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10 Major Child Development Theorists and their Theories Summarised


  • Introduction
  • Jean Piaget
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Stages of Cognitive Development
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Lev Vygotsky
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Differences of Vygotsky’s Theory
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Jerome Bruner
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Bruner’s Three Modes of Representation
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Maria Montessori
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Differences of the Montessori Method
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • HighScope
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Albert Bandura
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Key Factors in Observational Learning and Modelling Process
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Three Operants of B.F. Skinner’s Theory
  • Significant of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Erik Erikson
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Arnold Gesell
  • Early Life and Background
  • Findings and Philosophies
  • Significance of Philosophy for Child Development
  • Summary
  • Bibliography


Childhood development and education are evolving topics that have caused disagreement and speculation in many societies and cultures for decades. Psychologists, theorists, parents, educators and allied professionals have strived to understand the stages of development, best learning methods and how to guide children successfully through thought-provoking practices. With time, observation, and practice, our arsenal of tools for teaching has expanded. 

However, with this expansion, comes more disagreement about which method is “right.” Understanding the ten theorists in which our beliefs about childhood, development, lifespan and how we learn, are vital to understanding early childhood development (from birth) to death and every learning experience in between. 10 key theorists and their philosophies shaped how we approach education today! 

The theorists discussed in this article are:

  1. Jean Piaget
  2. Lev Vygotsky
  3. Jerome Bruner
  4. Maria Montessori
  5. HighScope
  6. Sigmund Freud
  7. Albert Bandura
  8. Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner
  9. Erik Erikson
  10. Arnold Gesell

Each theorists or philosophy is summarised using the following headings:

  1. Early Life and Background
  2. Findings and Philosophies
  3. Significance of Philosophy for Child Development

Jean Piaget 

Early Life and Background

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on August 9, 1896, where his early interests began in the subject of zoology. At the mere age of 11 years old, he began researching and reporting his findings on an albino sparrow. (Cherry, 2020) By the time he was 15, several reports were published, and famously his observations on mollusks gained renowned reputation with European zoologists (Britannica, 2021). This propelled Piaget to further his studies at the University of Neuchâtel, where he pursued further knowledge in zoology and philosophy, graduating with his doctorate in 1918. With his growing passion for psychology and biological sciences, Piaget began his interest in epistemology, otherwise referred to as the study of human knowledge, its origins and limits (Britannica, 2021). Piaget was preoccupied with understanding where knowledge originated from, how genetics impacts the process and the order in which it develops (Cherry, 2020). Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., he began his psychology studies under the teachings of Carl Jung (noted as being one of the most influential psychiatrists) and Paul Eugen Bleuler (a notable psychiatrist who coined many terms for mental illnesses that we know today, including Schizophrenia and Autism), at the University of Zürich, further exploring his passion in psychoanalysis (Biography, 2014). Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

In 1923, Piaget married his wife and mother of their three children, Valentine Châtenay. As a common practice with many theorists, his own children were the subjects of many of his observations. These observations led to the groundbreaking theories we know today (Cherry, 2020). Want to learn more about observational practices with actionable strategies for documentation and reflective practice in early childhood education? Watch our masterclass here with an optional certificate.

Findings and Philosophies

Before the findings of Jean Piaget’s theory came to light, children were considered to be tiny adults that were able to process their thinking the same way as any mature adult could. Anger and frustration was a typical response when children wouldn’t listen or understand a concept. After all, it was because “they’re just not listening” – right? It wasn’t until Piaget’s interest in psychoanalysis brought him to spend a year working at a boys’ institution founded by Albert Binet where things began to shift (Cherry, 2020).  Binet is famous for developing the world’s first intelligence test, where Piaget played a significant role in scoring the results. The assessments greatly impacted Piaget, encouraging him to explore a once-revolutionary notion – children think differently from adults (Cherry, 2020). 

During his time at the Binet Institute, Piaget’s intrigue for child development grew as he wanted to understand why children gave the wrong answers to questions that could be simply solved using logical thinking (McLeod, 2018). Piaget set out to understand the concepts from both findings logged in a diary about his own children and through controlled observations. Thus, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was born, suggesting that children go through 4 stages in a specific order (McLeod, 2018). 

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Stage 1: The Sensorimotor Stage

From birth to approximately age 2, children are noted to understand the world primarily through their senses and movements (Cherry, 2020). During this stage, a number of cognitive abilities develop, such as: 

  • Object permanence: knowing that an object still exists even though it is not in plain sight. 
  • Self-recognition: having self-awareness of actions or consciousness.
  • Deferred imitation: reproducing an action once observed.
  • Representational play: engaging with toys mimicked after real-life scenarios, people, etc.

While learning in this stage, you may notice a child does not have object permanence, meaning that if something is hidden or out of sight, children at this stage believe it no longer exists (McLeod, 2018). The development goal during this period of an infant’s growth is to gain object permanence. It requires forming a schema (mental representation or memory) of the object, recalling it, and labelling it (McLeod, 2018). You can try this with a child at this stage. Show the child an object (e.g. a shiny rattle), they may even interact with it or touch it. After this, put the object under a cloth in front of the child. A child who does not have object permanence yet will not try to look for the object because if they cannot see it, to them, it does not exist. Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

Stage 2: The Preoperational Stage

From age two to age seven (approximately), children’s development is rooted in language and symbolic play (Cherry, 2020). In this stage, you’ll notice children are able to use language and mental imagery to interpret and represent their perspective on the world. However, logical thinking or problem-solving skills at this stage are rudimentary. Children may also demonstrate animism, a term that relates to believing non-living objects, such as a table or car, have feelings and life like a human being (McLeod, 2018). Towards the latter end of this stage, they begin to understand conservation. For example, children can understand how something can stay the same in quantity, even though the appearance changes. You can test this out by having two identical glasses with a third glass that is able to hold the same amount of liquid but a different size (e.g. two may be short, square glasses, while the third is a taller cylinder shape). Children at this stage also begin to understand symbols and their meaning. In their play, for example, they may pretend that a stick is a wand. Their pretend play becomes more advanced and they continue to use role playing activities to test and experiment.

