Early Childhood Psychological Development

There are many classifications of early childhood psychological development. Included are psychosocial development, psychosexual development, cognitive development and moral development.

Many professionals in the field of psychology have attempted to categorize early childhood development into stages. Those who have researched and studied psychological development include Erickson, Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg and many others. Each focused on different influences on the child, thus resulting in different psychological developmental phases.


Psychological development has been broken down into many stages by many people, including psychosocial, psychosexual, cognitive and moral stages and developments. Although these stages differ, most theorists agree that a child, or adult for that matter, must successfully pass through one stage to reach the next. If a stage is not successfully completed, there are consequences, including but not limited to anal retentiveness, excessive guilt and the inability to determine right from wrong.

Psychosocial Development

Erikson categorized psychological development into eight stages, three of which fall into early childhood development. Erikson believed societal and historical forces played a major part in the way a child processed these stages.

The first stage occurs between birth and two years of age. It is the trust vs. mistrust stage, where a child learns that he has to depend on others to have his needs met. If his needs are met, he learns to trust. If they are not met, the mistrust of others can carry on through adulthood.

The second stage is autonomy vs. shame and doubt, occurring between two and three. When the child becomes mobile, if he is encouraged, he will feel pride and independence. If not encouraged to try again after failures, power struggles and the ‘terrible twos’ may result.

Between the ages of four and five, a child reaches the stage of initiative vs. guilt. He will be inquisitive and want to explore his environment. If reinforced, the child may become a self-starter. If restricted, the child will feel guilty and lack initiative.

Psychosexual Development

Sigmund Freud developed the five stages of psychosexual development. Freud believed that each stage, or crisis, must be completely worked through before the child can move on to the next stage. The first three stages occur during early childhood development.

The oral stage begins at birth when the lips, tongue and mouth are the center of the baby’s universe. The child’s main impulses are hunger and thirst, which are satisfied by oral gratification. At the end of the oral stage, aggression may occur and the child will bite the nipple providing milk. A child that does not successfully pass through the oral stage may have oral fixations later in life, including smoking and over eating.

The second psychosexual stage occurs between the ages of two and four. The child is learning to control their bladder; however, both praise and criticism is associating with urination and defecation. Praise is given for using the bathroom but disgust is associated with bodily waste. Freud claimed anal-retentive people never passed the anal stage.

The last psychosexual stage in childhood development is the phallic stage, which occurs after the child has passed the anal stage. The focus has become the child’s genitals. The child is either focused on having a penis or not having one. Children may want to sleep in their parents’ room or become jealous because they do not have their parents’ attention. Upon completion of the phallic stage, the child enters the latency period, which lasts until puberty.

Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was one of the founders of cognitive development. Although he developed four stages, only two occur during early childhood development.

The first stage of cognitive development is the sensorimotor stage, which occurs between birth and two years of age. The child learns to coordinate sensory and motor activities, explore his body, manipulate and play with objects, and understand that although he may not see something does not mean it does not exist. At the end of this stage, peek-a-boo will no longer work.

The second stage is the preoperational stage, which occurs from ages two to seven. During this time in a child’s life, he learns to use language to communicate. He will test his thoughts and have a self-centered view of the world. The child will begin to classify objects more thoroughly than every four legged animal is a dog. The child will also learn to count.

Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg created six moral stages that were divided into three sub-categories. Only the first two stages apply to early childhood development and fall into the premoral or preconventional Stages.

The first stage is punishment and obedience. In this stage, children find that the immediate consequence of an action determines whether the action was good or bad. If punishment might occur, the child may follow orders based on a threat. The University of Florida listed the soldiers at the Holocaust as an example of those who never left Kohlberg’s first stage.

The second stage is the instrumental exchange. In this stage, the child is an egotist. The child will determine how to get what he wants from a situation while avoiding pain (as he learned in stage one).



Sonoma State University: Review Sheet on Erik Erikson - http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/eriksonsummary.html

Rensselar Polytechnic Institute: Sigmund Freud - http://www.rpi.edu/~verwyc/FREUDOH.html

Gateway Regional School District: Cognitive Development - http://www.grsd.org/teachers/dugganj/documents/PiagetandKohlberg_001.pdf

University of Central Florida: Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development - http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/Kohlberg's%20Stages%20of%20Moral%20Development.htm



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