1 Introduction to Child Development

Chapter Objectives

After this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the principles that underlie development.
  • Differentiate periods of human development.
  • Understand issues in development.
  • Distinguish the different methods of research.
  • Explain what a theory is and compare and contrast different theories of child development.


“Early child development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour, and health” (Mustard, 2006).

Welcome to Child Growth and Development. This text is a presentation of how and why children grow, develop, and learn from conception to adolescence. Registered early childhood educators (RECEs) draw from their professional knowledge of child development, learning theories, and pedagogical and curricular approaches to plan, implement, document and assess child-centered inquiry and play-based learning experiences for children (College of Early Childhood Educators, 2017, p. 10).  Understanding the patterns of development help early childhood educators build caring and responsive relationships (College of Early Childhood Educators, 2017) with the children in their care as well as design safe and accessible environments which support children’s play and learning (College of Early Childhood Educators, 2017), both of which contribute to a sense of belonging and overall well-being (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014b).

The content in this text is being shared with pre-service early childhood educators with an Ontario context, referring to foundational documents that support the early learning and care profession, including, but not exclusive of: The Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Early Childhood Educators in Ontario, How Does Learning Happen? and Excerpts from ELECT.

Principles of Development

There are several underlying principles of development to keep in mind:

  • Development is lifelong and change is apparent across the lifespan (although this text ends with adolescence). Early experiences affect later development.
  • Development is multidirectional. We show gains in some areas of development while showing a loss in other areas.
  • Development is multidimensional. We change across three general domains/dimensions: physical, cognitive, and social-emotional.

In Ontario, the Continuum of Development can be found in the Excerpts to ELECT.  It outlines the sequence of steps across the five domains of development (social, emotional, communication/language/literacy, cognition, physical) that are typical for the majority of children. It is not an assessment tool, rather it was designed to support RECEs as they observe and document children’s emerging skills (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). It should be noted that all five domains are interrelated and no one domain is more important than another (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014a).

Research in child development tends to fall into one of the following four themes:

  • Early Development is related to later development but not perfectly. Can you think of examples?
  • Development is always jointly influenced by heredity and environment (nature/nurture).
  • Children help to determine their own development. Can you think of examples?
  • Development in different domains is connected.


The physical domain includes changes in height and weight, changes in gross and fine motor skills, sensory capabilities, the nervous system, as well as the propensity for disease and illness.

The cognitive domain encompasses the changes in intelligence, wisdom, perception, problem-solving, memory, and language.

The social and emotional domain (also referred to as psychosocial) focuses on changes in emotion, self-perception, and interpersonal relationships with families, peers, and friends.

All three domains influence each other. It is also important to note that a change in one domain may cascade and prompt changes in the other domains.

Development is characterized by plasticity, which is our ability to change, and that many of our characteristics are malleable. Early experiences are important, but children are remarkably resilient (able to overcome adversity).

Development is multicontextual (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019). We are influenced by both nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment) – when and where we live and our actions, beliefs, and values are a response to circumstances surrounding us. The key here is to understand that behaviours, motivations, emotions, and choices are all part of a bigger picture (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Now let’s look at a framework for examining development.

Periods of development

Consider what periods of development you think a course on Child Development would address. How many stages are on your list? Perhaps you have three: infancy, childhood, and teenagers.

Developmentalists (those that study development) break this part of the life span into these five stages as follows:

  • Prenatal Development (conception through birth)
  • Infancy and Toddlerhood (birth through 30 months)
  • Early Childhood  (2.5 to 5 years)
  • Middle Childhood (6 to 12 years)
  • Adolescence (13 years to adulthood)

The scope of practice of a registered early childhood educator in Ontario is to work with children twelve years old and younger (College of Early Childhood Educators, 2017), thus the first four stages in this list will be explored in this book. So, while both an 8-month-old and an 8-year-old are considered children, they have very different physical, social, emotional, language, and cognitive skills and abilities.

prenatal development

Conception occurs and development begins. All of the major structures of the body are forming and the health of the mother is of primary concern. Understanding nutrition, teratogens (or environmental factors that can lead to birth defects), and labor and delivery are primary concerns.

A tiny embryo (14 days) depicting some development of arms and legs, as well as facial features that are starting to show.
Figure 1.1: A tiny embryo (14 days) depicting some development of arms and legs, as well as facial features that are starting to show. (Image by lunar caustic is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

infancy and toddlerhood

The first two years of life are ones of dramatic growth and change. A newborn, with a keen sense of hearing but very poor vision is transformed into a walking, talking toddler within a relatively short period of time. Caregivers are also transformed from someone who manages the feeding and sleep schedules to a constantly moving guide and safety inspector for a mobile, energetic child.

an infant lying on his belly looking at a stuffed animal
Figure 1.2: Infant lying on his belly looking at a stuffed animal  (Photo by Minnie Zhou on Unsplash)


Early childhood

Early childhood is also referred to as the preschool years and consists of the years which follow toddlerhood and precede formal schooling (grade 1). As a three to five-year-old, the child is busy learning a language, is gaining a sense of self and greater independence and is beginning to learn the workings of the physical world. This knowledge does not come quickly, however, and preschoolers may initially have interesting conceptions of size, time, space, and distance such as fearing that they may go down the drain if they sit at the front of the bathtub or by demonstrating how long something will take by holding out their two index fingers several inches apart. A toddler’s fierce determination to do something may give way to a four-year-old’s sense of guilt for action that brings the disapproval of others.

three preschool aged children playing with trucks in an outdoor sandbox
Figure 1.3: Outdoor play time (Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Unsplash)


middle childhood

The ages of six through twelve comprise middle childhood and much of what children experience at this age is connected to their involvement in the early grades of school. Now the world becomes one of learning and testing new academic skills and of assessing one’s abilities and accomplishments by making comparisons between self and others. Schools compare students and make these comparisons public through team sports, test scores, and other forms of recognition. Growth rates slow down and children are able to refine their motor skills at this point in life. Children begin to learn about social relationships beyond the family through interaction with friends and fellow students.

children playing tug of war
Figure 1.4: Working together in a game of Tug of War (Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash)


Adolescence is a period of dramatic physical change marked by an overall physical growth spurt and sexual maturation, known as puberty. It is also a time of cognitive change as the adolescent begins to think of new possibilities and to consider abstract concepts such as love, fear, and freedom. Ironically, adolescents have a sense of invincibility that puts them at greater risk of dying from accidents or contracting sexually transmitted infections that can have lifelong consequences (Lumen Learning, 2019).

Three teenage girls sitting and talking
Figure 1.5: Social relationships in the teenage years (Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash)

Issues in Development

There are some aspects of development that have been hotly debated. Let’s explore these in a bit more detail.