Another one of Piaget’s beliefs was that the child during the preoperational stage is largely egocentric, meaning that they find it difficult to see things from other people’s perspectives. “The Three Mountain Task was developed by Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder in the 1940s to study children’s ability to coordinate spatial perspectives. In the task, a child faced a display of three model mountains while a researcher placed a doll at different viewpoints of the display. The researcher asked the child to reconstruct the display from the doll’s perspective, select from a set of pictures showing the doll’s view, and identify a viewpoint for the doll specified by a picture of the display. Some children around age four did not distinguish between their own view and that of the doll, a tendency interpreted by Piaget as evidence of egocentrism. Egocentrism was considered an indication of the preoperational period, a stage that preceded logical thinking. Research since the 1970s has shown young children’s perspective-taking ability to be affected by a variety of situational variables” (Encyclopedia, 2021).

Stage 3: The Concrete Operational Stage

From approximately age seven to 11, children begin to develop their own thought process at a more mature level matched with an ongoing struggle with theoretical thinking (Cherry, 2020). However, it’s important to note that children at this stage are more advanced when thinking logically about concrete events than speculative theories (McLeod, 2018). The turning point for a child’s development in this stage is the ability to work things out in their head (abstract reasoning). Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

Stage 4: The Formal Operational Stage

In the final stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, from age 12 into adulthood, children are able to understand abstract ideas and theoretical scenarios without needing a physical aid, such as slicing up a cake to understand fractions (McLeod, 2018). 

In this stage, children will be able to speculate on possible ideas, consequences and outcomes for situations that may never come to be prepared for them. An example of this is being able to picture who is taller based on a sequence of information rather than a visual representation. 

“If Tyler is taller than Jamie, and Jamie is taller than Claire, who is the tallest?”

Piaget tested this theory in 1970 to understand operational thought processes. He asked children where they would put an extra eye if they could have a third one (McLeod, 2010). While children were in the concrete operational stage, they were quick to say it should be on their forehead. 11-year-olds in the formal operational stage had a different thought process, expressing that it would be better placed on their hand so they could see around corners (ibid, 2010). 

Significance of Philosophy for Child Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was significant in constructing the idea that intelligence wasn’t a fixed trait. Cognitive development was related to biological maturation and how a child interacts with their environment (McLeod, 2018). Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

This theory promotes children’s understanding of the world and how they experience differences in what they already know and what they discover through their surroundings, environment and experiences. Every child and adult relate what they learn into schemas (ibid, 2018). An advanced version of this is the process of going to the movie theatre. From looking at the selection of films, to buying tickets, purchasing snacks and selecting your seat, there is an order based on memory or a known event, known as your schema. 

While Piaget’s theory did not directly relate to education, it was later discovered how it could be applied to teaching and learning. In 1966, the UK government did a review of the primary education system – based strongly on Piaget’s theory (McLeod, 2018). Discovery learning was introduced and transformed the curriculum. Children could now learn better through actively exploring, playing, and using the environment around them (McLeod, 2018). A vital part of this theory acknowledges that educators should ‘not assume that only what is measurable is valuable’ (Gillard, 2002). According to this theory, readiness is a critical factor for development in the school system, indicating children should not be taught certain concepts until they have grasped or reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development (McLeod, 2018). This theory states that the role of the educator should be to: 

  • Focus on the process of learning instead of the end result.
  • Use active methods of reconstructing “truths” (i.e. a child’s past worldview).
  • Introduce collaborative and individual activities.
  • Evaluate children’s development to set practical tasks and expectations.
  • Develop scenarios that present useful issues that will provoke an alternative thought process for the child. 

Lev Vygotsky

Early Life and Background

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who was born in Orsha, a city in the western region of the Russian Empire, on November 17, 1896 (Cherry, 2020). Initially interested in law, Vygotsky graduated with his degree in 1917 from Moscow State University, where he studied linguistics, psychology, philosophy and sociology. Taking a particular interest in psychology, Vygotsky began his formal education in 1924, attending the Institute of Psychology in Moscow (Cherry, 2020). 

During Vygotsky’s studies in 1925, he suffered from an acute tuberculosis relapse but was able to complete his dissertation and was awarded his degree (Cherry, 2020). He died of the disease years later, in 1934 at just 37 years old. During his career, Lev Vygotsky was renowned for being a thoughtful writer, publishing six books on psychology in a seven-year period. His work primarily centred around child development and education. 

While his research is not as famous as Skinner, Pavlov, Freud and Piaget’s, this has been speculated to be due to the criticism received from the Communist party, making his writings inaccessible to the Western World for sometime, paired with his untimely death (ibid, 2020). Much of his writings remained incomplete and proved to be challenging to translate from their original Russian form but has been noted in educational practice since 1970.  

Findings and Philosophies

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who is well known for his sociocultural theory; he believed that social interaction plays a crucial role in children’s learning and development (Cherry, 2020). His view promoted the distinct idea that most skills and knowledge developed by children stemmed from cultural values, beliefs and problem-solving strategies that were taught through collaborative dialogues with more knowledgeable members of society (i.e. teachers, role models, older children, celebrities, peers, etc) and then on an individual level within the child (McLeod, 2018). Compared to Piaget, you may notice that Vygotsky’s theory does not have specific developmental stages but rather, the community/culture and social interaction are the foundation for cognitive development. 

Differences of Vygotsky’s Theory

While studying Vygotsky’s theory, you may notice similarities and subtle differences between Piaget’s socio-cultural context. While Piaget regards cognitive development as universal, noted through stages, Vygotsky argues that cultural differences play a huge role and can affect cognitive development stages (McLeod, 2018). 

Vygotsky believed that guided learning within the zone of proximal development was the key. The zone of proximal development is the distance between problem-solving independently and the level of potential development determined by problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Cherry, 2020). This “zone” is referred to as what the child knows and what they don’t know yet. In order to acquire missing information on the “unknown,” the child must move forward with the help of someone more knowledgeable to teach them. The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) is anyone who has more knowledge about the task at hand that the child does (Vygotsky 1980). The MKO can be an educator, parent or even a peer. An example of this is guided reading activities where a young child is supported by an older child.

With this theory, learning relies heavily on the environment in which children grow up and the tools they learn from others to process information while placing a high degree of importance on learning from others. In contrast, Piaget promotes independent knowledge and learning (McLeod, 2018). 

A famous case study performed by Shaffer in 1996 showcases this theory with the example of a young girl working her way through her first jigsaw puzzle. While attempting this alone, she struggled to complete the puzzle by herself. Her father then sat with her, and described and demonstrated basic strategies, such as finding edge pieces and provided a few pieces for the child to put together with words of encouragement (McLeod, 2018). 

