5 Major Child Development Theories and Examples

This essay explores a few theories about child development in the following criteria-

  • Early Development
  • Language Development
  • Physical Development
  • Cognitive Development
  • Moral Development

Early Development

There are two types of factors that are important to an infant’s health: prenatal and postnatal factors. The prenatal factor relates to the mother, it implies the mother’s nutrition and physiological health. The post-natal factors start to have an effect when the infant is out of the mother’s womb. There are three aspects of this factor- nutrition, sensitive caregiving, and stimulation. The maximum amount of stimulation occurs in two crucial periods in a child’s development where they learn the most- the critical period and the sensitive period (Stockhard, 1921)

Childhood Development theories

The critical period is the time period during which certain stimulation must be acquired to develop a specific ability. It is mainly studied with respect to language; For example, early exposure to a language is associated with better skills in it. This period is a biologically determined timeframe (which means that it will not reoccur at any later stage). Suppose an organism does not undergo exposure to the appropriate stimulus needed to learn a skill during the critical period. In that case, it may become difficult or even impossible for that organism to develop those skills later in life. The reason the critical period occurs during the early years of the child is because of the plasticity of the brain. The brain is very plastic in the early stages of life which is why early experiences are crucial for the development of language or musical abilities. Adults who take up these activities in the later stages of their life often struggle and find it challenging to master these skills. This is why learning a new language in high school is so tough.

Sensitive periods are when environmental influences have the greatest impact on development. That is, sensory period experiences have a greater impact on behavioural and brain development than usual (however, this influence is not exclusive to this time period).

Sensory periods can also be known as weak critical periods. An example from a strong critical period is the development of language in terms of syntax formation and oratory skills. An example of a weak critical period is the development of language in terms of how children recognize sounds in the language. The main difference between these two types of periods is that critical periods cause irreversible change and the changes caused by the sensitive period are potentially reversible (since the environment continues to affect succeeding development.).

How infants learn

Infants learn through 3 main processes-

  • Classical conditioning
  • Operational conditioning
  • Imitation

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning involves forming a connection between two stimuli. A neutral stimulus is introduced at the same time as an unconditioned stimulus that yields an unconditioned response. This combination, through a gradual process, leads to the neutral stimulus turning into the conditioned stimulus that resulted in a conditioned response. An example of this in the context of children’s development is that of the controversial ‘Little Albert’ experiment- An experiment that was conducted by John Watson which led to a baby named Albert developing a fear of furry items like rabbits, fur coats and Santa Claus beards. Children use the concept of classical conditioning not only to develop fears but also develop other behaviours. For example, a child learns what time lunch will be served by associating dinner being served with the time it is done.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning involves a connection between a behaviour and a consequence of said behaviour. It uses the concepts of reinforcements and punishments. Reinforcements are rewards; There are two types of reinforcement- positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement causes an increase in behaviour by receiving anything pleasant. An example- If a baby says “dad”, their father will pamper it will love. Therefore, the baby learns that it needs to say “dad” to get attention from its father. Negative reinforcement involves doing a behaviour to alleviate an unpleasant stimulus (For example, eating a pain killer to relieve menstrual cramps). With regards to children, chewing a soft toy will ease the pain in their mouths. An example of a punishment is a parent confiscating a child’s PlayStation for bullying another child at their school.


The last process through which children learn is imitation. The child’s parents act as their role models for even the slightest behaviour. For example, if a parent makes a silly face at its newborn baby, the baby tries to copy the look its parent just made. Another example is that if a child observes their father being to wait for staff (like waiters and cashiers) on numerous occasions, it is very likely that the child will replicate that behaviour.

Language Development

An infant’s language development starts from birth; babies produce vocal sounds. Provided that it’s babbling, it still counts as the beginning of language development. A notion helps understand this concept, namely Receptive Language Development. It can be understood as the input of language or the ability to understand and comprehend it. This perception lists a few milestones-

  1. 0-3 months- the child starts to recognise a familiar voice (for example, the mother)
  2. 4-6 months- The child learns to respond to its name and respond to the word “no.”
  3. 7-12 months- The child recognises daily objects and understands and responds to simple requests
  4. 1-2 years- the child can identify body parts and can, follow simple commands (e.g.- ‘push the toy’), and understand simple questions (e.g., where is the cow)

There are three main approaches to the theories of language development –

  • Nativist approach
  • Social pragmatic/ interactionist approach
  • Learning behaviourist approach

 Nativist theories claim that children are born with the instinct to acquire language. Noam Chomsky proposed the idea of the Language Acquisition Device- that there is a universal grammar underlying all human languages. This means that there is one set of rules and understanding regarding aspects of grammar that is the foundation of all spoken languages. According to Chomsky, these rules and interpretations are ingrained in babies’ brains at birth, consequently allowing them to have the innate predisposition for language acquisitions.

