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Theories of Child Development and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care

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Developmental theorists use their research to generate philosophies on children’s development. They organize and interpret data based on a scheme to develop their theory. A theory refers to a systematic statement of principles related to observed phenomena and their relationship to each other. A theory of child development looks at the children's growth and behavior and interprets it. It suggests elements in the child's genetic makeup and the environmental conditions that influence development and behavior and how these elements are related. Many developmental theories offer insights about how the performance of individuals is stimulated, sustained, directed, and encouraged. Psychologists have established several developmental theories. Many different competing theories exist, some dealing with only limited domains of development, and are continuously revised. This article describes the developmental theories and their founders who have had the greatest influence on the fields of child development, early childhood education, and care. The following sections discuss some influences on the individuals’ development, such as theories, theorists, theoretical conceptions, and specific principles. It focuses on five theories that have had the most impact: maturationist, constructivist, behavioral, psychoanalytic, and ecological. Each theory offers interpretations on the meaning of children's development and behavior. Although the theories are clustered collectively into schools of thought, they differ within each school.

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  1. The author is grateful to Mary Jalongo for her expert editing and her keen eye for the smallest details.

  2. Although Watson was the first to maintain explicitly that psychology was a natural science, behaviorism in both theory and practice had originated much earlier than 1913. Watson offered a vital incentive to behaviorism, but several others had started the process. He never stated to have created “behavioral psychology.” Some behaviorists consider him a model of the approach rather than an originator of behaviorism (Malone, 2014). Still, his presence has significantly influenced the status of present psychology and its development.


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Correspondence to Olivia N. Saracho.

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Saracho, O.N. Theories of Child Development and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care. Early Childhood Educ J 51, 15–30 (2023).

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