If the child were left unattended, they would not be able to solve the jigsaw puzzle, or it would have taken a long time to do so. With social interaction and guidance from her father, the child was able to develop the skill that she could apply to future jigsaw puzzles. Once competency shines through, the child is able to problem solve more successfully in an independent setting after the collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development in this case (McLeod, 2018). Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

Significance of Philosophy for Child Development

The significance of the adult or more knowledgeable other is vital to child development. Imitation, guided learning, and collaborative learning are all critical parts of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory (Cherry, 2020). 

In order to promote learning that is within a child’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), teachers can partner ‘less skilled’ children with more advanced peers or older children to help them discover learning experiences. In these scenarios, children are encouraged to observe, imitate or receive instructions to acquire the information or skills they need from The More Knowledgeable Other. Compared to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky emphasizes the interaction with more knowledgeable adults and peers while Piaget stresses peer interaction with lesser focus on their skill level (McLeod, 2018).  

To break it down, consider the jigsaw example and Vygotsky’s theory that every function in a child’s cultural development surfaces twice. The first is on the social level, and the second is on the individual level. To utilize this theory in the successful learning development of children, he advocates for the use of collaborative learning exercises or pairing ‘less competent children with more experienced peers (ZPD) (ibid, 2018).

Through collaborative dialogue, you’ll notice a child gives more attention and is able to retain the information by seeking to understand the instructions provided by an educator, adult or peer. Keep in mind, an adult is not always The Knowledgeable Other in this situation. If a child was learning a new video game, they may seek guidance from an older sibling or friend who has had the game longer (ibid, 2018). 

In today’s educational system, Vygotsky’s theory is reflected through collaboration and learning with others, as a fundamental way of introducing new ideas before exploring independent learning. 

Jerome Bruner

Early Life and Background

Jerome Bruner was an American Psychologist and educator. Born blind on October 1st, 1915, in New York City. Bruner regained his sight and spent the remainder of his years studying how the human mind perceives the world (Schudel, 2016). His research and findings had an instrumental role in today’s educational system. His theories ranged in the topics of perception, memory, learning and other ideologies around cognition in young children (Britannica, 2021). 

When Bruner was only 12 years old, his father, a watch manufacturer, died but not before selling the family business to Bulova, leaving them well off (Schudel, 2016). Bruner began his educational studies at Duke University before attending Harvard, where he received his doctorate in psychology in 1941. After receiving his degree, he served as an expert on psychological warfare during World War 2 for the United States military (Britannica, 2021). 

After 1945, he returned to Harvard but this time as a professor, until he left in 1972 to become a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. He later went on to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York City and at the New York University of Law (ibid, 2021). In the 1960s, Dr. Bruner was also a science adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, where he went on to develop the “spiral curriculum.” 

While Bruner lived to the age of 100, his 70-year academic career was founded in ongoing research. His educational theories were embraced after American school systems feared that students were falling behind in science after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 (Schudel, 2016). He believed that students could grasp any information as long as it was presented in a way that they could understand.

Findings and Philosophies

Bruner’s studies were influenced strongly by Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner. However, he argued that if any subject is presented to a child at any stage of their development, with proper instruction, they can learn it even if challenging (Britannica, 2021). Compared to Piaget and Vygotsky, Bruner did not agree that children couldn’t comprehend material if they had not reached the proper development stage. Instead, he suggested that as long as you learn in an organized manner, from enactive representation, to iconic and then symbolic, you can learn and retain information better (McLeod, 2019). 

Bruner’s findings were based on his curiosity about how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking. During his research, he proposed three modes of representation in which we process our information (McLeod, 2019)

  1. Enactive representation (action based)
  2. Iconic representation (image-based)
  3. Symbolic representation (language-based)

Bruner’s Three Modes of Representation

When describing this theory, modes of representation are related to how information is stored in our memory. This development is not age-related as much as it is in sequential order (McLeod, 2019). The three modes are:


The best way to describe enactive representation is learning by doing. This often happens in the first year of life, where an infant learns by physical actions, such as shaking a rattle or moving around in a jolly jumper. Later in life, this physical learning ability can be observed when first riding a bike or typing on a computer (McLeod, 2019).


Iconic refers to sensory images (aka, icons) such as pictures in your mind, smells, or noises that you can imagine without physically experiencing at that moment. During this stage of learning, when dealing with something new, it may be helpful to have visual aids through diagrams or pictures. 


This is when information is stored and is usually seen in children after the age of six. Children can store information as symbols during the symbolic stage, such as words, math equations, or other systems like music notes (McLeod, 2019). 

Another key finding of Bruner’s was Discovery Learning. This theory proposed that learners construct their own way of thinking by categorizing information within their own coding system (McLeod, 2019). The basis of this is that students learn their own method of discovery rather than being told what to do by the teacher. Instead, the teacher’s role is to facilitate the learning process and give the right tools for the children to draw conclusions from their own method of learning. Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

Significance of Bruner’s Philosophy for Child Development

According to Bruner’s theories, children have a natural curiosity and crave to be seen as competent. However, if not taught in the proper order, they can be easily bored with tasks that are too challenging and overwhelm them. (Britannica, 2021). The best way for them to learn is for the educator to find the right balance between challenging and difficult tasks. Today, we see this happening in our school system with Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum. This teaches subjects at a more manageable level, to begin with, gradually increasing in complexity as children’s learn until they are able to solve the problems independently (McLeod, 2019)

We see this theory practiced today with most of the subjects taught in our educational systems. You wouldn’t give an algebra equation to a child when they have just began to understand multiplication. However, Bruner believed that with the proper instruction or guidance and order of complexity, children will be able to learn more math concepts and even translate new ones independently without the need for much guidance. This is in part because of Bruner’s emphasis on not only teaching information for learning’s sake but for teaching how to learn. Educators must facilitate problem-solving skills and thinking strategies that can be applied to a variety of subjects and real-life experiences. 

The significance of this finding is that although it may be similar to Piaget, this theory stresses the importance of instructions aligned with practice and experience, promoting the learning process to strengthen the overall comprehension of new subjects. 

