Theories of child development

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Describe and evaluate two stage theories of child development

Developmental psychologists use theories to formulate hypotheses. There are three main, very broad families of theories related to child development. These are Psychoanalytical Theory, Learning Theory and Cognitive-Developmental Theory. Theories within each of these families attempt to provide developmentalists with comprehensive explanations of just about every facet of human development. Psychoanalytic Theories (e.g. Freud and Erikson) propose that developmental change happens because of the influence of internal drives and emotions on behaviour. Learning Theories (e.g. Pavlov, Bandura etc.) propose that development results from an accumulation of experiences. Cognitive-Developmental Theories (e.g. Piaget and Vygotsky) emphasise the mental processes in development.

Freud's Psychosexual Theory is an example of a Psychoanalytical Theory. Freud mainly worked with adult's who were suffering from severe mental illnesses and he used his findings to base his work on development. He concluded that behaviour is governed by both conscious and unconscious thought processes and he believed that the libido is the motivating force behind most of our behaviour. One of the main parts of Freud's theory is his idea that a person's personality is divided into 3 parts called the id, the ego and the superego. The id is a person's basic sexual and aggressive impulses. The id contains the libido and motivates a person to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The ego is the conscious, thinking part of a person's personality. One of its main jobs is to keep the needs of the id satisfied. It is also responsible for keeping the three components of personality in balance. Finally, the superego is the part of our personality that acts as a moral judge. When the superego has developed, the ego's task becomes much more difficult. It must satisfy the id without violating the superego's rules. According to Freud, a person experiences tension when any of the three components is in conflict with another. He believed that sexual feelings are vital to personality development however he only believed this because many of his patients had memories of sexual feelings and behaviour in childhood. Freud's most controversial idea was regarding children's experiences of sexual attraction towards the opposite-sex parent during the phallic stage. He termed these ‘The Oedipus Conflict' for a male child and ‘The Electra Complex' if the child was female. For example, The Oedipus Conflict states that a male child has sexual feelings for his mother but fears that his father will find out and castrate him.

Freud proposed a series of psychosexual stages. He believed that a child passes through each one of these stages. These stages are oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. He believed that during each stage the libido is fixed around a certain area of the body and a major developmental task takes place. For example, in the oral stage, which Freud believed occurred from birth and lasted until the child was one year old, libido is said to be focussed on the mouth, lips and tongue. Freud believed that during this stage the major developmental task that took place was weaning. In the anal stage, libido is focussed on the anus and toilet training takes place. This usually occurs at ages 1 to 3 years old. In the phallic stage, focus is on the genitals (as it is in the genital stage) and this is where the child tries to resolve the Oedipus/Electra complex. Freud thought that the latency period is not really a psychosexual stage as the libido is not focussed on the body during this period and therefore, fixation is impossible. Freud went on to state that if an adult is fixated at one of these stages, they will have certain recognisable characteristics. For example, if an adult is fixated at the oral stage they will develop characteristics such as smoking, overeating, passivity and gullibility. According to Freud, optimum development requires an environment that will satisfy the unique needs of each period.

Freud's Psychosexual Theory has been praised because it provides a psychological explanation for mental illness and it emphasises the importance of experiences in infancy and early childhood. It also highlights the importance of the child's earliest relationships with their caregivers. It suggests that a child's needs change with age, so parents and caregivers must continually adapt to the changing child. Erikson's Psychosocial Theory supports Freud's Theory. Erikson (1963) was a neo-Freudian which means that his ideas were built on the strengths of Freud's Theory but he attempted to avoid the weaknesses. Erikson proposed that personality develops in eight psychosocial stages over the course of the lifespan. He believed that personality develops through eight life crises across the entire lifespan. A person finishes each crisis with either a good or poor resolution. The theory also provided psychologists with a number of helpful concepts (e.g. id, ego, superego, unconscious etc) and many of these terms are not used in everyday language and not just in psychological theory. Freud is often credited with the invention of psychotherapy, which is still practiced today.

However, there are many theorists that disagree with Freud's ideas. For example, Baldwin (1967) states that one of the main criticisms of Freud's work is that it focus upon our thoughts and feelings, which presents many methodological problems. Baldwin goes on to comment on the fact that many of the terms that Freud uses (e.g. id, ego etc.) have not been operationalised. Operational definitions of the key terms are vital to a scientific theory as we need precise definitions in order to test the theories properly. This therefore means that the theory is not falsifiable. Freud's theory has also been criticised because of the evidence it presents. As stated earlier, much of the support for Freud's theory came from his own patients, who he used as case studies. He mainly chose to study women as he saw them as being inferior and this meant that his theory displays some very patriarchal issues and can be viewed as being very negative to women, something which feminists have argued for years.

