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Health and Social Care

Child Development Theorists Cheat Sheet – Everything you Need to Know


Lead Academy

14 Mins Read

There are so many child development theorists and theories that one may easily be forgiven for getting overwhelmed. However, if you categorise them neatly, then according to the time these theories emerged, you can paint a pretty compact digestible picture. That’s what this blog aims to do. This is your ultimate child development theorists cheat sheet.

We will also make this a downloadable PDF copy so you can have a portable copy whenever you need to take a quick look at it.

So let’s talk about the theories and issues in child development.

Child Development Theory


“Different theories about early childhood inform approaches to children’s learning and development. Early childhood educators draw upon a range of perspectives in their work …”

Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009) p.11

A theory is a collection of concepts that describe a specific topic in the area of children’s learning and development in the field of early childhood education and care. Theories are typically developed through a thoughtful, logical chain of thinking and discussion. Furthermore, a theory is frequently founded on general principles. They remain unrelated to the subject of the explanation.

So, a theorist is someone who studies facts and comes up with a probable explanation for those findings. Some argue that theorists come up with abstract concepts and views. Afterwards, they spend their careers attempting to prove them. Once a theory is proven, it obviously becomes a fact. Theories provide ‘ways of knowing’ that shape thinking and have a specific impact on practice.

Female tutor assisting a little girl in assembling cubes.

Child Development Theory

So, what is child development theory?

Child development theories are sets of assumptions about how young children learn and develop, as well as what learning and instruction should look like. These assumptions impact how educators think and act, as well as their ideas and beliefs.

Choosing a perspective or theory entails deciding on a value system and, unavoidably, a set of beliefs.

So, what is a value system?

It’s a set of principles or ideals that motivate and/or guide a person’s actions. For example, if one of your personal values is to protect the environment, you might install solar panels on your roof in the hopes of reducing your energy footprint. This will eventually end the mining of environmentally unhealthy things like coal and gas in order to achieve a more sustainable future.

In the field of child development theory, each theorist’s beliefs are distinct from one another. There are many diverse ideas. But when combined, they provide a comprehensive picture of how children develop as they grow older.

You can check out our other blog on the environmental factors that affect child development.

Child Development Theory Cheat Sheet

The following is a list and details of child development theorists and their theories. We have divided them according to their value system or categories. This is your ultimate child development theorists cheat sheet. If you’re looking for an “early childhood theorists cheat sheet”, this blog addresses that too.

So, there are 5 main categories of child developmental theorists. However, this list is, by any means of the word, absolute. As research areas in child development broaden, so do the categories of theorists. But we’re going to discuss the major ones. With that said, here is the list:

  1. Personality (Psychosocial) Development Theorists
  2. Growth & Development Theories
  3. Cognitive (Intellectual) Development Theories
  4. Social Learning Theories
  5. Moral Reasoning Theories

For convenience, we’re also adding a child development theories chart and how they relate to researchers.

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Personality (Psychosocial) Development Theorists Growth & Development Theories Cognitive (Intellectual) Development Theories Social Learning Theories Moral Reasoning Theories
  • Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)
  • Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994)
  • Arnold Gesell (1880 – 1961)
  • Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917 – 2005)
  • Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980)
  • Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)
  • Howard Gardner (1943- continuing)
  • Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)
  • B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)
  • Albert Banduram (1925- continuing)
  • Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987)
  • Robert Coles (1929- continuing)
  • Carol Gilligan (1936- continuing)

Parents and their little daughter attending a therapy session with a female psychologist.

Personality (Psychosocial) Development Theorists

  • Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst

Sigmund Freud believed that children’s experiences will have a significant impact on their adult lives. Children’s decisions, according to Freud, develop their personalities as teenagers and adults. Children’s caretakers should also be understanding and sympathetic to their emotional states. The personalities and emotional well-being of children are more likely to be secure and stable if they are emotionally nurtured.

His theory is also known as Freud’s psychosexual development.

  • Erik Erikson, German psychologist; later moved to America

Erik Erikson studied under Freud. He refined Freud’s theory by proposing that personality develops in eight phases, beginning in childhood and ending in the old life. The name of this theory is the Psychosocial stage theory.

Each stage has its own psychological crises, the fate of which is determined by how caregivers and important others respond to the stage’s needs. If a person has difficulty during any of the stages, they will experience an identity crisis later in life.

His theory is still regarded to be correct. From infancy to puberty, caregivers can use this approach to satisfy the various emotional needs of each age group effectively.

He is also one of the few theorists who has addressed the stages of early, middle, and elder adulthood. Thus, the parents can determine where their children are in their development.