Nature and Nurture 

Why are people the way they are? Are features such as height, weight, personality, being diabetic, etc. the result of heredity or environmental factors-or both? For decades, scholars have carried on the “nature/nurture” debate. For any particular feature, those on the side of Nature would argue that heredity plays the most important role in bringing about that feature. Those on the side of Nurture would argue that one’s environment is most significant in shaping the way we are. This debate continues in all aspects of human development, and most scholars agree that there is a constant interplay between the two forces. It is difficult to isolate the root of any single behaviour as a result solely of nature or nurture. This said, research does consistently point to the fact that healthy child development depends on the relationships children have with parents and other important people in their lives (Bisnaire, Clinton & Ferguson, 2014).

Continuity versus Discontinuity 

Is human development best characterized as a slow, gradual process, or is it best viewed as one of more abrupt change? The answer to that question often depends on which developmental theorist you ask and what topic is being studied. The theories of Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg are called stage theories. Stage theories or discontinuous development assume that developmental change often occurs in distinct stages that are qualitatively different from each other, and in a set, universal sequence. At each stage of development, children and adults have different qualities and characteristics. Thus, stage theorists assume development is more discontinuous. Others, such as the behaviourists, Vygotsky, and information processing theorists, assume development is a more slow and gradual process known as continuous development. For instance, they would see the adult as not possessing new skills, but more advanced skills that were already present in some form in the child. Brain development and environmental experiences contribute to the acquisition of more developed skills.

one image of three different sized trees to illustrate the concept of continuous growth and another image of the 4 stages of develop of a lady bug to represent the concept of staged growth.
Figure 1.6: The graph to the left shows three stages in the continuous growth of a tree. The graph to the right shows four distinct stages of development in the life cycle of a ladybug. (Image by NOBA is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Active Vs Passive

How much do you play a role in your own developmental path? Are you at the whim of your genetic inheritance or the environment that surrounds you? Some theorists see humans as playing a much more active role in their own development. Piaget, for instance, believed that children actively explore their world and construct new ways of thinking to explain the things they experience. In contrast, many behaviourists view humans as being more passive in the developmental process (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).

How do we know so much about how we grow, develop, and learn? Let’s look at how that data is gathered through research.

Research Methods

An important part of learning any science is having a basic knowledge of the techniques used in gathering information. The hallmark of scientific investigation is that of following a set of procedures designed to keep questioning or skepticism alive while describing, explaining, or testing any phenomenon. Some people are hesitant to trust academicians or researchers because they may seem to change their narratives. That, however, is exactly what science is all about; it involves continuously renewing our understanding of the subjects in question and an ongoing investigation of how and why events occur. Science is a vehicle for going on a never-ending journey. In the area of development, we have seen changes in recommendations for nutrition, in explanations of psychological states as people age, and in parenting advice. So think of learning about human development as a lifelong endeavour.


Take a moment to write down two things that you know about childhood. Now, how do you know? Chances are you know these things based on your own history (experiential reality) or based on what others have told you or cultural ideas (agreement reality) (Seccombe and Warner, 2004, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). There are several problems with personal inquiry.

Read the following sentence aloud:

Paris in the the spring

…Are you sure that is what it said?

Read it again:

Paris in the the spring

If you read it differently the second time (adding the second “the”) you just experienced one of the problems with personal inquiry; that is, the tendency to see what we believe. Our assumptions very often guide our perceptions, consequently, when we believe something, we tend to see it even if it is not there. This problem may just be a result of cognitive ‘blinders’ or it may be part of a more conscious attempt to support our own views. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for evidence that we are right and in so doing, we ignore contradictory evidence. Karl Popper was an Austrian-British philosopheracademic and social commentator. One of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers of science, Popper is known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method in favour of empirical falsification. He suggests that the distinction between that which is scientific and that which is unscientific is that science is falsifiable; scientific inquiry involves attempts to reject or refute a theory or set of assumptions (Thornton, 2005, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Theory that cannot be falsified is not scientific. And much of what we do in personal inquiry involves drawing conclusions based on what we have personally experienced or validating our own experience by discussing what we think is true with others who share the same views. Science offers a more systematic way to make comparisons guard against bias.

Scientific Methods

One method of scientific investigation involves the following steps:

  1. Determining a research question
  2. Reviewing previous studies addressing the topic in question (known as a literature review)
  3. Determining a method of gathering information
  4. Conducting the study
  5. Interpreting results
  6. Drawing conclusions; stating limitations of the study and suggestions for future research
  7. Making your findings available to others (both to share information and to have your work scrutinized by others)

Your findings can then be used by others as they explore the area of interest and through this process, a literature or knowledge base is established. This model of scientific investigation presents research as a linear process guided by a specific research question. And it typically involves quantifying or using statistics to understand and report what has been studied. Many academic journals publish reports on studies conducted in this manner.

Another model of research referred to as qualitative research may involve steps such as these:

  1. Begin with a broad area of interest
  2. Gain entrance into a group to be researched
  3. Gather field notes about the setting, the people, the structure, the activities, or other areas of interest
  4. Ask open-ended, broad “grand tour” types of questions when interviewing subjects
  5. Modify research questions as the study continues
  6. Note patterns or consistencies
  7. Explore new areas deemed important by the people being observed
  8. Report findings

In this type of research, theoretical ideas are “grounded” in the experiences of the participants. The researcher is the student and the people in the setting are the teachers as they inform the researcher of their world (Glazer & Strauss, 1967, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Researchers are to be aware of their own biases and assumptions, acknowledge them, and bracket them in efforts to keep them from limiting accuracy in reporting. Sometimes qualitative studies are used initially to explore a topic and more quantitative studies are used to test or explain what was first described.

Let’s look more closely at some techniques, or research methods used to describe, explain, or evaluate. Each of these designs has strengths and weaknesses and is sometimes used in combination with other designs within a single study. 

Observational Studies

Observational studies involve watching and recording the actions of participants. This may take place in the natural setting, such as observing children at play at a park, or behind a one-way glass while children are at play in a laboratory playroom. The researcher may follow a checklist and record the frequency and duration of events (perhaps how many conflicts occur among 2-year-olds) or may observe and record as much as possible about an event (such as observing children in a classroom and capturing the details about the room design and what the children and teachers are doing and saying). In general, observational studies have the strength of allowing the researcher to see how people behave rather than relying on self-report. What people do and what they say they do are often very different. A major weakness of observational studies is that they do not allow the researcher to explain causal relationships. Yet, observational studies are useful and widely used when studying children. Children tend to change their behaviour when they know they are being watched (known as the Hawthorne effect) and may not survey well. 


Experiments are designed to test hypotheses (or specific statements about the relationship between variables) in a controlled setting in efforts to explain how certain factors or events produce outcomes. A variable is anything that changes in value. Concepts are operationalized or transformed into variables in research, which means that the researcher must specify exactly what is going to be measured in the study.

