Important Child Development Theories to Consider

Child development has been a popular subject of debate since the 1930s, when Sigmund Freud published his theory on personality evolution. Since its publication, many others followed in his footsteps and further investigated childhood development. 

Ultimately, these theories look at data gathered and try to determine certain growth and behavioural landmarks. These landmarks are then further connected to a child’s success into adulthood. 

These theories can also be used to determine whether a child is on a decent growth path. There are also certain exercises, courses, and activities that parents can utilise to ensure their child flourishes into a well-balanced adult. 

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the important elements in child development as well as explore how parents can help their children thrive. 

Theories of Child Development 

Child development is a fascinating and complex process that encompasses various aspects of a child's growth and maturation. While many researchers and psychologists have proposed numerous theories over the years in trying to better understand this growth process, there are three elements that are consistently referred to and discussed in these theories. These three elements consist of social, emotional, and cognitive maturation. 


The social aspect of childhood development emphasises the importance of social interactions and relationships in shaping a child's maturation. One of the earliest studies to place importance on social development is that of Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory. 

He highlighted the importance of resolving social and emotional conflicts at different stages of life, proposing that each person passes through eight stages of evolution into adulthood and beyond into old age. Each stage is said to present a unique psychosocial crisis.

For example, during the toddler stage, children face the conflict of autonomy versus shame and doubt. Successful resolution of these conflicts contributes to the evolution of a healthy sense of self and social competence. Read more on this here

Another highly influential theory, is the one purposed by Albert Bandura in 1977. He suggests that children learn through observation and imitation of others, whereby social skills, values, and behaviours are acquired by observing and imitating role models, such as parents, siblings, educators, and peers. 

Bandura also introduced the concept of self-efficacy, which refers to a child’s belief in their ability to succeed in specific tasks. Therefore, positive social interactions and the presence of supportive role models play a crucial role in promoting healthy social growth in children.


The emotional aspect of child development focuses on how children recognise, understand, and regulate their emotions. John Bowlby released an insightful study on this topic, where he theorises that a strong emotional bond between a child and their primary caregiver is essential for healthy emotional maturation.

This bond, which he refers to as an attachment, ultimately provides a child with a secure base. From this base, they’re able to explore the world and build trusting relationships. It’s been found that children with a strong and secure attachment tend to have better emotional regulation, empathy, and social skills.

Lawrence Kohlberg also provided interesting insights into the emotional and moral growth of children. His theory suggests that children have six stages of moral development that are categorised under three levels. These levels consist of:

  • Pre-conventional: occurring between the ages of 3 and 7, children will start to understand moral reasoning based on reward and punishment. This will often be visible in children trying to avoid punishment and understanding that what they’re rewarded for is good behaviour. 
  • Conventional: between the ages of 8 and 13, children will identify with moral reasoning based on external ethics, often exploring the morality of law and order, and how to be a good person. 
  • Post-conventional: this phase takes place throughout adulthood and explores moral reasoning based on personal ethics. Therefore, what a person sees as right and wrong is rooted in their personal understanding of universal ethical principles. 

Children progress through these stages by internalising societal values and developing a sense of right and wrong. More can be understood about Kohlberg’s theory here


Cognitive development theories focus on how children think, reason, and understand the world around them.

One of the most influential theories when it comes to cognitive evolution is that of Jean Piaget. Piaget proposed that children progress through four stages of cognitive development: 

  1. Sensorimotor: infants, from birth until 2 years of age, establish their cognitive ability through sensory experiences and by manipulating objects. 
  2. Pre-operational: between the ages of 2 and 7, children will start to gain linguistic skills that assist in their understanding of the world and themselves.  
  3. Concrete operational: this stage takes place between the ages of 7 and 11. Here, children will start to understand and use logic, reasoning, and organisational skills. 
  4. Formal operational: lastly, from the age of 12 and upward, children will refine their logic and reasoning abilities, while starting to understand abstract ideas. 

Throughout these stages, children actively construct their understanding of the world through interactions with their environment. They develop cognitive structures, known as schemas, and adapt them through processes like assimilation and accommodation.

He further highlights the importance of providing children with opportunities for exploration, problem-solving, and hands-on experiences to foster healthy cognitive growth.

Read more about Piaget's theory here

Another notable theory that links to cognitive development, is Lev Vygotsky's sociocultural theory. His study emphasises the role of social interactions and cultural context in cognitive evolution. 

Vygotsky proposed that children learn through interactions with more knowledgeable individuals, such as parents, teachers, and peers. Therefore, a child’s cultural values, beliefs, and problem-solving strategies are acquired through interactions with their role models.

Child Development Classes and Courses 

To assist in a child's social, emotional, and cognitive development, it can be beneficial to enrol them in a course that deals with these subjects

Such a course will teach children to appreciate differences and diversity, focusing on the fact that each child has a unique skill set that makes them special, rather than incompetent or undesirable. 

This will encourage self-awareness and motivate them to discover constructive ways to process their emotions and interact with others in a respectful manner.

These skills have been directly linked to academic performance, emotional health, and employability later on in life. 

In summary, ensuring that a child grows socially, emotionally, and cognitively is the key to them becoming well-balanced and successful adults. Therefore, it’s important to support a child in these areas and ensure that they’re confident in who they are. 

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Important Child Development Theories to Consider

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