Developmental Theories

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Developmental Theories

Over the last 150 years, psychologists and social scientists have identified common patterns of human development. These developmental theories typically create a conceptual framework of sequential developmental stages and transitions that signal movement from one developmental milestone to another.

​”Developmental theories present systematic ways of thinking about how human beings grow from babies to adolescents to adults to elderly people, and the various changes they undergo as they make this passage.”

Developmental theories provide a model to enhance understanding that can be used in evaluating the development of a client, our children, or ourselves. Models are helpful but limited. Models are limited because they are simplified frameworks of very complex processes. The very nature of developmental theories is to describe transforming from simple processes of infancy to complex processes of maturity. However, new scientific findings are uncovering “a richness and complexity in the infant’s behavioral repertoire previously unimagined” (Thomas, 1981). 

Most developmental theories isolate a single definable human characteristic that changes throughout childhood, adolescence and continues to mature in adulthood. Yet, in the real world, we are not a bundle of isolated character traits but a bundle of traits that interact internally and externally, each influencing the other, changing trajectories of growth, and ultimately culminating at death.

Research continues to unveil new information impacting development from neurochemistry and neurophysiology, to psychology and psychiatry, to epidemiology and sociology. Each finding adding to the complexity of the human condition.

Usefulness of Developmental Theories

Developmental theories are still useful. Most theories are supported by significant empirical evidence gathered from extensive data collected from longitudinal studies that followed the lives of hundreds of children from birth to late life. These studies illuminate patterns we miss from casual observation of the human experience.

We can add to these observations by adding flexibility for individual lives and unique experiences. The strict stage presentation of developmental theories can be enhanced when we soften our understanding by adding the wider views of complexity, perhaps, with theories such as Albert Bandura’s reciprocal determinism—a theory that “describes the dynamic interlocking interaction between behavior, environments, and personal factors” (Murphy, 2021).

Glen H. Elder’s life course theory also serves as a balancing companion theory, to enhance the flexibility and complexity of the more stringent developmental theories. Elder’s theory “encompasses ideas and observations from an array of disciplines, notably history, sociology, demography, developmental psychology, biology, and economics” (Mitchell).

Longitudinal Studies 

​The longitudinal study examines studying the same group of individuals over an extended period, sometimes following them throughout their lives. These studies are expensive and involve passing the baton from one researcher to another as the original scientist typically is outlived by the subjects being studied. Periodically throughout the lives of the individuals being studied researchers would send questionnaires or schedule interview the subjects. 

These studies provide information, associations, and details that shorter studies miss. Many of the developmental theories relied heavily on information obtained from these longitudinal studies.

Features of a Developmental Theory

While developmental theories may vary in characteristics being examined, they typically contain a similar structure. Most developmental theories contain start and end points, description of stages and sequence, and description of key transitions. Many of the theories identify the ages of individuals when they transition from one stage to another.

Ending and Starting Points

Any legitimate developmental theory must identify what is trait is being developed. The beginning state and the end state are required before we can follow the stages leading from one stage to the next, until we finally arrive at the endpoint.

Kieran Egan wrote that “any developmental theory should indicate an end towards which process develops, and being explicit about this end should involve what is desirable as a product of the process” (Clark, 1986).

Ben S. Bradley, a professor of psychology for the School of Behavioral Sciences at James Cook University, wrote “development has typically been defined as leading towards a biological goal of species specific maturity.” Bradley continues, “cognitive development is simply one aspect of the way an organism’s biological potential unfolds” (1993).

However, many endpoints in developmental theories are more confined than species specific, adopting culturally defined desirable endpoints. Instead of a biological end point of development a theory adopts an ‘extra-systemic standard’ or a value judgement of how a mature human should be—Freud’s sexual maturity, Piaget’s logical maturity, Ainsworth’s social maturity, and Kohlberg’s moral maturity.

Defined Stages

​Each stage needs adequate descriptions and qualities to differentiate each stage from the preceding and proceeding stages. Stages are progressive steps towards a desired end-point. The stages are proposed in progressive order, and development is movement from one stage to another without regression or stage skipping.

New stage attainment occurs when “an individual attains a new developmental level. Such construction is sometimes taken to be the presence of an ability which previously was absent but such an interpretation is not the only one” (Smith, 1987).

