Developmental stage theories

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Developmental stage theories are theories that divide child development into distinct stages which are characterized by qualitative differences in behaviour.[1]

There are a number of different views about the way in which psychological and physical development proceed throughout the life span. The two main psychological developmental theories include continuous and discontinuous development.[2] In addition to individual differences in development, developmental psychologists generally agree that development occurs in an orderly way and in different areas simultaneously.[3][page needed]

Continuous versus discontinuous development[edit]

It has been made clear throughout the history of psychology that development of the human mind is a complex and debated subject. Many theorists have added their own theories, insights, and opinions into the ring of whether or not development takes place in a continuous or discontinuous fashion. [4]

Continuous development is measurable and quantitative, while discontinuous development is qualitative. Quantitative measurements of development could be measuring the height of a child, measuring their memory, or measuring their attention span. "Particularly dramatic examples of qualitative changes are metamorphoses, such as the emergence of a caterpillar into a butterfly."[5]

Those psychologists[who?] who support the continuous view of development suggest that development involves gradual and ongoing changes throughout the life span, with behavior in the earlier stages of development providing the basis of skills and abilities required for the next stages.The Behaviorist group in psychology can be seen as the main contributors to this continuous view of developmental theory.[6] Prominent members of the behaviorist psychological theory include B.F. Skinner, Albert Bandura, John. B. Watson, Edward Thorndike, and many others. "To many, the concept of continuous, quantifiable measurement seems to be the essence of science".[7]

Not all psychologists, however, agree that development is a continuous process. Some view development as a discontinuous process. Some of the most widely known and cited psychologists in the world, from varying theoretical groups within psychology, have created or added to their own and others discontinuous developmental theories. These include psychological theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Robert Kegan, and many others.[8] They believe development involves distinct and separate stages with different kinds of behaviour occurring in each stage. This suggests that the development of certain abilities in each stage, such as specific emotions or ways of thinking, have a definite starting and ending point. However, there is no exact time at which an ability suddenly appears or disappears. Although some types of thinking, feeling or behaving may seem to appear suddenly, it is more than likely that this has been developing gradually for some time.[3][page needed]

Stage theories of development rest on the assumption that development is a discontinuous process involving distinct stages which are characterized by qualitative differences in behaviour. They also assume that the structure of the stage is not variable according to each individual, however the time of each stage may vary individually.[1] Stage theories can be contrasted with continuous theories, which posit that development is an incremental process.[9][page needed] Some of the most famous and well-studied stage theories in the world include; Psychosexual stage theory (Sigmund Freud), Ecological systems theory (Urie Bronfenbrenner), Cognitive developmental stage theory (Jean Piaget), Psychosocial stage theory (Erik Erikson), and the Moral understanding stage theory (Lawrence Kohlberg). [10]

Humans create meaning from experience-a cognitive process. "Meaning is not given to us but by us" [11] These cognitive structures form into a stage of development." Cognitive stages form a hierarchical and invariant sequence of meaning making from the less complex to increasingly greater levels of complexity of thinking. Stage growth is determined by interaction between the person and the environment including cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. It is either unilateral not automatic and is a life-long process."[12]

Examples of stage theories[edit]

Developmental theories include:

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)[edit]

The psychosexual stage theory created by Sigmund Freud posits that there are five distinct stages that the person will pass through for the duration of their lifespan. Four of these stages stretch from birth through puberty and a final stage lasts the rest of the life. [13]

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925)[edit]

Rudolf Steiner developed a stage theory based on seven-year life phases. Three childhood phases (conception to 21 years) are followed by three stages of development of the ego (21-42 years), concluding with three stages of spiritual development (42-63).[14]

Jean Piaget (1896–1980)[edit]

Jean Piaget's cognitive developmental theory describes four major stages from birth through puberty, the last of which starts at 12 years and has no terminating age.[15]

Erik Erikson (1902–1994)[edit]

Erik Erikson's psychosocial developmental theory, influenced by Freud, includes four childhood and four adult stages of life. His theory includes the influence of biological factors on development.[16]

John Bowlby (1907–1990)[edit]

John Bowlby's attachment theory proposes that developmental needs are connected to particular people, places, and objects throughout our lives. These connections provide a base relied on throughout the entire lifespan.[17]

Albert Bandura (1925–2021)[edit]

Albert Bandura's social learning theory emphasizes the child's experiential learning from the environment.[18]


There are many stage theories in developmental psychology including:

While some of these theories focus primarily on the healthy development of children, others propose stages that are characterized by a maturity rarely reached before old age.


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