A group of children drawing and coloring at table with teacher in classroomDevelopmental psychology, a broad area of study exploring the development of humans over time, involves the examination of the ways people develop over the course of their lifespan as well as the evolution of cultures as a whole. Those who work in the field of developmental psychology seek to better understand how people learn and adapt to changes over time. 

Developmental psychologists might work in schools, hospitals, or assisted living facilities, and they might also conduct research or teach in higher education or government institutes. People seeking therapy for issues related to development may also encounter helping professionals who have a background in developmental psychology.

Developmental Psychology Theories

People undergo many physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, and emotional changes throughout life, and it is these changes that developmental psychologists study. Developmental psychology theories tend to explain development in terms of a progression through life stages.

One such of these theories, Jean Piaget's theory of development, is considered to be the first stage theory, and Piaget himself is considered to be one of the most important figures in developmental psychology. Piaget believed all individuals passed through through the same four stages. In order to progress from one stage to the next, a person must meet the goals of the current stage. This theory is used widely in school curriculums. 

  • The sensorimotor stage marks the first two years of life. In this stage, babies are learning about and experimenting with the physical world. Object permanence and language development are important goals in this stage. 
  • The preoperational stage typically lasts until about the age of 7. During this stage, children learn to use symbolic thinking to deepen their understanding of various concepts.
  • Children between the ages of 7 and 12 are usually in the concrete operational stage, where they are likely to demonstrate logic and increased reasoning.
  • The final stage, formal operational, typically begins around the age of 11 and lasts through adulthood. This stage is characterized by the understanding of abstract concepts.

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Erik Erikson, who was interested in both individual development (how a person develops a sense of self) as well as a person’s social/cultural identity (the roles played within one's family and in society), is another important figure in the field of developmental psychology. His stage theory is based on his belief that every individual passes through eight stages of development over the course of their life. 

  1. In the initial stage of trust vs. mistrust, infants with consistent and reliable caregivers typically gain a sense of trust and confidence. 
  2. During the stage of autonomy vs. shame (age 1-3), children typically develop new skills and begin to learn how to tell right from wrong. 
  3. The initiative vs. guilt stage (3-5) is characterized by mimicry of adults and exploration of the world through play. Conflict with parents is typically resolved through the process of social role identification. 
  4. The industry vs. inferiority stage (6-12), also known as the latency stage, is a highly social stage. Children who feel inadequate or inferior to their peers may develop self-esteem issues or struggle with competency. 
  5. Adolescents (12-18) begin to experience identity vs. role confusion. In this stage, their development begins to depend largely on their own actions as they begin to discover and express their identity
  6. In the intimacy vs. isolation stage (18-34), individuals typically begin to desire intimate relationships and lasting connections with friends and romantic partners
  7. Generativity vs. self-absorption (35-55/65) is most often marked by dedication to career, work, and family. Some individuals may find it difficult to maintain a sense of purpose during life transitions such as retirement or children moving out. 
  8. During the final stage of integrity vs. despair (55/65-end of life), people tend to reflect on life and begin to make peace with the idea of death. Some may develop a sense of integrity as they look back, but others may get "stuck" on certain experiences and failures and feel a sense of despair. 

Other relevant names in developmental psychology include Lev Vygotsky and Albert Bandura. Vygotsky is known for his social contextual theory, which posits that development begins on the social level when children learn from caregivers, teachers, and peers. Thus, the culture a person is born into has a significant effect on development. 

Bandura’s social learning theory, which is a more recent contribution to the field, suggests that people learn by witnessing the actions of others. This was demonstrated with what are known as the “Bobo doll experiments." Children who watched a person attack a blow-up doll were extremely likely to then attack the doll themselves without any incitement whatsoever. This theory, which appeared to indicate that children would repeat behavior they saw performed by others, has had a significant impact on Western society and has been used to analyze criminal behavior. 

The Impact of Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is concerned with the many factors that influence human development. The question of nature vs. nurture has long been an important one in the field of psychology. Most theorists agree that both biological and environmental factors influence how an individual develops, but there is still some disagreement over the contributions of each area. Greater understanding of the various aspects of human development may give researchers a deeper understanding of issues such as these. 

Researchers also study whether development is a continuous process or one that occurs in a series of qualitatively different steps, whether development varies across cultures, and how different theories of development relate to build the most thorough explanation of human development possible. None of the theories attempting to explain development has been entirely accepted as completely explaining the developmental process. 

One particularly important aspect of developmental psychology that has been widely researched is cognitive development, or how people learn. Behavioral theorists believe individuals are largely passive but are molded by environmental factors through operant and classical conditioning. Social learning theory, on the the other hand, explores the models that people imitate, suggesting that people learn through watching and modeling their behavior after authority figures and other influential people in their lives.

Using Developmental Psychology in Treatment

Research in developmental psychology has provided an understanding of how people progress. More specifically, it aims to describe and address the basic milestones that are likely to occur at certain ages. If an individual is not meeting a milestone at the expected time, a developmental psychologist can assess the situation and often develop intervention strategies to help people continue through the typical stages of development.  

Helping professionals versed in the concepts of developmental psychology may be able to help people in treatment increase their understanding of what to expect at any given point in life. Erikson's theory of development, for example, describes the typical/expected outcomes and challenges that are likely to occur at each stage of development, and individuals who have knowledge of these stages may find it helpful to know what to expect when they, their children, or other family members are going through a life transition or important phase.    

Developmental psychology can also contribute to the understanding and treatment of developmental disabilities. 

Careers in Developmental Psychology

As a large field of study with a number of specialties, developmental psychology offers many different careers. Developmental psychologists typically begin pursuing a career in the field by earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, but most careers require an advanced degree such as a master's degree or doctorate.  

Some developmental psychologists might assess and treat people with developmental disabilities or delays. Developmental psychologists can also specialize in a certain area, such as infant development or gerontology. Depending on their area of specialty, developmental psychologists may work in schools and other learning centers, nursing homes, universities, or hospitals. 

Concerns and Limitations

Many of the concepts in developmental research have been extensively researched and are widely accepted. The rigidity of the stages within stage theories, however, has been criticized, as stages that dictate transition at a particular age may not adequately account for individual differences. Some children experiencing normal development may move to a new stage before they reach the minimum age of that stage, and others may be somewhat delayed. 

Developmental psychology has also been criticized for being too deterministic. Developmental psychologists believe early experiences have a significant impact on the formation of self and character, and this belief may somewhat downplay the roles of free will and choice.

Another point of consideration is that much of the research has been conducted using children. Because children may not adequately understand the experimental task, can become bored easily, and might be otherwise influenced while participating in a study, some people believe research results may not be an accurate reflection of what children are actually capable of doing.  


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