Three conditions must be met in order to establish cause and effect. Experimental designs are useful in meeting these conditions. 1. The independent and dependent variables must be related. In other words, when one is altered, the other changes in response. (The independent variable is something altered or introduced by the researcher. The dependent variable is the outcome or the factor affected by the introduction of the independent variable. For example, if we are looking at the impact of exercise on stress levels, the independent variable would be exercise; the dependent variable would be stress.) 2. The cause must come before the effect. Experiments involve measuring subjects on the dependent variable before exposing them to the independent variable (establishing a baseline). So we would measure the subjects’ level of stress before introducing exercise and then again after the exercise to see if there has been a change in stress levels. (Observational and survey research does not always allow us to look at the timing of these events, which makes understanding causality problematic with these designs.) 3. The cause must be isolated. The researcher must ensure that no outside, perhaps unknown variables are actually causing the effect we see. The experimental design helps make this possible. In an experiment, we would make sure that our subjects’ diets were held constant throughout the exercise program. Otherwise, the diet might really be creating a change in stress level rather than exercise.

A basic experimental design involves beginning with a sample (or subset of a population) and randomly assigning subjects to one of two groups: the experimental group or the control group. The experimental group is the group that is going to be exposed to an independent variable or condition the researcher is introducing as a potential cause of an event. The control group is going to be used for comparison and is going to have the same experience as the experimental group but will not be exposed to the independent variable. After exposing the experimental group to the independent variable, the two groups are measured again to see if a change has occurred. If so, we are in a better position to suggest that the independent variable caused the change in the dependent variable.

The major advantage of the experimental design is that of helping to establish cause and effect relationships. A disadvantage of this design is the difficulty of translating much of what happens in a laboratory setting into real life.

Case Studies

Case studies involve exploring a single case or situation in great detail. Information may be gathered with the use of observation, interviews, testing, or other methods to uncover as much as possible about a person or situation. Case studies are helpful when investigating unusual situations such as brain trauma or children reared in isolation. And they are often used by clinicians who conduct case studies as part of their normal practice when gathering information about a client or patient coming in for treatment. Case studies can be used to explore areas about which little is known and can provide rich detail about situations or conditions. However, the findings from case studies cannot be generalized or applied to larger populations; this is because cases are not randomly selected and no control group is used for comparison.

Illustrated poster from a classroom describing a case study.
Figure 1.7: Illustrated poster from a classroom describing a case study. (Image by Mary George licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0)



Surveys are familiar to most people because they are so widely used. Surveys enhance accessibility to subjects because they can be conducted in person, over the phone, through the mail, or online. A survey involves asking a standard set of questions to a group of subjects. In a highly structured survey, subjects are forced to choose from a response set such as “strongly disagree, disagree, undecided, agree, strongly agree”; or “0, 1-5, 6-10, etc.” This is known as the Likert Scale. Surveys are commonly used by sociologists, marketing researchers, political scientists, therapists, and others to gather information on many independent and dependent variables in a relatively short period of time. Surveys typically yield surface information on a wide variety of factors, but may not allow for an in-depth understanding of human behaviour.

Of course, surveys can be designed in a number of ways. They may include forced-choice questions and semi-structured questions in which the researcher allows the respondent to describe or give details about certain events. One of the most difficult aspects of designing a good survey is wording questions in an unbiased way and asking the right questions so that respondents can give a clear response rather than choosing “undecided” each time. Knowing that 30% of respondents are undecided is of little use! So a lot of time and effort should be placed on the construction of survey items. One of the benefits of having forced-choice items is that each response is coded so that the results can be quickly entered and analyzed using statistical software. The analysis takes much longer when respondents give lengthy responses that must be analyzed in a different way. Surveys are useful in examining stated values, attitudes, opinions, and reporting on practices. However, they are based on self-report or what people say they do rather than on observation and this can limit accuracy.

Developmental Designs

Developmental designs are techniques used in developmental research (and other areas as well). These techniques try to examine how age, cohort, gender, and social class impact development. 

Longitudinal Research

Longitudinal research involves beginning with a group of people who may be of the same age and background, and measuring them repeatedly over a long period of time. One of the benefits of this type of research is that people can be followed through time and be compared with them when they were younger.

A longitudinal research design.
Figure 1.8: A longitudinal research design. (Image by NOBA is licensed under CC By-NC-SA 4.0)

A problem with this type of research is that it is very expensive and subjects may drop out over time.

In Canada, the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth which began in 1994 is an example of a longitudinal study that provided data on children’s development. Surveys were conducted every 2 years with the last survey conducted in 2008-2009. The sample size was roughly 26,000 children aged 0-23 years.

Cross-Sectional Research

Cross-sectional research involves beginning with a sample that represents a cross-section of the population. Respondents who vary in age, gender, ethnicity, and social class might be asked to complete a survey about television program preferences or attitudes toward the use of the internet. The attitudes of males and females could then be compared, as could attitudes based on age. In cross-sectional research, respondents are measured only once. 

A cross-sectional research design
Figure 1.9: A cross-sectional research design (Image by NOBA is licensed under CC By-NC-SA 4.0)

This method is much less expensive than longitudinal research but does not allow the researcher to distinguish between the impact of age and the cohort effect. Different attitudes about the use of technology, for example, might not be altered by a person’s biological age as much as their life experiences as members of a cohort.

Sequential Research

Sequential research involves combining aspects of the previous two techniques; beginning with a cross-sectional sample and measuring them through time. 

A sequential research design
Figure 1.10: A sequential research design (Image by NOBA is licensed under CC By-NC-SA 4.0)

This is the perfect model for looking at age, gender, social class, and ethnicity. But the drawbacks of high costs and attrition are here as well (Lumen Learning, n.d.).


Type of Research Design Advantages Disadvantages
  • Examines changes within individuals over time
  • Provides a developmental analysis
  • Expensive
  • Takes a long time
  • Participant attrition
  • Possibility of practice effects
  • Cannot examine cohort effects
  • Examines changes between participants of different ages at the same point in time
  • Provides information on age-related change
  • Cannot examine change over time
  • Cannot examine cohort effects
  • Examines changes within individuals over time
  • Examines changes between participants of different ages at the same point in time
  • Can be used to examine cohort effects
  • May be expensive
  • Possibility of practice effects

Table 1.1: Advantages and disadvantages of different research designs, (Lukowski & Milojevich, 2021).

Qualitative Research in Early Childhood

Qualitative research involves describing and explaining an individual or group experience, a phenomenon or a situation. Such research is conducted with a focus on discovery and therefore open-ended. Information (data) collected and analyzed are in the form of narratives and images obtained from in-depth interviews, observations, documents, and physical artifacts. The following are some research methods used in qualitative research.





To study lives of individuals.

Collect stories and report individual experiences.

E.g.. Early educator’s living and working experience in northern rural communities in British Columbia.


Grounded theory

To generate a theory that explains a phenomenon. Study processes, activities and events that occur.

E.g. Coping strategies of children and families living with aplastic anemia.



To study culture of a particular group.

Describe and interpret shared patterns of behaviour, beliefs and language.

E.g. Children, families and educators in Forest Schools.