Growth & Development Theories

  • Arnold Gesell, American psychologist

He was the founder of the Gesell Institute of Human Behaviour in 1911. To understand Gesell’s theory, you first have to understand the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Nature refers to our genetic makeup, while Nurture refers to the environment in which we grow.

Gesell thought that nature influenced development more than nurture. He believed that children develop in a predictable pattern which genetics dictates. The development will take place only when the youngster is ready. Gesell gave the basic data on child development’s sequence and rate.

Gesell was honoured for his groundbreaking contributions to the approach of carefully observing and quantifying behaviour, as well as characterising the development of children. He was the first to use photography and one-way mirror observation as research methods. The Gesell Institute of Human Behaviour is still a world-renowned centre for child development research.

Mother comforting her upset little girl during the therapy session with a male child psychologist.

  • Urie Bronfenbrenner, American psychologist and lecturer

Urie Bronfenbrenner is famous for his Ecological systems theory. His field of research was the children and their families in the context of twentieth-century social transformations.

He developed the Ecological Systems Theory to better comprehend the complicated link that exists between the infant, the family, and society, as well as how these factors influence child development. Also, he had an impact on how psychologists and other social scientists viewed the study of people in their surroundings.

Furthermore, he linked child psychology to sociology (family studies), anthropology (society studies), economics, and political science. The goal here is to examine how all of these factors affect development rather than reviewing each independently.

Cognitive (Intellectual) Development Theories

  • Jean Piaget, Swiss biologist, psychologist, and educator

When his three children were born, he got interested in the scientific study of intelligence. He observed and took scientific notes on his children’s intellectual growth.

Better known for his Cognitive developmental stage theory, he was also the first person to conduct a scientific study of children based on real-life observations and meticulous note-taking. He observed that children’s intellectual growth is divided into four stages, beginning in infancy and ending in puberty.

As a youngster grows older, his or her thinking becomes more complicated. Each stage of development causes the youngster to view the world in a new light. He stated that a youngster must ‘master’ one stage before progressing to the next. They will never realise their full potential if they are unable to master a stage. Piaget thought that intellectual development is tightly linked to all other aspects of growth.

Child psychologist talking to a depressed little girl with crossed arms during therapy session.

  • Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator

Maria Montessori believed that children from low-income families require a better start in life in order to succeed in school. She based her teaching methods and philosophy on Piaget’s theories.

Montessori believed that rather than forcing children to learn, they learn best by using their senses and pursuing their interests. You can call it self-directed learning. Children have inborn skills and talents. There are sensitive periods in a child’s life that can be used as an indicator to when the child is ready to learn.

The premise that children learn and think differently than adults is central to her Educational Philosophy. Many traditional types of achievement (like grades and tests) are discouraged, and Montessori schools all around the world (including Canada) implement her concepts as strictly as possible. Montessori thought that teachers should give the essential resources for children to learn independently while interfering as little as possible with the children’s learning experience.

Children will learn on their own if they receive affection. In essence, you can minimise group courses and emphasise the solo investigation of subjects like language, geography, and maths. Also, you can emphasise the importance of real-life experiences and hands-on activities. Children will take over the learning process if you can easily supply the age-appropriate learning resources.

  • Howard Gardner, American psychologist and educator

Howard Gardner was tutored by Erik Erikson while studying law at Harvard University. There, his interest in psychology and the social sciences flourished, and he became interested in how people thought.

Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences contradicted the idea that humans have a single, fixed intelligence. He implies that intelligence is multidimensional. Each person has a different mix of several intelligences, resulting in a unique cognitive profile. Gardner believed that humans learned through seven (and later nine) separate intelligences.

Social Learning Theories

  • Lev Vygotsky, Russian psychologist and lecturer

One of socio behaviourist theories in early childhood- Lev Vygotsky is better known for his zone of proximal development (ZPD) theory. He began his laboratory studies while he was in his twenties and died of tuberculosis when he was in his thirties.

Vygotsky argued that nurture influences development more than nature in the nature vs nurture argument. The main concept of Vygotsky’s work was that social interaction is critical to learning. The development of a child is seen on two levels:

First, on a social level

Second, on an individual level

He thought that social interactions such as adult mentorship or peer collaboration help talents grow to a higher level. Adults, according to Vygotsky, were utilised by children to solve “knowledge issues”. Knowledge issues refer to their learning how their cultures operated and how they fit in. He also felt that thinking and linguistic skills are mutually reinforcing.

Little blonde girl showing a drawn house on paper to her female psychologist.

