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What are theories of ‘staged’ child development?

Perspectives exist to explain how humans develop can be organised into sociological, biological, psychological and psychosocial theories
Silhouettes of baby, toddler, child, older child
© University of Strathclyde

A range of different theories and perspectives exist which attempt to explain how humans grow and develop across a person’s lifespan.

These differing perspectives can be organised into different groupings – sociological theories, biological theories, psychological theories and psychosocial theories.

Theories from a psychological perspective often concentrate on development in terms of phases or stages that individuals progress through as they grow and develop. Several of the main theorists associated with such an approach include:

  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): explored stages of early childhood development to explain behaviours and psychological problems.
  • Jean Piaget (1896-1990): developed a theory of cognitive development based on the belief that children seek to understand and adapt to their environment and to do so they undertake certain actions as they move through progressive stages of development.
  • Erik Erikson (1902-1994): saw individuals moving through a series of stages and ‘crisis’ points as they developed their identity; the move through this process by virtue of increasing age and negotiation of each stage or ‘crisis’ successfully contributes to healthy development.

Stages and progression

Theories such as these, based around stages and progression, can be intuitively attractive to students and practitioners alike as they seek to assess and explain the growth and development of both the children and adults that they are involved with.

The markers and milestones that they provide can certainly be useful when attempting to gauge growth and development and make assessments about how children and adults should be behaving and responding at different times in their lives.

However, their use and application should not be too rigid or exact. Growth and development will always be an individual process, impacted upon by many factors.

Stage-based theories

Stage-based theories may provide a useful indicator of where growth and development could expect to be under optimal conditions, but vulnerable children and young people will rarely experience optimal conditions.

Their vulnerability will often be borne out of disadvantage and exposure to risk. These factors impact upon the way children and young people grow and develop.

A lack of attention to environmental factors, social context and cultural influences are some of the main criticisms directed towards theories of ‘staged’ child development.

© University of Strathclyde
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