A new stage is distinguished by a developmental level. This can be defined in different ways. One is functional. The other by performing the same function but more complex processes. Functional stage descriptions describe new behavioral abilities and skills (walking, making choices, etc…). 

Complex process changes are less obvious. A child may still perform the same functional behavior but the cognitive process behind the action may have changed, but proceeding the behavior the child may consider more options, and evaluate consequences. The new process signifies a cognitive development.

Transitional Periods

A third and defining element of a developmental theory is the presence of transitional periods. A developmental theory often addresses the why, when, and how a transition takes place. A developmental theory should include “a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for actual state transitions” (van Geert, 1987). 

Many theories will empirically support expected ages when these transitions should take place, and countervailing factors that may interfere or delay the transition.

Major Life Events

​​Major life events (starting school, marriage, children, disease, trauma) often contribute to stage transition. Major environmental change stimulate growth and force internal changes. Some rigid views of human development may argue that a true developmental theory is intractable, resistant to outside influence. They argue species-specific growth occurs regardless, only expressions of the change may vary according to cultural learning.

Trauma is a significant engine motivating change. When life perspectives are shattered and past life meanings knocked off balance, new paradigms are formed. The existential funk of lost meaning creates significant changes that often lead to post-traumatic growth.

Alexander Thomas, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at New York School of Medicine, wrote that “a psychosocial model is required, in which the influence of the biological, the phycological, and the social are all given sufficient emphasis.” Thomas continues, “the mutual interactional influence of the biological, the psychological, and the social at all stage levels of development must be considered” (1981. p. 581).

I concur, it is nearly impossible to account for life’s transitional developments without considering the impact of major external life events. Certainly, the brain develops regardless of surrounding features. We are genetically programmed. However, gene expression is highly influenced by environmental conditions.

Murphy wrote, “each cell in our body contains the same library of genes. We biologically inherit these genes from our parents. The pattern of activation of genes, however, varies” (2021). The study of gene expression that is activated by environmental factors is called epigenetics.

Sensitive Periods

Many developmental theorist identify sensitive periods where genetically programmed growth is theorized to take place during certain times of life. When development during these critical sensitive periods is disrupted a window closes, and the normal development fails to occur. Overcoming these lapses in normal development may never completely restore the lost opportunities of time sensitive learning.

​Development, Stagnation, and Regression

Development theories suggest that growth occurs through ordered stages. Each stage provides the foundation for continued growth. Failing to develop during one stage then impacts future development. When growth is disrupted, we stagnate or, in some cases, regress. 

We respond to failed development by implementing adapting behaviors and thoughts to compensate. These adaptations may successfully achieve our goals for stability or create greater chaos in our lives.

Resources and Environments

Development has a cost. Growth demands resources. Human growth relies on supportive internal and external environments. When external relationships fail to validate, or harsh internal voices critically judge, development is slowed. Opportunities, resources, hope, support, and many other kind conditions aide development during the sensitive periods of our lives.

​​Self-Determination, Choices, and Self Efficacy

​Self-determination theory suggests that people develop when the external environment doesn’t inhibit pursuit of three innate and universal psychological needs:

Most developmental scientists agree that life is beset with choice points that interact with innate development. Choices at critical junctures can change the trajectory of growth.

Prominent Developmental Theories

​Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages

Freud theorized that development flowed through five  different psychosexual stages (oral, anal, phallic, latent, genital). During a child’s five psychosexual stages of development, the erogenous zone associated with each stage serves as a source of pleasure, motivating behavior. Freud theorized that the psychosexual energy, or libido, was the driving force behind behavior.

​Oral Stage (Birth- 1 year)

Freud identified the mouth as the earliest erogenous zone. During the oral stage, the infant’s primary source of pleasure occurs through the mouth. The child develops trust in caregivers through oral stimulation.

The primary conflict of this stage is encountered during the weening process. The child develops by becoming less dependent upon caretakers. When normal development fails during the oral stage, Freud believed the child would experience issues with dependency or aggression throughout their lives.

A person with oral fixation may have reoccurring problems with drinking, eating, smoking, or nail-biting.

Anal Stage (1-3 years)

During the anal stage, according to Freud, the primary focus of the child is controlling the bladder and bowel movements. Successful development during this stage of development is theorized to lead to competent, productive, and creative adults.