Table 1.2: Qualitative research methods, (Lukowski & Milojevich, 2021)

Canada’s Contribution to Child Development Research

Canada has a long history of contributing to child development research. 

In 1892, James Mark Baldwin was appointed the first social scientist at the University of Toronto where he set up Canada’s first psychological research laboratory. Baldwin proposed a social psychological perspective in studying child development and believed that development occurs in stages. He explained that development of physical movement proceeds from simple to complex and eventually leads to more sophisticated mental processes. Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) later advanced this idea further.

Dr. Jean Clinton of McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) is an internationally renowned advocate for children’s issues. Her research focus is in brain development and the role social relationships play in development.

Dr. Fraser Mustard (1927-2011) created the “Canadian Institute for Advanced Research”. Of particular interest to Dr. Mustard was the role of communities in early childhood. In 1999, along with Dr. Margaret McCain (1934- ), he prepared the influential report “The Early Years Study – Reversing the Real Brain Drain” for the Ontario government. The report emphasized promoting early child development centres for young children and parents by: boosting spending on early childhood education to the same levels as in K to 12, making programs available to all income levels, and encouraging local parent groups and businesses to set up these programs instead of the government, when possible.  In 2007, Dr. Mustard, Dr. McCain and Dr. Stuart Shanker wrote a follow-up report critical of Ontario’s progress and calling for national early childhood development programs.


Dr. Stuart Shanker (1952- ) is Canada’s leading expert in the psychosocial theory of self-regulation. Richard Tremblay (1944- ) holds the Canadian Research Chair in Child Development. His research focusses on the development of aggressive behaviour in children and whether early intervention programs can reduce chances of children turning to crime as adults. Dr. Mariana Brussoni of the University of British Columbia is currently active researching the developmental importance of risky play in childhood. Her focus is child injury prevention as well as the influence of culture on parenting in relationship to risky play and safety.

In 1925, Professor Edward Alexander Bott established the St. George’s School for Child Study at the University of Toronto, which would eventually come to be known as The Institute for Child Study. It has been and continues to be, highly influential in developing Ontario’s early childcare and education system.

Statistics Canada, in partnership with Human Resources Development Canada, undertook a major Canadian research initiative in 1994 titled “National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY)”. Researchers tracked multiple variables affecting children’s emotional, social and behavioural development over a period of time, using both longitudinal and cross-sectional sampling. Families from all 10 provinces and territories were included with the exception of families living on First Nations reserves, in extremely remote areas of Canada and full-time members the Canadian Armed Forces. These exclusions should be kept in mind when extrapolating the data. 


This is just a small selection of Canadian researchers who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to our knowledge of how best to support the development of young children. 

Consent and Ethics in Research 

Research should, as much as possible, be based on participants’ freely volunteered informed consent. For minors, this also requires consent from their legal guardians. This implies a responsibility to explain fully and meaningfully to both the child and their guardians what the research is about and how it will be disseminated. Participants and their legal guardians should be aware of the research purpose and procedures, their right to refuse to participate; the extent to which confidentiality will be maintained; the potential uses to which the data might be put; the foreseeable risks and expected benefits; and that participants have the right to discontinue at any time.

But consent alone does not absolve the responsibility of researchers to anticipate and guard against potential harmful consequences for participants (Lumen Learning, n.d.). It is critical that researchers protect all rights of the participants including


The Canadian Psychological Association (2017) has published the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, which sets out four ethical principles Canadian psychologists must consider when conducting research: In order of priority, the four principles are: 

  • Principle I: Respect for the Dignity of Persons and Peoples 
  • Principle II: Responsible Caring
  • Principle III: Integrity in Relationships
  • Principle IV: Responsibility to Society

While all four principles should be taken into account, there may be times when there is a conflict between the principles. For example; what is best for society might not respect the dignity of persons and people. In this situation, more weight should be given to Principle 1 than Principle 4 in order to make an ethical decision. 


Child development is a fascinating field of study – but care must be taken to ensure that researchers use appropriate methods to examine infant and child behaviour, use the correct experimental design to answer their questions, and be aware of the special challenges that are part-and-parcel of developmental research. Hopefully, this information helped you develop an understanding of these various issues and to be ready to think more critically about research questions that interest you. There are so many interesting questions that remain to be examined by future generations of developmental scientists – maybe you will make one of the next big discoveries! Another really important framework to use when trying to understand children’s development are theories of development. 

Let’s explore what theories are and introduce you to some major theories in child development.

Developmental Theories

The College of Early Childhood Educators (2017), clearly articulates in a number of places in the Code of Ethics & Standards of Practice for Early Childhood Educators in Ontario, the expectation that RECEs are as knowledgeable about research and theories related to children’s development. Let’s explore what is meant by a child development theory and why they are important to practice. 

What is a theory? 

In our attempts to make sense of the world and our human experience, it is in our nature to ask questions and develop theories, both formal and informal. This begins at an early age and as we move through this text, we will explore examples of children developing and testing their theories.   

While it is true that students sometimes feel intimidated by theory; even the phrase, “Now we are going to look at some theories…” is met with blank stares and other indications that the audience is now lost. But theories are valuable tools for understanding human behaviour and development. Indeed, they are proposed explanations for the “how” and “whys” of development. Have you ever wondered, “Why is my 3 year old so inquisitive?” or “Why are some fifth graders rejected by their classmates?” A theory is an organized way to make sense of information. Theories can help to make predictions and explain these and other occurrences. Theories can be further tested through research. Developmental theories offer explanations about how we develop, why we change over time, and the kinds of influences that impact development.

Further, a theory guides how information is collected, how it is interpreted, and how it is applied to real-life situations. It provides the researcher with a blueprint or model to be used to help piece together various studies. Think of theories as frameworks or guidelines much like directions that come with an appliance or other object that requires assembly. The instructions can help one piece together smaller parts more easily than if trial and error are used.

Theories can be developed using induction in which a number of single cases are observed and after patterns or similarities are noted, the theorist develops ideas based on these examples. Established theories are then tested through research; however, not all theories are equally suited to scientific investigation.  Some theories are difficult to test but are still useful in stimulating debate or providing concepts that have practical application. Keep in mind that theories are not facts; they are guidelines for investigation and practice, and they gain credibility through research that fails to disprove them (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Before we examine some foundational child development theories, let’s take a preliminary look at the theorists who have contributed to our current understanding of child development. Take a moment to scan the images of the theorists included in the next few pages.  Find some words to describe what you notice. Can you identify groups who are not represented in this group of theorists? If your answer included women, people of colour, visible minorities and/or Indigenous people as examples you are correct! 

Academics and researchers have, and do, develop theories and frameworks for thinking critically about human knowledge and systems. Critical theory is an example of a postmodern theory the aim of which is to unmask the ideology that falsely justifies some form of economic or social oppression and to see it for what it is…ideology! This can set in motion the task of ending the oppression. 

