Developmental theorists can help you to understand how your child learns.

A Comparison of Early Childhood Development Theorists

by Erica Loop

Between the latest developmental buzz words that pop up all over the media, the stacks of parenting books that you have yet to read and the info that your mommy-BFF constantly spews, understanding early childhood theories is far from easy. Instead of letting your head spin around all of those developmental words that are floating around your brain, a comparison of a few well-known theories can help you to get a grip on your little one's current stage.


Before comparing any early childhood theory it's likely that you will want to know who comes up with this stuff and why moms, and other people who help to take care of children, should believe in them. While there are new theorists popping up all of the time, the most widely accepted child development theories are time-tested and researched over and over again. Any Ph.D. student in education, developmental science or early childhood can come up with a theory on development, but without an acceptable amount of research backing it up, these newbie theorists often won't make the cut when it comes to what parents pick up on.

Cognitive Theorists

If cognitive theory sounds scary, don't worry -- it isn't. At the most basic level, cognitive theory deals with how kids develop intellectual, or thinking, skills. These theories comprise a category that include an array of scholars' work on how children develop mental reasoning type skills. While there are probably more cognitive theorists than most moms have time to read about, one of the most well-known cognitive theorists is Jean Piaget. Born in late 19th century Switzerland, Piaget set out to explain how knowledge grows in a developmental sense. Piaget came up with a stage model of child development that shows how children steadily progress from instinctual drives and ego-centered acts to using language as a form of expression and on to actual logical thought.

Social Theorists

Social learning theory sets out to decipher a little one's development in terms of the great big wide world around her. Unlike cognitive theory, which mainly focuses on a child's internal processes, social theories look to outside influences. From parents and family to friends and even the community, social theorists believe that children develop during a series of interactive processes with other people. Well-known social theorists include Lev Vygotsky, with his theory that children learn by an adult or more advanced peer providing a helpful guide or frame for new concepts or tasks; and Albert Bandura, who believed children learn through modeling behaviors.

Other Theorists

When it comes to a child's development, an almost countless number of theorists have ideas about the early childhood period. Some other well-known theorists that you may hear in passing mommy conversation are Arnold Gessell, Maria Montessori and Erik Erikson. While these super-scholars all seek to explain how a little one becomes a thinker and acts as a member of society, they each have a slightly different take on early childhood. Gessell's theory contends that development is a biological process, with neatly ordered steps that kids follow. Montessori brought her perspective on children's development to the early educational setting, creating a worldwide network of preschools -- and schools for older kids -- that focus on children helping to teach themselves. Erikson's eight-staged theory includes a progression of psychosocial growth in which the child must resolve conflict after conflict, such as trust versus mistrust, before moving on.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

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