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Famous Child Psychologists and their teachings

Child psychologists study the developmental patterns of humans to develop theories of behavior and landmark achievements people make as they progress through prenatal stages to adulthood. As the field has progressed, psychologists have refined and redefined theories and models. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous child psychologists and their teachings.

Developmental Stages

Over the course of their lives, humans progress through distinct developmental phases. In psychology, stages are founded on three base assumptions:

  • Stages occur is a specific order; each stage builds on the previous one.
  • Stages relate to age.
  • Development is discrete. Different capacities emerge in each stage.

Many psychologists, including Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, have put forth research in developmental theory.

Freud first described personality development as a series of stages and believed that early childhood was the most important of these stages. He posited that personality is developed by the age of 5.

Like Freud, Erikson believed that early childhood was important. However, he diverged from Freud’s theories in that he believed personality development continued over the entire course of life. Erikson outlined the developmental stages through old age. The first five stages are below:

  • Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

    •  Babies develop attachment and a sense of security or a mistrustful, insecure attitude depending on how well caretakers meet their needs.
  • Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

    • Toddlers develop a sense of autonomy or a sense of shame and doubt depending on how they face independence.
  • Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

    • Young children between the ages 3 and 6 learn to control their impulses. If successful in this endeavor, they become confident; if not, they may develop a strong sense of guilt.
  • Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

    • Children between the ages of 6 and 12 compete with peers and begin to take on more adult roles. This stage can lead to either a sense of competence or that of inferiority.
  • Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion

    • During adolescence and puberty, children begin to determine their identity. If they are unsuccessful in this, they may develop a sense of uncertainty about their role in life.

Attachment Theory

Once the ground work on developmental stages had been established, other psychologists refined and fleshed out theories at each stage. Notably, Margaret and Harry Harlow and Mary Ainsworth put forth work on attachment theory.

The Harlow’s studied baby rhesus monkeys to develop a theory on contact comfort, or comfort derived from physical closeness with a caregiver. The Harlows raised orphaned rhesus monkeys and provided them with two surrogate mothers. Both mothers provided milk and warmth, but one mother was covered in terrycloth while the other was only a wire frame. The baby monkeys strongly preferred the terrycloth mother, leading researchers to conclude that attachment had a physical component in addition to caretaking.

Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues conducted an experiment called the Strange Situation, in which they observed infants in a new environment. The mothers frequently left and returned to the room; the infants were also left in the care of a stranger for observation. By studying the behavior the infants exhibited while they were with their mothers, away from their mothers and left with the stranger, the researchers developed three models of attachment:

  • Secure attachment
    • Infants became upset when their mothers left, but still played with the stranger. Infants were happy when their mothers returned and showed more attachment to their mothers than to the stranger.
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment
    • Infants became upset when their mothers left, but resisted their mothers when they returned.
  • Avoidant attachment
    • Infants did not seem upset when the mothers left and avoided their mothers when they returned. There was not a significant difference in the way the infants treated their mothers and the stranger.

Behaviorist Theory

Led by John B. Watson, the school of behaviorism emerged in the 1910s.Behavior theorists like B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura studied observable behavior. Behaviorist engage in the nature vs. nurture debate, which features prominently in discussions regarding the psychology of adopted children.

Skinner is known for his work with conditioning behavior. He believed that environment determines behavior through response tendencies. Simply put, people will continue to exhibit behaviors that illicit positive responses and will move away from behaviors that receive negative responses. In this way, personality is conditioned by the environment and those with whom the subject interacts.

Albert Bandura added a second layer to Skinner’s theories. Bandura pointed out that personality is derived by watching others; it is not an automatic, mechanical process. Bandura’s type of behaviorism is known as social-cognitive learning.

As psychology continues to progress, we’ve learned more and more about the development of infants, toddlers and adolescents. Increasingly, specialists have focused on the importance of early childhood development. However, theories and best practices for raising healthy, happy children are prone to change and vary from culture to culture. The future may hold many new discoveries, because in many respects, child psychology is still in its infancy. Careers in psychology are now providing opportunities for new theories and research as well.


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