Maria Montessori

Early Life and Background

Maria Montessori was notably the first female physician, born in Italy on August 31st, 1870 (Biography, 2014). Growing up in the late 1800s, Italy’s old-fashioned conservative values regarding women’s roles did not impede Montessori’s ideologies. From a young age, she rebelled against gender norms and, at the age of 14, attended school at a boys’ technical institute where her understanding of math and sciences, particularly in biology grew (Biography, 2014). Although her father resisted her rebellion initially, her mother’s support propelled her success, where she graduated from the medical school of the University of Rome in 1896 with high honours. As a physician, she specialized in pediatrics and psychiatry and treated many poor and working-class children who attended the free clinics at the medical-school alma mater where she taught. 

Maria Montessori was in charge of Casa dei Bambini school, and her teachings exploded by 1925 with more than 1,000 Montessori schools across the United States. In 1940, the movement was quickly diminishing. Maria Montessori died on May 6, 1952, in the Netherlands, with a surge of Montessori schools led by Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush returning in the 1960s where her teachings live on (Biography, 2014) 

Findings and Philosophies

Montessori became intrigued in early childhood development and education during her time as co-director of the Orthophrenic School for developmentally disabled children in 1900, where she trained teachers in the best approaches for educating unique individuals. While studying the experimentations with the capabilities of children with additional needs from renowned physicians Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin, Montessori began to devise her own method for applying their theories which she began to test in the school system. This eventually led to improvements in the children’s development (Biography, 2014). 

Taking what she learned while teaching children with cognitive additional needs, Montessori believed that she could modify her methods to suit any educational system, regardless of the children’s level of development ability. On January 6, 1907, she was awarded her first classroom, the Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), which was developed for children ages two to seven and opened initially with roughly 60 children (Ruhl, 2021). 

In the first classroom, you wouldn’t just find your typical tables, chairs and blackboard. You could find children engaged in activities that varied from gardening to dusting and even dressing. Montessori noted that free choice allowed students to develop interest on their own. 

Three Major Differences of the Montessori Method

Number 1 Learning Materials

The way children learn in the Montessori method differs depending on the child’s age and capabilities. The thought behind this practice is that a child should understand concrete concepts before complex or abstract ones. For example, before learning how to read, a child will learn how to grip a pencil and begin to write letters. Their motor skills toward the subject are focused on first before understanding the concept of reading (Ruhl, 2021). 

Number 2 Engaging with Learning Materials

A widely criticized method of Montessori teachings is being guided by the child, especially in the way they choose what to learn. Montessori observed that children could focus for an extended period of time if they were interested in that particular subject, which started the “internal work cycle.” As long as a child is willing to set up the activity or space in which they learn and put it away afterwards, they are free to learn what they please, for how long they please and choose who they learn with. (Ruhl, 2021). 

Number 3 Classroom Size

A Montessori classroom is very different from the typical classroom, which is age-based. Sometimes you may see a split class of 6-9-year-olds, but it’s rare. In a Montessori classroom, you can find diverse age ranges, which promote leadership skills for older children to serve as mentors for the younger age groups (Ruhl, 2021).  

In addition to classroom set-up two other fundamental principles guided Montessori’s belief in child development.

  1. One: Children and adults engage in realizing their own identity (self-construction) by interacting with their environment and;
  2. Two: Children have a natural path for psychological development.

Maria Montessori believed that schools that foster self-construction, can propel a child to reach their full potential and that children follow a similar development trajectory. This development takes place on four “planes of development”, which have different characteristics and learning modes that can be applied (Ruhl, 2021). 

First Plane of Development

The first plane typically includes children anywhere from age 0-6 and is the most essential stage. During this time, children should be exploring their physical environment using their senses. You’ll notice that at this stage children may begin to learn language skills and gain interest in small objects, perhaps their favourite toy (Ruhl, 2021).

Second Plane of Development

This plane is typically explored with children aged 6-12. This is generally realized once children work together in a group, rather than individually. During this stage, it’s vital for children to socialise, while also beginning to think independently. An example of this could be discovering more details about the planets, while a friend could be more interested in animals (Ruhl, 2021). 

Third Plane of Development

Children tend to fall in the ages of 12-18 during this developmental stage, normally referred to as adolescence, as they hit puberty. You’ll notice children in this stage crave praise, tangible rewards or recognition for their work (Ruhl, 2021). 

Fourth Plane of Development

Young adults from the ages of 18-24 in this stage begin to embrace their education, findings and begin to lead others from their knowledge. Financial and economic independence are crucial components so that youths can transition to individual adulthood (Ruhl, 2021).

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

Maria Montessori’s methods play a significant role in today’s education system, where successful executives such as Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google), Prince William, Prince Harry and more have fostered their learning experience from (Ruhl, 2021). 

Although it is widely criticized and difficult to pinpoint research that can distinguish the reasonings that Montessori learners are more advanced, a few case studies were able to prove the favourable results. 

In a study conducted between Montessori students and traditional students in France, one hundred fifty-nine, 7-12-year-olds were tested on five different tasks that focused on both divergent and integrative thinking over a long period of time. For every task at both testing periods, Montessori children scored higher than conventional school children (Ruhl, 2021). 

In today’s classrooms, this is what you’ll typically see with Montessori methods and philosophies in action. 

Toddler Programs

The toddler program is typically for children under the age of 3 and encourages children to develop movement and independence, such as potty training. Children are typically given materials and learning opportunities that suit their size and/or skill level during this development stage. It’s common to notice parents present or teachers assistants to actively participate with the children (Ruhl, 2021). 

Preschool and Kindergarten

You’ll find a classroom with Montessori methods at this stage with roughly 20-30 children of mixed ages with an entire team of teachers that can promote both independent learning and social interaction opportunities. An example of this type of learning is when a teacher introduces the activities, puts a variety of them on shelves throughout the room, and lets the children choose which one to explore at their own pace. Activities range from hands-on approaches such as washing tables and sweeping to academic subjects like language, math and art (Ruhl, 2021). 

Elementary Classrooms

Children in Montessori schools for elementary classes can range anywhere from age 6-12, where the philosophy of children’s personal interest in learning supersedes conventional methods. An educator will first teach the lessons to groups of children and then allow them to freely learn and explore independently. A vital component of this approach is investigating outside the classroom and exploring new learning methods (Ruhl, 2021). 

Middle and High School

For middle and high school students, Montessori methods continue to nurture individual learning while inspiring children to explore subjects that interest them through positive discovery. 

