Stage theories of child development

The examination of child development is a relatively recent addition to psychological study , with its origins lying in the early part of the twentieth century. Prior to the growth of interest in this field the subject of child development, and their mental, social and emotional progress, had remained relatively untouched. However, since Sigmund Freud first touched upon the area with his beliefs in psychosexual development, many other researchers and analysts have produced their own varying theories attempting to explain our cognitive psychological development from birth. Aspects of development that have been discussed range from our acquisition of language and communications skills from an early age, through to our advancement in a wider social context.

This essay aims to explain and evaluate at least two of the various ‘stage theories’ of child development. Theories of this, and of any disposition, despite their possible limitations and however acceptable or not we might find them, provide us with a framework of understanding through which we can predict and evaluate development. A theory of this nature is fairly self-explanatory in relation to its title ; development progresses through defined ‘stages’ that possess their own characteristics and behaviours. ‘Stage’ theories rely on the assumption that development is based upon a series of identifiable phases, which each demonstrate their own distinct characteristics. The discontinuous nature of a ‘stage theory’ is, in essence, what defines it.

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There is now a great deal of research into childhood development which we can examine, assess and critique, and many proposed ‘stage’ theories, including Freud’s Psychosexual Stages, Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development and Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. This essay aims to describe and evaluate the theories introduced by Freud and Piaget, which despite being similar in terms of ‘stage’ structure, contrast sharply in their psychological nature.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is rated in many quarters as one of the most eminent and influential scientists of the 20th century , who held interests in several scientific fields including not only psychology, but also sociology and scientific history. Swiss-born, Piaget’s work was defined by his goal of defining the causes and catalysts behind our growth in knowledge. His research into our intellectual development and perhaps most notably his formulation of the stage theory this essay will describe and assess, have contributed to his status as one of he foremost cognitive thinkers of our time. Flavell (1970), described him as ‘the most important figure the field of developmental psychology has ever known’. Indeed, Piaget’s ideas have, in some cases, revolutionised the field of childhood development, and are still widely used in modern educational processes.

As aforementioned, Piaget’s stage theory revolves around the study of cognitive psychology, an area of the discipline which examines the development of our thought processes from early childhood, and the influence these processes have upon our social interactions and comprehension of the world around us in general. His theory breaks up our development into four clearly defined stages which are each enabled by our growing psychological maturity. These stages all represent a qualitative difference in the progression of our development.

Piaget labels our initial developmental stage as Sensori-motor, which takes place from birth up until we reach the age of two. During this period, our learning is based, as its title suggests, on senses (sensori) and actions (motor). In early childhood, our abilities to learn about our environment are limited to the use of the four senses, and the basic actions we can undertake to grasp some knowledge of the world around us. By the age of two we have developed the concept of ‘object permanence’, where we are able to recognise the fact that objects that might not necessarily be visible still exist.

The second quarter of Piaget’s stage theory (occurring between the ages of two and six) is defined as the Pre-operational period, during which the child’s standpoint remains one of an egocentric nature, but will begin to develop linguistic abilities and the capacity to represent objects through the use of words and images. Another key feature of this stage is that a child’s ability to distinguish between objects of similar nature, but which possess different characteristics, remains limited.

The penultimate stage in Piaget’s four-part theory, which manifests itself between the ages seven and eleven, is the Concrete-operational period, where a child’s ability to think about events and objects in a logical manner, and recognise key feature differences in size, quantity and weight, will emerge and be consolidated to an extent. A child will begin to interpret events in a logical manner, however the ability to hypothesise and understand abstract concepts still remains limited.

The final component of Piaget’s theory, which begins at the age of eleven and continues indefinitely, is the Formal Operational stage, and sees an individual develop their ability to think logically about abstract concepts (namely the consequences of actions and the future) unrelated to past experience, and begin to solve problems in a systematic and efficient manner, as opposed to using a ‘trial and error’ procedure which was a feature of earlier thought processes.

As aforementioned earlier in this work, Piaget’s revolutionary stage theory, with its roots planted in cognitive constructivism, has proved a huge influence on those involved of childhood development. However, Piaget’s ground-breaking blueprint, and its relatively simplistic approach to development, has not always been met with universal applause and acknowledgement.

One of the main criticism levelled at Piaget’s work concerns his research methods. Piaget famously formulated a considerable amount of his Stages of Cognitive Development theory through the analysis and observation of the behavioural tendencies displayed by his own three children. Another criticism of a similar nature further relates to Piaget’s research sample ; his investigation only examined the behaviour of children from a similar, privileged socio-economic class background, which may have resulted in unrepresentative research results.

A chief critics of Piaget’s theory was Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Berk and Winsler (1995) assert that whereas Piaget believed that development was a natural process reinforced by instruction from an adults, Vygotsky and Bruner perceived developmental progress to be facilitated by a combination of both necessary instruction alongside natural development. For them, development begins at a social level before becoming internalised. A further negative critique of Piaget’s work refers to the strict stage time-scales that define his theory. It is widely agreed by many researchers that the abilities of many children overlap his rigid age-related stages, thus in many cases rendering his hypotheses inaccurate. For example, research performed by Kuhn, Langer, Kohlberg and Haan (1977) indicated that only 30-35% of high school students achieved Piaget’s development stage of Formal Operations in the time-scale defined by the theory.

Brainerd (1978) even went as far as to conclude that there was no compelling evidence to support Piaget’s theory, and that ‘his cognitive stages do nothing more than describe age-related changes in behaviour’. Gardner (****) believes that Piaget’s work relies too heavily on the latter’s background in Epistemology, which led to a generalisation of development and a lack of attention to individual cases.

