A Guide to Child Development Theories

What is the best route for healthy development in your child? What affects child development? What can be done to maximize your child’s growth, and when are they most susceptible to external influences? 

Experts have been grappling with these questions for decades. Since the early 20th century when child development began gaining hold as an important field of study, many child development theories have arisen as a basis for understanding how children change and grow over the course of childhood. These psychosocial, behavioral, cognitive, attachment, and stage theories offer different perspectives on elements at play that influence a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Understanding the shaping forces of child development helps us understand and appreciate the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and educational growth that children go through from their birth, into childhood, and beyond.   

5 Child Development Theories

While numerous child development theories have been presented by researchers and theorists, Erik Erikson’s Psychosexual Development Theory, Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory, Bowlby’s Attachment theory, and Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory all stand out as the most famous and well-studied.

Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Erik Erikson built off Sigmund Freud’s famous theories to develop his own theory of Psychosocial Development. According to Erikson, personality develops as we find a balance between biological and social forces at play. Unlike Sigmund Freud who emphasized early childhood influences and the unconscious mind, Erikson believes that eight different stages of cognitive development occur across the lifespan. Each of these eight stages of development center around what he calls a “psychosocial crisis”, where a child or individual experiences a turning point in their relationships and/or feelings about themselves. These crises correspond with key questions to which a person is determining the answer, playing a large role in their psychosocial development.  Each stage corresponds with a different period of human development, with stage 1 being infancy, and stage eight being the final years of the lifespan. Stages 1 through 4 pertain most to child development.  

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust From birth to about a year and a half, babies are in the Trust vs. Mistrust stage. The question at this stage is, “Can I trust the world?” By consistently having their needs met, they learn that the world is consistent and safe. If they do not have this consistency, they learn that the world is unpredictable, or even dangerous.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt From about one-and-a-half to three years old, toddlers are in the Autonomy vs. Shame stage. They are asking themselves, “Is it okay to be me?” If they are given freedom to do things for themselves, they develop positive self-esteem. Without that freedom, they grow to doubt themselves and their abilities.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt Children from about ages three to five are in the Initiative vs. Guilt stage, asking themselves, “Is it okay for me to act?” As they make their own decisions and carry out their own plans, they learn confidence. If they are not permitted to think, choose, and act for themselves, they become fearful of making decisions.

Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority Occurs between the stages of six and eleven, and is where children begin developing a sense of pride and competence in their abilities, such as reading and writing. Inability to succeed at these tasks may result in feelings of discouragement, inferiority, or incompetency.   

There are developmental milestones that extend across the lifespan, as opposed to adulthood and late adulthood being absent of developmental meaning. Stage 5 (Identity vs. Role Confusion), Stage 6 (Intimacy vs. Isolation), Stage 7 (Generativity vs. Stagnation), and Stage 8 (Integrity vs. Despair) are stages of development with influence that occur after adolescence.  

Behavioral Child Development Theory 

Behaviorism became a dominant train of thought in child psychology in the early 20th century, with the theories of behaviorists like John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and Ivan Pavlov leading the way. Both of these theorists insisted that learning occurs as a result of association and reinforcement, and distinguished itself by focusing on the role of environmental factors and the experiences that shape them. There was little to no consideration given to one’s internal thoughts or feelings like other childhood development theories. 

Classic conditioning and operant conditioning are two important pillars of the Behavioral Child Development Theory. Classical conditioning is learning through association. A positive and warm teacher makes students feel safe and welcome, after which the student may associate going to school with a teacher, and learn to enjoy going to school. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, utilizes reinforcement and punishment measures to modify behaviors. An example that we see is behavior met with reward, such as positively encouraging an infant that begins to crawl. 

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory 

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory is a top child development theory in the world. Piaget’s theory divides child development into four distinct stages that carry each of their own characteristics and are marked by specific developmental goals. 

Sensorimotor Stage: This stage takes place from Birth to Two Years Old, and the primary goal is object permanence, which means that items and people still exist when you are unable to see or hear them. This can be seen in the toddler ages, where hiding a toy can make a child confused or upset with no effort to search, as if it had simply disappeared. 

