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Developmental Theories in Psychology Essay

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2019


Interests in the psychology of child development have led to development of several theoretical concepts. Initially, interests of these studies were on abnormal behaviors and development among children. However, later studies focused on other areas, which included child development.

These studies provide theoretical accounts that are vital for understanding cognitive, physical, social, and emotional developments among children from birth to adulthood. Some grand theories on child development have strived to provide all details of development by relying on different stages of development.

This paper focuses on developmental theories by analyzing theoretical concepts of Erik Erikson, B.F. Skinner, and Jean Piaget. It looks at application of these theories to treat mental cases among children or adolescents. Moreover, it shows the similarities and differences among these theories and how they account for normal and abnormal child and adolescent psychological and physical development in children and adolescents with specific reference to physical, cognitive, and psychosocial developments.

Developmental Theories

Erik’s psychosocial theory indicates that changes happen to individual’s social relationships and self-concepts throughout a lifespan (Newman & Newman, 2007). Hence, this theory can aid educators and health care providers to understand social behaviors among children, adolescents, and adults.

Skinner’s behavioral theories of child development attempts to show that the environment can affect one’s behaviors and lead to consequences that can reinforce the desired behavior. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development shows “how certain cognitive functions interact with biological processes in order to help one to adapt and survive in his or her environment” (Newman & Newman, 2007).

Using each theory in mental health treatment of children and or adolescents

Several studies have shown that practitioners have applied different theoretical concepts to treat various mental conditions among children or adolescents.

For instance, Lerner and colleagues showed that practitioners have used psychosocial-based interventions as cognitive behavioral therapies (CBTs) (Lerner, White and McPartland, 2012). It was an effective form of intervention for social phobia, but psychosocial interventions, such as CBTs and social skill training for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) require further studies.

Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is “a genetic disorder with several life-limiting attributes, which inhibit respiratory functions” (Ernst, Johnson and Stark, 2010). At the age of two years, physicians can diagnose CF in children, and the survival rate is “37.4 years old, with 95% of patients dying from complications related to pulmonary infection” (Ernst et al., 2010).

Physicians have prescribed many forms of interventions due to chronic, progressive, and immobilizing status of the CF. In this case, CF needs children and their families to use several interventions related to behaviors and manage developmental challenges.

Morbidity and mortality issues associated with the CF have presented “cognitive, behavioral, and emotional challenges to children and their families” (Ernst et al., 2010). Ernst and fellow researchers show that psychosocial factors from developmental perspective are applicable in “psychological adjustment and health-related behaviors relevant to infants, preschool and school age children, and adolescents with CF” (Ernst et al., 2010).

Children and adolescents may experience social phobia as a psychological disorder (Melfsen et al., 2011). Social phobia involves fears associated with the perception that one “is inadequate in social or achievement situations, resulting in considerable problems” (Melfsen et al., 2011).

In addition, other studies have established that social phobia among children and adolescents could result in other psychological disorders. Past studies have shown that CBT could be an effective intervention for social phobia in children and adolescents, but it requires further studies in order to enhance its effectiveness.

CBT intervention borrows from Piaget’s concepts of cognitive development theory. Theoretical concepts have allowed researchers to compare various theories of thinking. One can understand cognitive competence as a sign of positive development among adolescents. In this regard, cognitive competence shows the relationship between youth’s learning and mental well-being (Sun and Hui, 2012).

Autism has received considerable applications of cognitive developmental theories and conditioning interventions. Studies have shown that early interventions with developmental concepts among children have benefits on communication abilities (Paul, 2008). Paul notes that such interventions rely on several philosophies together with adult interventions.

They are effective conditioning strategies of enhancing language and communication behaviors among children. From the available evidence, one can deduce that highly structured forms of” behavioral interventions have positive outcomes for autism children in learning languages and communication abilities, especially in eliciting initial words” (Paul, 2008).

However, these behavioral approaches may face significant challenges related to maintenance and use of common approaches or skills. Hence, children with autism condition may have to rely on additional interventions as means of supplementing behavioral conditioning, but the focus should be on adult-aided interventions. This would enhance communication skills, initiation, and applications of learned skills in new settings.

Paul shows that one can apply conditioning interventions beyond language development among children with autism (Paul, 2008). The approach could be effective in developing social functions for children with autism. Thus, the development of communication and language use interventions should also take into consideration social functions of children.

Similarities and Differences

There are distinct similarities and differences among developmental theories of Piaget, Skinner, and Erikson. These differences and similarities are prominent in physical, cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of development.

Piaget and Erik had defined physical developments in children and adolescents into stages. One significant observation is that aspects of physical changes in children have effects on cognitive and psychosocial developments. Hence, researchers have focused on observation of both normal and abnormal developments in children.

Sun and Hui noted that critical thinking and creative thinking were important for developments among youths because they affected self-regulated cognitive skills (Sun and Hui, 2012). Adolescents with positive developments could “facilitate knowledge construction, task completion, problem solving, and decision making” (Sun and Hui, 2012). Further, cognitive competence among adolescents resulted in processes of assimilation and accommodation.

This shows that individuals have the ability to control their personal experiences. In addition, they can organize and control thought processes to control their behaviors (Sun and Hui, 2012). Such complex cognitive functions are not possible among abnormal children or adolescents.

