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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 1, Lesson 2

What are the Major Theories of Child Development? (Part I)

A number of theories exist in the area of early childhood development that attempt to explain how young children develop and learn. A theory is an organized or systematic way of thinking about a particular concept. According to Trawick-Smith (2003), "A theory might include beliefs about the nature of learning and development, the role of heredity and environment, and how adults, other children, schools, and communities contribute to the development process" (p. 36). In the field of early childhood development, some of the prominent theories of child development are maturationist theory, behaviorist theory, Erikson's psychoanalytical theory, Piaget's cognitive development theory, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory and Bronfenbrenner's bioecological systems theory.

Maturationist Theory

Arnold Gesell was a proponent of one of the oldest theories, the maturationist theory. This theory focuses mainly on maturity and little on environmental influences. Basically, this theory maintains that children mature as they grow older and personalities and temperament will be revealed with little influence from the surrounding environment. Gesell identified developmental milestones or events that are to occur at specific age levels which have been used as helpful guidelines for parents to track their child's development. From a maturationist's perspective, children's environments should be adapted to their already genetically determined needs and characteristics.

Behaviorist Theory

The behaviorist theory proposed by theorists such as John Watson and B. F. Skinner focuses on a child's experiences. At birth, this theory suggests that a child's mind is a "blank slate" to be gradually shaped by the environment (e.g., personality, reading abilities). This theory suggests that adults critically shape a child's learning through positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement suggests that if a desirable behavior is rewarded, the appropriate or desirable behavior is more likely to recur. From a behaviorist's perspective, adults can use positive reinforcement techniques (praise, modeling, rewards) to shape a child's development in a desired direction.

Psychoanalytical Theory

Erik Erikson's psychoanalytical theory focuses entirely on personality formation. Erikson suggested eight "ages" individuals progress through from birth to adulthood in order to feel self-fulfilled. Erikson looks at each age or stage as a struggle between one positive and one negative emotional state. Erikson's stages are characterized by a particular challenge of developmental crisis which is central to that stage of life and must be resolved. The resolution of the developmental crisis is dependent upon the interaction between the individual's characteristics and the support provided by the social environment. The first three stages involve conflict of children through 6 years of age. The last five stages involve conflict of children six years of age to adults. In infancy, the first conflict is trust and mistrust. Emotionally secure babies come to trust that their caretakers will nurture and take care of them. Children who are abused come to mistrust the world and may be unable to advance to later stages of emotional development. During the toddler age, conflict between autonomy and shame and doubt occurs. Once the basic stage (trust) is met, toddlers will be apt to become more independent of adults and often assert and rebel against authority (i.e. the terrible twos). Autonomy is acquired during this time. Autonomy is characterized by a toddler's feeling of independence and uniqueness apart from his/her parent(s) or caregiver(s). Doubt and shame happens when children at this age are overly restricted from attempting to venture out and may eventually become shy and lack confidence and self-esteem. Similar stages involving conflict continue through to adulthood. This perspective suggests that adults can enhance a child's emotional well-being by providing appropriate opportunities for the resolution of the developmental conflict or crises.


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