Today many nations are actively addressing the legacies of colonialism that brought with it such things as patriarchy, eurocentrism, and structuralism. It has been feminist theory, queer theory, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups who, over the past few years, have helped to draw attention to, and disrupt, what, in socio-cultural terms are often referred to as dominant discourses and grand narratives. These ways of describing the world and human experience tend to align with a Western ideology with embedded hierarchies and colonist world views. Historically, these narratives have served to advantage certain populations while pathologizing and further marginalizing others. The process of reconceptualizing is embraced as a way to move forward with social justice. 

For more information check out  Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education. 

Critical theory demands that we adopt a postmodern perspective of child development and encourages early educators to reexamine ideologies, beliefs, and assumptions and to question and look beyond the fixed views of children proposed by existing theories. In everyday practice, this may look like critically examining a storybook for any hidden political or social points of view ( e.g. gender, race, class) made through the stories and images. Posing questions such as whose story is this? Who gets to tell the story? Is it a true representation? Who has been left out? Educators are encouraged to engage in conversations with families and children about representations, a practice that lives into the four foundations of How Does Learning Happen? 

In sum, postmodernism denies the existence of one objective view of child development but rather encourages multiple perspectives of viewing how children develop and learn. 

Within the dominant discourse described above, the scientific method was lauded as the way to objectively quantify and describe the world, including human development and diversity.  We are reconceptualizing science as one of many ways to describe and make meaning of the world and human experience. We are only here today because our ancestors survived and flourished for millennia. They shared their experiences across generations through oral tradition and art as examples.

Indigenous Perspectives

In Indigenous cultures, children are viewed as sacred gifts from the Creator and therefore their growth is seen as a spiritual journey of development and learning. The Medicine Wheel that symbolizes stages of life is used to represent this sacred journey. First Nation, Inuit, and Metis families are interdependent and with each stage of life, each member brings special gifts as well as responsibilities to the family and community. Elders, who are considered knowledge keepers, bring teachings from ancestors to help children understand their sacred place in the universe. Indigenous communities view child development as a journey that is closely bound by the natural and spiritual world and therefore the developing child is shaped by unique ways of knowing and teachings.

For further reading:

A child becomes strong: Journeying through each stage of the life cycle.

We are now beginning to embrace these ways of living in the world. One way to begin to integrate these world views is through ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’.  This guiding principle refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing … and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all. Shared by Elder Albert Marshall in 2004 ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ is the gift of multiple perspective treasured by many Indigenous peoples (Institute for Integrative Science and Health, n.d.), and refers to shifting from the Western binary dualism of ‘either/or’ to embracing the positive in both of these world views as ‘both/and’.  

Please note that the above is not a critique of science. We do not have to look too far to see evidence of just how much science has contributed to global human health and well-being. It is about HOW science has been used to often deny rather than embrace human diversity.

Let’s take a look at some key theories in Child Development. 

 Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Theory 

We begin with the often controversial figure, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud has been a very influential figure in the area of development; his view of development and psychopathology dominated the field of psychiatry until the growth of behaviourism in the 1950s. His assumptions that personality forms during the first few years of life and that the ways in which parents or other caregivers interact with children have a long-lasting impact on children’s emotional states have guided parents, educators, clinicians, and policy-makers for many years. We have only recently begun to recognize that early childhood experiences do not always result in certain personality traits or emotional states. There is a growing body of literature addressing resilience in children who experience trauma and yet develop without damaging emotional scars (O’Grady and Metz, 1987, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Freud has stimulated an enormous amount of research and generated many ideas. Agreeing with Freud’s theory in its entirety is hardly necessary for appreciating the contribution he has made to the field of development.

Image of Sigmund Freud
Figure 1.11: Sigmund Freud (Image is in the public domain)

Freud’s theory of self suggests that there are three parts of the self.

  • The id is the part of the self that is inborn. It responds to biological urges without pause and is guided by the principle of pleasure: if it feels good, it is the thing to do. A newborn is all id. The newborn cries when hungry and defecates when the urge strikes.
  • The ego develops through interaction with others and is guided by logic or the reality principle. It has the ability to delay gratification. It knows that urges have to be managed. It mediates between the id and superego using logic and reality to calm the other parts of the self.
  • The superego represents society’s demands for its members. It is guided by a sense of guilt. Values, morals, and the conscience are all part of the superego.

The personality is thought to develop in response to the child’s ability to learn to manage biological urges. Parenting is important here. If the parent is either overly punitive or lax, the child may not progress to the next stage. Here is a brief introduction to Freud’s stages.

Table 1.3 Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Theory

Name of Stage  Description of Stage
Oral Stage The oral stage lasts from birth until around age 2. The infant is all id. At this stage, all stimulation and comfort is focused on the mouth and is based on the reflex of sucking. Too much indulgence or too little stimulation may lead to fixation.
Anal Stage The anal stage coincides with potty training or learning to manage biological urges. The ego is beginning to develop in this stage. Anal fixation may result in a person who is compulsively clean and organized or one who is sloppy and lacks self-control
Phallic Stage The phallic stage occurs in early childhood and marks the development of the superego and a sense of masculinity or femininity as culture dictates.
Latency Latency occurs during middle childhood when a child’s urges quiet down and friendships become the focus. The ego and superego can be refined as the child learns how to cooperate and negotiate with others.
Genital Stage The genital stage begins with puberty and continues through adulthood. Now the preoccupation is that of sex and reproduction.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Freud’s Theory

Freud’s theory has been heavily criticized for several reasons. One is that it is very difficult to test scientifically. How can parenting in infancy be traced to personality in adulthood? Are there other variables that might better explain development? The theory is also considered to be sexist in suggesting that women who do not accept an inferior position in society are somehow psychologically flawed. Freud focuses on the darker side of human nature and suggests that much of what determines our actions is unknown to us. So why do we study Freud? As mentioned above, despite the criticisms, Freud’s assumptions about the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping our psychological selves have found their way into child development, education, and parenting practices. Freud’s theory has heuristic value in providing a framework from which to elaborate and modify subsequent theories of development. Many later theories, particularly behaviourism and humanism, were challenges to Freud’s views (Overstreet, n.d., as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

Main Points to Note About Freud’s Psychosexual Theory

Freud believed that:

  • Development in the early years has a lasting impact.
  • There are three parts of the self: the id, the ego, and the superego
  • People go through five stages of psychosexual development: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, latency, and the genital stage

We study Freud because the assumptions about the importance of early childhood experience provide a framework for later theories (they both elaborated and contradicted/challenged the work).

Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Now, let’s turn to a less controversial theorist, Erik Erikson. Erikson (1902-1994) suggested that our relationships and society’s expectations motivate much of our behaviour in the theory of psychosocial development. Erikson was a student of Freud’s but emphasized the importance of the ego, or conscious thought, in determining our actions. In other words, he believed that we are not driven by unconscious urges. We know what motivates us and we consciously think about how to achieve our goals. He is considered the father of developmental psychology because this model gives us a guideline for the entire life span and suggests certain primary psychological and social concerns throughout life.

