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Child Development Theories: An Overview for Caregivers


The physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth a child goes through during their life is known as child development (NSPCC Learning). Children quickly grow and change and go through different processes and development stages during childhood. While most will follow a similar trajectory, they will all have individual experiences and influences that can positively or negatively impact their learning, development and behaviours.

From birth to five years old are the most critical stages of development, and according to the NHS, 90% of a child’s brain growth happens before their fifth year. What happens during these years and beyond can significantly impact children’s development and shape their growth and futures. Therefore, caregivers must understand child development, their roles and responsibilities, and how simple interactions can make a significant difference (Social Mobility Commission).

Child development theories are well-researched, evidence-based strategies, and caregivers can use these best practices and tailor them to their children and situations. They provide a framework to understand how children grow, behave and learn and the development process. They also inform caregivers about the developmental and behavioural milestones expected at specific ages, the importance of emotional bonds and what they can do to help support children’s learning, growth and behaviour and meet their needs.

This blog post will outline key child development theories and their practical implications. It will cover some examples of theories in each developmental area, their importance in caregiving and how caregivers can apply them to their own children and situations.

Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Introduction to Child Development Theories

Theories are formal ideas or sets of ideas intended to explain something (Collins English Dictionary). Child development theories look at children’s growth and behaviour and interpret it (Saracho, 2023). They focus on how children change and grow during their childhood, particularly cognitive, social and emotional development. Many child development theories have influenced caregiving and teaching practices over the years, and they are relevant as they:

  • Aim to understand human development and various aspects of growth.
  • Try to explain how children learn, change and grow cognitively, physically, emotionally and socially, which is fundamental to understanding their needs, behaviours, developmental processes and milestones, e.g. language development, cognitive abilities and social skills.
  • Help caregivers keep track of children’s progress to see if they are growing and developing as expected.
  • Have been thoroughly researched over the decades, expanded by modern-day behaviourists, psychologists and theorists and have become widely accepted theories.
  • Help caregivers to provide supporting and nurturing environments to enhance children’s development.

It is important to tailor caregiving approaches based on these theories, as it enables more effective caregiving, fostering optimal learning, growth and development. However, it is also vital to appreciate that each child is an individual with unique needs. While theories provide a framework for caregiving in various aspects of growth and development, it is important to do further research and ensure practices are specific to the child and their environment.

Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalytic theory relates to the development of personality. Two influential theorists in this area are Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson.

Sigmund Freud – Psychosexual Theory

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a well-known Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, focussing on the mind and how it works. He developed many theories, one of which is the psychosexual theory, where he believed that problems in adult personality and behaviours were due to early life experiences.

Freud’s psychosexual theory proposed that children go through five stages of psychosexual development. Although seen as controversial by some, he suggested that at each stage of development, pleasure focuses on specific parts of the body – known as erogenous zones. If an individual becomes fixated on these areas of the body due to under or over-gratification, they can get stuck in earlier development stages.

The five stages are as follows:

Oral (0-1 year)

  • Infants primarily interact through their mouths and find pleasure through rooting, sucking, biting and tasting, and these actions can reduce tension and give them comfort.
  • Fixation can cause issues such as overeating, biting fingernails and smoking.

Anal (1-3 years)

  • This stage involves the eliminative functions of the anus, e.g. bowel and bladder control, which can also reduce tension.
  • For example, toilet training is especially important at this stage.
  • Fixation can cause issues regarding orderliness and messiness.

Phallic (3-6 years)

  • The focus is on genitalia, and children begin to be curious about their bodies and gender differences.
  • Feelings towards the opposite-sex parent start to emerge, i.e. boys become more attached to their mothers (Oedipus complex), and girls to their fathers (Electra complex).
  • Fixation can cause sexual dysfunction and deviance.

Latency (6-12 years)

  • Any interest in sexuality is repressed, and children concentrate on developing social and intellectual skills and friendships.
  • Children will start to pursue academic and social activities.
  • There are no fixation issues at this stage, and no erogenous zone dominates.