Overall, Montessori’s philosophies were significant in showcasing the “guided by children” method that celebrated learning and exploration over specific academic results in predetermined categories. Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.


Early Life and Background

While David Weikart organized the HighScope education method, the leading theorists behind this curriculum are Piaget and Vygotsky. With the headquarters located in Ypsilanti, Michigan, this educational process was founded in 1970 as a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of children and youth worldwide. It also supports educators and parents as they help children learn with participative engagement. (Rock, 2020)

After examining 123 African American children that were born into poverty and were at risk for failing out of school,  the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study concluded that individuals who received a high-quality preschool program excelled compared to those in their neighbourhood who did not attend a similar program (Schweinhart, 2003). 

Findings and Philosophies

The HighScope method is recognized for taking an “intentional learning” approach that engages both educators and children. In this method, you can find Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky’s ideologies woven together for supportive learning where teachers are in place to both support and guide the learning process (Rock, 2020). 

This approach tackles the intention that teachers will validate what the child already knows and, when the time is right, use a scaffolding method to teach the next step in learning, similar to Bruner’s theory about appropriate stages for learning complex teachings. In the classroom, you may recognize a HighScope curriculum as a busy environment with students simultaneously working independently and coming together to discuss what they’ve learned (Rock, 2020). 

Founded in 1970, this method was introduced as part of the Perry Preschool Project, which strived to provide early childhood education to young children that belonged to low-income families in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After introducing this philosophy to the education program, students were reported:

  • More likely to graduate from high school
  • Less likely to commit crimes
  • Had better employment opportunities
  • Earned more income than those who did not attend preschool or engage in a HighScope program (Rock, 2020). 

With this philosophy comes a high emphasis on documentation in order to improve the education and individual hands-on approach of parents with their children (UK Essays, 2018). 

This theory thrives on the basis that children are intentional learners who grasp new information better if they are able to be involved in the educational planning process, carry out activities on their own and review their findings. A teacher and parent’s role in this is to observe, support and challenge ideologies. In order for this study to be successful, home visits were conducted to ensure there was educational support at home as well (Schweinhart, 2003).

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

The significance of the HighScope method for child development directly relates to essential learning experiences, how they are divided and the active learning that takes place between the educator and the child. With a consistent yet flexible approach, children are able to express initiative and participate in the learning process. 

While this method takes care and attention to a child’s specific needs, it can be time-consuming for educators who must be keen on observations throughout the child’s studies. A Child Observation Record is kept, which is noted on a daily basis around 58 key developmental indicators (Rock, 2020). 

In order for this philosophy to be successful for educators today, the national High/Scope Training of Trainers must be available to provide teachers with hands-on workshops, observation, feedback and follow-up sessions for effective learning (Schweinhart, 2003). 

While these reports prove the value of high-quality education in Preschool, especially for children of poverty, it is not the only circumstance that affects society’s education methods. It is difficult to maintain in densely populated areas with education support staff that is spread thin. 

Sigmund Freud 

Early Life and Background

On May 6, 1856, Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia, now known as Příbor, Czech Republic and died at the age of 83 on September 23rd, 1939, in London, England. Although many are wildly critiqued, Freud is world-renowned for his theories. He was an Austrian neurologist who created psychoanalysis, and his thought-provoking work changed the way we view culture, society, and the human psyche (Jay, 2021). 

His history begins as the son of a Jewish wool merchant, Jakob, who is remembered as a strict authority figure while Freud was being nurtured emotionally by his mother, Amalie Nathansohn. In 1859, the family moved to Leipzig and settled a year later in Vienna, where Freud remained for the next 78 years (Jay, 2021). 

Freud pursued his career in medicine at the University of Vienna and by 1885 was appointed as a lecturer in neuropathology with research on the brain’s medulla. During this time, he also found an interest in the pharmaceutical benefits of cocaine, with an unpleasant outcome of addiction within his peers that tarnished his reputation for years to come (Jay, 2021). 

In 1886, Freud married Martha Bernays, daughter of a prominent Jewish family and had six children, one of whom was to carry his legacy as a psychoanalyst. In the early 1900s, Freud began his groundbreaking work in Psychosexual Stages of Development, highlighting the importance of child milestones and how a misstep can lead to mental illness and emotional distress (Kassel, 2020). 

Findings and Philosophies

If you’ve heard the terms “oral fixation” or “penis envy,” these were coined by Sigmund Freud during his study of psychosexual stages of development (Kassel, 2020). He described that children go through a series of these stages that directly affect the personality developed throughout childhood. During these stages, the erogenous zone associates itself with a source of pleasure. If specific issues are not resolved at the appropriate stage, fixations can begin to occur and last throughout adulthood. An example of this could be someone who did not overcome the oral stage and is now over-dependent on others, seeking stimulation through eating, smoking or drinking (Cherry, 2020). 

Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development

Stage 1: Oral Stage

This stage will be familiar to parents and educators as they recall their infant instinctively putting everything in their mouth. The reason for this is that the mouth is vital to an infant and all gratification they receive. Oral stimulation comes from activities such as tasting or sucking, and the infant primarily experiences this by depending on their provider. At this stage, the weaning process begins, and if fixation occurs, Freud believed it directly impacted adult problems, such as nail-biting, smoking or overeating (Cherry, 2020).

Stage 2: Anal Stage

The age range for this stage is typically 1 to 3 years, with the main focus on bowel and bladder control as the libido is trying to focus on these movements. During this stage, the conflict that parents are overcoming in their child’s development is potty training. Success is solely dependent on the parent’s performance of motivating the toilet training. Too lenient, you may find that an anal-expulsive personality develops when the child becomes messy or destructive into adulthood. Freud explained that anal-retentive character could develop with a too strict approach, which is expressed in adulthood as obsessive or rigid (Cherry, 2020).

Stage 3: Phallic Stage

This tends to occur in children ages 3 to 6 years old with a sudden curiosity for genitals. You may notice that children are asking questions about the differences between boys and girls. Freud believed that boys might view fathers as rivals for mothers’ affection during this stage, while girls may experience penis envy. However, psychologist Karen Horney disputed this theory as inaccurate and demeaning, also suggesting that boys could also have womb envy and feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth. 

