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3.2: Theories

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    • Angela Blums & Jessica Kirchhofer

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    Image 3.2. Photo credit: omarmedina films on Pixabay is licensed under CC by 1.0


    The best early childhood programs are informed by sound theory. This ensures that the aims of the program are effective and the practices have a positive impact on every child. What is a theory in the context of early childhood education? A theory is a set of ideas that are supported by a substantial amount of evidence and are based on repeated testing of the same concepts. Theories have been repeatedly tested using scientific inquiry. This differs from a philosophy, which is also a useful way to organize knowledge about children’s development but is not based on empirical evidence. Theories provide an explanation on a specific phenomenon, and as such, developmental theories explain different aspects of how children develop.

    In early childhood education, theories about child development are used to decide how to carry out program approaches. This is one way that early childhood educators can ensure high quality programs for children and families. High-quality ECE programs turn to child development theory to create effective learning environments for children. For example, child development theory indicates that children learn best through action, engaging in a concept using their five senses. Adults on the other hand, have the ability to learn from reading a text or watching a video. Because of child development theory, we know for sure that the very best way for young children to learn is with hands-on methods. If a person designs a program with this in mind, then that program is rooted in child development theory. That means that if a teacher wants children to learn about the parts of a pumpkin, then she will give the children pumpkins, cut them up, and let the children explore the parts rather than showing them a video about pumpkins. The teacher does it this way because the program has committed to basing their practice on theory.

    There are several theories about child development that are used to inform ECE programs. This section will cover the seven most prominent theories that have stood the test of time. Those are: cognitive developmental, behaviorism, social learning theory, sociocultural, psychosocial theory, attachment, and ecological systems theory.

    Cognitive Development

    Cognitive developmental theory focuses on how children think, learn, and acquire new knowledge. It was developed by a Swiss scientist named Jean Piaget. According to cognitive developmental theory, children move through childhood in a series of stages. These stages determine what behaviors adults can expect from a child as well as what capabilities a child has at a given stage. There are four stages through which children progress: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. The features of these stages are outlined in Table 3.1. Between the ages of birth and two years, a child is in the sensorimotor stage. In this stage, children explore objects using their hands and mouth and coordinate sensory experiences through physical movement. If an object is hidden from view, they believe it to have disappeared for good. When a child begins to understand that the object still exists even if they can’t see where it went, this is referred to as object permanence, which is one of the main understandings constructed during this stage. Between the ages of two to seven years, a child is in the preoperational stage. During this stage, a child is able to engage in symbolic reasoning which leads to pretend play. For example, a child might use a stick as a spoon during this stage. The concrete operations stage takes place between the ages of seven to twelve years. During this stage, children begin to use logical reasoning, but it is usually limited to real objects that can be seen or touched. During this stage, children might be able to add and subtract using manipulatives. The formal operations stage starts at age twelve and continues through adulthood. During this stage, children can begin to engage in abstract and logical reasoning in multiple situations. This might take the form of solving complex puzzles and games.

    Piaget’s stages are a useful way to consider how children develop in thinking, learning, and acquiring new knowledge. One consideration for all stage theories is that there is variability in how children move through stages. The stages are not rigid; for example, just as a child turns two years old, they may not immediately begin pretend play. Some children might do it a bit sooner and some do it a bit later. Children are living, breathing, beings after all! Another consideration is that the transition between stages is not sudden. Just because a two-year-old engages in pretend play does not mean that she is now finished exploring toys and objects with her mouth. Children often have behaviors of two stages when they are transitioning from one to the other.

    Table 3.1. Piaget Stage Definitions
    Stage Sensorimotor Preoperational Concrete Operations Formal Operations
    Age Birth to 2 years 2 to 7 years 7 to 12 years 12 years and beyond
    Behaviors Learns about the world through interacting with objects using the five senses Begins to engage in symbolic and pretend play, but cannot engage in abstract or logical reasoning Begins use of logical reasoning, however, reasoning is limited to objects that can be held or seen Engages is abstract and logical reasoning and can apply this type of thinking across contexts

    Cognitive developmental theory also includes an explanation for how children acquire new knowledge. This is known as constructivism. Constructivism is the idea that children create (or construct) their own knowledge through experiences with the world. Children must use their five senses to interact with objects in their environment in order to gain new information. In this way, they build a conceptual understanding about the world around them. Further, the stage that a child is in determines how a child constructs knowledge. If an infant is in the sensorimotor stage, then they might gain new knowledge about an object by putting it in their mouth. If they take an adult’s keys and start to play with them, they will learn that keys feel cold and hard when placed in the mouth. The next time they see something made of metal, for example a spoon, they will expect that is cold when placed in the mouth, because they learned this from a direct experience with the keys. Reading a book or watching a video about keys will never give the infant this same knowledge because children need tangible, concrete items to help them learn about the world.

