Life Course: Psychological and Sociological Theories of Child Development

Subject: Psychology
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2057
Topics: Cognitive Psychology, Early Childhood Education

The life course is a concept which analyses people’s lives within its major transitions (such as marriage), pathways (such as family trends) or other turning points (Matsueda & Heimer). According to Hutchison (2014), the life course perspective facilitates understanding of the relationship between time and how individuals behave. This perspective looks at the influence of age, relationships, and life transitions on a person’s behaviours. There are four major stages in the life course that include childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Socialisation advances through these four stages. The first stage, childhood, is quite important in a person’s socialisation process and largely determines how a person grows into their humanity. Adolescence, on the other hand, marks the period of transition between childhood and adulthood. In this stage, ethnicity, social class, and gender all influence an individual’s socialisation. Adulthood marks the period in a person’s life when they are between the ages of 18 and 64 whereas old age refers to a person’s life after they have reached the age of 65 and above. This essay focuses on the first stage in the life course; childhood. Specifically, the essay explores the sociological and psychological theories relevant in the development of children between 6 and 7 years old.

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Theories that are Relevant to the Growth of Children

Psychologists and sociologists are both experts on human behaviour. However, whereas psychologists focus on an individual’s mental and emotional health, sociologists tend to veer outwards into a person’s cultural or social interactions with other people. As such, while both psychological and psychosocial theories deal with human behaviour, psychological theories focus on the influence of the mind on behaviour whereas sociological theories explore the role society plays on influencing individual behaviours.

Psychological Theories

Childhood years are a child’s formative years. Children between the age of 6 and 7 are in their mid-childhood. At this age, the children are growing both physically and socially. These children have already joined school and are more aware of the world around them. As their knowledge base grows, they begin to develop a sense of self and are able to make friends. Examples of psychological theories of child development include Freud’s Psychosexual development theory, Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory, and Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory. These theories explain child development in different ways.

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Freud’s Psychodynamic/psychosexual development theory is founded on the principle that behaviour is influenced by insentient desires. This theorist believed the mind is made up of the id, the ego, and the super ego (Children’s Services, 2010). Freud believed individuals develop in stages, each characterised by distinct tensions. How individuals handle these tensions determines their personality. Freud’s stages of development are the oral stage (0-2 years), anal stage (2 years), phallic stage (3-5 years), latency stage (5/6 years – puberty) and genital stages (from puberty onwards) (Cree, 2000). 6 to 7-year-olds belong to the latency stage. In this stage, children’s energy is taken up by learning and socialisation and psychic conflicts are temporarily ‘laid to rest’. Completing a stage successfully leads to the development of a healthy adult personality whereas failing to appropriately deal with the tensions of each stage could have adverse effects in later years.

Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory is based on Freud’s work (Children’s Services, 2010). His theory builds on Freud’s belief of development in stages. However, unlike Freud’s 5 stages, Erikson named 8 stages from infancy to death, known as the ‘eight Ages of Man’ (Cree, 2000, p.95). Erikson’s theory deviates from Freud’s in that the theorist, Erikson, believed that social interaction and experience drives the stages of development, and not sexual interest. Like Freud, Erikson believed that each stage in the development could either have a positive or negative outcome. Outcomes in different stages are determined by the individual’s immediate environment and the kind of care they receive.

The Eight Ages of Man described by Erikson include: 1) The first year, whose outcome can either be trust or mistrust). 2) The second year; where the child can either gain autonomy or develop a sense of doubt or shame. 3) 3rd to 5th year, where the child either develops initiative or is burdened by guilt. 4) 6 to 7-year-olds belong in the fourth stage (6th year to puberty) where outcomes can either be industry or inferiority. The other stages include: 5) adolescence (identity/confusion), 6) early adulthood (intimacy/isolation), 7) middle adulthood (generative/self-absorption) and, 8) ageing years (integrity/despair) (Cree, 2000, p. 96).

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory focuses on the development of an individual’s thought processes. This theory explores how people’s thought processes affect their understanding and interaction with the world around them. Piaget believed that children development is in different stages. In early childhood, children can either belong to the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), or the preoperational stage (2-6 years). Children between 6 and 7 years old belong to this latter stage. In fact, as Armstrong et al. (2014) assert, at 6 years old, children are in the preoperational stage. They begin to grasp the concept of language. However, they are egocentric and unwilling to accept the views of other people. As these children approach 7 years old, they begin to understand logic and grasp more complex ideas.

Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory is quite similar to Piaget’s theory. Vygotsky believed that play had a significant role in the learning of a language or other skills (Armstrong et al., 2014). The theorist believed that through play, children can learn social values, self-regulation, and how to socialise with other people. Vygotsky came up with the term zone of proximal development’ to refer to the ideal amount a support that a person needs so they can learn something new (Armstrong et al., 2014) Vygotsky believed a child’s capability for logical thinking develops in stages. Preschool children are at a stage where they think in ‘unordered heaps’ (Children’s Services, 2010). At 6-7 years, children begin thinking at a more complex stage. At this point, they can associate objects to each other although they still cannot see two associations at the same time. Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory is founded on the belief that children develop ways of thinking that relate to their immediate cultural and communal backgrounds (Children’s Services, 2010). As such, 7-year-olds from similar cultural backgrounds might have similar cognitive strengths whereas these strengths differ from those of 7-year-olds from different cultural backgrounds with different cognitive strengths. As such, Vygotsky strongly advocates for a strong support system for children since children’s behaviours are an extension of the world around them. The behaviour and cognitive skills of a 7-year-old can tell a lot about where they are from.

