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The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
SMU professor to return to campus after being trapped in Gaza for 12 years
Sara Hummadi, Video Editor • May 18, 2024

5 Most Widely Trusted Approaches to Child Developmental Theory


Child development is essential to our understanding of children. A child’s earliest stages of development dictate how they learn and grow.

There are several theories that experts today use to better understand a child’s mind. Many of them formed from classic theories that helped influence modern child psychology.

Here are the 5 most widely used and trusted approaches to child developmental theory.

1. Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Sigmund Freud is a name that should be recognized by everyone. He founded the psychoanalytic theory. Freud’s theories aren’t perfect. But they shaped modern psychology and improved our understanding of the human mind.

Freud worked with many patients suffering from mental illness. He believed his patients’ childhood experiences influenced their behavior and desires.

This is when Freud developed the psychosexual theory.

He proposed child development occurs in stages and targets different pleasure areas. If a child didn’t complete a stage or experienced issues in a stage, they will fixate on this in adulthood.

In short, completing each psychosexual stage fully results in a healthy-minded adult.

There are issues with this theory. Humans grow and develop their whole lives.

But Freud believed our personality largely develops by the time we’re five years old. This theory helped shape the groundwork for modern child development theories.

2. Behavioral Child Development and Classical Conditioning

Behavioral theory states we’re influenced by our environmental factors.

The first half of the twentieth century welcomed theorists such as B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. Behavioral arguments state that learning occurs through reinforcement and associations.

In short, children learn through outside stimuli and their reactions to it. This includes reactions to punishments, rewards, and reinforcements.

The best and most famous example of behavioral theory is classical conditioning. This concept was introduced, not by a study done with children but a study that was done with a dog: Pavlov’s Dog.

Behaviorist Ivan Pavlov noticed his footsteps triggered a response in his dog.

His footsteps told the dog he was expecting food. Pavlov would turn on a metronome or ring a bell before feeding his dog. When the dog heard the metronome and bell, the dog started salivating.

This study introduced classical conditioning. Behavior such as hunger is natural. We also recognize other stimuli that we associate with these behaviors.

An example of classical conditioning with a child subject was John B. Watson’s study of fear in children. Watson presented a rat to “Little Albert,” who was not alarmed at first.

Watson showed the rat to Albert again, this time ringing a metal bar behind his head. Albert didn’t like the noise.

Watson showed Albert the rat again without ringing the metal bar. Albert whimpered, expecting to hear the noise.

3. Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Erik Erikson was heavily inspired by Freud. But unlike Freud, he believed people changed over time. He also separates child development into multiple stages. These stages form from infancy up until death.

Erikson’s psychosocial theories focus on conflicts in life and social situations. He believes these aspects shape our personality.

Like Freud, Erikson believed humans face conflicts at each stage and we endure a “turning point” whenever we overcome these conflicts. And like Freud, Erikson believed successfully overcoming these conflicts results in a healthy mindset.

4. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Continuing on the significance of social situations and relationships, psychologist John Bowlby proposed one of the earliest theories pertaining to a child’s social development.

Bowlby’s attachment theory centers on a child’s earliest relationships (with parents, siblings, family, other caregivers, etc.) and believes these early relationships influence a child for the rest of their lives.

In addition, Bowlby states a child has the innate desire to form relationships.

As a child forms relationships, they will develop behavioral patterns. Bowlby’s theory has been expanded upon; while we know Bowlby has many good points, a child’s social and behavioral patterns are more complex.

5. Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

While behavioral and social theories are essential to understanding a child’s mind, it’s also important to look at cognition. Cognitive theory uncovers an individual’s thought processes.

It’s believed our cognition influences the way we interpret and interact with the world.

Theorist Jean Piaget proposed a child’s cognition is essential to their intellectual development. He developed a series of steps a child goes through to develop cognitive thinking. These steps are still influential to modern child psychology.

The Sensorimotor Stage — between birth and age two where a child’s cognition is only limited to their sensory perceptions and motor activity.

The Preoperational Stage — between ages two and six where a child lacks logic and reasoning but is constantly learning.

The Concrete Operational Stage — the stage between ages seven and 11 where a child understands their mental operations and are beginning to think logically.

The Formal Operational Stage — from age 12 and onward, an individual has the intellect to interpret complex concepts. At age 12 is also when logical reasoning and other mental examples of maturity start forming.

While Piaget’s steps are used today, a child’s cognition is more complex than this and every child has different experiences.

Child Developmental Theory Helps Us Understand the Way Children Think

and Behave

Throughout history, amazing psychologists and theorists developed their own take on child developmental theory. While child psychology is complex, these theories help provide an explanation for a child’s education and maturity.

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