The Latent Stage

From age 6 to puberty, adolescents develop social skills and relationships with both peers outside of the family and family members. Children are entering an explorative stage with their energy during this time, yet the sexual curiosity is dormant. While in the latent stage, children are encouraged to develop social skills, communication skills and self-confidence. If “stuck” on this developmental threshold, fixation can result in difficulty forming relationships as an adult or persistent immaturity (Cherry, 2020). 

The Genital Stage

This stage takes us through the rest of our life after it sets in during puberty. The libido is activated and begins its final stage in developing strong sexual interest. In Freud’s time, he concluded this could only be possible for members of the opposite sex, which has since seen fewer supporters. Adolescents who are successfully developing in this stage can balance their needs with conforming to the demands of reality and caring for the welfare of others (Cherry, 2020). 

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

Today, Freud’s complex theory can be described as simply this: Sexual pleasure plays a significant role in human development. For a child to be considered developing at a “healthy” rate, they must evolve through the five stages with the specific parts of the body. As Dr. Mark Mayfield, founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers, explains, “A child’s ability to resolve that conflict determines whether or not they were able to move onto the next stage”  (Kessel, 2020). 

Freud believed that children, and in turn, adults, can get “stuck” for one of two reasons. 

  1. Their needs weren’t met during this stage, causing frustration and fixation. 
  2. Their needs were overindulged, so they didn’t want to leave that stage. 

While Freud is famous for his ideologies, he is widely criticized for his male-focused and hetero-centric findings the stages bring. Although things have changed, Freud played a big part in today’s society due to his theories which inspired other psychologists to continue comparative research (Kessel, 2020). 

Albert Bandura 

Early Life and Background

Albert Bandura was born in a small Canadian town just 50 miles from Edmonton, known as Mundare, on December 4th, 1925. He was the youngest of six and his early years in the education system took place in a small school with only two educators for high school. According to Bandura’s recollection, “The students had to take charge of their own education.” (Cherry, 2020). 

His secondary education began in biological sciences at the University of British Columbia, where his interest in psychology supposedly formed as an accident. He arrived at school earlier than his courses began, which motivated him to take “filler classes” to pass the time where he stumbled upon psychology, which propelled him into his career. He later went on to earn his MA degree in 1951 and Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1952 (Cherry, 2020).

Findings and Philosophies

Albert Bandura put a focus on the importance of observing behaviours, modelling them and then imitating the behaviours based on the reaction of others. Many behavioural theories suggest that learning must be directly related by associations and formed by either conditioning, reinforcement or punishment. Bandura’s social learning theory suggested that learning can also occur just by watching others and observing their actions (Cherry, 2020).Want to learn more about guiding positive behaviour in children with strategies you can use immediately? Watch this 40 minute masterclass with an optional certificate here.

Think of it like “monkey see, monkey do.” Kids often imitate actions they observe, whether it’s from other kids, siblings, parents or digital influences that are considered to be models of behaviour. One of the well-known experiments showcasing how this theory can be proven is the Bobo Doll study. Bandura had children observe an adult acting violently towards a Bobo Doll. Later, when children were allowed to play with the doll, they imitated what they saw and played more aggressively (Cherry, 2020). 

While the theory was proven through a live demonstration in this instance, the social behaviour philosophy can also occur through symbolic modelling in books or movies or through verbal instruction. 

For this theory to prove successful, four mediational processes must occur in order for the learned behaviour or skill to be repeated. 

Key Factors in Observational Learning and Modelling Process


For either a child or adult to learn a new skill through this process, they have to be paying attention. With attention spans averaging 8 seconds, not every behaviour will be observed as they need to be noteworthy and grab the observer’s attention.


During the retention stage, in order for observational learning to occur, you must store information and recall it when necessary. Sometimes the behaviour is difficult to reproduce, which is where repetition makes retention of observed behaviour easier. 


Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, the next step is to reproduce that behaviour. This isn’t always possible, and further practice is where skills develop. A child may be able to pay attention to the workings of a piano, observe an adult playing, and retain information on the notes. However, they may not be able to play a complex Mozart melody until further practice is performed. Another hurdle is physical capability. An elderly woman with a recent hip replacement may be able to watch a group of talented skateboarders understand how to do the trick but cannot reproduce the result. 


The final stage of observational learning is the motivation to do the behaviour again. Reinforcement and ridicule play an integral part in this theory, both externally and internally. This can occur when a younger sibling observes their older sister get praised when they make dinner for the family. The child may start asking questions about how they can help or take the initiative and cook a terrible batch of scrambled eggs. While the correct thought process is there, they may need repetition to advance this skill. 

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

The Social Learning Theory has been a significant philosophy for child development by giving educators an additional tool to motivate children through positive reinforcement and by teaching new concepts through the 4 step process. 

Flaws in this theory lie in the learner’s internal motivation to make a change in their behaviour or develop a new skill. You can give positive reinforcement to a student and model exemplary behaviour when it comes to recycling, but if their inner motivation doesn’t care, they won’t reproduce this positive behaviour. 

When working with children, it’s essential to understand that teachers are often noted as models of behaviour and other students in the room. It’s critical to be vocal about positive and negative reinforcement to promote stopping or continuing a behaviour. 

Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner

Early Life and Background

Burrhus Frederick Skinner (known as B.F. Skinner for reasons you can likely assume) was born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, where he spent his childhood. The son of a lawyer and stay-at-home mother, Skinner, began to show an interest in building inventions at an early age ( Editors, 2014). 

He began his studies at Hamilton College with a flair for writing and pursued it professionally after graduation in 1926. Two years later, after little success, he pursued psychology at Harvard University. During his time there, he was persistent in finding an objective way to measure and study behaviour – thus, the Skinner Box was born. He went on to publish reports on his findings which are well known today, such as The Behavior of Organisms ( Editors, 2014). Want to learn more about guiding positive behaviour in children with strategies you can use immediately? Watch this 40 minute masterclass with an optional certificate here.

In 1990, Skinner died on August 18 after battling leukemia for the past year, but his beliefs live on through the B.F. Skinner Foundation, which is led by his daughter, Julie Vargas ( Editors, 2014). 

Findings and Philosophies

B.F. Skinner is known as the father of Reinforcement, otherwise referred to as Operant Conditioning, based on Thorndike’s 1898 law of effect. Through this theory, Skinner developed a study in which he experimented on animals within a ‘Skinner Box.’ Animals would either be punished or rewarded for engaging in behaviours, such as a rat pressing a lever.  (McLeod, 2018)

Three Operants of B.F. Skinner’s Theory

Neutral Operants

In this case, responses from the environment are neither positive nor negative impact a repetition in the behaviour. 


