When one of our authors (Kelvin Seifert) was growing up, he was provided with piano lessons. Daily practice was a staple of childhood–365 days a year, and in a home that was deliberately kept quiet to facilitate practice. Music—especially the piano—defined a major part of his emerging self-identity. Altogether he studied piano for 13 years, from age 4 to the end of high school, with only occasional interruptions.

At any one time, Kelvin witnessed small changes in his skills. He performed a simple piece a bit better than he had the previous week, or he played more of it from memory. There were direct, obvious connections between his skills at one moment and at the moment just before or after. Back then, if you had asked him what accounted for the changes, he would have stated without hesitation that they were because he was “learning” specific piano pieces.

Across broader spans of time, however, he noticed changes that were more dramatic. Kelvin learned much more complex pieces than he had several years earlier, for example. He also played with significantly more “finesse”, sensitivity and polish than as a young child. He was even listening to classical music on the radio some of the time! Kelvin’s musical talent became transformed over the long term, and in some sense he did not have the “same” talent that he had had as a beginner.

If you had asked what accounted for these longer-term changes, he would have had a harder time answering than when asked about the short-term changes. He might have said simply and a bit vaguely: “I have been getting better at piano.” If you ask the same question now, however, he would say that his music skills had developed, that their development had been slow and gradual, and that the changes resulted not just from simple practice, but also from becoming more widely skilled about music in general.

Development refers to long-term personal changes that have multiple sources and multiple effects. It is like the difference between Kelvin’s music at age fifteen compared to his music at age five, rather than the difference between his music one week and his music the next. Some human developments are especially broad and take years to unfold fully; a person’s ever-evolving ability to “read” other’s moods, for example, may take a lifetime to develop fully. Other developments are faster and more focused, like a person’s increasing skill at solving crossword puzzles. The faster and simpler is the change, the more likely we are to call the change “learning” instead of development. The difference between learning and development is a matter of degree. When a child learns to name the planets of the solar system, for example, the child may not need a lot of time, nor does the learning involve a multitude of experiences. So it is probably better to think of that particular experience—learning to name the planets—as an example of learning rather than of development (Salkind, 2004; Lewis, 1997).

Why development matters

Students’ development matters for teachers, but the way it matters depends partly on how schooling is organized. In teaching a single, “self-contained” grade-level, the benefits of knowing about development will be less explicit, but just as real, as if you teach many grade levels. Working exclusively with a single grade (like, say, a third- grade classroom) highlights differences among students that happen in spite of their similar ages, and obscures similarities that happen because of having similar ages. Under these conditions it is still easy to notice students’ diversity, but harder to know how much of it comes from differences in long-term development, compared to differences in short-term experiences. Knowledge about long term changes is still useful, however, in planning appropriate activities and in holding appropriate expectations about students. What changes in students can you expect relatively soon simply from your current program of activities, and which ones may take a year or more to show up? This is a question that developmental psychology can help to answer.

If you teach multiple grade levels, as often is true of specialists or teachers in middle school or high school, then your need for developmental knowledge will be more obvious because you will confront wide age differences on a daily basis. As a physical education teacher, for example, you may teach kindergarten children at one time during the day, but sixth-graders at another time, or teach seventh-graders at one time but twelfth-graders at another. Students will differ more obviously because of age, in addition to differing because of other factors like their skills or knowledge learned recently. Nonetheless, the instructional challenge will be the same as the one faced by teachers of single-grade classes: you will want to know what activities and expectations are appropriate for your students. To answer this question, you will need to know something not only about how your students are unique, but also about general trends of development during childhood and adolescence.

Note that developmental trends vary in two important ways. The first, as indicated already, is in their generality. Some theories or models of development boldly assert that certain changes happen to virtually every person on the planet, and often at relatively predictable points in life. For example, a theory might assert that virtually every toddler acquires a spoken language, or that every teenager forms a sense of personal identity. Individuals who do not experience these developments would be rare, though not necessarily disabled as a result. Other theories propose developmental changes that are more limited, claiming only that the changes happen to some people or only under certain conditions. Developing a female gender role, for example, does not happen to everyone, but only to the females in a population, and the details vary according to the family, community, or society in which a child lives.

The second way that developmental trends vary is in how strictly they are sequenced and hierarchical. In some views of development, changes are thought to happen in a specific order and to build on each other—sort of a “staircase” model of development (Case, 1991, 1996). For example, a developmental psychologist (and many of the rest of us) might argue that young people must have tangible, hands-on experience with new materials before they can reason about the materials in the abstract. The order cannot be reversed. In other views of development, change happens, but not with a sequence or end point that is uniform. This sort of change is more like a “kaleidoscope” than a staircase (Levinson, 1990; Lewis, 1997; Harris, 2006). A person who becomes permanently disabled, for example, may experience complex long-term changes in personal values and priorities that are different both in timing and content from most people’s developmental pathway.

