The brain may well be the final frontier of biology. Though prominent psychologists and psychoanalysts have developed and expanded theories of psychological development, there are still many aspects of brain development and function that science does not fully understand. However, using available information to understand early childhood psychological development can help parents and caregivers provide a healthy, stimulating environment for children 3.

Social-Emotional Development

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson theorized that humans progress through eight stages of social-emotional development from birth to old age 1. At each stage, a person is faced with a conflict. His environment and experiences determine whether he develops a positive or negative personality trait resulting from the conflict. The four stages occurring from infancy to early adolescence inform the development of hope, will, purpose and confidence.

Cognitive Development

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget developed a theory to explain how the mind processes new information, stating that children progress through four cognitive stages from infancy to adolescence. From birth to age 2, children are in the sensorimotor stage, characterized by using senses and reflexes to understand the environment. The preoperational stage, lasting from about ages 2 to 7, is governed by communication through language and symbolism. During the concrete phase, which lasts into early adolescence, children’s abstract knowledge and reasoning skills improve.

Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development expanded on Piaget’s theory. Morality in early childhood is characterized by a belief that rules are absolute and that actions are either right or wrong. Typically, a child asked to explain why it is wrong to do something bad may refer to punishment, perhaps responding, “because you might get in trouble.” Most children cannot grasp moral gray areas until middle adolescence. The early childhood stage of morality is called preconventional because children do not see themselves as members of society.

Environmental Influence

Though the science community continues to debate exactly how the brain works, there is no doubt that environment and experiences play a major role in a child’s psychological development. As the Zero to Three center states, “Responsive relationships with consistent primary caregivers help build positive attachments that support healthy social-emotional development.” These early relationships influence social and emotional development throughout the remainder of childhood 123.

Mental Health Disorders

Young children can suffer from a variety of mental health disorders. Prevalence estimates vary widely, but the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that as many as 11 percent of children under 5 suffer from anxiety disorders and phobias and up to 26 percent have oppositional defiant disorder 3. Other mental health disorders common in early childhood include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorders 2.