Piaget's Cognitive-Developmental Theory is used to emphasise the mental processes in development. Piaget (1974) believed that all children seem to go through the same sequence of discoveries about their world, making the same mistakes and arriving at the same solutions. A scheme is an internal cognitive structure that provides an individual with a procedure to use in a specific circumstance. This is a main idea in Piaget's model. Piaget believed that each of us starts life with a small repertoire of sensory and motor schemes, such as looking, tasting, touching, hearing, and reaching. As we use each scheme it starts to work better. Piaget proposed 3 processes in order to explain how children get from built-in schemes, such as looking and touching, to the complex mental schemes used in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Assimilation is the process by which we use a scheme to make sense of an event or situation. The complementary process is accommodation, which involves changing the scheme as a result of some new information acquired through assimilation. Through accommodation we improve our skills and reorganise our ways of thinking. Equilibration is the process of balancing assimilation and accommodation to create schemes that fit the environment.

Piaget's research suggested to him that logical thinking evolves in four stages. During the sensorimotor stage, from birth to 18 months, infants use their sensory and motor schemes to act on the world around them. In the preoperational stage, from 18 months to 6 years, children acquire symbolic schemes, such as language and fantasy, which they use in thinking and communicating. Next, is the concrete operational stage, 6-12 year olds begin to think logically and become capable of solving problems. The final stage is the formal operational stage. Here, adolescents learn to think logically about abstract ideas and hypothetical situations. Piaget believed that each stage comes from the one before it, and each involves major restructuring of the child's way of thinking. Research has confirmed that the sequence of stages is fixed and that children progress through them at different rates.

Conservation studies, such as those carried out by Ciancio et al (1999) and Sophian (1995), have generally confirmed Piaget's observations. Although it does seem as though younger children can demonstrate some understanding of conservation if the task is made very simple, most children cannot consistently solve conservation and other kinds of logical problems until at least the age of 5. However, Boyd and Bee (2008) state that preschoolers are a great deal more cognitively sophisticated than Piaget thought. Boyd and Bee believe that children, as young as 2 and 3, do appear to understand that another person sees and experiences things differently than they do. This therefore suggests that Piaget may have been wrong about some of the ages at which children develop certain skills. However, Bringuier (1980) counter-criticises this by recognising that the age ranges of each of the stages were always meant to be approximate. Piaget may also be wrong about the generality of the stages. For example, Boyd and Bee (2008) suggest that most 8 year olds show concrete operational thinking on some tasks but not on others, and they are more likely to show complex thinking on familiar rather than unfamiliar tasks. This therefore suggests that the process of child development may be a lot less stage-like than Piaget first suggested. Piatelli-Palmarini (1980) and Turiel (1996) go on to further argue this point by suggesting that it is very difficult to provide evidence for Piaget's theory if the behaviour he suggests is very rarely, if ever, consistent with actually happens.

This theory helps to explain how children of different ages think about and act on the world. Piaget's research findings have been replicated in nearly every culture since his work was first published in the 1920's. Therefore, not only did he formulate a new theory which forced psychologists to think about child development in a new way, he also provided a set of findings that were impossible to ignore and difficult to explain. He also developed innovative methods of studying children's thinking that continue to be important today.

Feldman (2004) states that the question of how a child moves from one stage to another has been discussed between many critics of Piaget's theory. For example, Gruber and Voneche (1977) and Karmiloff-Smith (1992) believe that Piaget's stages should not longer be considered by theorists because they are unnecessary. However, Piaget knew that the stages he proposed would have to be modified. Feldman (2004) attempted to present a contemporary version of Piaget's stages that he hoped would work better to express Piaget's vision of what the stages are intended to represent. Feldman went on to state that a child may not actually behave in ways consistent with the principles of the operating system or overall set of cognitive structures of his or her stage.

Feldman (2004) suggests that Piaget's idea of equilibration has caused much controversy between theorists with many making efforts to interpret, clarify, critique and revise the concept. Feldman goes on to say that Piaget himself was not satisfied with the way that equilibration explains in detail how the transitions between the stages take place. Piaget (1975) tried to discover an elaborated version of equilibration so as to better capture movement from stage to stage within his theory. The main problem with equilibration is that it lacks a lot of detail. Most critics seem to agree that it is correct, but it leaves many unanswered questions. When equilibration processes are contrasted with structures as a whole, lots of problems arise for the theory. According to Siegler and Munakato (1993) the equilibration model forces us to choose to accept unrealistic transitions that occur from stage to stage or to abandon the idea of structures as a whole. However, if this was to happen, some of the theory's major claims would be abandoned. Feldman (1995) went on to adapt Piaget's theory. In doing so, he adapted it in such a way that the equilibration process would continue to play a central role in cognitive structures, but it no longer has to carry the burden of stage transition alone.

The Information Processing Theory supports Piaget's Theory. This uses the computer as a model to explain intellectual processes such as memory and problem-solving. It suggests that there are both age differences and individual differences in the efficiency with which humans use their information-processing systems. This theory can be used to explain Piaget's Theory. Case (1985) states that this is a neo-Piagetian theory which expands on Piaget's Theory rather than contradicting it. However, Boyd and Bee (2008) state that Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory goes against what Piaget proposed. Vygotsky stated that complex forms of thinking have their origins in social interactions rather than in the child's private explorations, as Piaget thought.