Applied Psychology

Understanding the Key Stages of Childhood Development

Jun 28, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor

Childhood development is a complex process that we are still learning more about as society evolves. Over the years, theorists have devised different frameworks for understanding how children grow from a mental and emotional perspective during various stages of their lives.

This post will give an overview of the key stages of development and explore two of the most well-known theories that make sense of each phase. We’ll also provide insight into how understanding each step can help us better understand and support children and adolescents.

Key stages of childhood development

Not every child develops at the same rate or simultaneously achieves the same milestones. However, there is a consensus that childhood and adolescent development occurs in the following broad stages:


Important developmental tasks during this stage include physical growth and development and basic cognitive and motor skills (from birth to two years old). In addition, developing a secure attachment to caregivers is also a vital element of this stage.

Early childhood

Physical, mental and social growth occurs as children become more independent and socialise with others (from two to six years old). Children also start expanding their communication skills and learning to express themselves.

Middle childhood

From six to eleven years old, children expand on their social, cognitive and physical skills and pursue interests and hobbies. Logical thinking and problem-solving capacity develop, and relationships become more complex.


Rapid physical and psychological change takes place from 11 to 18 years. This phase includes the onset of puberty and becoming more interested in romantic relationships and sexual activity. Individual identity also matures at this stage, which may involve questioning authority and social norms.

Prominent childhood development theories

Two of the most prominent development theories include Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Each of these two theories focuses on what happens during different stages of development, which are related to the general phases we discussed above.

Both give us valuable insight into how we develop both cognitively and emotionally, which can help us create more effective ways to support children and adolescents.

Paiget’s theory of cognitive development

Piaget’s theory focuses on cognitive development occurring during four distinct phases of childhood development. These include the following:

  • Sensorimotor stage (from birth to two years): infants focus on their immediate environment. This phase includes experimentation, developing memory and increasing physical mobility.
  • Preoperational (two to seven years): children begin to think symbolically and develop language skills. Children engage in make-believe and start understanding the difference between the past and the future.
  • Concrete operational (seven to 11 years): logical and concrete reasoning skills develop. Children expand their awareness of their thoughts and external reality but are still learning to think abstractly or hypothetically.
  • Formal operational (11 years and older): this stage is characterised by learning to think systematically and abstractly. This process of building intellectual capacity extends throughout adulthood.

Although Piaget’s theory was groundbreaking in the 1930s, it did not examine the impact of social and cultural factors on development, which Erikson expanded on.

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development includes eight stages and focuses on the social and emotional challenges faced during each one. However, in this article, we will only focus on the first six:

  • Trust vs. mistrust (infancy): infants develop a sense of trust or mistrust based on the type of care they receive from their caregivers.
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (18 months to three years): children develop autonomy through making choices and potty training. If they don’t feel autonomous, they can feel shame and doubt.
  • Initiative vs. Guilt (three to five years old): Children assert power over their environment through initiating actions. They can feel capable or guilty if they exert too much power and experience disapproval.
  • Industry vs. inferiority (six to eleven years old): a sense of competence develops through encouragement and meeting social and academic demands. If not, they might feel inferior.
  • Identity vs. confusion (12 to 18 years old): this phase focuses on developing personal identity and a sense of self through exploration. Adolescents who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires can feel insecure about themselves and the future.
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation (18 to 40 years old): the sixth stage continues from adolescence to mid-adulthood and is concerned with building secure and lasting relationships. 

Why is the theory valuable?

Erikson’s theory is valuable because it helps us understand the role of social interactions and relationships in development. In addition, we can see where further support or intervention is needed by understanding how children and adolescents handle the core conflict presented at each stage

How to better understand child and adolescent development

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the topic of childhood and adolescence, SACAP Global offers a micro-credential course set that includes the following:

For more detailed information about these short online courses, contact us.

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