Despite the criticism detailed above, Piaget’s work remains hugely relevant in modern cognitive psychological and, especially, in educational thinking, where many successful programmes have been constructed on the premise that teaching should take place only at the developmental level to which a child has progressed. The uncomplicated nature of Piaget’s hypothesis is not a reason to decry it ; Einstein described Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development as ‘so simple, only a genius could have though of it’!

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) renowned but controversial Stages of Psychosexual Development theory is in stark contrast to Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, approaching our progress through early childhood from a primitive and sexual viewpoint, as opposed to Piaget’s cognitive structures. Freud’s theories, especially his Stages of Psychosexual Development, have attracted widespread scepticism and proved the catalyst for considerable debate.

Freud’s Psychosexual stage hypothesis revolves around his beliefs that if one of his theorised stages is not successfully incremented then a healthy personality will not fully develop due to a fixation, and that this focus upon the particular stage which has been left incomplete will manifest itself into some form of behaviour. Freud theorised that his Psychosexual stages, if successfully and satisfactorily completed, would eventually lead to an appropriate balance between the three parts of Freud’s other psychic model, namely his belief in the existence of the Id, Ego and Superego. According to Freud’s theory, these three components, and the way that conflict between them is rationalised and processed, serve to shape our personalities and characters.

The first of Freud’s Psychosexual development stages, which are all linked to the stimulation of our bodily organs, focuses on our oral interaction. This Oral Stage concentrates on an infants initially limited abilities in interaction, how it derives a sense of pleasure from the actions of sucking and tasting, and its dependency, or reliance on others, especially in terms of feeding. The key to this stage being successfully completed is how this dependency is gradually broken down – if a child fails to develop an oral independence from its carers, Freud hypothesised that some future behaviour would be characterised by dependent, and even aggressive tendencies.

Freud’s Anal Stage is a progression from our initial limited abilities to gain satisfaction through an oral source. The Anal Stage relates to our bowel movements, and how we learn to control this bodily function. Conquering this challenge is in part reliant on our parents, or carers, who should reinforce positive toilet-related behaviour, subsequently providing the child with an inner sense of competence and independence. If a child’s behaviour in this area is punished, ridiculed, suffers from a lack of encouragement or even an over-emphasis in terms of a carers intensity regarding toilet-training, Freud believed that future personality deficiency would be a consequence.

The Phallic stage of Freud’s theory involves a key change in male/female developmental progress, from the anus towards the genitals. In the case of the male, Freud’s Oedipus Complex theorises a growing resentment from the child towards his father, who becomes viewed as a rival for his mothers affection. The male child, according to Freud, develops a possessive desire to usurp his father in the pecking order, due to natural love for the mother. More recently, and despite the disagreement of Freud himself, it has been stated that the female will develop an unconscious desire to replace the mother as the centre of a fathers attention. Penis Envy has been cited as a factor behind this female urge. In the case of both sexes, this stage hypothesises the growing unconscious desire of the child to eliminate the his/her same-sex parent. If successfully completed, the Phallic stage leads to a child identifying with the parent of equivalent gender, thus assuming their characteristics. Failure to complete this stage successfully, and the fixation that may follow, might result in unfavourable personality and character traits, possibly alongside homosexual tendencies.

Following a period of latency, where Freud believes that sexual desires, thoughts and feeling lie dormant, the onset of puberty in a child results in the final stage of his theory, during which the emphasis of unconscious thought returns to the genitalia. This Genital Stage sees the beginning of interest in forming heterosexual relationships with others, the success of which, at least in terms of forming an emotional alliance, is governed by how well previous stages were negotiated.

The arguments against Freud’s Psychosexual Stages theory are numerous, not least due to the obvious lack of scientific work and research to support his work. Freud himself was critical of those who poured scorn on the lack of scientific basis backing up his work.

According to Fisher and Greenberg (1977), whilst many of the personality traits cited by Freud throughout his five stages can be observed in people, they can not be cited as stages in childhood development, or be explained away by failure to sufficiently complete a Psychosexual stage.

General criticism of Freud’s theory is directed at his perhaps over-emphasis on the expression, or repression of sex as a means of explaining human behaviour. Freud’s sex-related explanations have also faced accusations of being ‘sexist’ in nature, and of being theorised from a purely male perspective. Additionally, is it reasonable to assume that the majority of mental disorders and illnesses are rooted in in unfulfilled sexual complexes resulting from ‘fixation’? Despite Freud’s widespread reference to sex, his use of the word ‘sexual’ is perhaps sometimes misinterpreted, as it is often used simply in relation to bodily features and functions.

Freud’s theory is also often accused of being far too simplistic in its attempts to explain the human mind and thought processes. However, some have commented that Freud’s theory acts as a model which breaks down a hugely complex area to enable analysis.

Freud’s psychodynamic theory, despite its perceived weaknesses and flaws, was one of the very first attempts to examine our unconscious behaviour and explain the causes and processes behind mental disorders. His hypothesis, which acted as the catalyst for modern Psychoanalysis, also paved the way for further research into the intricacies of human behaviour and what may induce it.

It is clear that, like all scientific theories, the stage hypotheses of Piaget and Freud possess both negative and positive aspects which can be both defended and criticised. Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, is still an important educational tool and despite obvious misgivings, Freud’s ground-breaking Psychosexual beliefs opened the door on research into the existence and functions of the unconscious., and should not be under-estimated.

Flavell, J.H. (1970) The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget, NY, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
Berk, L.E. ; Winsler A. (1995-07) Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education (Naeyc Research into Practice Series, V. 7). Association for the Education of You.
Brainerd, C.J. (1978) Piaget’s Theory of Intelligence. New Jersey, Prentice Hall Inc.
Fisher, S. ; Greenberg R.P. (1977) The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy. New York, Basic Books.

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