Theories of Child Development
Although child development is now a recognized and respected area of study, the field did not develop overnight. It has taken many theorists from many schools of thought to produce the advanced conceptualization of child development that we now accept. Different theories that have informed the field of child and adolescent development include psychodynamic theories, behavioral theories, cognitive theories, contextual theories, and evolutionary theories.
Although some of these theories may seem contradictory, they can also be complementary. It is often necessary to consider all these theories when considering child and adolescent development. There is no perfect theory that explains every feature of development. You cannot build a house with just one tool. Similarly, you cannot use just one theory to completely explain child development
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Theories of Child Development Psychodynamic Theories When most people think of psychodynamic theories, they initially think of Sigmund Freud’s extreme beliefs regarding the unconscious and his strong focus on psychosexual development. Although Freud provided a basis for understanding child development, his theory is not the only psychodynamic theory. Erik Erikson, a psychodynamic theorist, was more focused on psychosocial development than on psychosexual development. Freud and Erikson shared a common belief that children must successfully complete a series of stages in order to function appropriately as adults. We will cover these stage theories in later weeks. Behavioral Theories Behavioral theories of child development came about as theorists became frustrated with the often vague and untestable predictions that psychodynamic theorists promoted. Behaviorists believed that the unconscious that Freud and Erikson relied on so heavily is a useless construct because it is not visible to the naked eye. Conversely, behaviorists had a “see it to believe it” perspective. Behavioral theorists, such as John Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Albert Bandura, held different views on how children learned behaviors, but they all agreed that children and adolescents develop their specific skills and abilities through the principles of reinforcement—reinforced behaviors persist but ignored or punished behaviors fade away. Cognitive Theories Until the late 1800s, theorists focused largely on child behavior but paid little attention to child cognition. Cognitive theories filled this gap by focusing on the process that children use to gain knowledge and to understand the world.