Stages of Development Research Paper

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Stage theories of development are sometimes called discontinuity theories. The premise is that development occurs in discontinuous stages: During a particular stage, a child will go through no significant changes in his or her abilities or capacities, and behavior will remain fairly stable within that stage. Later development will take the individual to a more mature stage, at which point there is again a kind of stability. This view is in direct contrast to continuity theories, which describe development as a continuous process without stages or phases.


Freud presented one of the first stage theories of development, with different components of the personality developing in each. The theory focused on psychosexual development and described five stages: the oral stage, birth to eight months; the anal stage, eight to eighteen months; the phallic stage, eighteen months to six years; the latency stage, six to eleven years; and the genital stage, which is, in a sense, maturity. The id, a reflection of instinct and libido, is all important in the oral stage. The ego develops in the second stage. Both the Electra and Oedipal complexes occur in the third stage, as does the superego and thus the individual’s conscience. The latency stage reflects a kind of loss of interest in sexual gratification; more important in this stage is the child’s identification between him- or herself and the parent of the same sex. The genital stage allows the individual to develop adult sexual concerns. An individual may develop a fixation that prevents moving from one stage to another; for example, an individual with an oral fixation continues to seek pleasure through the lips and mouth, even as an adult. Various forms of regression may also occur when an individual returns to an earlier, less mature mode of psychic functioning.


Although Freud’s theory has been widely criticized and has remained the subject of much debate, its impact on subsequent developmental psychologists and clinicians is beyond doubt. Erik Erikson, the German developmental psychologist, studied with but then broke away from Freud to develop his own stage theory. Whereas Freud emphasized childhood and preadolescent development, Erikson’s theory covers the life span, with eight stages; whereas Freud’s psychosexual theory emphasized the libido and its expression in the different stages of development, Erikson’s psychosocial theory emphasized the social environment. Each stage is characterized by a conflict or crisis, and each crisis has its origin in the interaction between the individual and the social environment. For example, in the first stage the crisis involves trust versus mistrust; Erikson felt that the individual must learn to trust others and him- or herself to develop a healthy personality. The eighth and final stage involves the crisis of integrity versus despair.


The most commonly cited cognitive stage theory was developed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget described four stages of development, each of which involves an idiosyncratic kind of thinking. Movement through these stages is typically completed sometime during adolescence. The first stage, the sensorimotor, lasts approximately two years, during which time the individual’s cognition is processing only sensory and motoric information; he or she does not think beyond the here and now and cannot contemplate anything abstract or hypothetical. The individual adapts to the environment through the processes of assimilation (the individual manipulates information such that he or she can think about it and perhaps adapt to it) and accommodation (the individual’s cognitive structures change in response to the experiences). Piaget used this adaptive process to explain all cognitive growth, deeming other kinds of what he termed learning superficial, almost a kind of memorization. Adaptation, on the other hand, requires a change in the individual’s cognitive structures, and this depends on the adaptive process.

In the second stage, the preoperational, approximately ages two to seven, the individual moves beyond the here and now but still is not capable of cognitively operating on information. The third stage is the concrete operational, approximately ages seven to eleven, in which children begin to apply logical thinking to concrete events and objects. The fourth and final stage is the formal operational, from about age eleven on, at which point individuals are, for Piaget, “little scientists”: they can take a number of variables into account when making logical decisions, and sometimes they are even scientific in the sense of reasoning about certain factors in isolation. The formal operator is, for Piaget, cognitively mature and able to apply logic to hypothetical (not just concrete) things, to reason sociocentrically (not egocentrically), and to think about various propositions. The formal operator also can be very effective with deductive logic. Piaget described how thinking in a deductive fashion (rather than relying on the less mature forms of transductive or inductive thought) depends on and supports hypothetical thinking. He referred to them as one process, the hypothetico-deductive process.

Several neo-Piagetians have proposed fifth and sixth stages of development in an effort to describe cognitive changes occurring in adulthood. Neo-Piagetians have also pointed to other skills, including relativistic thinking, a problem-finding capacity, and dialectical thinking. The first of these implies that the individual does not think in black and white or absolutes. The second implies that the individual not only can solve problems logically but can also identify them and define them in a manner that allows creative solution. The third, an ability to accept and reason dialectically, allows the individual to accept a thesis as well as its antithesis and integrate them, the result being a useful synthesis.

Piaget recognized that stages do not develop without particular experiences. They are dependent on genetic potentials, and indeed Piaget referred to his theory as a genetic epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge; but by genetics Piaget was referring not to the chemical makeup of life—he was writing before technologies existed for the identification of genes themselves—but rather to the biological basis for development, and to potential. But adaptation is necessary for development. This is very important because it implies that individuals will not necessarily move through these stages; they move through them only when they are biologically ready and have had appropriate experiences. These experiences must challenge an individual and elicit adaptations.

In contrast to stage theories, continuity theories hold that development occurs unrestricted by stages. Learning theories reflect continuity theories, for they typically suggest that individuals have a stable potential to learn: the more experience one has, the more mature and capable the individual will become. In stage theories, biological or perhaps psychological factors interact with experience such that individuals can benefit from experience only if they are ready to do so.


  1. Arlin, P. K. 1975. Cognitive Development in Adulthood: A Fifth Stage? Developmental Psychology 11: 602–606.
  2. Erikson, Erik H. 1993. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
  3. Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. [1923] 1962. The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton.
  4. Piaget, Jean. 1962. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.
  5. Piaget, Jean. 1970. Piaget’s Theory. In Carmichael’s Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. Paul H. Mussen, 3rd ed., 703–732. New York: Wiley.
  6. Piaget, Jean. 1976. To Understand Is to Invent: The Future of Education. Trans. George-Anne Roberts. New York: Penguin.

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