Image of Erik Erikson
Figure 1.12: Erik Erikson (Image is in the public domain)

Erikson expanding on Freud’s theories by emphasizing the importance of culture in parenting practices and motivations and adding three stages of adult development (Erikson, 1950; 1968, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

He believed that we are aware of what motivates us throughout life and the ego has greater importance in guiding our actions than does the id. We make conscious choices in life and these choices focus on meeting certain social and cultural needs rather than purely biological ones. Humans are motivated, for instance, by the need to feel that the world is a trustworthy place, that we are capable individuals, that we can make a contribution to society, and that we have lived a meaningful life. These are all psychosocial problems.

Erikson divided the lifespan into eight stages. In each stage, we have a major psychosocial task to accomplish or a crisis to overcome. Erikson believed that our personality continues to take shape throughout our lifespan as we face these challenges in living. Here is a brief overview of the eight stages.

Table 1.4 Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Name of Stage  Description of Stage
Trust vs. mistrust (0-1)

The infant must have basic needs met in a consistent way in order to feel that the world is a trustworthy place.

Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (1-2) Mobile toddlers have newfound freedom they like to exercise and by being allowed to do so, they learn some basic independence.
Initiative vs. Guilt (3-5)

Preschoolers like to initiate activities and emphasize doing things “all by myself.”

Industry vs. inferiority (6- 11) School-aged children focus on accomplishments and begin making comparisons between themselves and their classmates
Identity vs. role confusion (adolescence) Teenagers are trying to gain a sense of identity as they experiment with various roles, beliefs, and ideas.
Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood) In our 20s and 30s we are making some of our first long-term commitments in intimate relationships.
Generativity vs. stagnation (middle adulthood) The 40s through the early 60s we focus on being productive at work and home and are motivated by wanting to feel that we’ve made a contribution to society.
Integrity vs. Despair (late adulthood) We look back on our lives and hope to like what we see-that we have lived well and have a sense of integrity because we lived according to our beliefs.

These eight stages form a foundation for discussions on emotional and social development during the life span. Keep in mind, however, that these stages or crises can occur more than once. For instance, a person may struggle with a lack of trust beyond infancy under certain circumstances. Erikson’s theory has been criticized for focusing so heavily on stages and assuming that the completion of one stage is a prerequisite for the next crisis of development. This theory also focuses on the social expectations that are found in certain cultures, but not in all. For instance, the idea that adolescence is a time of searching for identity might translate well in the middle-class culture of Canada, but not as well in cultures where the transition into adulthood coincides with puberty through rites of passage and where adult roles offer fewer choices (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Main Points to Note About Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Erikson was a student of Freud but focused on conscious thought.

  • Stages of psychosocial development address the entire lifespan and suggest a primary psychosocial crisis in some cultures that adults can use to understand how to support children’s social and emotional development.
  • The stages include trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and integrity vs. despair.


While Freud and Erikson looked at what was going on in the mind, behaviourism rejected any reference to mind and viewed overt and observable behaviour as the proper subject matter of psychology. Through the scientific study of behaviour, it was hoped that laws of learning could be derived that would promote the prediction and control of behaviour (Baker & Sperry, 2021).

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov (1880-1937) was a Russian physiologist interested in studying digestion. As he recorded the amount of salivation laboratory dogs produced as they ate, he noticed that they actually began to salivate before the food arrived as the researcher walked down the hall and toward the cage. “This,” he thought, “is not natural!” One would expect a dog to automatically salivate when the food hit their palate, but BEFORE the food comes? Of course, what had happened was . . . you tell me. That’s right! The dogs knew that the food was coming because they had learned to associate the footsteps with the food. The keyword here is “learned”. A learned response is called a “conditioned” response.

Image of Ivan Pavlov
Figure 1.13: Ivan Pavlov (Image is in the public domain)

Pavlov began to experiment with this concept of classical conditioning. Pavlov began to ring a bell, for instance, prior to introducing the food. Sure enough, after making this connection several times, the dogs could be made to salivate to the sound of a bell. Once the bell had become an event to which the dogs had learned to salivate, it was called a conditioned stimulus. The act of salivating to a bell was a response that had also been learned, now termed in Pavlov’s jargon, a conditioned response. Notice that the response, salivation, is the same whether it is conditioned or unconditioned (unlearned or natural). What changed is the stimulus to which the dog salivates. One is natural (unconditioned) and one is learned (conditioned).

Let’s think about how classical conditioning is used on us. One of the most widespread applications of classical conditioning principles was brought to us by the psychologist, John B. Watson.

John B. Watson

John B. Watson (1878-1958) believed that most of our fears and other emotional responses are classically conditioned. Watson gained a good deal of popularity in the 1920s when expert advice on parenting was offered to the public. However, this type of research is now known to be unethical and that this type of parenting is inappropriate.

Image of John B. Watson
Figure 1.14: John B. Watson (Image is in the public domain)

Watson tried to demonstrate the power of classical conditioning with the famous experiment with an 18-month-old boy named “Little Albert”. Watson sat Albert down and introduced a variety of seemingly scary objects: a burning piece of newspaper, a white rat, etc. But Albert remained curious and reached for all of these things. Watson knew that one of our only inborn fears is the fear of loud noises so Watson proceeded to make a loud noise each time one of Albert’s favorites, a white rat, was introduced. After hearing the loud noise several times paired with the rat, Albert soon came to fear the rat and began to cry when it was introduced. Watson filmed this experiment for posterity and used it to demonstrate that he could help parents achieve any outcomes they desired, if they would only follow the advice. Watson wrote columns in newspapers and in magazines and gained a lot of popularity among parents eager to apply science to household order.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, looks at the way the consequences of a behaviour increase or decrease the likelihood of a behaviour occurring again. So let’s look at this a bit more.

B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), who brought us the principles of operant conditioning, suggested that reinforcement is a more effective means of encouraging a behaviour than is criticism or punishment. By focusing on strengthening desirable behaviour, we have a greater impact than if we emphasize what is undesirable. Reinforcement is anything that an organism desires and is motivated to obtain.

Image of B.F. Skinner
Figure 1.15: B.F. Skinner (Image is in the public domain)

reinforcer is something that encourages or promotes a behaviour. Some things are natural rewards. They are considered intrinsic or primary because their value is easily understood. Think of what kinds of things babies or animals such as puppies find rewarding.

Extrinsic or secondary reinforcers are things that have a value not immediately understood. Their value is indirect. They can be traded in for what is ultimately desired.

The use of positive reinforcement involves adding something to a situation in order to encourage a behaviour. For example, if I give a child a high five for cleaning a room, or compliment the job they have done they are more likely to do it again. Think of ways in which you positively reinforce others.

Negative reinforcement occurs when taking something unpleasant away from a situation encourages behaviour. For example, I have an alarm clock that makes a very unpleasant, loud sound when it goes off in the morning. As a result, I get up and turn it off. By removing the noise, I am reinforced for getting up. How do you negatively reinforce others?

