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Child and Adolescent Development Theories

Child development is the process of change and stability in children from conception through adolescences (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Throughout history child development was not looked at as a priority and little attention was paid to the many advances in cognitive abilities, physical growth, and language use. Children were viewed as miniature adults and also considered a burden. Children were treated like adults, such as their responsibility of work, marriage, monarchy, and even their style of dress. By the end of the 19th century, many advances in the western world paved the way for the scientific study of child development (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Child and adolescent development is a combination of complex mechanisms and systems, all of which take place in the greater world environment. Each theorist has a different perspective on development, and yet, they all agree that the one thing that affects development most is the external, societal environment. Of the five major perspectives I chose to compare and contrast the theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Bandura, to explain why the understanding of normal child and adolescent development is important in assisting children to reach their full potential.

During the first year and a half of a child’s life, the infant grows at a very rapid rate. The infant develops physically, emotionally, mentally, and even socially. The physical development refers to the infants increasing ability to utilize various body parts. For example, the infant learns to utilize their hands for picking up objects. Motor skills and development refers to the child’s ability to control movement. For example, the child is able to use their motor skills to get from point “A” to point “B”. Brain development is a crucial process that helps a child respond more to sight and sound, which helps prepare them for further development. These developmental processes work together to ensure that a child is able to reach their full potential.

In order for researchers and scientists to explain these developments, several theories of child and adolescent development have been created. Of the five major perspectives, the child development theories of Piaget, Erickson, and Bandura, have helped explain why the understanding of normal child and adolescent development is an important part of a child’s overall performance. Each of these theories suggests that children develop in a similar way, yet each stresses that different parts of development are of primary importance.

The cognitive-stage theory of Jean Piaget has provided a great deal of explanation to the study of child and adolescent development. Piaget, a biologist and philosopher by training, suggested that children’s cognitive development advances in a series of four stages involving qualitatively distinct types of mental operations (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Piaget studied cognitive development by observing and talking with children including his own. The four stages of Piaget’s theory include the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal operations stage.

The sensorimotor stage occurs between birth and two years of age. In this stage the infant creates an understanding of themselves along with an understanding of how things work around them. The infant does this through interactions with the environment. The infant learns through assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation allows the infant to absorb new information and then incorporate it into existing cognitive structures (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). For example, an infant that knows how to grab a favorite toy and put it in their mouth may use the process of assimilation for another object they see such as car keys. By doing so the infant has assimilated a new object with an old schema. Accommodation allows the infant to modify their cognitive structures to include the new information (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). For example, an infant sees a new object to grab, such as a beach ball, but unfortunately the old schema does not work for this object. With this said, the infant creates a new schema that accommodates the new object. Both assimilation and accommodation work hand in hand to help advance the infants understanding of the world around us and their place in it.

The preoperational stage occurs between two and seven years of age. This stage allows the child to develop a representational system and use symbols to represent people, places, and events (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). The use of language and creative play are a prime example of a symbol that helps the child create their system. An example of creative play is when a child uses a doll of some sort to represent another person. Girls might have a tea party with their stuffed animals and a boy might create a confrontation between his buzz light year figurine and his woody figurine. It is known that children in this stage can be very egocentric, which means that they assume everyone thinks, feels, and reacts they same way they do. They are more apt to think only about themselves and not about others.

The concrete stage occurs between seven and eleven years of age. During this stage a child develops a logical but not abstract way of thinking and problem solving (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). The child is able to identify information by classification and seriation. Classification allows the child to indentify similarities and differences between objects and place them into categories. For example, a child has collected some rocks and places them into a category based on their size: big or small. Seriation is when the child is able to arrange objects in a series according to one or more dimensions (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). For example, a child has a stack of books, ranging in sizes, and they begin to arrange them in a line from smallest to biggest.

The final stage of Piaget’s theory is the formal operations stage, which occurs between eleven and fifteen years of age. This stage is the final stage of cognitive development and is characterized by the ability to think abstractly (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). The adolescent begins to think like and adult and has the ability to learn from past experiences, face challenges of present time, and then make plans for the future (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). The adolescent is also capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning. For example, a student is able to engage in algebra and calculus because they are open to the idea of “X” representing a number in a math problem.

Piaget’s four stages of development have contributed to the idea that schooling and culture play a huge role in a child’s overall cognitive development. Although Piaget’s theory has contributed to child development studies, it has been questioned by many scientists. Scientists question the strict order of the stages and the idea that all children progress through the stages in the same manner. Data from adolescent populations indicates only 30 to 35% of high school seniors attain the cognitive development stage of formal operations (Kuhn, Langer, Kohlberg & Haan, 1977). Piaget dedicated his life to the ideas of cognitive development and he believed that all children’s thinking progresses through the same stages, in the same order without skipping any stage.

Like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson believed in a stage-dependent approach. Erik Erikson, a German-born psychoanalyst, developed the eight psychosocial stages of development. Erikson believed that personality is influenced by society and develops through a series of crisis (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Of the eight stages of Erikson’s psychosocial theory, four of those stages pertain to child and adolescent development. Those four stages of Erikson’s theory are trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, and industry versus inferiority.

The first stage, trust versus mistrust, occurs between birth and eighteen months. This stage is when the child develops a sense of trust with caregivers and the world around them. The infant is able to develop intimate relationships (trust) but also be able to protect themselves (mistrust). For example, an infant can develop a sense of trust for a caregiver during feeding because the caregiver is providing them with a caring and reliable setting. If a child feels safe and secure, they will be able to develop trust. If a child fails to develop this trust, it can result in fear, rejection, and an unpredictable environment. This type of mistrust can be carried throughout a child’s life and effect future relationships.

