Theories and Models of Development

The many theories around nature, nurture, and why we develop the way we do.

Arnold Gesell
Formal operational
Trust vs. Mistrust
Strange Situation Procedure
Physiological needs

The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

In developmental psychology, “nature” refers to the genetic and biological factors that shape human development. For instance, Chomsky’s innate language acquisition device states that children are born with an inherent capacity for learning language. On the other hand, “nurture” encompasses environmental influences and social constructs shaping growth. Bandura’s bobo doll experiment demonstrated how children learn aggressive behavior through observing others. Researchers physically and verbally abused an inflatable toy in front of preschool-age children, and they later mimicked the behaviour of the adults by attacking the doll in the same way.


Nativism supports nature theory by asserting that certain abilities or traits are inborn rather than acquired through experience. For example, Noam Chomsky believed that children are born with the innate ability to learn language. Empiricism champions nurture theory, arguing that knowledge is gained from sensory experiences and observation. For example, empirical research focuses on the environmental factors that influence language learning. Today’s developmental psychologists explore how nature and nurture interact in complex ways to influence development.

Epigenetics reveals how environmental factors can affect gene expression without altering DNA sequences themselves. This emerging field underscores the intricate interplay between our genes (nature) and life experiences (nurture), highlighting the importance of both elements in understanding human development.

Freud's 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proposed a controversial theory of psychosexual development. He divided human growth into five stages: oral (0-1 years), anal (1-3 years), phallic (3-6 years), latency (6-puberty), and genital (puberty-adulthood).

During the oral stage, infants derive pleasure from sucking and biting; for example, breastfeeding or using pacifiers. In the anal stage, toddlers learn to control their bowel movements – potty training usually occurs during this stage. The phallic stage involves children’s fascination with their genitals and they become aware of anatomical sex differences. Boys may experience Oedipus complex while girls face Electra complex. The Oedipus complex is one of Freud’s most controversial ideas and many people reject it. According to Freud, the Oedipus complex occurs when a young boy developes sexual desire for his mother and resentment towards his father. The Electra complex is when young girls compete with their mothers for their father’s affection.


Latency is marked by sexual dormancy as children focus on socializing and learning skills. Finally, in the genital stage, adolescents develop mature sexual relationships. Freud also introduced id (primitive desires), ego (rational mediator between id and reality) and superego (moral conscience). For instance, a child stealing candy represents id-driven behavior; feeling guilty afterward reflects superego influence.

Freud’s theories have significantly impacted developmental psychology by emphasizing unconscious processes shaping personality formation. However, his ideas remain contentious due to limited empirical evidence supporting them.

Gesell's Maturational Theory

Arnold Gesell, a pioneer in developmental psychology, focused on the intricate dance between neurobehavioral development and maturational growth. He meticulously observed children’s motor skills, cognitive abilities, language acquisition, and personal-social behavior to uncover patterns of maturation. For instance, he noted that infants typically progress from grasping objects with their whole hand to using precise pincer grips. He proposed that children will follow the same sequence of development, but at their own rate.


Gesell’s work laid the foundation for understanding how biological processes drive child development. His observations revealed that children follow predictable sequences of milestones – crawling before walking or babbling before speaking full words. These insights have shaped modern assessments of developmental progress.

Today’s developmental psychologists still rely on Gesell’s findings when evaluating typical versus atypical growth patterns. By identifying deviations from expected patterns early on, professionals can intervene with targeted support strategies to help children reach their full potential. In essence, Gesell’s legacy endures as a cornerstone of our understanding of human development across various domains.

Paiget's 4 Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory has four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. The sensorimotor stage (0-2 years) involves infants learning through sensory experiences and motor actions; for example, they discover object permanence – the understanding that objects continue to exist even when out of sight.


The preoperational stage (2-7 years) sees children developing symbolic thinking but struggling with logical reasoning. They exhibit egocentrism – believing others share their perspectives – and struggle with conservation tasks like recognizing equal liquid volumes in differently shaped containers.

Concrete operational stage (7-11 years) marks a shift towards logical thinking about tangible objects and events. Children grasp concepts like reversibility – undoing an action mentally – enabling them to solve problems systematically.

