Staged or ‘building block’ theories
Several ‘staged’ or ‘building block’ theories of human development were generated in the mid-twentieth century. Included in this group of theories are Havighurst’s ‘developmental task theory’, Erikson’s theory of ‘psychosocial’ development, Piaget’s cognitive development theory (in Gruber & Voneche, 1977), and Kohlberg’s (1981) theory of ‘moral reasoning’. The conceptual basis of these theories is that development is a stepwise progression through stages, with movement to each new stage dependent on successfully completing tasks in the previous stage.
Contemporary research in the social sciences, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that development is continuous rather than staged, and that it varies according to socio-cultural and environmental influences. While the relevance of these once-dominant theories has diminished, they have nevertheless contributed much to current theory.
In developmental task theory, Havighurst (1972) identified six age-specific life stages covering birth to old age, each with a discrete set of developmental tasks. For Havighurst, developmental tasks derived from physical maturation, personal values and the pressures of society. The tasks identified by Havighurst for the adolescent period (13 to 18 years old) included acceptance of one’s physique; adopting a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behaviour; developing healthy attitudes towards the self as well as social groups and institutions; developing new and more mature relations with age mates of both sexes; settling on an appropriate social role and selecting an occupation; and achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults.
The notion that mastery of developmental tasks leads to healthy adjustment still has much salience today. However, Havighurst’s conception of typical age-graded stages no longer fits with contemporary evidence, which demonstrates considerable variation in the developmental trajectories of individuals across the life course.
Like Havighurst, Erikson’s model of Psycho-Social Development (Erikson, 1968) contained several stages with discrete tasks. Erikson believes that the critical task of adolescent development (teens to age 20) is to differentiate from family of origin/society. This process of individuation involved resolving the ‘identity crisis’, the main question being ‘Who am I?’ Erikson’s ideas have been extremely influential and, as such, adolescence is commonly understood as a time of self-exploration. Research has confirmed that as adolescents develop, they evolve more abstract characterisations of themselves and self concepts become more differentiated and better organised (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
However, research has not supported Erikson’s timetable for development. The tasks within some of his stages have been criticised for being based more on speculation than evidence. Further, it is now argued that only a small minority of young people experience the kind of identity crisis described by Erikson.
Cognitive Development Theory, originated by Swiss psychologist and natural scientist Jean Piaget (1977), a contemporary of Erikson, identified four developmental stages. His work was particularly influential throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Piaget used rigorous observational research methods to fully develop his theory, but empirical studies of cognitive development, now based more on information processing and computational models, have brought many of his basic propositions into doubt (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
Even so, still relevant is Piaget’s observation that as children transition to adolescence their cognitions develop from “concrete operational thought” (logical but black-and-white or concrete thinking) to formal operational thought (increased ability to think abstractly, beyond the here-and-now, and to better understand the perspectives of others).
American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg concentrated on the development of logic and morality. His model is based on moral reasoning. Six constructive stages are proposed, each more effective at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor (Kohlberg, 1981).
The six stages are identified in Table 2.
Table 2. Kohlberg’s stages in moral development
Jonathan Haidt (2007) has made an incisive critique of Kohlberg’s theory, demonstrating that moral action is based more on intuition and unconscious processes than reasoning. Gilligan (1982) also points out that the theory is not culturally neutral and is based on research with male participants. She explains that where Kohlberg’s focus is on justice, other models might equally focus on the ethics of caring.
Ecological and experiential theories
Developmental Systems Theory (DST) makes individual- context relations the basic unit of analysis and the focus of intervention (Silberstein & Lerner, 2007). Emphasis is on understanding how each young person’s unique experiences within their social ecology shape their development.
DST emphasises the diversity of human development and strong evidence is posited for ‘plasticity’ in human developmental processes. This means that regardless of past experience, there is always potential for change and reason for optimism – a view that is commensurate with both progressive neuroscience and contemporary social science perspectives.