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Sociological Theories

Examples of sociological theories of child development include Behavioural Child Development Theories, Bowlby’s attachment theory, and Bandura’s social learning theory. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s Attachment theory is founded on the principle that children’s relationships with their caregivers have a significant influence on their development and their socialisation later in life. According to this theory, children are born with an innate need for attachment (Armstrong et al., 2014). These attachments help the child survive by staying close to the caregiver while the caregiver provides the child with protection. Attachment takes place in phases with earlier phases aimed at emotional regulation (0-20 months) while later phases reinforce the child’s self-confidence. Between 12 to 20 months, the child begins to develop a sense of self and they can begin to say no to things they do not want. Above 20 months, the child begins to get attached to other people apart from the primary caregivers. Armstrong et al. (2014) posit that children who are ‘securely attached’, that is, those who have received consistent support throughout their formative years, are more likely to have excellent socialisation skills and be empathetic by the time they are 3 years old.

Another sociological theory is Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory of Personality, otherwise known as the Social Learning Theory. As a behaviourist, Bandura (1999) believed that learning is a continuous process whereas development is a sequence of conditioned behaviours. However, the theorist posits that individuals cannot sufficiently learn from conditioning and reinforcement. As such, he believes that learning is also possible through observing and modelling. Internal processes relating to a child’s attentiveness, motivation, and memory influence social learning (Armstrong et al., 2014). As such, through observation, listening, and reenactment, children can learn a lot from the world around them.

In his Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura observed that children adopted the behaviour they witnessed (Armstrong et al., 2014). Those who were exposed to aggressive behaviour on television were more aggressive. Children aged 6-7 years are aware of what they see. Through watching other children or models such as cartoon characters they identify with, these actions are reinforced in their behaviour. By inference, therefore, a 7-year-old who spends most of his or her time playing violent video games might display such violent behaviour while playing with friends. Likewise, a 7-year-old who spends her time around adults in care of younger siblings might reenact the same nurturing or neglect that the child receives.

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Rather than view society as a unitary system with individuals whose actions are determined by external forces, the symbolic interactionist approach views society as a multiplicity of many possible outcomes (Matsueda & Heimer, 1997). Individual behaviour is a choice and not an outcome of uncontrollable circumstances. When viewing child development from a symbolic interactionist perspective, it is important to remember that this sociological perspective assumes human beings behave a certain way towards people or things because of how we feel about them (Tarr, 1997). Symbolic interactionism also relies on the assumption that individual actions towards something are influenced by other people’s actions towards that thing. Lastly, the perspective also assumes that a person comes up with an interpretive process to deal with situations as they fall through (Tarr, 1997). Relying on these three assumptions, the behaviour of 6 to 7-year-old can result from their interaction with family or other entities in their immediate social surroundings. For instance, for the child to interact with his or her family means they have developed a certain mutual understanding of their relationship. Children and their parents or siblings are expected to act a certain way and problems arise when these understandings do not match. For instance, if a parent expects a child to obey them and the child has no understating of the concept of respect, then there can arise a problem.

Implications for Working with Service Users

Theories explicate human behaviour. In practice, sociological and psychological theories can help direct interactions with children between the ages of 6 and 7. For instance, Erikson’s psychosocial theory asserts that individuals grow a sense of self as they navigate through the eight ages of man. Children between 6 to 7 years old have barely undergone hardships or big turning points in their lives. As such, they have not developed a strong sense of self. Understanding this theory helps the social worker to appreciate how a 6 or 7-year old sees themselves and how they respond to certain situations. This understanding helps the social worker determine the most effective way to approach these children.

Freud’s psychodynamic/psychosexual theory would help a social worker understand the inner workings of the child, that is, their id, ego, and superego. While relying on this theory as a foundation of practice, the social worker would assume that the child’s main goal is to avoid pain and obtain pleasure (id). As such, the child looks for ways to satisfy this need while conforming to societal expectations. The social worker is able to understand that there is a reason why 6-year-olds act a certain way. It becomes their goal to identify the driving force behind the child’s deviance, good behaviour, isolation, or so. Theory-driven practice gives the social worker a guideline to follow to deal effectively with service users.

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In summation, individuals in different stages of the life course can never act the same way. Children will have different cognitive abilities than adolescents and adolescents will value different things than young adults. As people mature, they gain certain abilities and lose others. Psychological and sociological theories facilitate an individual’s understanding of human behaviour. Since different theories have different explanations of human behaviour, social workers, psychologists, and sociologists must determine the theory that either conforms to their ideas or best fits a certain situation.

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  1. Armstrong, K., Ogg, J., Sundman-Wheat, A. and Walsh, A. (2013). Early Childhood Development Theories. Evidence-Based Interventions for Children with Challenging Behavior, 2(2), pp. 21-30.
  2. Bandura, A. (1999). Social Cognitive Theory of Personality. In: L. Pervin and O. John, ed., Handbook of Personality, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Publications, pp. 154-196.
  3. Children’s Services. (2010). Child development theorists. [online]
  4. Cree, V. (2000). Sociology for Social Workers and Probation Officers. 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
  5. Hutchison, E. (2014). Dimensions of Human Behavior: The Changing Life Course. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc, pp. 1-38.
  6. Matsueda, R. and Heimer, K. (1997). Symbolic Interactionist Theory of Role-Transitions, Role- Commitments, and Delinquency. In: T. Thornberry, ed., Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency, 7th ed. [online] Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 163-213.
  7. Tarr, P. (1987). Symbolic Interactionism as a Theoretical Perspective for the Study of Children’s Artistic Development. Marilyn Zurmuehlen Working Papers in Art Education, [online] 6(1), pp.67-77.
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