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Development Theories in Child Development Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2019


Development theories argue that child development is influenced by a mixture of innate biological abilities that a child has at birth and the interaction that he or she has with the environment where they grow up especially in early childhood and adolescence. Though different theories hold different views, the research paper holds the opinion that child development is more as a result of environmental factors that surrounds a child as he or she grows rather than as a result of nature.

To better understand the child development, this study compares and contrasts three development theories as developed by different theorists. The theories include: Social-information processing theory, Social learning theory and Attachment theory.

Social-information processing theory

According to Shaffer (2008), the social-information processing theory holds that a child’s mental development is shaped by the mental processes that he or she is forced to go through while relating to the wider society. The main concept in this theory is that while as people have pre-determined biological capabilities, experiencing difference social situations gives them social cues which prompt a specific behavioral response.

The person’s response to a situation is as a result of mental processes which begin as a person experiences specific sensations as cues are encoded in his or her mind. This then makes the person assume a specific perception about the social experience.

The second concept in this theory regards selective encoding. Since human beings are surrounded by multiple cues in every social environment they are in, this theory states that selective encoding of these cues allows people to pay attention to one thing at a time.

The next step involves representing or interpreting the cue. Here a person may attribute a specific cue to something that happened to him in the past hence shaping behavior. For example, a person who has fallen before from a push in the back will try to hold on to something should a similar push happen to him or her.

The third concept indicates that social-information processing involves evaluating a situation and making the appropriate decisions. According to the theory, this step involves the personal evaluating the consequences of any actions that he or she might take. This includes the moral, instrumental, interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences that may be borne out of his or her actions. The final step as suggested in this theory involves transforming the decisions made in the valuation and decision-making stage to verbal or motor behavior.

Citing Kenneth Dodge who initially formulated the theory, Shaffer (2008) sums up the different steps in the theory using six cognitive processes, which he says a child experiences when arriving to a response decision. The first step involves encoding the cues he or she receives from the environment, followed by an interpretation of the cues.

The third step involves the formulation of social goals by the child, which is then followed by a generation of problem-solving strategies. On the fifth step, the child evaluates the effectiveness of strategies that he or she generates and finally, the child enacts the self-chosen response (p. 294).

Social-Learning theory

The social-learning theory acknowledges the role of one’s biological origins and neural-mediating mechanisms but also emphasizes that a person’s experiences in an environment plays a vital role in his or her development (Asher, 2006). The major concept in this theory is that most learning in a person occurs as one watch and imitates models.

This theory suggests that in order for human beings to survive and grow in their immediate environment, they learn to acquire behaviors through observing the more experienced people in their immediate environment. For this to affect development however, this theory posits that in addition to observing, one would need to have strong instigation and retention mechanisms.

The second concept identified in this theory is the belief that the theory is governed by four processes. The four processes are identified as:

  1. Attention- responsible for the exploration instincts and perception;
  2. Memory- stores observed behaviors and guide behavior in the future;
  3. Motor production- responsible for the formation of novel behaviors which happens as a result of integrated constituents acts according to actions previously observed; and
  4. Incentives & motivation- this regulates the practice of learnt responses.

For development to occur, this theory states that biological maturation of the four identified processes must occur as this allows the storage of complex response repertoires and contingencies in one’s memory to occur.

The third concept identified in this theory is the assumption that cognitive and biological motivators acts as instigation mechanisms (Asher, 2006). This means that internal bodily stimulations such as hunger, anger or lust may activate behavior in a person through biological motivators. Cognitive motivators on the other hand would be responsible for providing the person with the motivation needed to act.

The cognitive motivators allow one top consider the sensory and social consequences of an action. This theory further suggests that the use of external reinforcement such are rewards, punishment affect the kind of development that one chooses to adopt. Self-regulation through observation, judgment, valuation, attribution and applied consequences to one self are also factors that are considered as effective in this theory. Notably, this theory has fewer constraints when compared to other theories.

Attachment theory

The attachment theory posits that children are born with an innate need for human contact (Bretherton, 1992). While this may be driven by a need for food (mother’s breast milk), this theory states that attachment seeking is directed more by the need for a social contact and the desire for a loving relationship from the mother. The main concept in this theory is that human’s need for attachment to other people is driven by the need for love.

The second concept revealed in the attachment theory is that the fear of the unknown is also capable of shaping behavior as one develops. Using the example of a child, this theory suggests that the separation of mother and child usually causes distress on the child, which is then replaced by joy when the mother comes back to the child.

Separation over long periods of time however induces suspicion, anxiety or clinging behavior upon the mother-child re-union (Bretherton, 1992). Although this behavior is evident in young and older children, it slowly fades away once individuation occurs and the child is able to have a mental representation of the mother even in her absence.

The third concept identified in the attachment theory is the idea that the child-parent relationship shapes the kind of future relationships that a child will have. According to the theory, the mental representation of the initial mother-child relationship is stored in one’s memory and serves as a filter in all future relationships that the child has.

This means that the primary effects of the first relationship that a child has with its parents. The attachment theory calls the mental representation borne from the initial parent-child relationship as the working model.