The Interactionist approach emphasises that language is a cognitive skill and a social one that ensues from the need to comply with others. Pragmatics is the knowledge of how to use language to communicate so; therefore, social pragmatism refers to using this knowledge in social situations. An example of this is children of 8-9 months. If an infant is in a shopping mall with their parent and they spot a toy they want, instead of grabbing it right off the shelf, they will reach out with a stretched arm, signalling “I want that” (a request). Or, if they see an interesting looking animal, they’ll call their parent’s attention to it by tugging on their clothes and pointing at the animal, signalling “look at that” (attention-grabbing).

Behaviourist theorists believe that “infants learn through involving imitation, rewards, and practice. Human role model in an infant’s environment provides the stimuli and rewards” (Cooter and Reutzel, 2004). For example, when a child tries to imitate speech patterns, they are usually praised and affected for their effort. This adoration acts as a reward. This approach has been criticised based on two main arguments-

  • This can’t be the only way language is developed because children learn words too fast to be learnt through reinforcement.
  • Language is more generative as opposed to imitative.

Physical Development

“Perceptual development is closely linked to physical development because children’s growing motor abilities allow them to explore their environments in new ways. Children can use their mobility to reach for objects, or play with objects in different ways.” (Illinois early learning project, 2012). There are two main types of motor skills that infants must develop-

  • Gross motor skills (crawling, standing, jumping, walking)
  • Fine motor skills (reaching, grasping, dexterity)

The most amount of physical development occurs in the first three years. Weight triples in the first year, and height increases by approximately 10 inches in the first year. The dynamic systems theory states that development is inconsistent, meaning that movement is not continuously developed. Rather, any small and critical change can raise havoc in the whole system and result in new motor behaviour. (Smith and Thelen, 1993)

This theory looks at the nervous system in a whole new way. It not only investigates the organism but also analyses how the organism plays out in a continuously changing environment. “DST can be used as a framework to guide interventions with children who have motor challenges.” (Sauve and Bartlett, 2010) It focuses on development as an active process rather than a passive process.

Cognitive development- the theories discussed in this section will be that of Piaget and Vygotsky.


Jean Piaget theorised that knowledge is developed through cognitive structures known as schemas. Schemas are mental representations of the world and how the individual interacts with it; they help out by acting as mental shortcuts and giving our thinking a set of order. Schemas influence attention and perception and can be as diverse as mental maps to help navigate a location or a set of rules or guidelines to follow in a particular social situation (for example, what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one).

The relationship between schemas development and the child’s cognitive development is directly proportional. This development occurs as a result of interaction with the world.

According to Piaget, all children are born with an innate range of schemas (like for reaching, gripping) enhanced and modified because of experiences and interactions with the world. This process of modification is known as Adaptation.

There are two types of adaptation-

  • Assimilation
  • Accommodation

Assimilation is the process when new events can be fit into existing schemas; it is the consolidation of existing knowledge (existing schemas receive support and reinforcement). For example- if a child, who has only their white family dog before, sees a golden retriever and says “dog!”, they have successfully understood and expanded on their existing schema of a dog.

Accommodation occurs when new events do not fit into existing schemas; it creates new schemas or the rejection and adaptation of existing schemas. For example, if the same child sees a horse on the road and says “dog!” as is corrected by his parent, he revises his existing schema and forms a new schema about what horses are like.

Piaget also proposed four stages of cognitive development-

  • Sensorimotor stage (0-2)
  • Preoperational step (2-7)
  • Concrete operational stage (7-11)
  • Formal operational setting (11+)

Sensorimotor stage

This stage is characterised by two features-

  • Profound Egocentrism- the infant cant differentiate between themselves and the environment and has no actual knowledge of the world around them.
  • Lack of object permanence- when an infant cannot see or act on an object, then, according to it, the thing has vanished. For example, the game ‘peekaboo’ with children. Piaget argued that object permanence develops around eight months, and it’s only between 18-24 months that the infant develops complete object permanence. 

Preoperational stage

Operations are logical mental rules. At this age, the child cannot internalise these rules and consequently still rely on external appearances rather than consistent internal logic. This stage is dominated by the limitations of egocentrism, animism, and conservation errors.

Egocentrism- children cannot perceive the world from an external person’s point of view.

For example, if you show a child that you’re putting a coin in the drawer and then ask them if someone else would be able to find that same coin, the child will say yes since according to them, ‘if I can see it this way then everyone else must be seeing the same thing too’.

Animism is the practice of ascribing life-like properties to inanimate objects. For example- The cup is alive, the chair that breaks and hits the child’s foot is nasty, and the toys should be left at home since they are sleepy.

Conservation errors- The ability to realise that moving or rearranging materials does not change the quantity is considered conservation. If you pour water into a cylindrical glass and then pour the same amount into a bowl and ask the child which container has more water, they’ll say the glass since the glass is taller so they think that it must be able to hold more water.