Finally, the formal operational stage (12+ years) ushers in abstract reasoning abilities; adolescents can ponder hypothetical scenarios or consider multiple variables simultaneously. Piaget’s theories inform modern education by emphasizing active learning experiences tailored to students’ developmental levels, fostering critical thinking skills through hands-on exploration and problem-solving activities.

Skinner’s Theories on Behavioral Development

B.F. Skinner’s theories on behavioral development emphasize the role of operant conditioning in shaping children’s learning and skill acquisition. Operant conditioning involves reinforcing desired behaviors with rewards or discouraging undesired ones through punishment, guiding children towards adaptive actions. For example, a child may learn to share toys after receiving praise for doing so, associating positive reinforcement with prosocial behavior.

Skinner also explored verbal behaviors, stating that language is learned through similar principles of reinforcement and punishment. A toddler might babble “mama” and receive attention from their mother as a reward, strengthening the association between the sound and its meaning. This process continues as children expand their vocabulary and refine communication skills.


In educational settings, Skinner’s ideas have influenced classroom management strategies emphasizing positive reinforcement over punitive measures. Teachers may use praise or tangible rewards like stickers to encourage participation, effort, or academic achievement while minimizing negative consequences for misbehavior. This approach fosters motivation and engagement by focusing on students’ successes rather than failures.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development emphasizes the role of culture and social interactions in shaping human cognition. Vygotsky proposed four “genetic domains” for investigating higher cognitive processes. The phylogenetic domain refers to species-wide cognitive abilities, while the cultural-historical domain highlights how specific societies shape mental processes. Ontogenetic domain focuses on individual development over time, and microgenetic domain examines moment-to-moment changes.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a key concept in Vygotsky’s work, describing the gap between what a child can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance from more knowledgeable others. This idea revolutionized developmental psychology by emphasizing collaborative learning experiences tailored to each learner’s unique needs.


Vygotsky’s theories have had lasting impacts on education, inspiring instructional approaches that foster cooperative learning and scaffolded support for students as they tackle new challenges. For example, teachers might pair children with different skill levels together so that more advanced peers can help their classmates bridge their ZPDs through shared problem-solving activities.

In sum, Vygotsky illuminated the profound influence of culture and social context on human cognition, offering valuable insights into how educators can optimize learning environments to promote growth across diverse domains of development.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory asserts that early bonds between infants and caregivers are crucial for healthy emotional development. Bowlby believed that children are born with a biologically-programmed tendency to seek and remain close to attachment figures. These attachments can be secure, avoidant, or anxious, shaping a child’s ability to form relationships later in life. For instance, securely attached children tend to have more stable adult relationships.


Pre-attachment stage: In this stage, infants do not have a preference for anyone who provides their needs. Infants in this stage tend to be calm and content. Indiscriminate stage: Infants in this stage begin to show a preference for familiar people, and they begin to develop a sense of trust with their primary caregiver. They will smile and babble at familiar faces and show distress when separated from their primary caregiver. Discriminate stage: Infants in this stage actively seek out their primary caregiver and may become upset when separated from them. They will engage in behaviors such as crying or clinging to their caregiver when they leave. They also develop a sense of object permanence, understanding that objects and people continue to exist even when out of sight. Multiple attachment stage: Children become more comfortable exploring the world around them, knowing that their caregiver is available for support and comfort when needed. This stage sets the foundation for future social relationships and emotional regulation.

Bowlby believed that early experiences with attachment figures create internal working models, or mental representations, of how relationships work. Bowlby also believed that these internal working models are formed through a process of memory consolidation, where memories of early experiences are consolidated and integrated into long-term memory. These memories can then be accessed and used to guide behavior and decision-making in future relationships.

Bandura’s Social Learning and Cognitive Theory

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning/Cognitive Theory states that individuals learn through observing others, integrating both behaviorism and cognitive psychology. Bandura proposed that individuals learn by observing the behavior of others and the consequences of their behavior. He also believed that individuals have the ability to control their own behavior through self-regulation and self-reflection. For example, children may imitate their parents’ actions or adopt beliefs from peers.

Observational learning involves four key processes: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Attention requires focusing on relevant aspects of a model’s behavior; for instance, a child watching a teacher solve math problems. Retention entails encoding observed behaviors into memory; this might involve rehearsing steps mentally.


Reproduction is the act of replicating learned behaviors; such as practicing multiplication after observing it being done. Motivation drives learners to perform these replicated actions based on anticipated rewards or punishments – like receiving praise for correct answers or facing consequences for mistakes.