Punishment is an effort to stop a behaviour. It means to follow an action with something unpleasant or painful. Punishment is often less effective than reinforcement for several reasons. It doesn’t indicate the desired behaviour, it may result in suppressing rather than stopping a behaviour, (in other words, the person may not do what is being punished when you’re around, but may do it often when you leave), and a focus on punishment can result in not noticing when the person does well. Not all behaviours are learned through association or reinforcement. Many of the things we do are learned by watching others. This is addressed in social learning theory.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura (1925-) is a leading contributor to social learning theory. He calls our attention to the ways in which many of our actions are not learned through conditioning; rather, they are learned by watching others (1977). Young children frequently learn behaviours through imitation

Image of Albert Bandura
Figure 1.16: Albert Bandura (Image by Albert Bandura is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sometimes, particularly when we do not know what else to do, we learn by modeling or copying the behaviour of others. A kindergartner on their first day of school might eagerly look at how others are acting and try to act the same way to fit in more quickly. Adolescents struggling with their identity rely heavily on their peers to act as role-models. Sometimes we do things because we’ve seen it pay off for someone else. They were operantly conditioned, but we engage in the behaviour because we hope it will pay off for us as well. This is referred to as vicarious reinforcement (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1963, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

Bandura (1986, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021) suggests that there is interplay between the environment and the individual. We are not just the product of our surroundings, rather we influence our surroundings. Parents not only influence their child’s environment, perhaps intentionally through the use of reinforcement, etc., but children influence parents as well. Parents may respond differently with their first child than with their fourth. Perhaps they try to be the perfect parents with their firstborn, but by the time their last child comes along they have very different expectations both of themselves and their child. Our environment creates us and we create our environment (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Bandura and the Bobo Doll Experiment & Today’s Children and the Media

Other social influences: TV or not TV? Bandura et al. (1963, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021) began a series of studies to look at the impact of television, particularly commercials, on the behaviour of children. Are children more likely to act out aggressively when they see this behaviour modeled? What if they see it being reinforced? Bandura began by conducting an experiment in which he showed children a film of a person hitting an inflatable clown or “bobo” doll. Then the children were allowed in the room where they found the doll and immediately began to hit it. This was without any reinforcement whatsoever. Not only that, but they found new ways to behave aggressively. It’s as if they learned an aggressive role.

Children view far more television today than in the 1960s; so much, in fact, that they have been referred to as Generation M (media). The amount of screen time varies by age. As of 2017, children 0-8 spend an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes. Children 8-12 years of age spend almost 6 hours a day on screen media. And 13- to 18-year-olds spend an average of just under 9 hours a day in entertainment media use.

The prevalence of violence, sexual content, and messages promoting foods high in fat and sugar in the media are certainly cause for concern and the subjects of ongoing research and policy review. Many children spend even more time on the computer viewing content from the internet. The amount of time spent connected to the internet continues to increase with the use of smartphones that essentially serve as mini-computers. And the ways children and adolescents interact with the media continues to change. The popularity of YouTube and the various social media platforms are examples of this. What might be the implications of this? (Rasmussen, 2017).

Main Points to Note About Behaviourism

Behaviourists look at observable behaviour and how it can be predicted and controlled.

  • Pavlov experimented with classical conditioning, the process of conditioning response to stimulus (the dog’s salivating to the bell).
  • Watson offered advice to parents to show them how classical conditioning can be used. The most famous experiment was conditioning Little Albert to fear a white rat.
  • Skinner believed that reinforcing behaviour is the most effective way of increasing desirable behaviour. This is done through operant conditioning.
  • Bandura noted that many behaviours are not learned through any type of conditioning, but rather through imitation. And he believed that people are not only influenced by their surroundings but that they also have an impact on their surroundings.

Theories also explore cognitive development and how mental processes change over time.

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the most influential cognitive theorists. Piaget was inspired to explore children’s ability to think and reason by watching his own children’s development. He was one of the first to recognize and map out the ways in which children’s thought differs from that of adults. Piaget’s interest in this area began when he was asked to test the IQ of children and began to notice that there was a pattern in their wrong answers. Piaget believed that children’s intellectual skills change over time through maturation. Children of differing ages interpret the world differently.

Image of Jean Piaget
Figure 1.17: Jean Piaget (Image is in the public domain)
Piaget believed our desire to understand the world comes from a need for cognitive equilibrium. This is an agreement or balance between what we sense in the outside world and what we know in our minds. If we experience something that we cannot understand, we try to restore the balance by either changing our thoughts or by altering the experience to fit into what we do understand. Perhaps you meet someone who is very different from anyone you know. How do you make sense of this person? You might use them to establish a new category of people in your mind or you might think about how they are similar to someone else.

schema or schemes are categories of knowledge. They are like mental boxes of concepts. A child has to learn many concepts. They may have a scheme for “under” and “soft” or “running” and “sour”. All of these are schema. Our efforts to understand the world around us lead us to develop new schema and to modify old ones.

One way to make sense of new experiences is to focus on how they are similar to what we already know. This is assimilation. So the person we meet who is very different may be understood as being “sort of like my sibling” or “that voice sounds a lot like yours.” Or a new food may be assimilated when we determine that it tastes like chicken!

Another way to make sense of the world is to change our mind. We can make a cognitive accommodation to this new experience by adding new schema. This food is unlike anything I’ve tasted before. I now have a new category of foods that are bitter-sweet in flavor, for instance. This is accommodation. Do you accommodate or assimilate more frequently? Children accommodate more frequently as they build new schema. Adults tend to look for similarity in their experience and assimilate. They may be less inclined to think “outside the box.” Piaget suggested different ways of understanding that are associated with maturation. This was divided into four stages.

Table 1.5 Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Name of Stage  Description of Stage
Sensorimotor Stage During the sensorimotor stage children rely on use of the senses and motor skills. From birth until about age 2, the infant knows by tasting, smelling, touching, hearing, and moving objects around. This is a real hands on type of knowledge.
Preoperational Stage In the preoperational stage, children from ages 2 to 7, become able to think about the world using symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. The use of language, whether it is in the form of words or gestures, facilitates knowing and communicating about the world. This is the hallmark of preoperational intelligence and occurs in early childhood. However, these children are preoperational or pre-logical. They still do not understand how the physical world operates. They may, for instance, fear that they will go down the drain if they sit at the front of the bathtub, even though they are too big.
Concrete Operational Children in the concrete operational stage, ages 7 to 11, develop the ability to think logically about the physical world. Middle childhood is a time of understanding concepts such as size, distance, and constancy of matter, and cause and effect relationships. A child knows that a scrambled egg is still an egg and that 8 ounces of water is still 8 ounces no matter what shape of glass contains it.
Formal Operational During the formal operational stage children, at about age 12, acquire the ability to think logically about concrete and abstract events. The teenager who has reached this stage is able to consider possibilities and to contemplate ideas about situations that have never been directly encountered. More abstract understanding of religious ideas or morals or ethics and abstract principles such as freedom and dignity can be considered.

