Your study level

We've preselected "All levels" for you, but you can change your study level at any time by choosing one of the options on this menu. Changing your study level will return you to the beginning of the module.

The usefulness of child development theories

Child development theorists have shaped educators' thinking about how children learn. Educators use their ideas daily in the classroom (for example, Bruner's scaffolding approach, the behaviourists' backward chaining, etc.)

...a theory of development is a scheme or system of ideas that is based on evidence and attempts to explain, describe, and predict behavior and development.

Slater et al, 2003

Theory serves as a guide to action... By formulating a theory, we attempt to make sense of our experiences... Only then can we predict and influence the world around us

Crandell, 2012

Developing theories
girl in pushchair

Each child development theorist builds on previous theories. For example, Jean Piaget was the first western theorist to suggest that children constructed their own understanding by interacting with their environment (constructivism). This was a radical departure from the behaviourist idea of the child as a blank slate, learning only through conditioning and Freud's focus on psychosexuality.

Vygotsky criticised Piaget's 'lone scientist' concept and promoted the social construction of learning (social constructivism). Building on Vygotsky's thinking, Bruner developed scaffolding and the spiral curriculum, while Bandura integrated social and cognitive theories with behaviourism (social learning theory). (Lindon, 2010; Pound, 2008)

Categories of development theory

Theorists can be grouped according to their main focus. Some straddle more than one category (for example, Albert Bandura bridges socio-cultural, cognitive and behaviourist theories; Lev Vygotksy can be seen as a cognitive or socio-cultural theorist. Today, educators' assumptions and actions are influenced in part by all of these theorists.


Sigmund Freud

Erik Erikson

John Bowlby


John Watson

Burrhus Frederick Skinner

Albert Bandura


Jean Piaget

Lev Vygotsky

Types of theory
boy in helmet on climbing apparatus


Systems theories suggest that child development is a dynamic in which individuals both affect and are affected by their own biology, family and wider context.

Dynamic systems

Presents development as a dynamic, self-organising system which maintains stability by adjusting to accommodate variation (for example, genetic, social, cognitive, physical) (Thelen and Smith, 2006).

Transactional systems theory

Focuses on the continuous dynamic interaction between the developing child and his or her family and social context and how each affects the other (Davis, 2011).

Ecological systems theory

Developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner. Four nested systems, each interacting with and affecting the developing child throughout life at different levels: child/biology; family/daily settings; community; Society/culture
(Evangelou et al, 2009).

Child development and culture
girl in pushchair

Individuals develop as participants in their cultural communities, engaging with others in shared endeavours and building on cultural practices of prior generations...For example, comparing children's rate of development is a cultural practice that has accompanied bureaucratic organisation of children's progress through compulsory schooling. This practice has developed over a little more than a century in the US and Europe.

Rogoff, 2007

Our ideas about child development are culturally determined. Some of our cultural aspirations (for example, independence, autonomy) are not shared by other cultures that value interdependence.

Find out more

Crandell, T.L., Crandell, C. and Vander Zanden, J.W. (2012) Human Development (10th edn). McGraw Hill.

Davis, D. (2011) Child Development: A practitioner's guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Davis, P. and Florian, L. (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A scoping study. London: Department for Education and Skills.

Evangelou, M., Sylva, K. and Kyriacou, M., Wild, M. and Glenny, G. (2009) Early Years Learning and Development: Literature review. Annesley: DCSF Publications.

Find out more

Lindon, J. (2010) Understanding Child Development: Linking theory and practice. London: Hodder Arnold.

Pound, L. (2008) How Children Learn: From Montessori to Vygotsky – educational theories and approaches made easy. London: Step Forward Publishing

Rogoff, B. (2007) The William James Book Award: The Cultural Nature of Human Development, The General Psychologist, 42 (1), 4-7.

Slater, A., Hocking, I. and Loose, J. (2003) Theories and issues in child development. In: A. Slater and J.G. Bremner (eds) An Introduction to Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thelen, E. and Smith, L.B. (2006) Dynamic systems theory. In: Damon, W.D. and Lerner, R.M. (eds) Handbook of Child Psychology (vol. 1): Theoretical models of human development (6th edn). New York, NY: John Wiley.