  • B. F. Skinner, American psychologist and educator

  1. F. Skinner’s theory (Behaviourist psychological theory) is founded on “operant conditioning”. The majority of his research involved tiny rats locked up in mazes. There was no systematic study of children. The theory states that a consequence follows behaviour. The nature of the result affects the tendency to repeat the behaviour. It’s a form of learning through rewards and punishment.

He claimed that youngsters would repeat rewarded behaviour in order to receive more rewards. It results in a higher likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. Similarly, youngsters will quit engaging in repeatedly penalised “bad” behaviour. Thus you can reduce the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. Skinner also thought that parents play a critical role in training children by providing both positive and negative feedback.

As thus, he introduced the notions of-

  1. Positive reinforcement or reinforcing stimuli: If the desired behaviour is witnessed, something nice occurs.
  2. Negative reinforcement or aversive stimuli: When a bad behaviour is stopped by the desired behaviour.
  3. Extinction: It occurs when nothing happens while the behaviour occurs. As a result, the behaviour finally stops.
  4. Intermittent reinforcement: The most effective method of maintaining behaviour. It’s a combination of positive reinforcement and extinction. The most effective incentive here is the expectation of a reward.
  • Albert Banduram, Canadian psychologist

Albert Banduram is famous for his social learning theory. Skinner’s theories heavily influenced him. But he did not agree with all of Skinner’s beliefs. He conducted a number of well-designed and tightly controlled studies on children’s behaviour.

Banduram implies that the environment determines children’s behaviour. But the behaviour also both shapes and modifies the environment. You can call it as “reciprocal determinism”. He looked at how personality interacts with the environment, behaviour, and a person’s psychological processes.

Cartoon picture showing a mother and her daughter pleasantly conversing with a female child psychologist.

Moral Reasoning Theories

  • Lawrence Kohlberg, American psychologist and educator

Lawrence Kohlberg’s research (Moral understanding stage theory) was inspired by Piaget’s theories and conducted during Skinner’s period. In order to monitor moral growth in children, he investigated male children.

Kohlberg argued that we could divide moral or ethical reasoning into six stages. Furthermore, we could classify each of them into three levels. According to Kohlberg, individuals can only move through the stages one at a time. We believe that the majority of moral development comes as a result of social interaction.

  • Robert Coles, American psychiatrist and professor of literature and social ethic

Robert Coles’ field of study was children’s moral growth. He thinks that their parent’s behaviour shapes the moral character of the children. In addition, their school, peers and their nurturing attitude also have the same influence.

Life stories are a great way to learn. He discovered that youngsters have a strong moral sensitivity to things like ideas and values, right and wrong. They are morally concerned about issues that affect their daily lives. In addition, our motivations behind what we do, feel and think nudges their thought faculty too. 

  • Carol Gilligan, American psychologist and professor

Carol Gilligan believed that most moral development theories were skewed since they were based on studies of “privileged white men” in the 1970s. She questioned if she could apply the statistics to women without additional research.

Gilligan stressed the role of gender in the formation of morality too.

If you ever dream of becoming a child psychologist, check out our other blog, “How to Become a Child Psychologist in the UK.”


Who was the first child development theorists?

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was the first researcher to study children scientifically.

Who is the father of child development?

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is the father of the field of “child development theory”.

What was Erik Erikson’s theory?

You can call Erik Erikson’s theory the Psychosocial stage theory.

Who influenced Piaget?

Piaget’s theory expanded from the likes of Skinner and Pavlov’s behaviourist theories.

Where is Jean Piaget from?

Jean Piaget was from Switzerland.

How are Piaget and Erikson’s theories different?

The main distinction between Piaget’s and Erikson’s theory is that Erikson focused on development throughout life, whereas Piaget only looked at it from infancy to late adolescence.

Why is Piaget’s theory important?

Piaget’s cognitive development hypothesis contributed to our knowledge of children’s intellectual development. It also emphasised that children were not just passive consumers of information. Instead, as they develop their understanding of how the world works, children are continuously studying and experimenting.

What was Skinner’s theory?

Skinner’s theory focused on the Behaviourist Psychological Theory and you can find it in “operant conditioning”.


Although there are many more related topics inherent in our child development theorists cheat sheet, these are the major ones. If you still want more comprehensive information on how theories influence current practice, you may have to refer to a book that focuses on child development and child psychology. You may be looking for this sheet either for self-study or for professional development. “Child development and psychology course” offered by Lead Academy is a course that can help you with that. Professionally made courses like these will give you a deep dive into the field of child development.


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