    Constructivism also dictates that new knowledge builds upon previous knowledge. As children build concepts about their world, they start to organize that information into categories. These categories are called schemas. Schemas are categories of information about a concept or thing. For example, two-year old Zhe might have a schema about dogs. He might conceptualize dogs as furry, four-legged creatures who have tails. Every time he sees a new kind dog, he will mentally place it into that category of dogs. This process is referred to as assimilation, fitting in new information into what is already known. When Zhe goes on a walk and sees a black lab, a corgi, and a German Shepard, he assimilates these different types of dogs into his schema for dogs. But what happens when he sees a Great Dane? It has four legs and a tail, but due to its size, resembles a horse more than a dog. Zhe must then accommodate this information, therefore changing his previously held ideas about dogs, so that his schema for dogs now includes larger dogs as well. Consider also the first time Zhe sees a cat. It is furry, it has four legs and a tail, but it says “meow” instead of “woof”. Zhe must once again accommodate, this time creating a new schema about cats which he now knows are in a different group than dogs. This process continues throughout childhood as children learn and organize new information.


    Behaviorism is a theory based on the work of several researchers including John Watson, B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov which focuses on children’s observable behaviors and actions. This theory indicates that children’s behaviors can be shaped through external cues called reinforcers. Reinforcers are actions taken by adults to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. This process is called conditioning. When a child has been conditioned, their behavior has been shaped in response to the cues from the teacher to guide the child to the behaviors desired by the adult. An example of conditioning in a classroom might look like this: A teacher wants all children to sit down for circle time. She may announce that circle time is about to begin, and as each child sits, she gives a sticker to each one. The sticker acts as the reinforcement for desired behavior. After this process has been repeated over a few weeks, the children will come to sit as soon as the teacher announces circle time.

    In recent years, there has been some criticism of behaviorism in classroom settings. Critics assert that reinforcements, like stickers, deter intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a desire to do things based on one’s own wishes and goals. Many believe that children should engage in acceptable behavior simply because it is desirable and interesting. In practice, this means that to get children to sit for circle time, they must want to do it. How to make them want to do it? Make it interesting and fun! Sing engaging songs, smile, use shakers and instruments to find a way to draw the children in.

    A further criticism of behaviorism is that it does not help children learn acceptable behavior in the long term. That is, what happens when there is no sticker? In the absence of reinforcement, the desired behavior can diminish. What happens when children transition to a class where no reinforcers are given for sitting down?

    Despite its shortcomings, behaviorism is still used in many classrooms and can be a successful method for guiding children’s behavior. Reinforcers can be seen as rewards for children and can contribute to higher class morale. Many teachers appreciate even the short-term effectiveness that behaviorism provides in guiding children toward acceptable behavior.

    A final note on behaviorism: some teachers may be tempted to use snacks or treats as reinforcers. This practice is strongly discouraged, as it can interfere with healthy eating habits and raise issues for children who are experiencing food insecurity. Indeed, nothing edible should be used to direct children’s behavior.

    Social Learning Theory

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    Social learning theory is based on the research of Albert Bandura about how children learn particular behaviors based on watching the actions of those around them. The individuals in a child’s environment are referred to as models. According to social learning theory, children observe the behaviors of others around them and use that as a model for their own behavior. For example, if a teacher commonly uses words like please and thank you with children, the children will begin to use those words as well. Children usually model the important adults in their life but may also model behavior from media sources. As such, social learning theory calls into question violent content seen in media because it may have an effect on child behavior. Social learning theory expands upon behaviorism in that children’s behaviors are not just a matter of behavior and reinforcement but are also interwoven with the social context as well. In this way, children learn about consequences of actions in a more organic way rather than through prescribed reinforcers, leading to more long-term behaviors. Consider an example of a toddler observing an adult opening a jar to find a hidden toy. The adult models the hand coordination involved in the action and expresses delight at the contents. This encourages similar attempts by the child who begins to practice the skill of opening a jar.