This positive or negative response suggests that if that behaviour is repeated, the same positive or negative response will happen again. 


This is a purely negative response that is set to weaken the subject’s behaviour and decrease the likeliness of that behaviour being repeated. 

Positive reinforcement can be found everywhere, and in Skinner’s study, was revealed to rats who pressed a lever in order to get food. This can translate to earning an extra 15 minutes of playtime at recess for finishing your homework in the classroom. Negative reinforcement and punishers are tough to distinguish as they are similar in practice. Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviour because it removes an unpleasant experience. If you had to take out the classroom garbage if you forgot to do your homework, you might quickly remember to come to class prepared with it completed. When a behaviour you want to be changed occurs, a punisher directly applies the punishment, such as cancelling recess for any child with unfinished homework (McLeod, 2018).

Throughout this study, a fundamental critique was the schedule of reinforcement and if the behaviour would continue without these motivations. This is known as the response rate (how quickly the behaviour happened) and the extinction rate (how quickly it stopped). Using the example of education as the scenario, the theory continued as follows (McLeod, 2018): 

Continuous Reinforcement

A child is positively reinforced every time a specific behaviour occurs, e.g. cleaning up their work table/desk earns them licorice. With this sentiment, the response rate is slow, learning that it will happen every time while the extinction rate is fast. Once the positive reinforcement stops, the child may keep things messy longer and not change overall behaviour (McLeod, 2018). 

Fixed Ratio Reinforcement

Behaviour is only reinforced in this scenario if the same behaviour is repeated a specified number of times. For example, if a child has a clean desk every day for five days, they receive licorice. Through this notion, the response rate is fast while the extinction rate is medium (McLeod, 2018). 

Fixed Interval Reinforcement

If you reward a child every 3 hours if they keep their desk clean, this is an example of fixed-interval reinforcement. As long as the correct behaviour persists during the interval time, they are rewarded. This is recognized to have a medium response rate with a medium extinction rate (McLeod, 2018). 

Variable Ratio Reinforcement

This practice is often compared to gambling or fishing in the sense that it is unpredictable when you will receive the reward. A child may volunteer to play a game of chance in school, knowing there will be a reward with licorice if the results are favourable. The response rate is fast in this case, with a slow extinction rate due to its unpredictable nature (McLeod, 2018).

Variable Interval Reinforcement

Given that positive behaviour has been established, a child may be given licorice after an unpredictable amount of time has passed, varying from 5 minutes to 5 hours and beyond. In an adult’s life, this can be found in a self-employed person being paid unpredictably. Under this assumption, the response rate is fast, with a slow extinction rate (McLeod, 2018).  Want to learn more about guiding positive behaviour in children with strategies you can use immediately? Watch this 40 minute masterclass with an optional certificate here.

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

In today’s classroom, educators often practice B.F. Skinner’s behaviour modification theory without even realizing it. Every time they punish a student for doing a behaviour they wish to be corrected, they display negative reinforcement acts. Rather than this theory lending to the learning aspect of education, it is more suited in terms of behaviour. 

This theory doesn’t always hold water and can be considered parallel to bribery, extinguishing meaning after the reinforcement rewards are no longer in effect. When practicing this theory to advance learning performance, teachers can shape behaviour by encouraging students to answer questions in class by praising them on participation alone, whether they get the answer right or wrong. Introducing a variable ratio to this practice will then only praise students who get the answer right, therefore offering this praise during intervals (McLeod, 2018).

Another example of this in today’s child development stages is by using the “token economy” system. They can be in the form of stickers, gold stars, fake money, etc., that add up to a reward for an exchange of tokens. Just like the flaws in Skinner’s theory, when this was found to be effective for psychiatric patients, it was proven to be difficult when adjusting to society when the system of tokens as they understood it no longer existed (McLeod, 2018). 

In all, this theory is famous for its behaviour modification results but questionable in the length the desired results will last. Success will only be realized through successive approximation, where rewards and punishments are adjusted to encourage those results.  

Erik Erikson

Early Life and Background

Erik Erikson is famous for his identity crisis theory which marked a significant shift in thinking on personality and development well through the age of maturity. In his early life, Erikson was introduced to the disparity of identity crisis when he learned that the man raising him was not his biological father (Cherry, 2020). 

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 15, 1902, Erik’s young Jewish mother, Karla Abrahamsen, raised him by herself until marrying a physician, Dr. Theodore Homberger. This sparked Erik’s interest in identity and was fueled further after his rejection from grammar school because of his Jewish background. In the same instance, his Jewish temple school also teased Erikson for being the only tall, blue-eyed blonde around (Cherry, 2020). 

Erikson was not on the path to learning about identity in the traditional manner. After dropping out of medical school, he went on to explore his crisis while wandering Europe with close friends. It wasn’t until a friend of Anna Freud (Sigmund Freud’s daughter) invited him to teach at a progressive school did he start his studies into psychoanalysis (Cherry, 2020). 

Findings and Philosophies

Erik Erikson was an ego psychologist who developed a popular theory that was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work. Still, instead of psychosexual development as the basis, he believed psychosocial development proved to be prominent (Cherry, 2021). 

Comparative to Freud in terms of developmental stages, Erikson’s theory promotes that personality is developed in a series of stages that lead to conflict. If the conflict is not realized and overcome, the child or young adult may not build confidence or a strong self and may lack social normalcies compared to their peers. In contrast to other theorists, Erikson is generous with his theory and believes that development continues well into matured adult years and any stage can be successfully resolved at a later time (McLeod, 2018). A quick summary of these stages can be viewed below.

Conflict / Crisis
Possible Event
Virtue / Outcome
Infancy (age 0-18 months)
Trust vs. Mistrust
Early Childhood (age 2-3)
Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Toilet Training
Preschool (age 3-5)
Initiative vs. Guilt
School Age (age 6-11)
Industry vs. Inferiority
Adolescence (age 12 to 18)
Identity vs. Role Confusion
Social Relationships
Young Adulthood (age 19 to 40)
Intimacy vs. Isolation
Middle Adulthood (age 40-65)
Generativity vs. Stagnation
Work and Parenthood
Maturity (65 to death)
Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Reflection on Life

(Cherry, 2021). 