Genital (12+ years)

  • This stage occurs from puberty, and sexual interests mature.
  • Unresolved conflicts with parents can re-emerge.
  • If all stages are completed successfully, they should be sexually mature and mentally healthy.

Understanding these stages can help caregivers identify their child’s emotional needs and conflicts, provide appropriate activities at each stage and avoid fixations into adulthood, e.g. obsession or over-dependence with something connected to that development phase. For example, being too strict with toilet training at the anal stage or weaning a child too early or too late at the oral stage can result in bad habits later in life and physical and mental health problems.

Erik Erikson – Psychosocial Theory

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was a Danish-German-American child psychosocial theorist influenced by Sigmund Freud. His psychological theory maintained that people’s personalities develop in a particular order and depend on each previous stage. His work expanded on Freud’s by emphasising emotional and social development.

There are eight stages in Erikson’s model of personality development:

Trust vs. Mistrust (Infancy 0-18 months)

  • Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide care, affection, nurturing and reliability.
  • Mistrust occurs when there is a lack of care, affection and reliability from caregivers.
  • Feeding is an important event at this stage.

Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt (Early childhood 18 months-3 years)

  • Children develop physical skills and want more control and independence.
  • Encouraging and supporting their independence can help them to become more confident and secure.
  • Not allowing independence, being overly critical and controlling can result in a lack of self-esteem, dependence on others and doubt/a sense of shame in their abilities.
  • Toilet training is an important event at this stage.

Initiative vs. Guilt (Play age 3-5 years)

  • Children begin asserting control and power over their environment and will ask many questions to learn more.
  • Allowing children to direct their own play and social interactions can help them to feel capable, lead others and take initiative.
  • Being dismissive when children ask questions or disapproving of them taking the initiative can lead to guilt, as they will feel they are a nuisance.
  • Exploration is an important event at this stage.

Industry vs. Inferiority (School age 5-12 years)

  • Children begin to concentrate on their individuality and focus on tasks and skills.
  • Success, accomplishments and support from caregivers, peers and educators can make children feel productive and competent.
  • A lack of positive reinforcement and failures can cause children to feel inferior and incompetent.
  • School is an important event at this stage.

Identity vs. Confusion (Adolescence 12-18 years)

  • 1 Adolescents try to identify who they are and how they fit into the world. They will establish life goals and priorities and explore their beliefs, values and identity.
  • 1 When adolescents successfully form their identities, they will have a clear sense of self.
  • 1 Adolescents can become overwhelmed and have difficulties establishing their identities if they have too many responsibilities and expectations, leading to confusion regarding their needs and goals.
  • 1 Social relationships are important at this stage.

Intimacy vs. Isolation (Early adulthood 18-40 years)

  • Young adults begin to establish and build meaningful relationships.
  • Having meaningful relationships with family and friends can help young people form close bonds, meaning they can experience intimacy with others.
  • Young adults can become lonely and isolated if they struggle with relationships or avoid emotional connections.
  • Relationships are important at this stage.

Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle adulthood 40-65 years)

  • Individuals in middle adulthood start to feel a sense of care and responsibility and want to concentrate on contributing to the next generation and society.
  • Individuals feel they have a purpose if they look out for, nurture and mentor others.
  • Individuals can feel isolated, bitter and unhappy if they do not mentor or contribute to society and have a purpose.
  • Work and parenthood are important at this stage.

Integrity vs. Despair (65+)

  • At 65+, individuals begin to reflect on what they have achieved in their lives.
  • If they feel they have achieved and are happy with their life, they will have a sense of integrity.
  • If they do not feel a sense of accomplishment and cannot be proud of what they have achieved, it can make them focus on regrets and unfulfilled goals, leading to despair.
  • Reflection on life is important at this stage.