Bandura’s theory has been used to explain how individuals learn new behaviors, how they develop confidence in their abilities, and how they regulate their own behavior. It has also been used to guide the development of interventions aimed at changing behavior in a positive way, such as interventions to promote healthy eating or to reduce risky behaviors.

Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development offer a comprehensive framework for understanding human growth. Each stage presents a unique challenge, with successful resolution leading to the development of specific virtues. For instance, Stage 1 (Trust vs. Mistrust) sees infants learning trust through consistent caregiving; this fosters hope.

Stage 2 (Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt) involves toddlers asserting independence while balancing societal expectations; developing willpower is key here. Stage 3 (Initiative vs. Guilt) focuses on preschoolers exploring their environment and taking initiative in play, cultivating purpose as they navigate guilt from overstepping boundaries.


In Stage 4 (Industry vs. Inferiority), school-aged children develop competence by mastering skills and tasks, combating feelings of inferiority when facing challenges or setbacks. Adolescents grapple with identity formation during Stage 5 (Identity vs. Role Confusion).They may experience role confusion if they are unable to find a sense of purpose or direction.

Young adults face intimacy versus isolation in Stage 6, striving for love as they form lasting relationships or risk loneliness due to fear of commitment or rejection. In Stage 7 (Generativity vs. Stagnation), adults strive to create a positive impact on the world around them, often through their work or family life. They may experience a sense of stagnation if they feel like they are not making a meaningful contribution.

Finally, older adults confront integrity versus despair in Stage 8: They may feel a sense of integrity or despair depending on how satisfied they are with their life overall.

Ainsworth’s Theory on Infant-Mother Attachment

Mary Ainsworth’s groundbreaking work on infant-mother attachment illuminated the nuances of early emotional bonds. Her “Strange Situation Procedure” involved observing infants’ reactions to separations and reunions with their mothers, unveiling distinct attachment styles. For instance, securely attached babies sought comfort from caregivers upon return, showcasing trust and resilience.

Anxious-avoidant children appeared indifferent to maternal presence or absence, masking vulnerability with detachment. Conversely, anxious-ambivalent youngsters displayed clinginess and distress even after reunion, reflecting inconsistent caregiving experiences. Disorganized attachments revealed erratic behaviors like freezing or disorientation; often linked to trauma or neglect.


These patterns profoundly impact development. Secure attachments foster confidence and social competence while insecure ones may hinder emotional regulation and relationship-building skills later in life. Ainsworth’s pioneering research underscores the importance of nurturing responsive caregiver-child relationships for optimal growth across various domains.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains the stages of human needs, starting from the most basic physiological needs and progressing towards more complex needs related to personal growth and fulfillment. The hierarchy is typically represented as a pyramid, with the most fundamental needs at the bottom and the most advanced needs at the top. The needs are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Physiological needs include basic sustenance like food and water; for example, a malnourished child may struggle to concentrate in school. Adequate sleep is another physiological necessity; sleep-deprived children often exhibit irritability or cognitive deficits.


Safety needs encompass physical security and emotional stability. A child living in a war-torn region might experience chronic stress from constant danger. Similarly, an unstable home environment can hinder emotional growth due to unpredictability.

Love/belonging involves forming meaningful connections with others. Children lacking supportive friendships may feel isolated or develop low self-esteem. Family bonds are crucial too; parental divorce can disrupt a child’s sense of belonging.

Esteem refers to confidence and respect from oneself and others. Praise for academic achievements bolsters self-worth while bullying undermines it. Encouragement from teachers fosters resilience whereas criticism erodes motivation.

Self-actualization represents the pursuit of personal potential through creativity or problem-solving endeavors. A gifted artist denied opportunities for expression may become frustrated or disengaged academically. Conversely, access to extracurricular activities nurtures talents and aspirations beyond traditional classroom settings.

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Introduction to Developmental Psychology;

A science of human psychological change

Physical and Motor Development;

The complex relationship between body and brain in development.

Cognitive Development;

The cognitive science behind developmental psychology.

Language Development;

The multilateral relationship between language development and cognitive development.

Social and Emotional Development;

How our social circle influences our cognitive development, and the relationahip between cognitive development and our emotional development.

Moral Development;

How we learn to understand right and wrong (and how we sometimes fail to)

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