In general, educational psychologists have tended to emphasize explanations of development that are relatively general, universal and sequential, rather than specific to particular cultures or that are unsequenced and kaleidoscopic (see, for example, Woolfolk, 2006, Chapter 4; or Slavin, 2005, Chapters 8 and 9). Such models (sometimes called “grand theories”) have the advantage of concisely integrating many features of development, while also describing the kind of people children or adolescents usually end up to be. The preference for integrative perspectives makes sense given educators’ need to work with and teach large numbers of diverse students both efficiently and effectively. But the approach also risks overgeneralizing or oversimplifying the experiences of particular children and youth. It can also confuse what does happen as certain children (like the middle-class ones) develop with what should happen to children. To understand this point, imagine two children of about the same age who have dramatically very different childhood experiences—for example, one who grows up in poverty and another who grows up financially well-off. In what sense can we say that these two children experience the same underlying developmental changes as they grow up? And how much should they even be expected to do so? Developmental psychology, and especially the broad theories of developmental psychology, highlight the “sameness” or common ground between these two children. As such, it serves as counterpoint to knowledge of their obvious uniqueness, and places their uniqueness in broader perspective.

Physical development during the school years

Although it may be tempting to think that physical development is the concern of physical education teachers only, it is actually a foundation for many academic tasks. In first grade, for example, it is important to know whether children can successfully manipulate a pencil. In later grades, it is important to know how long students can be expected to sit still without discomfort—a real physical challenge. In all grades, it is important to have a sense of students’ health needs related to their age or maturity, if only to know who may become ill, and with what illness, and to know what physical activities are reasonable and needed.

Trends in height and weight

Typical height and weight for well-nourished, healthy students are shown in Table 5. The figure shows averages for several ages from preschool through the end of high school. But the table does not show the diversity among children. At age 6, for example, when children begin school, the average boy or girl is about 115 centimeters tall, but some are 109 and others are 125 centimeters. Average weight at age 6 is about 20 kilograms, but ranges between about 16 and 24 kilograms—about 20% variation in either direction.

Table 5: Average height and weight of well-nourished children


Height (cm)

Weight (kg)
















There are other points to keep in mind about average height and weight that are not evident from Table 5. The first is that boys and girls, on average, are quite similar in height and weight during childhood, but diverge in the early teenage years, when they reach puberty. For a time (approximately age 10-14), the average girl is taller, but not much heavier, than the average boy. After that the average boy becomes both taller and heavier than the average girl—though there remain individual exceptions (Malina, et al., 2004). The pre-teen difference can therefore be awkward for some children and youth, at least among those who aspire to looking like older teenagers or young adults. For young teens less concerned with “image”, though, the fact that girls are taller may not be especially important, or even noticed (Friedman, 2000).

A second point is that as children get older, individual differences in weight diverge more radically than differences in height. Among 18-year-olds, the heaviest youngsters weigh almost twice as much as the lightest, but the tallest ones are only about 10 per cent taller than the shortest. Nonetheless, both height and weight can be sensitive issues for some teenagers. Most modern societies (and the teenagers in them) tend to favor relatively short women and tall men, as well as a somewhat thin body build, especially for girls and women. Yet neither “socially correct” height nor thinness is the destiny for many individuals. Being overweight, in particular, has become a common, serious problem in modern society (Tartamella, et al., 2004) due to the prevalence of diets high in fat and lifestyles low in activity. The educational system has unfortunately contributed to the problem as well, by gradually restricting the number of physical education courses and classes in the past two decades.

The third point to keep in mind is that average height and weight is related somewhat to racial and ethnic background. In general, children of Asian background tend to be slightly shorter than children of European and North American background. The latter in turn tend to be shorter than children from African societies (Eveleth & Tanner, 1990). Body shape differs slightly as well, though the differences are not always visible until after puberty. Asian youth tend to have arms and legs that are a bit short relative to their torsos, and African youth tend to have relatively long arms and legs. The differences are only averages; there are large individual differences as well, and these tend to be more relevant for teachers to know about than broad group differences.

Puberty and its effects on students

A universal physical development in students is puberty, which is the set of changes in early adolescence that bring about sexual maturity. Along with internal changes in reproductive organs are outward changes such as growth of breasts in girls and the penis in boys, as well as relatively sudden increases in height and weight. By about age 10 or 11, most children experience increased sexual attraction to others (usually heterosexual, though not always) that affects social life both in school and out (McClintock & Herdt, 1996). By the end of high school, more than half of boys and girls report having experienced sexual intercourse at least once—though it is hard to be certain of the proportion because of the sensitivity and privacy of the information. (Center for Disease Control, 2004b; Rosenbaum, 2006).