The next stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, occurs between twelve months and three years of age. This stage is when the child develops a balance of independence and self-sufficiency over shame and doubt (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Toilet training is an important step in this stage. With toilet training the child needs to develop a sense of personal control and a sense of independence. The success of toilet training can lead to feelings of autonomy along with a sense of confidence and security. Those children who struggle with this stage often have feelings of shame and doubt.

Next is initiative versus guilt, which occurs between three and six years of age. This stage is when a child develops initiative when trying out new activities and is not overwhelmed by guilt (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Exploration is a great way for children to take the initiative and begin asserting control and power over the environment. Children who are successful at this stage can gain a sense of purpose and be able to lead others. If a child is unsuccessful at this stage, the child will lack initiative, resulting in a sense of guilt.

The final stage of Erikson’s theory on child and adolescent development is industry versus inferiority. This stage begins at the age of six and puberty. Erickson believed that children must learn the productive skills their culture requires or else face feelings of inferiority (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). For example, when children enter school, they have to cope with new social and academic demands. Those children that are encouraged and commended by their parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and beliefs in their skills. Those children who receive little or no encouragement from parents and teachers will doubt their ability to be successful. Children who succeed in this stage gain a sense of confidence, while those who fail in this stage have feelings of inferiority.

Unlike the cognitive-stage theory of Piaget and the psychosocial theory of Erikson, the social learning theory, developed by American psychologist Albert Bandura, does not involve certain stages or timelines that a child or adolescent follows during development. This theory is based on the idea that behaviors are learned by observing and imitating models, often referred to as the social cognitive theory (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Bandura believes that a child’s development is only successful if they are offered an environment in which they feel safe and protected, able to explore both their own feelings and their actions. Bandura (1977) states: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” (Bandura, 1977) Bandura identifies three key concepts that help understand the social learning theory as a whole.

The first concept is reciprocal determinism which refers to the understanding of the child and environment acting on each other (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). An example of this would be a child that thinks they are unable to play a musical instrument. The behavioral factor is that the child does not play any musical instruments. The environmental factor is the child avoids any situations that may require them to display their lack of musical talent. The three elements of behavior, thought, and environment, take turns influencing or being influenced by each other.

The next concept is process of observational learning which means that people learn appropriate social behavior by observing and modeling others (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). According to this theory, imitation of models is the most important element in how children learn a language, deal with aggression, develop a moral sense, and learn gender-appropriate behaviors (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). Observational learning can take place at any time in life but it is believed that observational learning is most effective during childhood. An example of observational learning is a child that is imitating her dance teacher by following her dance steps. Another example could be a child observing and modeling a parent while brushing their teeth.

In recent years, Bandura has focused his work on the concept of self-efficacy in a variety of contexts (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy is confidence gained by the child and their ability to succeed (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). With self-efficacy, comes persistence and achievement. Children will typically choose activities that they will be successful at which brings them joy and confidence. A child will put more effort in activities and behaviors which leads to persistence. Students with high self-efficacy tend to be better students and achieve more.

The social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. The most common example of social learning among children and adolescence is television commercial. A commercial may suggest that the use of a particular body lotion will make a consumer popular and win the admiration of beautiful people. Bandura warned that “children and adults acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling.” (Bandura, 1977)

Piaget, Erikson, and Bandura share some similar ideas and concepts within each of their theories. For example, they each suggest that in some way society plays a key role in a child’s development. Each theorist believes that a child’s development is only successful if the child firmly understands how their own society works, so they are able to alter their behaviors to fit within their society. Each theorist suggests that children learn behaviors and concepts through interaction with society, and that the behaviors they learn influence how they think and what they believe. An example of a similarity between the three theories is their usefulness in the educational sense. Each theory is applied to educational practices that guide teachers down the path of trying to understand human development, human behavior, and how the mind works. Without the theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Bandura, the study of child development would not be what it is today.

Although the theorists share some similarities, they focus on different aspects of child development. Piaget focuses on the child’s abilities and senses, whereas Erikson focuses on the self and social orientation, and Bandura focuses on environmental factors and self-efficacy. Another interesting difference in the three theories is whether or not a person must go through all of the developmental stages or concepts to reach their full potential. Piaget does not stress the idea that all people will pass through each stage and attain total maturity. On the other hand, Erikson believes that a person who lives a normal lifespan will face each developmental crisis, mentioned in his psychosocial theory. Because Bandura focuses on observation and modeling, there is no set timeline to follow or stage to fulfill.

The interactions of cognitive, physical, and emotional development are key factors in the overall development of a child. Cognitive development relies on both physical and emotional development to shape the child’s thoughts about behaviors, and to carry out the thoughts. For example, a child is able to recognize that swimming will help build muscle and endurance which involves the emotional ability to feel safe about learning to swim and try new things. If any of these developmental stages are delayed, it is assumed that all of the developmental stages will be limited. According to a study by Martha Ann Bell and Christy D. Wolfe, emotional and cognitive behaviors and developments are linked and act upon each other and with each other to process ideas and information, and to act (Bell & Wolfe, 2004).

Of the five major perspectives, the theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Bandura help explain why the understanding of normal child and adolescent development is important in assisting children to reach their full potential. It is believed that successful child and adolescent development is obtained when a person is able to live and interact within their society. By understanding normal child and adolescent development, parents, educators, and researchers are assisting children in reaching their full potential. Parents are able handle and respond to their child’s behavior and understand why they think and act the way they do. Educators are able to create the necessary programs and curriculum that each child needs to according to their skills and abilities. Although children have been the focus of scientific study for more than 100 years, this exploration is ever evolving (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008) which is why researchers continue to discover new ideas and new techniques that help explain normal child and adolescent development.

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