​The major conflict during the anal period is toilet training, successfully learning control of the bladder and bowels leads to a sense of accomplishment and independence.

Parents play a significant role in successful transition through the anal stage. Parents who praise and reward at the appropriate time encourage healthy development. Parent’s that punish, ridicule, or shame a child during toilet training may lead to an anal retentive personality, where the child becomes an orderly, rigid, and obsessive adult.

An overly lenient approach to toilet training, according to Freud, often led to an anal-expulsive personality where the child develops messy, wasteful and destructive character traits.

Phallic Stage (3-6 years)

Freud distinguished the phallic stage by the child’s primary focus on the genitals. During this developmental stage, children discover the differences between males and females.​

Freud identified several controversial conflicts encountered by the child during his discovery of gender differences. Boys, he theorized, ​begin to view their fathers as a rival for the mother’s affections. The Oedipus complex describes the male child’s desire to possess the mother and replace the father. The child’s fear of punishment for these feelings leads to what Freud called castration anxiety. 

​Freud termed a similar dilemma experienced by young girls as Electra complex. Freud believed that girls experienced penis envy instead of castration anxiety. An anxiety, he proposed, that woman never fully resolve.

Through maturity in this stage, the child begins to identify with the same-sex.

Latent Stage (6 to puberty)

During the latent period, children develop social skills, building relationships outside of the family. The child represses sexual energy and explores new areas of development. The latent stage is important for developing social and communications skills.

​Freud proposed that fixation in the latent stage interfered with a child’s ability to later form fulfilling adult relationships.

Genital Stage (Puberty to Death)

The genital phase is the beginning of a life long sexual interest in the opposite sex. The goals of the genital stage is developing balance between differing life pursuits, honoring needs of self and other, and suppressing urges that interfere with goals and values.

Jean Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development proposes that that children’s intellectual development progresses through four different stages. Piaget’s work on infant development was unparalleled in terms of its originality, scope, and systematicity. 

​Piaget wrote that, “life is a continuous creation of increasingly complex forms, and a progressive balancing of these forms with the environment” (1952).

Piaget’s four stages of intellectual (or cognitive) development are:

Sensorimotor (Birth through ages 18-24 months)

Piaget theorized that children and infants acquired knowledge through sensory experiences during this earliest stage of cognitive development. They learn through manipulating objects in their environment. Learning occurs through reacting, sensing and physically responding to their physical environment.

During Piaget’s sensorimotor state the child moves from objectless state of relating to the environment to a highly elaborated development of the object concept, recognizing the existence of objects apart from the child’s own actions on them (Rosenthal, Massie, & Wulff, 2006).

Preoperational (Toddler through early childhood)

The hallmark of the preoperational stage is the emergence of language. Children begin to think symbolically, using words and pictures to refer to objects.

Children are very literal during this phase, thinking in concrete terms.

Concrete operational (Ages 7 to 11)

During this period, Piaget suggested that children become less egocentric, the display the ability to solve moderately complex problems (2019). 

​The egocentrism of the previous stage begins to disappear as kids become better at thinking about how other people might view a situation. Psychology refers to this ability as theory of mind.

​While still very concrete in thinking, children in this phase become more adept at using logic. Children also begin to gain understanding of classification by different sorting criteria.

Formal operational (Adolescence through adulthood)

The final stage of Piaget’s stages of development is formal operational. During this stage of cognitive development children’s thinking and understanding develop significantly. They understand logic and abstract ideas such as math. 

Erick Erickson’s 8 Stages of Development of Ego Identity

Erikson’s theory suggests that your ego identity develops through eight specific stages:

  • Infancy – Basic trust versus mistrust
  • Toddler – Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  • Preschool-age – Initiative versus guilt
  • School-age – Industry versus inferiority
  • Adolescence – Identity versus role confusion
  • Young adulthood – Intimacy versus isolation
  • Middle age – Generativity versus stagnation‌
  • Older adulthood – Integrity versus despair

​Erikson theorized that our personality develops in a predetermined order through stages of psychosocial development, beginning in infancy and continuing throughout adulthood. During each stage, we experience a psychosocial crisis that could have positively or negatively impact personality development.

Erikson proposes that each stage is a crucial building block for continued development. Erikson did not believe each stage had a rigid start and end point; but they may overlap. We may continue to develop in early stages later in life. 

