Theories of Development

Mom measuring daughter's development
Hero Images / Getty Images

The study of human development is a rich and varied subject. We all have personal experience with development, but it is sometimes difficult to understand how and why people grow, learn, and act as they do. For example, consider the following scenario:

Three-year-old Sarah has started trying to dress herself each morning. She regularly wears her shoes on the wrong feet, misses buttons, and puts shirts on inside-out. When her mother tries to help her, Sarah becomes angry and shouts, "NO! ME DO IT!

Why does Sarah behave this way? Is her behavior related to her age, family relationships, or individual temperament? Developmental psychologists strive to answer such questions. Developmental psychology seeks to understand, explain, and predict behaviors that occur throughout the lifespan. In order to understand human development, a number of different developmental theories have arisen to explain various aspects of human growth.

Introduction to Theories of Development

Theories of development provide a framework for thinking about human growth, development, and learning. But why do we study development? What can we learn from psychological theories of development? If you have ever wondered about what motivates human thought and behavior, understanding these theories can provide useful insight into individuals and society.

Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalytic theory originated with the work of Sigmund Freud.

Through his clinical work with patients suffering from mental illness, Freud came to believe that childhood experiences and unconscious desires influenced behavior. Based on his observations, he developed a theory that described development in terms of a series of psychosexual stages. According to Freud, conflicts that occur during each of these stages can have a lifelong influence on personality and behavior.



Psychoanalytic theory was an enormously influential force during the first half of the twentieth century. Those inspired and influenced by Freud went on to expand upon Freud's ideas and develop theories of their own. Of these neo-Freudians, Erik Erikson's ideas have become perhaps the best known. Erikson's eight-stage theory of psychosocial development describes growth and change throughout the lifespan, focusing on social interaction and conflicts that arise during different stages of development.

Learn more by exploring the theories proposed by Freud and Erikson. Follow the links below to learn more about these two important theories of development.

Learning Theories

During the first half of the twentieth century, a new school of thought known as behaviorism rose to become a dominant force within psychology. Behaviorists believed that psychology needed to focus only on observable and quantifiable behaviors in order to become a more scientific discipline.

According to the behavioral perspective, all human behavior can be described in terms of environmental influences. Some behaviorists, such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, insisted that learning occurs purely through processes of association and reinforcement. Later, psychologist Albert Bandura rejected this narrow perspective and demonstrated the powerful effects of observational learning.

Take a closer look at some of these ideas in this overview of the learning theories of development.

Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theory is concerned with the development of a person's thought processes. It also looks at how these thought processes influence how we understand and interact with the world.

The foremost cognitive thinker was Jean Piaget, who proposed an idea that seems obvious now, but helped revolutionize how we think about child development: Children think differently than adults.

Piaget then proposed a theory of cognitive development to account for the steps and sequence of children's intellectual development.

Follow the links below to learn more about Piaget's stages of cognitive development.

As you read through the materials in this lesson, take note of some of the major milestones that happen at each stage of development. How does a child's thinking differ from the previous stage?

Continue Reading