At about the same time that puberty accentuates gender, role differences also accentuate for at least some teenagers. Some girls who excelled at math or science in elementary school may curb their enthusiasm and displays of success at these subjects for fear of limiting their popularity or attractiveness as girls (Taylor & Gilligan, 1995; Sadker, 2004). Some boys who were not especially interested in sports previously may begin dedicating themselves to athletics to affirm their masculinity in the eyes of others. Some boys and girls who once worked together successfully on class projects may no longer feel comfortable doing so—or alternatively may now seek to be working partners, but for social rather than academic reasons. Such changes do not affect all youngsters equally, nor affect any one youngster equally on all occasions. An individual student may act like a young adult on one day, but more like a child the next. When teaching children who are experiencing puberty, , teachers need to respond flexibly and supportively.

Development of motor skills

Students’ fundamental motor skills are already developing when they begin kindergarten, but are not yet perfectly coordinated. Five-year-olds generally can walk satisfactorily for most school-related purposes (if they could not, schools would have to be organized very differently!). For some fives, running still looks a bit like a hurried walk, but usually it becomes more coordinated within a year or two. Similarly with jumping, throwing, and catching: most children can do these things, though often clumsily, by the time they start school, but improve their skills noticeably during the early elementary years (Payne & Isaacs, 2005). Assisting such developments is usually the job either of physical education teachers, where they exist, or else of classroom teachers during designated physical education activities. Whoever is responsible, it is important to notice if a child does not keep more-or-less to the usual developmental timetable, and to arrange for special assessment or supports if appropriate. Common procedures for arranging for help are described in Chapter 6 (“Special education”).

Even if physical skills are not a special focus of a classroom teacher, they can be quite important to students themselves. Whatever their grade level, students who are clumsy are aware of that fact and how it could potentially negatively effect respect from their peers. In the long term, self-consciousness and poor self-esteem can develop for a child who is clumsy, especially if peers (or teachers and parents) place high value on success in athletics. One research study found, for example, what teachers and coaches sometimes suspect: that losers in athletic competitions tend to become less sociable and are more apt to miss subsequent athletic practices than winners (Petlichkoff, 1996).

Health and illness

By world standards, children and youth in economically developed societies tend, on average, to be remarkably healthy. Even so, much depends on precisely how well-off families are and on how much health care is available to them. Children from higher-income families experience far fewer serious or life-threatening illnesses than children from lower-income families. Whatever their income level, parents and teachers often rightly note that children— especially the youngest ones—get far more illnesses than do adults. In 2004, for example, a government survey estimated that children get an average of 6-10 colds per year, but adults get only about 2-4 per year (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, 2004). The difference probably exists because children’s immune systems are not as fully formed as adults’, and because children at school are continually exposed to other children, many of whom may be contagious themselves. An indirect result of children’s frequent illnesses is that teachers (along with airline flight attendants, incidentally!) also report more frequent minor illnesses than do adults in general—about five colds per year, for example, instead of just 2-4 (Whelen, et al., 2005). The “simple” illnesses are not life threatening, but they are responsible for many lost days of school, both for students and for teachers, as well as days when a student may be present physically, but functions below par while simultaneously infecting classmates. In these ways, learning and teaching often suffer because health is suffering.

The problem is not only the prevalence of illness as such (in winter, even in the United States, approximately one person gets infected with a minor illness every few seconds), but the fact that illnesses are not distributed uniformly among students, schools, or communities. Whether it is a simple cold or something more serious, illness is particularly common where living conditions are crowded, where health care is scarce or unaffordable, and where individuals live with frequent stresses of any kind. Often, but not always, these are the circumstances of poverty. Table 6 summarizes these effects for a variety of health problems, not just for colds or flu.

Table 6: Health effects of children’s economic level

Health program

Comparison: poor vs non-poor

Delayed immunizations

3 times higher


Somewhat higher

Lead poisoning

3 times higher

Deaths in childhood from accidents

2-3 times higher

Deaths in childhood from disease

3-4 times higher

Having a condition that limits school activity

2-3 times higher

Days sick in bed

40 per cent higher

Seriously impaired vision

2-3 times higher

Severe iron-deficiency (anemia)

2 times higher

Source: Richardson, J> (2005). The Cost of Being Poor. New York: Praeger. Spencer, N. (2000). Poverty and Child Health, 2nd edition. Abington, UK: Radcliffe Medical Press. Allender, J. (2005). Community Health Nursing. Philadelphia: Lippinsott, Williams & Wilkins.