Parents and caregivers can apply these theories to:

  • Understand how children’s early experiences can shape their personality and behaviour.
  • Help them recognise the challenges that children face at various ages and stages.
  • Recognise their role and responsibilities and understand the effects they and other people have on children’s behaviour and personality development.
  • Understand how to support their children’s social and emotional growth and development so their children have the best possible chances in life and grow into happy and healthy adults.
Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Cognitive Development Theories

Where children acquire and organise information and learn to think, understand and reason is known as cognitive development. It helps children to develop vital skills and is essential in their overall growth and development (ScienceDirect). Some theories aim to explain how children develop cognitively, and the two main ones are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget (1896 -1980)

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist well-known for his work on child development. One of the theories he developed was Piaget’s cognitive development theory. He proposed that children’s cognitive development goes through four stages, which are:

Sensorimotor (birth-2 years)

  • Children predominately explore their world via their senses, such as sight, taste, touch, sound and smell.
  • Object permanence begins to develop, i.e. when children know a person or object exists even when they can no longer see it. For example, a child will still know their teddy exists even if it is out of sight.
  • Language skills also begin to develop.
  • To help children’s development during this stage, caregivers could:
  • Engage in face-to-face interactions.
  • Sing songs and rhymes.
  • Play games, such as peek-a-boo or hide and seek.
  • Read picture books.
  • Roll a ball.
  • Provide interactive toys that encourage children to explore.
  • Interact and respond to children’s gestures and cues.

Preoperational (2-7 years)

  • Children will develop memory, imagination and language skills early in this stage. They will learn and use symbols to represent words, events or objects. For example, they may play with a cardboard box and say it is a house.
  • They will start to ask questions about the world and look for explanations about things.
  • They will start to engage in imaginative play, e.g. using a stick to represent a magic wand.
  • They will exhibit egocentrism, where they mainly focus on their own needs, find it difficult to see things from other’s perspectives and believe everyone sees the world as they do.
  • They can also tend to focus on one particular aspect of a situation.
  • To help children’s development during this stage, caregivers could:
  • Provide numerous play opportunities and resources, such as blocks, paints, modelling dough, pencils, counting/sorting toys, etc.
  • Engage in pretend and imaginary play with children, including role plays and scenarios.
  • Read stories and describe the plot, emotions and characters with them.
  • Guide them to share toys and take turns.
  • Answer their questions and queries with enthusiasm.

Concrete operational (7-11 years)

  • Children begin to have logical thought and are more methodical.
  • They begin seeing things from other people’s perspectives and are less egocentric.
  • They start to be able to work things out and are more aware of the outside world.
  • They can solve basic maths problems, such as subtraction and addition.
  • To help children’s development during this stage, caregivers could:
  • Set maths challenges, use interactive maths games and real-world examples and solve maths problems with them.
  • Provide puzzles, science experiments and any activities where they have to think logically.
  • Get them outside to explore nature and natural phenomena.
  • Engage them in activities encouraging them to plan, organise and manage their time.
  • Engage them in discussions and encourage them to consider alternative viewpoints and be empathetic.

Formal operational (ages 11 and up)

  • Children’s cognitive abilities are advancing.
  • They use symbols to relate to abstract concepts and develop scientific enquiry and reasoning.
  • They solve problems more easily and develop hypotheses based on previous knowledge.
  • To help children’s development during this stage, caregivers could:
  • Use case studies or current real-life problems and encourage debates and discussions.
  • Engage them in scenarios where they can explore ‘what ifs’, e.g. ‘What if it never rained again’?
  • Provide activities where children have to research, explore and use their curiosity.

Piaget believes that children develop their own understanding of the world through independent learning, and their interactions and explorations influence their development.

Caregivers can promote cognitive development by providing age-appropriate activities and plenty of play-based learning opportunities. They should encourage children to actively explore and interact with the world in which they live.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who, unlike Piaget, looked at children’s cognitive development from the socio-cultural context. He believed that:

  • Children develop cognitively through collaboration with others.
  • Social and cultural influences, environments and interactions play an essential role in children’s ability to learn and think and the development of mental abilities.
  • Children’s development can differ between cultures.
  • Language and cognitive development go hand-in-hand.
  • Children develop their understanding through language.
  • Community plays a central role in the process of ‘making meaning’.