Preoperational Stage: The preoperational stage takes place from two to seven years, and the primary goal is symbolic thought, which is the capacity to use mental representation. This is a child’s ability to think in images and symbols, where children can represent concrete objects with images, words, gestures, or play. We see this in our preschool classrooms in the form of dramatic play, which allows children to experiment with the social and emotional roles of life, such as taking turns, sharing responsibilities, and problem-solving in creative ways. A child’s main goal in the preoperational stage is to make sense of the world and understand their feelings to better navigate various relationships. 

Concrete Operational Stage: The concrete operational stage takes place from seven to eleven years. Concrete operational stage is where children begin to develop logical thought, allowing them to solve problems in logical manners. Abstract thinking is still a barrier in this psychological developmental stage, and problems with concrete meaning, such as organizing shapes by color, are best understood. 

Formal Operational Stage: The formal operational stage takes place from ages 12 and extends into adulthood, when one is able to begin undertaking abstract thinking. Examples of this are understanding theories, forming hypotheses, and comprehending abstract ideas such as love and justice. 

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

John Bowlby observed infants expressing anxiety at being separated from their caregivers, and developed his theory of attachment, which he defined as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Attachments are formed as infants’ physiological and emotional needs are met, fostering a sense of security and a bond with the person meeting those needs.

Bowlby theorized that humans evolved to have an innate drive to form attachments, as in the past this would make children stay closer to their mothers and therefore increase their chances of survival. Mary Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work with her “strange situation” experiment. Infants were brought into a room and then separated from their mothers. By observing the infants’ behavior, she identified three types of attachment: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant. 

A secure attachment is formed through consistently and lovingly meeting the infant’s needs, and is characterized by the infant being distressed at separation and joyful when reunited. 

An ambivalent attachment is formed when a caregiver sometimes does and sometimes does not meet the infant’s needs, and is characterized by the infant being distressed at separation and not calming when the caregiver returns. Reuniting does not bring a sense of security. 

An avoidant attachment is formed by an infant’s needs being consistently ignored or even punished. This infant is unaffected when the caregiver leaves; he or she has learned not to rely on a caregiver, so there is no preference between the familiar caregiver, a stranger, or no one at all.

Children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety as they progress past adolescence.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory has been influential in the education field, and surrounds the idea that child development is a result of the interactions between children and their social interactions and environment. These interactions include all of those involved in one’s early experiences, such as parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and classmates. Proximal development is a key component of his child development theory, which is a gap between what a child is able to do on their own, versus what they are able to do with more knowledgeable assistance, such as parents or teachers. His child development theory has three main concepts: 

  • Culture is significant in learning 
  • Language is the root of culture 
  • Individuals learn and develop within their role in the community. 

In the context of a child development center, the culture is based on the morals and beliefs of the staff, the language communicates the attitudes and conduct, and children’s early learning and development are strongly influenced by the factors in play in this community. 


All of these different theories provide critical perspectives on how children learn, behave, and develop. Psychologists today draw on varieties of theories and perspectives to gain insight on the ways in which kids grow, behave, and think. The reality is that understanding children’s behavior requires looking at a multitude of factors that impact physical and psychological growth. Children are shaped by genetic factors, which afterwards shape their emotional and cognitive development. As children begin seeing, hearing, understanding, and interacting with their environment, they start to respond to emotional factors around them.

Interested in learning more beyond these child development theories? The Harvard University Press has compiled a series of books that highlights the recent research that has taken place on development from infancy to adolescence and beyond at the intersection of developmental psychology, research, and policy.

While these theories may differ, they all shed light on the role that environmental factors play in child and human development. This has led to the formation of various philosophies and approaches to child development centers you see in early childhood development centers today.

4 Child Development Preschool Philosophies

Child Development centers have various philosophies that have been shaped by the child development theories that have shaped our understanding of early learning. The main ones that currently dominate the early childhood education (ECE) field are Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio-Emilia, and Transitional Kindergarten. Kids’ Care Club’s approach is a unique blend to provide quality care to children in a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment.


Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor and educator around the turn of the 20th century. She specialized in psychiatry in medical school, and from there, her interest led her to focus specifically on education. She eventually opened a preschool for underprivileged children, where she observed that they learned best when they were taught with hands-on materials. In her carefully designed physical environment, children could satisfy their innate desire to learn by selecting the things that were of interest to them. The Montessori approach means that classrooms are equipped with 

Through her continued observations, Montessori went on to theorize four stages or “planes” of child development. The first plane lasts from birth until about six years of age, covering the entire early childhood experience. During this stage, children are like sponges, ready to soak up all that they need in order to function in their society. During this, early childhood education serves to develop crucial skills such as language absorption and motor functions.  They go through specific “sensitive periods”, which characterize periods of psychological development in the child where they are particularly attuned to learning language, toileting, music, social relationships, and other skills. The five categories of milestones that a young child will experience during this first plane of development are order, language, sensory skills, movement, and social skills. 

At a Montessori school, children are in mixed-age groups that are more resemblant of the real world than traditional schooling’s age-based groups. The Montessori classroom is designed in such a way to optimize self-directed learning and for children to facilitate their own hands-on explorations. While the environment is independent, it is organized in an orderly way for the child to auto educate, or educate themselves and learn independently, a key principle of the Montessori approach. 


Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner is best known for his anthroposophy movement, wherein he postulated that the spiritual world could be comprehended via human reason. A true “Renaissance man,” his interests also took him into the arts, including drama, dance, and architecture. His pseudoscientific ideas have since been disproven, but he enjoyed popularity as an alternative thinker in his day. In the early 20th century, Steiner was approached to lecture workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany. This grew into the first Waldorf school.

Today, Waldorf schools focus on educating the whole child. Art and creativity are emphasized, as are hands-on experiences that let children learn through observation and imitation. The environment is home-like and features natural elements intended to reinforce children’s connection to nature. There is generally a spiritual, though not necessarily religious, component. However, one of the defining features of Waldorf education is that it varies from teacher to teacher and group to group, just as individual


Schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, took a unique approach after World War II. Psychologist Loris Malaguzzi worked with local parents to devise an educational model based largely on social constructivism, which teaches that humans shape their learning through their interactions with each other. In Reggio Emilia schools, children explore the natural environment in their own, self-chosen ways. Adults act as facilitators as children choose and design their learning experiences. Many preschools incorporate Reggio elements, but purely Reggio-styled schools are not common.

Transitional Kindergarten

Transitional kindergarten isn’t a particular philosophy or approach to childcare. Rather, it is a pre-kindergarten school readiness program that is provided through public school districts. This program serves children who have birthdays between September 2nd and December 2nd of the school year. Currently, in California it does not have a set curriculum or and specific educational standards (such as Common Core), and program features vary by the school district. Program features vary depending on the local school board and the teacher’s individual style and philosophy.

At Kids’ Care Club

Our NAEYC-accredited centers’ philosophy embraces the harmony of all of the leading child development theories. Children in our program are supported as they feel the security of knowing their needs will be met, build positive self-esteem, and learn to make their own decisions with the encouragement from nurturing teachers. 

Each classroom is home to experiences that enable children to learn through all of their senses. Daily routines include time and space to choose their own learning and exploring according to their interests, with plentiful opportunities to collaborate with peers to teach both each other and themselves. Natural materials and real-world images are incorporated to teach important concepts at developmentally appropriate levels, and preschool teachers design activities around the specific needs of their students in order to fully support their learning of STEM, literacy, and social-emotional skills. A strong home-school connection is crucial to extend the learning beyond Kids’ Care Club. Kids’ Care Club distinguishes itself from other child care settings by providing a nurturing environment for children to develop at their own pace. Kids’ Care Club believes that early years are learning years!

Additional Resources

Find more information and tools on our.  Parent Resources page »

Subscribe for Latest Update

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.