Applied Psychology

What is Developmental Psychology?

May 23, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor
Happy girl reading with her parents

Developmental psychology studies how people develop, grow and change throughout their lives. Focus areas include physical, emotional, social, psychological and cognitive growth.

To understand how to better our society and solve our most significant challenges, we must know how to optimise development by studying it at various life stages.

In this post, we’ll discuss what developmental psychology is, why it is important, and share some ways that you can learn more about it.

What is developmental psychology?

The APA defines developmental psychology as the study of “…human growth and changes across the lifespan, including physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, personality and emotional growth.”

This branch of Applied Psychology is concerned with various aspects of a person’s growth; these can include the following areas:


By studying how people learn to speak and communicate, we can better understand what drives communication in the first place. Developmental psychologists can lead interventions to ensure better communication or effective treatment programmes for children or adults who struggle in this area.

Problem solving

Learning more about how people solve problems can also be valuable on an individual and societal level. 

Enhanced cognitive functioning can help people do better at solving fundamental problems or develop the capacity to strategise for solving more complex issues. 

Social relationships

Understanding how social relationships develop is also valuable to ensure a functioning society. 

Our emotional, physical and cognitive development affect how we relate to others, so finding ways to ensure optimal social functioning is imperative.

Societal development

Development can also refer to how we develop in society as a whole. What kinds of obstacles are there to positive social development? 

We need physical and social infrastructure to build and maintain a functional society. 

From an Applied Psychology perspective, what interventions can ensure that people receive adequate social support? 

We can do a lot on an individual level to grow and develop, but if we live in an unstable society, it can be challenging to develop optimally.

What influences development?

To better understand developmental psychology, we can look at some of the factors that influence development as a whole:


Our genetics can affect how we develop, for example, what lifestyle diseases we are prone to. Epigenetics also studies how behaviours and environment can influence our gene expression, which can be valuable for optimising development. 

Environmental factors

Environmental factors play a role in how we mature. If we grow up in a stable and nurturing environment, we will likely develop healthy coping mechanisms and learn to function with adequate support and input.

However, if we grow up in an unstable environment, we may need help to develop optimally, as much of our lives will focus on adapting to changing and stressful circumstances.

The nature versus nurture debate comes up here and is a constant question to ask as we try to figure out what influences development. A similar debate is whether people grow along a continuous trajectory or if it happens in distinct stages. 

Family dynamics

Much like our general environment, our family environment is crucial to how we develop. For example, children who do not receive adequate physical and emotional support can struggle later in life. 

Psychologists in this area also study whether childhood experiences define our growth trajectory or whether adult experiences are just as influential. 

Cultural and social influences

The culture and social environment that we grow up in can have a profound effect on our development. For example, the culture we grow up in influences our belief system, which can define how we see ourselves in the context of a greater societal whole.

A psychological debate that is relevant to mention here is the difference between abnormal behaviour versus individual differences. As our world evolves, what may have been considered “abnormal” in the past could result from individual expression due to evolutionary changes in our development that we don’t understand yet. 

Why is developmental psychology important?

Developmental psychology is essential because it can help us to identify critical developmental milestones and to find ways to optimise each growth stage throughout our lives. Using applied psychological research, we can also identify the many factors that can impact or enhance an individual’s development. 

Overall, psychologists in this field focus on creating interventions, educational strategies and policies that support healthy development across the lifespan. 

From the reasons above, it’s clear that this kind of research applies across all levels of society, from individuals and families to governmental policies. If you want to learn more, register for these micro-credential courses:

If you’re interested in learning more about this branch of Applied Psychology, check out our list of related online workshops:

Previous post

Next post