The key aspects of Vygotsky’s theory include:

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) – is “the space between what a child can do on his or her own and what the child can do with help from someone more capable” (Ness, 2020). To help children’s development, caregivers could:

  • Identify what tasks children can almost do with help.
  • Provide short-term support to help children to achieve the tasks they are not quite able to do (scaffolding).
  • Reduce the learning difficulty if children cannot do a task even with help.
  • Get the right balance between not helping or helping too much.

Scaffolding – the temporary prompts and support given, usually by adults, to children to help them accomplish tasks they could not do alone and where they are at a point where they can no longer learn by themselves. It is important as it supports children’s learning through assisted experiences, which can build trust and reduce frustration. To help children’s development, caregivers could:

  • Offer encouragement.
  • Provide specific instructions to children, e.g. “Put that block in the hole”.
  • Demonstrate to children how to do a task, e.g. putting the block in the hole.
  • Demonstrate better ways of dealing with issues, especially if they begin to show frustration.
  • Slowly withdraw support as children start to demonstrate competence.

Inner speech – as children process their beliefs and concepts internally and gain knowledge from their environment, they will develop inner speech, i.e. internalisation. They can use it to reason and solve problems, e.g. doing sums in their head. To help children’s development, caregivers could encourage children to engage in play and positively interact with them daily. They could also ask them to add something without saying it aloud.

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) – individuals with more understanding or a higher ability level than the child. It can include parents, caregivers, siblings, teachers, peers and even computer systems. To help children’s development, caregivers could offer guidance and advice and help children perform tasks.

Vygotsky differs from Piaget, as he saw the development process as gradual rather than a series of stages, and children build on what they have previously experienced.

Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Behavioural and Social Learning Theories

A behaviourist theory (behaviourism) is defined as:

“The theory that human or animal behaviour is based on conditioning (= mental training and the influence of habit), rather than being explained by thoughts and feelings” (Cambridge Dictionary).

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), an American psychologist, introduced one of the main theories on conditioning. He did significant work on behaviourism and made many contributions to psychology. One of his more well-known is operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning suggests that behaviours are strengthened (reinforced) or weakened (punished) by consequences. For example, when a caregiver rewards a child for good behaviour, it increases the likelihood of them repeating the positive behaviour. On the other hand, punishment is likely to deter or weaken undesired behaviours. It is a system of rewards and punishments that aims to change behaviours and motivate children to continue to exhibit desired ones.

There are three types of consequences:

  • Positive reinforcers – children find something enjoyable or pleasurable, which caregivers can use for rewards.
  • Negative reinforcers – children reduce or stop certain behaviours as they cause discomfort, pain or upset, e.g. touching a hot surface and getting a minor burn.
  • Punishment – removal of rewards or stimuli that children find unpleasant, e.g. not allowing a child sweets as they have been naughty or shouting at them for not tidying their room.

Caregivers should use positive reinforcement instead of punishment and negative reinforcement where possible, as it can be more effective in encouraging desired behaviours and discouraging undesired ones. Some examples of how they can positively reinforce behaviours include:

  • Additional privileges – will depend on the age of the children but can include extra screen time, having friends over, staying up a bit later, etc.
  • Non-verbal praise – includes facial expressions and actions, such as a smile, a hug, a pat on the back, a thumbs up, a high five, etc.
  • Verbal praise – includes telling them how proud they are, cheering, telling others how well they have done, etc. Using specific phrases is better, i.e. ‘Well done! It’s fantastic you cleaned your room. I appreciate it’.
  • Physical rewards – include foods they enjoy, money, toys, giving an achievement sticker, etc.
  • Exciting activities and hobbies – include providing opportunities and resources for them to do something they enjoy, e.g. crafts, sports, computers, etc.