Erikson’s theory did have notable limitations and gained valid criticism but acted as a framework to view the entire lifespan in terms of development. There are no specific experiences that need to happen to successfully complete a stage and no root cause for moving on to the next (Cherry, 2021). 

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

The significance of Erikson’s philosophy for child development amplifies the importance of ego strength and how it aligns with continued growth. Being able to identify the underlying conflict or struggle based on the child’s age or stage is helpful for educators and parents to guide them to a sense of accomplishment and a healthy personality. 

Let’s compare the early years to common areas of development for children and how Erikson’s theory explains the behaviour and what needs to occur to move to the next stage. 

Trust vs. Mistrust 

During a child’s infancy, they are entirely dependent on their caregivers for the basic needs to survive. If an infant receives consistent, predictable care, they will move onto the net stage with a feeling of security. However, if their needs are not met, they may develop mistrust towards adults being able to provide for their needs. Success in this stage leads to the outcome & virtue of hope. Failure may lead to fear and anxiety (McLeod, 2018). 

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

This stage is primarily focused on personal control, independence and physical skills with a successful outcome leading to the virtue of will. Increased independence breeds increased confidence, while an overly controlled environment promotes self-doubt. During this stage, it’s important to let children explore and not be criticized harshly for mistakes made during this stage (McLeod, 2018). 

Initiative vs. Guilt

In the third stage of Erikson’s theory, you’ll recognize children planning activities and initiating play with others. When encouraged to explore this behaviour, children feel secure in making decisions and being a leader. If a child is being criticized or controlled during this stage, they will begin to feel guilt. An example of negativity is when a child asks too many questions and is treated as a bother, causing them to stop asking questions and quiet their curiosity (McLeod, 2018). Want more information on developmental psychology? Take our free professional development 1 hour course here.

Industry vs. Inferiority 

During this stage, children are turning to peers and teachers for support, beginning a turning point for their self-esteem. During this development, children will feel pride in accomplishments that society is placing value on. This can be evident if a classroom particularly likes soccer and the child is the star goalie. However, a child can feel inferior if they can’t attain a skill that is perceived as important by their community. Success is mirrored through the virtue of competence in this stage, while failure can be recognized through modesty. While in balance, modesty and competence are the perfect pair, be careful to ensure a child is not shying away from activities (McLeod, 2018). 

Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage of Erikson’s theory and how it pertains to child development occurs during the adolescent stage of 12-18-year-olds, where they are searching for self and personal identity. Essentially, it is the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Children begin to learn their role as adults, observe their identity, and figure out who they are. In Erikson’s belief, this is in two parts: sexual and occupational (McLeod, 2018). 

Understanding the conflicts and potential outcomes through a child’s development is crucial in supporting their learning environment as well as personal growth. 

Arnold Gesell

Early Life and Background

Arnold Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin, on June 21st, 1880. He was considered to be the pioneer of research that followed the process of human development from birth through adolescence through his recordings. He went on to receive his Bachelor’s Degree in 1906 from the University of Wisconsin before pursuing his Ph.D. in psychology from Clark University, where he later accepted an assistant professor position in 1911. He also earned his M.D. in 1915 and set up a “psycho-clinic,” now known as the Clinic of Child Development, where he acted as Professor of Child Hygiene at Yale from 1930-1948. While his work initially began as a curiosity in the development of disabled children, it evolved to understanding typical infant behaviour in contrast. (Mayes, 2018). 

Findings and Philosophies

In the early 20th century, Arnold Gesell was a clinical psychologist and pediatrician who developed a theory on child development that was based on observations of children from birth to adulthood that displayed both ordinary and exceptional patterns of behaviour. His Maturation Theory is considered what we know today as developmental milestones (Britannica, 2012). 

His research started with his concern to understand children with development challenges and concluded that he must first understand the typical patterns of development before being able to comprehend abnormalities. In order to observe the behaviour he needed for his studies, Gesell introduced a movie camera in 1926 to record his findings and monitor changes in behaviour. He put children in controlled environments with predetermined stimulations and recorded them through a one-way mirror (Britannica, 2012). Want to learn more about guiding positive behaviour in children with strategies you can use immediately? Watch this 40 minute masterclass with an optional certificate here.

From his research, Gesell found that children have to reach specific maturational stages before any learning can influence behaviour, and there was a hereditary connection for four key areas: motor skills, adaptive behaviour, language development and personal social skills (Britannica, 2012). 

From this, he created the Gesell Developmental Schedules, which were applicable for children from four weeks to six years of age that would test them for situations and measure both qualitatively and quantitatively (Mayes, 2018). 

Significant of Philosophy for Child Development

Gesell’s methodology of using motion pictures and one-way screens to observe behaviour is now used by many researchers today who rely on the longevity of these studies. His findings are used as a benchmark for developmental schedules, now used as a standard method for assessing children’s development (Mayes, 2018). 

His maturation theory was based on the premise that there was a series of fixed sequences after birth, such as tongue movement first before control of the neck and shoulders. While development was believed by Gesell to be influenced by genetics and environment, he also upheld the importance of psychological development as the key to later success (Mayes, 2018). 

Under Gesell’s theory, he suggests that teaching children should be done in the order of things – i.e. only teach them when they are both physically and mentally ready. If you go ahead of the child’s developmental structure, it could do more harm than good. While educators and theorists use these evaluations as a baseline for normalcy, many questions are left unanswered, like if a child falls behind in their development stage and how they can catch up (Mayes, 2018).


From Freud’s theory on behaviour modification to Piaget’s stages of development, we can see pieces of each theorists’ philosophy woven into our current approaches to learning and the education system, which ultimately shapes child development. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to understand the developmental stages, but rather an encouragement to continue exploration in education to spark new ideas that will assist in the expansion of our methods to promote healthy growth and development in children. 

About TeachKloud 

TeachKloud is an innovative platform designed for early childhood educators and childcare providers. It offers a range of tools and resources to streamline administrative tasks, improve communication with parents, and enhance overall childcare management. With features such as attendance tracking, learning journals, parent engagement tools, and curriculum planning, TeachKloud aims to empower educators, simplify daily operations, and create a nurturing and engaging environment for young learners. By utilising TeachKloud, childcare professionals can focus more on teaching and nurturing children while efficiently managing the administrative aspects of their work. We also provide resources such as these, videos, webinars and free training for the TeachKloud community. Learn more here.


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