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Stages of Intellectual Development in Children & Teenagers

By Kenneth D. Hartline ; Updated June 13, 2017

Psychology researchers have studied intellectual development among children and adolescents since Sigmund Freud first came up with his theory on child development. In modern psychology, stage theories, in which children graduate to the next stage of social development after completing the necessary cognitive developments, have become the norm for researchers and has provided basis for schooling systems and teaching. Two stage theories that are perhaps the most widely used today were developed by Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson.

Piaget’s Stage Theory of Development

Jean Piaget broke his stage theory into four stages of cognitive development. The first stage takes place during the first two years of the child’s life in which she learns basic motor functions, begins to understand goal-oriented behavior and develops object permanence. The next stage takes place in children who are aged two to seven, and is marked by a rapid increase in language skills and the ability to to engage in symbolic thought. Around or shortly after the age of seven, children enter the next stage of development in which they are able to understand other people’s perspectives, but cannot yet think in abstract terms.

Erikson’s Theory of Development

Erik Erikson’s cognitive development stages were a bit more complex that Piaget’s original theory and feature conflicts that children must solve before moving on to the next stage. Having a successful outcome in one stage increases the likelihood of the person having a successful outcome in the next stage. For example, in the first 18 months, Erikson states that children go through the crisis of “trust versus mistrust” in which they must figure out if they can rely on others to meet their needs. Around the time of Piaget’s second stage, children enter the “autonomy versus shame and doubt” crisis followed by the “initiative versus guilt” stage according to Erikson.

Development as Adolescents and Teenagers

Both Erikson and Piaget share a belief in a major stage of development that begins around 12 years of age or at the start of puberty. During this time, children develop a sense of who they are as a person and become better able to see things from multiple perspectives as well as think abstractly. Erikson calls this crisis the “identity achievement versus role confusion” stage in which the child must come to grips with becoming an adult and learns to form and develop goals, opinions and attitudes.

Moral Development

In addition to cognitive development, there are stage theories regarding the moral development that people go through as they get older. Piaget believed that when children are young, they abide by moral realism in which they adhere strictly to the rules no matter the situation. As children get older, they develop more interpersonal relationships that lead to personal discoveries where they begin to understand that rules may be broken for the greater good.

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