Criticisms of Piaget’s Theory

Piaget has been criticized for overemphasizing the role that physical maturation plays in cognitive development and underestimating the role that culture and interaction (or experience) plays in cognitive development. Looking across cultures reveals considerable variation in what children are able to do at various ages. Piaget may have underestimated what children are capable of given the right circumstances (Lumen Learning, n.d.). 

 Note About Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget, one of the most influential cognitive theorists, believed that

  • Understanding is motivated by trying to balance what we sense in the world and what we know in our minds.
  • Understanding is organized through creating categories of knowledge. When presented with new knowledge we may add new schema or modify existing ones.

Children’s understanding of how the world changes in their cognitive skills mature through four stages: sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage.

Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist who wrote in the early 1900s but whose work was discovered in the United States in the 1960s but became more widely known in the 1980s. Vygotsky differed with Piaget in that he believed that a person not only has a set of abilities, but also a set of potential abilities that can be realized if given the proper guidance from others. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes the importance of culture and interaction in the development of cognitive abilities. He believed that through guided participation known as scaffolding, with a teacher or capable peer, a child can learn cognitive skills within a certain range known as the zone of proximal development (Lumen Learning, n.d.).  This belief was that development occurred first through children’s immediate social interactions, and then moved to the individual level as they began to internalize their learning (Leon, n.d.)

Image of Lev Vygotsky
Figure 1.18: Lev Vygotsky (Image by the Vygotsky Project is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Have you ever taught a child to perform a task? Maybe it was brushing their teeth or preparing food. Chances are you spoke to them and described what you were doing while you demonstrated the skill and let them work along with you all through the process. You gave them assistance when they seemed to need it, but once they knew what to do-you stood back and let them go. This is scaffolding and can be seen demonstrated throughout the world. This approach to teaching has also been adopted by educators. Rather than assessing students on what they are doing, they should be understood in terms of what they are capable of doing with the proper guidance. You can see how Vygotsky would be very popular with modern day educators (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Main Points to Note About Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky concentrated on the child’s interactions with peers and adults. He believed that the child was an apprentice, learning through sensitive social interactions with more skilled peers and adults.

Comparing Piaget and Vygotsky

Vygotsky concentrated more on the child’s immediate social and cultural environment and their interactions with adults and peers. While Piaget saw the child as actively discovering the world through individual interactions with it, Vygotsky saw the child as more of an apprentice, learning through a social environment of others who had more experience and were sensitive to the child’s needs and abilities (Leon, n.d.). 

Like Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner looked at the social influences on learning and development.

Indigenous Perspectives

Comparing Piaget and Vygotsky – both statements are right for indigenous culture, the child is seen as “actively discovering the world through individual interactions with it (children are encouraged to play outside) and,  as more of an apprentice, learning through a social environment of others who had more experience and were sensitive to the child’s needs and abilities.” (Leon, n.d) Boys were around their mothers until the age of 7; subsequently, they would go with the men to learn the skills of protection and hunting (i.e. flint making, arrows, making nets, snowshoes, etc.)  Today, in some families who are keeping the traditional ways of life alive, boys go hunting, trapping and, fishing with their father, a community member or another male relative; some as early as 7 or 8 for small game. When they reach the age of 11 or 12 they are encouraged to kill big game which is celebrated. They are encouraged to share the game with elders and/or other community members. Girls were traditionally taught skills such as cooking, tanning hides, putting up the teepee (or other forms of habitats), rearing children, fetching wood and water, as well as other chores. Today, it is not uncommon for girls to do the same as the boys with their father or with the whole family. Both girls and boys help with younger siblings, especially if there are many. Some of these may defer from nation to nation.

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) offers us one of the most comprehensive theories of human development. Bronfenbrenner studied Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and learning theorists and believed that all of those theories could be enhanced by adding the dimension of context. What is being taught and how society interprets situations depends on who is involved in the life of a child and on when and where a child lives.

Image of Urie Bronfenbrenner
Figure 1.19: Urie Bronfenbrenner (Image by Mario Vicente Gonzalez is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model explains the direct and indirect influences on an individual’s development.

Table 1.6 Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model

Name of the System  Description of System 
Microsystems Microsystems impact a child directly. These are the people with whom the child interacts such as parents, peers, and teachers. The relationship between individuals and those around them need to be considered. For example, to appreciate what is going on with a student in math, the relationship between the student and teacher should be known.
Mesosystems Mesosystems are interactions between those surrounding the individual. The relationship between parents and schools, for example, will indirectly affect the child.
Exosystem Larger institutions such as the mass media or the healthcare system are referred to as the exosystem. These have an impact on families and peers and schools that operate under policies and regulations found in these institutions.
Macrosystems We find cultural values and beliefs at the level of macrosystems. These larger ideals and expectations inform institutions that will ultimately impact the individual.
Chronosystem All of this happens in a historical context referred to as the chronosystem. Cultural values change over time, as do policies of educational institutions or governments in certain political climates. Development occurs at a point in time.

For example, in order to understand a student in math, we can’t simply look at that individual and what challenges they face directly with the subject. We have to look at the interactions that occur between teacher and child. Perhaps the teacher needs to make modifications as well. The teacher may be responding to regulations made by the school, such as new expectations for students in math or constraints on time that interfere with the teacher’s ability to instruct. These new demands may be a response to national efforts to promote math and science deemed important by political leaders in response to relations with other countries at a particular time in history.

Graphic of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory
Figure 1.20: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Image by Ian Joslin is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model challenges us to go beyond the individual if we want to understand human development and promote improvements (Leon, n.d.).

Main Points to Note About Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

After studying all of the prior theories, Bronfenbrenner added an important element of context to the discussion of influences on human development.

  • He believed that the people involved in children’s lives and when and where they live are important considerations.
  • He created a model of nested systems that influence the child (and are influenced by the child) that include: microsystems, mesosystems, the exosystem, macrosystems, and chronosystems.

Indigenous PerspectiveS

As for Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model: it seems the same as the saying: It takes a community to raise a child. In some indigenous communities, the aunts and uncles are the ones who “discipline” children to keep harmony in the family. Discipline in the sense that they talk to the children when they are not contributing to the household or when they are giving their parents a hard time. It is common for children to go live with either aunts and uncles, or grandparents for periods of time to learn different skills, knowledge and/or teachings as well as to go help out with child-rearing. There is a strong sense of sharing our gifts from the Creator, the children, with our extended family. They are considered to be lent to us by the Creator. 


In this chapter we looked at:

  • underlying principles of development
  • the five periods of development
  • three issues in development
  • various methods of research
  • important theories that help us understand the development


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Child Growth and Development Canadian Ed Copyright © 2022 by Tanya Pye; Susan Scoffin; Janice Quade; and Jane Krieg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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