Concrete operational stage

In this stage, the child develops a definitive set of schemas and rules for making sense of the world. These rules are the operations above, but they can only be applied to real-world objects in the real concrete world; The mental agility required to carry out logical operations without the assistance of a real-world object has not yet been achieved. An example of an operation learned in this stage is learning conservation.

Formal operational stage

In this stage, the child’s mental structures are so well developed that ideas and problems can be understood, manipulated, and solved completely mentally without physical objects. For example, they can do mathematical problems without writing them down on paper to solve them. Children can now think about hypothetical problems and abstract problems; for example, children would now be able to pass Piaget and Inhelder’s experiment successfully.

They can think about possible consequences of situations and can empathise with others without the need for role-playing.


Lev Vygotsky focused on the importance of social interaction, language, and culture in the child’s cognitive development. He proposed 4 central ideas-

  • Scaffolding
  • Zone of proximal development
  • Language
  • Pretend play

Scaffolding refers to providing the child with contextual support and gradually reducing it as the child progresses. It involves giving direct instructions (“you can try x or y”), breaking a task down (“let us divide the problem into smaller manageable tasks”), and suggesting strategies (“maybe if you did x, it might give a better outcome than y”), and offering rationales (you can do x because of these reasons-”). An example of scaffolding can be the process of reading a picture book with a child.

Zone of proximal development

The zone of proximal development is the array of skills that the child can execute with assistance but cannot perform independently. “The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978).

An example of this can be a child who just learned how to play with clay. They have mastered making simple items (like spheres and cubes), but they can make more complex objects like faces or chairs with assistance. If this assistance is given consistently, the child will soon master it.


Vygotsky claimed that language progression occurs in 3 stages-

  1. Pre-intellectual speech stage (0-3 years)- thoughts are not framed using language, and speech is only used to execute social change. For example, a baby will only scream and cry if it needs something, like food.
  2. Egocentric speech (3-7)- Language helps control the child’s vigour and is spoken aloud. For example, when children play role-playing games, they will verbalise their actions like “pow!” if they pretend to punch.
  3. Inner speech (7+)- the child uses address silently to develop their thinking and publicly for social communication.

Pretend Play

Pretend play involves make-believe play by creating imaginary situations and acting them out. For example, children playing house.

Moral Development- Piaget and Kohlberg

Piaget proposed four stages to categorise the level of moral development that has taken place in the child. His theory used this basic principle- Immature moral judgments focus solely on the severity of the offence, but more mature moral judgments evaluate the intent behind the deed.

 The following example will be used as a basis to explain the stages-

A young child, Harry, was running after a cat with a stick because his older sister, Katie, convinced him to do so. Harry’s mother saw him and punished him. Who is at fault?

  • premoral stage (0-2)- the child has no sense of morality; they do whatever they feel like doing. If we look at our example from the point of view of this stage, then neither of the children are found to be at fault since they both did what they wanted to do.
  • Heteronomous morality (2-7)- Morality in this stage is based entirely on obedience to authority. Consequences determine what’s good or bad, and adults set all rules. According to this stage, Harry is at fault because you’re not supposed to terrorise cats as per the rule set by his mother.
  • Transitional stage (7-11)- Here, the child starts to understand the flexibility around the notion of rules. The child in this stage understands that to harry, his sister is also an adult and therefore a source of authority, so it’s his sister who is at fault because she suggested it and went against what their mother said.
  • Autonomous Morality (11/12+)- In this stage, the intentions are considered, and there is a general understanding that the punishment should fit the crime. So, for our example, it is recognised that harry is a child whose moral standard is far less developed than his sister, which is why he did the deed. His sister had an intention of malice, so she is at fault.

We can use the same above example to understand Kohlberg’s theory.

Kohlberg argued that the stage of moral development is determined by the thinking that drives a person’s reaction to a moral issue, not by the answer. In doing so, he proposed three levels.

  • Level 1 pre-conventional morality– (4-10)- A child in this level acts under external control; they obey rules to avoid punishments and gain rewards. According to this stage, Harry is at fault because it is animal cruelty to terrorise a cat.
  • Level 2 Conventional Morality- (10+)- this stage is concerned with maintaining mutual relations and the social order and pleasing others. Harry can do what his sister says, but he should be punished.  

Post conventional morality- (early adolescence +)- In this stage, children can recognise conflicts between moral standards and make judgements based on their principle. Some might say that Harry is at fault, while others say that his sister should have been punished.

Concluding thoughts

Numerous aspects of child development are to be analysed when studying, each element with a minimum of two contradicting theories. So it can prove to be quite challenging to understand child development thoroughly, but hopefully, this article helped you understand a bit of it.


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Hello! I’m Ragini, a psychology major and sociology minor at FLAME University, Pune. I’m a video game and comic book enthusiast and I love to write articles in my free time. If I could have one super power, it would definitely be super strength; it would get me the most amount of social validation. Feel free to follow me on Instagram @raginidhar and don’t hesitate to say hi!