Skinner, Erik, and Piaget showed that learning was a gradual and life-long process among people. Moreover, developments resulted from sequences of certain conditional behaviors. The points of these theorists were on the environment and not individuals’ hereditary factors. In this regard, these theorists noted that observable behaviors were imperative in cognitive developments.

Behaviorists like Skinner have supported concepts of understanding language developments and other abstract concepts (Greer, Pistoljevic, Cahill and Du, 2011; Ingvarsson and Hollobaugh, 2010). This is similar to concepts of Piaget. However, the difference is that behaviorists believe in concepts of reward and punishment to strengthen or weaken a behavior respectively. For instance, repeated use of language may reinforce learning among children. This is a form of reinforcement for learning abstract concepts.

Thus, language acquisition, imitation, and influences of the environment are critical for learning among behaviorists. It is critical to note that cognitive challenges also affect social behaviors and emotional well-being of children and adolescents (Melfsen et al., 2011). These are processes among normal children, but children and adolescents with defects would require interventions in order to learn languages and other abstract concepts (Bierman et al., 2013; Lerner et al., 2012).

Cognitive theorists have emphasized positive aspects of development in children and adolescents. They believe in conscious processes and active construction of ideas by interacting with environments. Thus, it is important to understand developmental changes among children and adolescents, particularly in thought processes (Paul, 2008; Sun and Hui, 2012).

Information processing in abstract concepts like languages and mathematics concepts provide the best methods for understanding cognitive development among children and adolescents (Ingvarsson and Hollobaugh, 2010; Greer et al., 2011; Ramos-Christian, Schleser and Varn, 2008).

However, some criticisms of cognitive theories have emerged because some critics have questioned the pureness and lack of details to differences among individuals in cognitive development processes. Moreover, how children and adolescents process information remains a vague concept in cognition development. Still, the unconscious thought of children and adolescents is not a part of cognitive development.

Piaget and Erikson believed in active roles of individuals during cognitive development while Skinner’s approach also showed active role of the learner during acquisition of behaviors. However, Skinner’s active role resulted from punishment and reward as an outcome of a behavior. Thus, organization and assimilation are imperative among these theorists.

However, one must note the apparent differences between behaviorism and cognitive theories because they have little in common. Conversely, there are still similarities in these developmental concepts.

Individuals’ reactions to their environments are critical components of developmental theories in behaviorism and cognitive approaches. However, psychosocial theorists believe that these theorists fail to account for influences of society among learners. Instead, they internalized learning after interaction environments.

Skinner’s interests in education showed that learning could be enjoyable and effective, but Piaget did not concentrate on education per se, but educators found applications of Piaget’s concepts in preschool teaching. Still, others have noted that emotional well-being is a critical component of positive learning. On this note, one can observe that theorists have based their concepts on positive aspects of human development.

A clear difference among the three theories is the uniformity of their concepts. In other words, each theorist believes that learning and development only took place according to their respective concepts. Hence, they fail to acknowledge different ways and concepts through which one could acquire knowledge.

These theorists depend on observable behaviors and abstract concepts. Skinner believed that reinforcement could work throughout the entire life of an individual. On the other hand, cognitive approaches show developmental stages of human development. Thus, reinforcement and developmental stages rely on different premises.

Developmental theories also account for the role of an individual in learning processes. For instance, Piaget believed in an active learner, but behaviorism theorists have remained passive in their approaches. Children need to control and remain active throughout the process of learning, and not be mere recipients of information.

Educators have applied such concepts in their approaches to learning and teaching of abstract concepts (Connor et al., 2011; Hinde & Perry, 2008). Hence, learners must control and act on their environments in order to understand them at a given stage of development. On the other hand, punishment and reward are responsible for shaping behaviors among learners. This could imply that learners become passive until they note the outcome of a given behavior.

Previously, one could observe differences among these concepts in their applications in learning and therapeutic interventions. However, modern applications have emphasized the importance of multiple and multifaceted approaches to learning and therapies (Lerner et al., 2012; Ernst et al., 2010).

Erik believed that there were crises at every stage of human development. Hence, people must resolve such challenges in order to achieve effective social and emotional developments. Interventions tend to avert negative outcomes at every stage and associated crisis.


Piaget, Erik, and Skinner are grand theorist in developmental theories. Thus, their concepts allow us to understand comprehensive processes of human development. While one can easily follow these theorists, their concepts have attracted interests in normal and abnormal psychology with regard to learning new concepts.

The significance of cognitive, physical, and psychosocial developments in children and adolescents has become relevant when one fails to master normal processes in developmental stages (Melfsen et al., 2011; Paul, 2008, Ernst et al., 2010; Ingvarsson and Hollobaugh, 2010). For instance, when a child or an adolescent fails to master physical aspects of development, developmental diagnosis may prove that. Still, one can observe learning disabilities and social disorders by observing cognitive and psychosocial developments among adolescents.

Further, Erik shows that adults who fail to develop their generativity versus stagnation stages may resort to escapism. Hence, developmental theories offer ways of understanding developmental tasks and interventions whenever there are abnormal conditions at every stage. Despite these differences in these theories, educators and therapists have combined them in order to provide best interventions for their clients.


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