    Sociocultural Development

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    Sociocultural development theory addresses how children learn new skills through social interactions. It is related to cognitive developmental theory in that both are focused on how children think and learn. It was developed by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Instead of focusing on how children interact with objects and concepts in the environment, social cognitive theory focuses on how children interact with other individuals in their environment. These individuals are referred to as the more knowledgeable other, as they have more skills and knowledge about a particular area than the child. The more knowledgeable other can be an older peer or an adult. According to social learning theory, when children are learning a new skill, they best accomplish it by operating on the upper edge of their abilities. This is referred to as the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. ZPD is the difference between what a child can do alone and what a child can do with help from a more knowledgeable other. For example, if 6-year-old Shruti cannot ride a bike alone but can ride it with help from her mother, then this activity is in her ZPD. How does her mother help her learn to ride? She might hold onto the back of the bike seat, steadying Shruti as she pedals. She may hold onto the handlebars, helping her daughter navigate turns. She may give verbal cues, alerting Shruti when she needs to apply the brakes. Whatever help Shruti’s mother gives is dependent on her daughter’s skill. This is referred to as scaffolding. Scaffolding is the assistance given by the more knowledgeable other that changes in response to the child’s ability. The best way to support a child’s learning is to give them just the specific help that they need in order to allow them to complete the skill. If Shruti has no trouble balancing and steering, then holding onto the seat and handlebars will do her no good in learning. Verbal cues on when to apply the brakes are what she needs. On the other hand, if it is her first time on the bike, verbal cues on how to brake will not be very useful as she wobbles around and falls. To engage in optimal learning, a child must be guided within their zone of proximal development. If a task is too easy, then then it may become boring. If it is too difficult, the child may become frustrated and give up. Through scaffolding, a more knowledgeable other can help support a child to learn things that they could not do alone. Then the more knowledge other will slowly reduce the support until the child can complete the task alone.


    Another theory that focuses on the development of the child as they move through stages is psychosocial theory. Developed by Erik Erikson, Psychosocial theory posits that human development is characterized by a series of stages. Each stage represents a transition time for learning and development and is marked by a specific aspect of development. Beginning at birth and ending in late adulthood, this theory encompasses the lifespan. As an individual enters into each stage, they are faced with a psychological conflict, known as a life crisis. A life crisis is when two conflicting aspects of development must be navigated by an individual. The stages are listed in table 3.2. To illustrate how a child might move through a life crisis, consider the following example of the stage “initiative vs guilt”. Three-year-old Leandro has used his crayons to color a lovely picture for his daddy and hangs it on the wall using tape. Daddy praises Leandro at his good idea to hang artwork on the wall using tape. Next time, Leandro decides to color directly on the wall, which leads to a scolding from daddy instead. Leandro has shown initiative, taking independent action for hanging a picture on the wall all by himself. He also experiences guilt for his initiative gone wrong when he colors on the wall. As he moves through this process, he learns to take initiative in the appropriate way and gains pride from his accomplishments.

    Table 3.2
    Age Life Crisis
    0-18 months Trust vs. Mistrust
    18 months-3 years Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
    3-5 years Initiative vs. Guilt
    5-13 years Industry vs. Inferiority
    13-21 years Identity vs. Confusion
    21-39 years Intimacy vs. Isolation
    40-65 years Generativity vs. Stagnation
    65 years and beyond Integrity vs. Despair

    Attachment Theory

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    Attachment theory was developed on the premise that infants need physical and emotional support from a primary caregiver early in life in order to become emotionally well-adjusted in early childhood and beyond. Developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, this theory is grounded in the mother-child bond but can be applied to the father or other primary caregiver. Attachment theory proposes four different types of bonds or attachment patterns, that a child can have with the mother (or primary caregiver). An attachment pattern is a description of the relationship between mother and child based on the behavior of the child. Attachment patterns were measured using a lab test called the “Strange Situation”. In the Strange Situation, the mother and baby played in a playroom along with a friendly stranger. The mother leaves for a brief time, leaving the child to play with the stranger. When the mother returns, the baby’s behavior upon this “reunion” is observed and coded as a type of attachment pattern. There are four main types of attachment patterns which are outlined in table 3.3.