Caregivers should use positive reinforcement immediately and unexpectedly after children exhibit the desired behaviours to be the most effective. It is also important for them to be consistent when using this reward-based method, as it helps reinforce the desired behaviours. Instead of concentrating on what they want to discourage, caregivers should focus on the behaviours they want to see more of.

A theory that differs from operant conditioning is social learning theory, introduced by Canadian American psychologist Albert Bandura (1925-2021). He believed that people learn by observing, imitating and modelling behaviours, which can be through direct social interactions or indirectly through observing others and the media.

For the observational, imitation and modelling process to be successful, it requires the following steps:

  • Attention – children must initially pay attention to the behaviours they are observing. The behaviours must be of interest and grab their attention.
  • Retention – for children to remember the behaviours they observe, they must retain a memory of them.
  • Reproduction – children must reproduce the behaviour they have stored in their minds and have the ability to perform what they have observed.
  • Motivation – children have to be motivated to imitate the behaviour.

Social learning theory has implications for caregivers, as children learn a lot by observing their and other people’s behaviour and will imitate them. Therefore, it is crucial for caregivers to be good role models and set a positive example through their own behaviours, attitudes and interactions for children to emulate desired behaviours (e.g. politeness, sharing and helping with chores) rather than undesired ones. They can also use it to teach children kindness and empathy.

Modelling can also be used in caregiving to:

  • Help children understand everyday tasks, such as cleaning and cooking. Caregivers can demonstrate how to do the tasks and talk through the process so children can learn.
  • Show children how to behave socially and emotionally when meeting and greeting others.
  • Teach children the best ways to deal with conflict by active listening, openly communicating, negotiating and compromising.

Caregivers must monitor and guide children’s technology use, as it can also influence their behaviours, and not always in a good way. Social media can be damaging, and there is the potential for children to imitate undesired and even dangerous behaviours.

Caregivers can use positive reinforcement and modelling to provide children with a supportive and nurturing environment and encourage them to develop desired behaviours.

Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Attachment Theory

Attachment is “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (NSPCC Learning). John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychologist who first described the attachment theory. His theory concentrates on the emotional bonds between children and caregivers and seeks to understand the anxiety and distress children experience when separated from their primary caregivers, especially mothers. He believed that:

  • Children’s early experiences significantly influence their later behaviour and development.
  • Children establish early attachment styles through the infant/caregiver relationship.
  • Attachment and fear of strangers aid in survival and have an evolutionary pre-programmed component.
  • Infants show innate behaviours, such as cooing, crying, babbling and smiling, to get adults’ attention. Adults are pre-programmed to respond to these signals.
  • Children form attachments to a primary figure, typically the mother, which is critical to children’s emotional development.
  • There is a critical period (around 2.5 years) where attachment should develop.
  • Continually disrupted attachment can result in cognitive, social and emotional difficulties.

Bowlby proposed the following four stages of attachment:

  • Pre-attachment (0-6 weeks) – the stage before children become attached, and they do not discriminate between caregivers.
  • Attachment in making (6 weeks – 6-8 months)– children start to prefer familiar people but will accept caregiving from anyone.
  • Clear-cut attachment (6-8 months – 18 months-2 years)– children develop attachment to their primary caregiver.
  • Formation of reciprocal relationship (18 months – 2 years and onwards)– children will develop language skills and understand patterns in caregivers leaving and returning.

If caregivers understand attachment styles, it can help them form nurturing and secure emotional bonds with their children. Here are some tips that can help them foster secure attachments:

  • Be consistent – caregivers should establish a daily routine and ensure consistency regarding bedtimes, meal times, playtime, etc. Consistent caregiving will help build trust, help children feel secure in their environment and create stability.
  • Maintain eye contact – getting close to children’s faces and maintaining eye contact is vital to building connections. Caregivers should also greet them after being away from them to provide reassurance.
  • Be sensitive and responsive – comforting children when distressed and upset makes them feel safe and secure. Caregivers should understand children’s emotions and needs and quickly respond to them to strengthen emotional bonds.
  • Balance safety with independence – it is important for caregivers to encourage children to explore in a safe and secure environment while being present to reassure them if they need it. Giving them space to explore while ensuring they are safe can establish connections.
  • Spend quality time with them – it goes without saying that for caregivers to build attachments with children, they must spend quality time with them. They should participate in activities that foster bonds, such as singing, reading, talking and playing.