Kohlberg’s Moral Development

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development focuses on the development of morality and moral reasoning. His theory suggests that moral development has three levels (preconventional morality, conventional morality, postconventional morality). Kohlberg further divided each level into two stages. 

The first two stages are characterized by the “preconventional point of view, which lacks awareness of social order; the third and fourth, by the conventional perspective, which recognizes the values of conforming to and maintaining the social order; and the fifth and sixth stages, by the autonomous or principled perspective, which recognizes the social order as itself subject to rational criticism and capable of improvement” (Baier, 1974, p. 605).

Level 1 – Preconventional Morality

Preconventional morality is the first period of moral development, lasting until around age 9. Expectations of adults and learning the consequences for breaking rules primarily motivate development during this phase. Young children lack a larger social order perspective.

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation

​The child or individual in this stage is good in order to avoid punishment. Consequently, they believe if a person is punished, then that person must have done wrong.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange

At this stage, children begin to recognize that there is not just one right view. Different individuals have different viewpoints.

Level 2 – Conventional Morality

The conventional period of moral development is marked by acceptance of social rules to identify what is good and moral. During these stages of development, adolescents and adults internalize moral standards exhibited by role models and society.

This conventional period also adopts norms of the group and accepts of authority.

​​Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships

The child or individual strives to be good in order to be seen as being a “good person.”

​Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order

The child or individual becomes aware of the wider societal rules. Individuals obey rules to uphold the law and avoid guilt.

​Level 3 – Postconventional Morality

At this final level of moral development, people develop a deeper understanding of abstract principles of morality. They can autonomously direct their lives, understanding the influence of society on social norms.

​Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights

The child or individual becomes aware that while laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, they do not always serve everyone. Some laws work against the interest of particular individuals or groups.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

People at this stage have developed their own set of moral guidelines (human rights, justice, equality) which may or may not fit the law. The person in this stage will fight against laws that conflict with deeper principles, even if society will punish opposition.

​Kohlberg believed most people never reach the final stage of moral development.

​A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic

Humans develop. Our development shares common themes and patterns with other humans. Developmental theories attempt to uncover the patterns and use these discoveries to treat those that fail to develop. These historic theories are foundational to our understanding of human development. Time and new learning has shed light on some of the errors, exposing the cultural interpretations of data. Like most disproven or disputed psychological theories, we can still learn from these great scientists and their well-documented discoveries.

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​Arsalidou, M., & Pascual-Leone, J. (2016). Constructivist developmental theory is needed in developmental neuroscience. NPJ Science of Learning, 1,

Babakr, Z., University, S., Mohamedamin, P., Kakamad, K., & , (2019). Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory: Critical Review. Education Quarterly Reviews,

Baier, Kurt (1974). Moral Development. The Monist, 58(4), 601-615.

​Bradley, B. (1993). Introduction: The Future of Developmental Theory. Theory & Psychology, 3(4), 403-414.

Cherry, Kendra (2020). Child Development Theories and Examples. Verywellmind. Published 6-22-2020. Accessed 6-2-2022

Clark, Charles (1989). The Follies of Developmental Theory. Journal of Philosophy of Education 23.1 

Colby, A. (1978). Evolution of a moral‐developmental theory. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, 1978(2), 89-104.

Spotlight Book:

Elder, G. (1998). The Life Course as Developmental Theory. Child Development, 69(1),

Lapsley, D. (2015). Moral Identity and Developmental Theory. Human Development, 58(3), 164-171.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Reciprocal Determinism. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-4-2021. Accessed 6-5-2022

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Epigenetics. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-9-2021. Accessed 6-6-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2020) Self Determination Theory. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-16-2020. Accessed 6-7-2022.

Piaget, Jean (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York. International University Press

Rogers, C. (1995). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Mariner Books; 2nd ed. edition

Rosenthal, J., Massie, H., & Wulff, K. (2006). A comparison of cognitive development in normal and psychotic children in the first two years of life from home movies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10(4), 433-444.
Smith, L. (1987). Developmental theory in the classroom. Instructional Science, 16(2), 151-167.​

Thomas, A. (1981). CURRENT TRENDS IN DEVELOPMENTAL THEORY. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51(4), 580-609.

van Geert, P. (1987). The Structure of Developmental Theories. Human Development, 30(3), 160-177.

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