    Table 3.3
    Attachment pattern Child's behavior upon reunion Caregiver's responsiveness to child's needs
    Secure Seeks proximity to caregiver; positive response; is calmed by caregiver’s attempts to soothe Sensitive to child’s needs; consistent
    Insecure avoidant Does not seek proximity to caregiver; does not seem distressed at caregiver’s absence Not sensitive to child’s needs; distant
    Insecure resistant Is not calmed by caregiver’s attempts to soothe; resists proximity Inconsistent in response to child’s needs; sometimes sensitive, sometimes distant
    Insecure disorganized Does not fall into a reliable attachment pattern Emotionally distant

    There has been some recognition in recent years as to the lack of cross-cultural validity of the strange situation as a measure of attachment, meaning attachment might not look the same for everyone. The strange situation was developed using a mostly western, middle-class sample. Because adult interactions with infants can vary by culture, the reactions of infants during the strange situation might not always look the same. While there are some other ways to measure attachment, more research is needed to uncover ways to measure attachment across a variety of cultures.

    Secure attachment leads to positive outcomes for children. Securely attached children are more likely to have positive social relationships and are more successful in school. On the other hand, insecurely attached children have trouble forming and maintaining social relationships and tend to have behavior and academic problems in school.

    What do mothers and other primary caregivers do to form a secure attachment? It mostly relies on sensitivity. Sensitivity in this sense refers to a responsiveness to an infant’s emotions. If baby cries, the mother soothes her. If baby laughs, mother laughs along. In this way, the infant builds a reliable bond with the mother that sets them up for stable emotional connection. Additionally, it helps a child develop an internal working model for how relationships should function in general. An internal working model is a conceptual understanding of how the relationship between an individual and a loved one should be. With a securely attached child, their internal working model might be something like “the adults in my life are people who love me and take care of me. My needs are met by them”. This is later transferred to form trusting relationships with others like grandparents, teachers, and later, romantic partners.

    Ecological Systems Theory

    Ecological systems theory, developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, focuses on the child in the context of their environment. The premise of this theory is that the child develops in response to the multiple systems that influence them. For example, a child is influenced by their immediate household family, extended family, neighbors, schools, and society at large. These systems are organized into categories based on their immediate contact with the child and how directly or indirectly they influence the child. The systems also influence one another. For example, the language a family speaks at home is influenced by the society in which the family live. These systems each have names. The system that refers to the child’s immediate environment is the Microsystem. The child’s immediate family, school or childcare, and friends are in the microsystem. The Mesosystem refers to the connections between the entities in the microsystem. The interactions of parents and the teachers at school are an example of the mesosystem. The next layer is the Exosystem, or the social influences that are more removed from the child. Parent’s workplace, healthcare services, and local politics are examples of the exosystem. The Macrosystem represents attitudes of the larger culture. Examples of entities within the macrosystem are society’s acceptance of women working outside policies in place to hinder it, is an example of the chronosystem. Let us take a look at an example of 3-year-old Maria. She lives with her parents and older sister and they speak Spanish at home. Her parents emigrated from Mexico to the United States seven years ago. Her microsystem includes her mother, father, sister, her best friend Lucia, and the childcare they attend at the local community center. Her mesosystem is when her parents volunteer at the community center where her childcare center is and when she has a playdate at Lucia’s house. Her exosystem includes the marketing firm where her parents work, the healthcare provided by the parents’ employers, and the state funding that runs her community-based childcare center. Her macrosystem contains the attitudes of society about her family’s native language and her parent’s immigration status. Her chronosystem reflects the changing status of women of color – as Maria has more and more role models in the media who represent her culture. As this example illustrates, the ecological systems model represents the dynamic environments that shape how a child develops. It is not just the parents, extended family, peers, or teachers, but rather all the parts of society working together.


    What are some ways in which you could use child development theories in your work with children?

    This page titled 3.2: Theories is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela Blums & Jessica Kirchhofer.

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