Building secure attachments with children takes time, but it is essential for healthy relationships and to enhance their well-being. It will also boost children’s self-esteem, foster empathy, help them to become more emotionally resistant and support their cognitive, social and emotional development.

Child Development Theories An Overview for Caregivers

Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) was a Russian-born American psychologist who developed the ecological systems theory. He suggested that various socially interconnected environmental systems (multiple environments) significantly impact children’s development. He divided the environment into five ecological systems in order of the impacts they have on a child, for example:

Microsystem – children’s activities, direct contacts and interactions in the immediate environment, e.g. family, school, friends, neighbours and other close relationships. It is the closest and most influential level, which can directly impact development. To help children, caregivers can:

  • Acknowledge the effects of these interactions on children’s development.
  • Create and foster strong connections with children and spend quality time with them.
  • Encourage children to make healthy friendships, e.g. organise playdates and monitor interactions.
  • Be supportive and engage in interactive and educational activities.

Mesosystem – the relationships between contacts within different microsystems, e.g. parents’ interactions with teachers and how both influence each other and how interactions at home can affect schooling. To help children, caregivers can:

  • Collaborate with school staff and other caregivers to build trust and foster connections, providing a nurturing, supportive and consistent environment.
  • Set consistent rules between home, school and other settings to maintain boundaries and help children feel secure.

Exosystem – the external institutions and settings that affect children indirectly, e.g. parents’ workplaces, mass media, community services and extended family networks. To help children, caregivers can:

  • Recognise the settings that can indirectly affect children.
  • Consider the impacts on children, e.g. having to work longer hours, the effects of work-related stress or influences from the media.
  • Maintain a decent work-life balance and practice self-care.
  • Access various community resources to enhance children’s interactions, activities and well-being.

Macrosystem – the broader cultural values, laws, customs, societal structures and governmental resources. To help children, caregivers can:

  • Understand these to provide culturally- sensitive care.
  • Educate children about various cultures and views.
  • Teach children the importance of empathy, kindness, fairness, inclusion, diversity and equality.

Chronosystem – changes that occur during a child’s life. These can be personal, e.g. where a sibling is born/relocation/divorce, or historical events, such as wars. To help children, caregivers can:

  • Provide emotional reassurance and stability through changes.
  • Learn from the past, whether positive or challenging.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory demonstrates the importance of understanding children’s environments and the influence their interconnections can have on their growth and development. If caregivers understand the various environments and interactions, it will help them to provide holistic support and appropriate learning opportunities and activities that meet the needs of children. It will also help them to understand how direct and indirect influences affect children’s growth and well-being and their role in promoting healthy development.

Child Development Theories


Child development refers to children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth. The theories developed over the decades on this crucial topic have stood the test of time and provided valuable insights into children’s learning and development and the impact of various influences, interactions and environments. They provide caregivers with a framework to track development milestones and understand their roles and responsibilities in shaping their children’s lives.

Caregivers can use the knowledge from child development theories to provide better support and nurture children effectively. It will help them with the provision of activities and resources, how to model and encourage desired behaviours and how to prevent undesired behaviours and developmental issues. It will also provide guidance on how to build trusting bonds with children and support them emotionally and socially.

While child development theories are valuable, it is also important to recognise they have constraints. There is not one theory that covers all aspects of development. It requires knowledge and understanding of various theories, e.g. cognitive, social and emotional, further research and personal experience. Each child is different, and progress will vary between individuals, so caregivers should use them as a guide and seek further advice if they have concerns regarding children’s learning, growth and development.

Child Development Theories
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