DST demonstrates how the promotion of positive human development can be achieved by aligning the strengths and potentials of individuals and contexts. Biological and psychological processes and developmental milestones, so often viewed as predetermined and fixed, are demonstrated to be dynamic and subject to socio-cultural and historical influences. DST provides a sound scientific framework for understanding how multiple factors work together to shape human development. In this way, DST provides for the complexity of young people’s developmental experience to be captured and understood.
DST evolved from Ecological Systems Theory (EST), which was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979). EST is also known as ‘development in context’ or ‘human ecology’ theory. EST holds that everything in a child or young person’s environment affects how he or she grows and develops. Development is viewed as a continuous process and the idea of discrete stages or building blocks is not supported. Bronfenbrenner specifies four types of integrated environmental systems, each with their own roles, norms and rules that can powerfully shape development.
These are the:
- Microsystem – immediate environments (e.g. family, school, peer group, neighbourhood, etc)
- Mesosystem – connections between immediate environments (e.g. a young person’s connection with home and school or the family’s status in the community)
- Exosystem – external environmental settings that only indirectly affect development (e.g. parent’s workplace)
- Macrosystem – the larger socio-cultural context
Each young person’s interactions with people and within systems are ecologically shaped, but equally, how he or she acts or reacts affects the response of people and systems. This brings each young person’s special genetic and biologically influenced personality traits (temperament) into the developmental equation.
Another seminal (but little known) theory that considered development as context dependent is Cultural History Theory, developed by Lev Vygotsky (1978). Vygotsky was a pioneering development scientist working in the former Soviet Union, whose recognition has not matched his influence on later developmental theorists. His work predates and foreshadows Social Learning Theory.
Cultural History Theory holds that development is a continuous process whereby children and young people learn through hands-on experience. Development is believed to be best facilitated by adults, who through being connected with the child or young person are available to provide timely and sensitive intervention when they are on the edge of learning a new task. This is known as the ‘zone of proximal development’.
Vygotsky introduced the concept of ‘scaffolding’ to represent how the knowledge children already have can be built upon by supportive and available adults. Scaffolding has become a widely used construct in resilience research and in the provision of youth services more generally.
Albert Bandura’s seminal work, Social Learning Theory (1977), also demonstrates the importance of social experience and observational learning for young people. Social Learning Theory emphasises that opportunities for modelling, imitation and identification through interaction with significant others within one’s environment is critical for human learning and development.
Social Learning Theory also makes paramount the role of reward and punishment. Bandura introduced the concept of self-efficacy – a person’s own judgment of how well he or she can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations – which is central to the study of resilience and health behaviour change.
Attachment Theory is another with profound implications for how development is understood and nurtured. It was formulated by British psychiatrist and psychologist John Bowlby and further developed by American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (see Bretherton, 1992).
Bowlby’s original theory held that human infants need a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. Ainsworth added the concept of the ‘secure base’ that is instilled through the nurturing provided by a loving parent, particularly a mother. She also identified several ‘attachment patterns’ that guide the individual’s feelings, thoughts and expectations in later relationships (Vaugh et al., 2008).
Early conceptualisations of Attachment Theory were viewed as too deterministic, with development now demonstrated to be subject to more varied social processes. A further criticism is levelled by Kagan (1994), who rejects the notion that the bond between caregiver and infant is crucially influential in later emotional and even intellectual growth. Kagan demonstrates that temperament is a strong predictor of behavioural and emotional reactions that appear early and are influenced in part by genetic constitution. Subsequent research demonstrated that it is the caregiver’s behaviours that form the child’s attachment style, although how this style is expressed may differ with temperament (see Bretherton, 1992).
Further empirical studies have supported the role of early and ongoing attachment in shaping development. Robinson and Miller (2010) explain that the attachment system, including the secure base provided by an emotionally supportive, warm and communicative relationship with parents and/or caregivers, has an integral role to play in helping children and young people develop autonomy and identity.