Major similarities in the theories

Innate human behaviors

The major similarity between the three identified theories is the belief that while some human characteristics are attained, others are biological. The social-information processing theory for example acknowledges that people have pre-determined biological capabilities. The social learning theory on the other hand states that one’s biological origins and neural-mediating mechanisms have vital roles in development. The attachment theory on its part states that human beings are born with an innate need for human contact.

Acquired human behaviors

All the three theories identified above acknowledge that the immediate environment where one grows up or lives have consequences on their development. The Social-information processing theory, one’s mental processes are shaped by his or her relations with the wider society.

On a similar observation, the social learning theory argues that a person’s development is shaped by the observations he makes and the emulations made from the observations. On its end, the attachment theory observes that though a child is born with love seeking tendencies, the initial parent-child relationship determines how the child will relate with other people later in life.

Mental development is spontaneous process

While all the three theories recognize the presence of innate human characteristics in a person at birth, the admission that acquired human characteristics is a testimony that one’s development is a spontaneous process that largely conforms to his or her immediate surroundings. The social-information processing theory indicates that the one’s relations to the wider society as he or she grows up shape their mental processes.

The social learning theory indicates that observation and imitation lead affects one development, while the attachment theory indicates that how one related to their parents determine how they will relate to other people in the bigger society. None of the identified theories indicate that a child can choose not to respond to their immediate environment, which leads to this study’s observation that mental development as identified in all three theories is spontaneous.

Major differences

  1. The major difference among the three identified theories is that they all deal with different stages of human development. The social information-processing theory for example is only applicable to children who have perceptive mental capabilities. According to Shaffer (2008), the social information-processing theory best explains why some children favor specific (usually aggressive or non-aggressive) solutions to problems they encounter in the society when growing up. The social-learning theory on the other hand seems to be a theory which can be applied at any age where a child knows that specific actions can be rewarded or cause him or her punishment. Since this theory states that a person learns through observation and imitation, one can conclude that most children learn who learn from their parents or elder siblings follow this theory. Whether there is an age limit to the learning process which involves observing and imitating others is something that existing literature is yet to find out. The attachment theory is specifically limited to an age where a child has a strong bond to the parent. The theory however argues that it is from the initial relationship that a child has with the parents (especially the mother) that it learns to relate with other people in the society in future.
  2. Difference in motivation is notable in the three theories. While the social-information theory is informed by the need to respond to a situation, the social-learning theory is motivated by a need to learn or may be survive as others do. The attachment theory on the other hand formed by the natural bond that parents had with their child and therefore may be motivated by a need to conform to the basics as learned from the parents as a child.
  3. The social-information theory states that the mind is central to development since it is responsible for processing cues and helping a child decide how to respond. Social learning theory on the other hand combines biological characteristics of an individual with external influences such as incentives awarded in order to shape a child’s behavior. Attachment theory on the other hand directs us towards natural influences, which occur automatically in a human being.

Interaction of cognitive, physical & emotional development in the overall development of a child

Child development involves a series of cognitive, psychological and physical changes that occur from the time a child is conceived until the end of their adolescence years (Child Fund Australia, 2008). During the continual process that marks child development, the child experiences significant changes that in his or her feelings, thoughts, movements and ability to relate with others.

The first three years of growth are especially significant to child development as stated by (Child Fund Australia, 2008). During this period, the brain develops and grows significantly thus laying the platform for cognitive development in the child. It is from cognitive development that a child learns, thinks and develops language skills among other social skills.

Physical development on the other hand is stretched through out their childhood to teenage years and includes “growth in size, strength, fine and gross motor development…” (p. 1). Emotional and psychological development on the other hand involves the development of senses such as self-worth, trust, confidence, independence among other skills that enable him or her to relate with others in the society.

For overall child development to occur there must be interaction cognitive, physical, psychological and emotional development. This however means that a child will need to be exposed to the right environment right from conception, where the mother needs to eat healthy in order to provide the child with all nutrients needed for physical development.

At birth, the child needs to be fed, clothed and loved in order to sustain their physical development, but also provide a basis where they can develop their cognitively and emotionally. As they grow, exposure to education, their parents, siblings and their peers in social forums such as school will provide them with the resources necessary to develop all the different faculties of development.

The importance of understanding normal child and adolescent development

Parents and other caretakers have an important role to play in ensuring that a child develops as it should. However, for them to do this, they would need to understand child development in order to provide the necessary environment to spur the same. Parents for example need to understand the role that proper diets play in the child’s physical and mental development, and they also need to understand that how they relate with their children could affect how the children relate with other people in future.

As Gemelli (1996) aptly puts it, though an infant may have some innate biological abilities, through an interaction with the environment, the infant is able to construct a representation of what the world should be. People who are responsible for developing the immediate environment where the child grows should hence take outmost care to present an environment that enhances the child’s development, rather than an environment that inhibits the process.


As stated elsewhere in this study, child development is more a result of the environment than nature. Whatever the biological abilities of a child are, he or she will need proper care, nutrition, mentorship, guidance and even protection for them to realize their potential.


Asher, M. (2006). Bare essentials of social learning theory. Overview. Retrieved from

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth Development Psychology 28 (1), 759-775.

Kid Sense. (2008). What is meant by child development? Fact Sheet 4. Retrieved from

Gemelli, R.J. (1996). Normal child and Adolescent development. New York: American Psychiatric Publishers.

Shaffer, D. R. (2008). Social and personality development. (ed). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

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