, he considered them “little scientists” who actively construct their knowledge and understanding of the world, but through mental norms that differ qualitatively from those used by adults.

Piaget’s ideas are no longer valid as he formulated them, but this is one of the most important developmental theories , and in fact is considered to have laid the foundation for what is now known as Developmental Psychology.

You can learn more about his theory in this article: “Jean Piaget’s Theory of Learning”. If you want to go deeper into the different stages that the Swiss theorist proposed, this other article will be of great help: “The 4 stages of Jean Piaget’s cognitive development”.

4. Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Another psychologist named Lev Vygotsky proposed a theory of children’s cognitive development that has become one of the most influential and important theories, especially in the field of education and learning.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky is a constructivist psychologist, and he thought that children learn actively and through practical experience. However, unlike Piaget, who explains that knowledge is constructed individually, Vygotsky concludes that learning is constructed through social interactions , with the support of someone more expert.

Thus, according to this theory of psychological development, the social context is part of the process of cognitive development, and cannot be considered as something external that only “influences” it. The very use of language, for example, is both collective and individual, and allows for the emergence of higher cognitive skills, based on the development of very abstract concepts.

Vygotsky was important in order to understand collaborative learning and to know more about the influence of the socio-cultural environment on children’s cognitive development.

To delve into this interesting theory, just click here: “Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory”.

5. Behavioral Theories: Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

The behavioral theories were important because emphasized how an individual’s interaction with his environment influences his behavior . There were three main exponents of these theories: Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson as precursors of Classical Conditioning , and B.F. Skinner as the father of Operant Conditioning .

Although both theories are important in the field of learning, they deal only with observable behaviour. Therefore, development is considered a consequence of rewards (or reinforcements) and punishments, and they do not take into account internal thoughts or feelings as conceived by cognitive psychologists, but consider them mere attributions to behaviors that are more difficult to observe than movements.

Would you like to know more about these theories? Here are two links to help you understand them better:

  • “Classical conditioning and its most important experiments”
  • “B. F. Skinner: life and work of a radical behaviorist”

6. Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning

Albert Bandura realized that behavioral theories did not explain the learning of individuals as a whole, since they underestimated the social dimension of human behavior and the internal dimension of the subject, reducing it to an association that occurs due to repeated trials. Therefore, understood that children’s learning and development cannot be understood without both components .

In addition to highlighting the importance of expectations and intrinsic reinforcements, such as a feeling of pride, satisfaction and achievement, in motivating human beings, his theory emphasizes that children learn new behaviors from observing other people . By observing the actions of others, including parents and peers, children develop new skills and acquire new information.

Don’t miss his whole theory. Here are several articles by this Ukrainian-Canadian psychologist that you can read:

  • “Albert Bandura’s Theory of Social Learning”
  • “Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy: Do you believe in yourself?”
  • “Albert Bandura’s Personality Theory”