As students get older, illnesses become less frequent, but other health risks emerge. The most widespread is the consumption of alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes. As of 2004, about 75 per cent of teenagers reported drinking an alcoholic beverage at least occasionally, and 22 per cent reported smoking cigarettes (Center for Disease Control, 2004a). The good news is that these proportions show a small, but steady decline in the frequencies over the past 10 years or so. The bad news is that teenagers also show increases in the abuse of some prescription drugs, such as inhalants, that act as stimulants (Johnston, et al., 2006). As with the prevalence of illnesses, the prevalence of drug use is not uniform, with a relatively small fraction of individuals accounting for a disproportionate proportion of usage. One survey, for example, found that a teenager was 3-5 times more likely to smoke or to use alcohol, smoke marijuana, or use drugs if he or she has a sibling who has also indulged these habits (Fagan & Najman, 2005). Siblings, it seems, are more influential in this case than parents.

Cognitive development: the theory of Jean Piaget

Cognition refers to thinking and memory processes, and cognitive development refers to long-term changes in these processes. One of the most widely known perspectives about cognitive development is the cognitive stage theory of a Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget. Piaget created and studied an account of how children and youth gradually become able to think logically and scientifically. Because his theory is especially popular among educators, we focus on it in this chapter. We will look at other cognitive perspectives—ones that are not as fully “developmental”, in later chapters, especially Chapter 10 (“Facilitating complex thinking”).

In brief comments in Chapter 3 (see “Psychological constructivism”) about how Piaget explained learning, we described Piaget as a psychological constructivist: in his view, learning proceeded by the interplay of assimilation (adjusting new experiences to fit prior concepts) and accommodation (adjusting concepts to fit new experiences). The to-and-fro of these two processes leads not only to short-term learning, as pointed out in Chapter 1, but also to long-term developmental change. The long-term developments are really the main focus of Piaget’s cognitive theory.

After observing children closely, Piaget proposed that cognition developed through distinct stages from birth through the end of adolescence. By stages he meant a sequence of thinking patterns with four key features:

      • They always happen in the same order.
      • No stage is ever skipped.
      • Each stage is a significant transformation of the stage before it.
      • Each later stage incorporated the earlier stages into itself. Basically this is the “staircase” model of development mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development, and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking. Each stage is correlated with an age period of childhood, but only approximately.

The sensorimotor stage: birth to age 2

In Piaget’s theory, the sensorimotor stage is first, and is defined as the period when infants “think” by means of their senses and motor actions. As every new parent will attest, infants continually touch, manipulate, look, listen to, and even bite and chew objects. According to Piaget, these actions allow them to learn about the world and are crucial to their early cognitive development.

The infant’s actions allow the child to represent (or construct simple concepts of) objects and events. A toy animal may be just a confusing array of sensations at first, but by looking, feeling, and manipulating it repeatedly, the child gradually organizes her sensations and actions into a stable concept, toy animal. The representation acquires a permanence lacking in the individual experiences of the object, which are constantly changing. Because the representation is stable, the child “knows”, or at least believes, that toy animal exists even if the actual toy animal is temporarily out of sight. Piaget called this sense of stability object permanence, a belief that objects exist whether or not they are actually present. It is a major achievement of sensorimotor development, and marks a qualitative transformation in how older infants (24 months) think about experience compared to younger infants (6 months).

During much of infancy, of course, a child can only barely talk, so sensorimotor development initially happens without the support of language. It might therefore seem hard to know what infants are thinking, but Piaget devised several simple, but clever experiments to get around their lack of language, and that suggest that infants do indeed represent objects even without being able to talk (Piaget, 1952). In one, for example, he simply hid an object (like a toy animal) under a blanket. He found that doing so consistently prompts older infants (18-24 months) to search for the object, but fails to prompt younger infants (less than six months) to do so. (You can try this experiment yourself if you happen to have access to young infant.) “Something” motivates the search by the older infant even without the benefit of much language, and the “something” is presumed to be a permanent concept or representation of the object.

The preoperational stage: age 2 to 7

In the preoperational stage, children use their new ability to represent objects in a wide variety of activities, but they do not yet do it in ways that are organized or fully logical. One of the most obvious examples of this kind of cognition is dramatic play, the improvised make-believe of preschool children. If you have ever had responsibility for children of this age, you have likely witnessed such play. Ashley holds a plastic banana to her ear and says: “Hello, Mom? Can you be sure to bring me my baby doll? OK!” Then she hangs up the banana and pours tea for Jeremy into an invisible cup. Jeremy giggles at the sight of all of this and exclaims: “Rinnng! Oh Ashley, the phone is ringing again! You better answer it.” And on it goes.

In a way, children immersed in make-believe seem “mentally insane”, in that they do not think realistically. But they are not truly insane because they have not really taken leave of their senses. At some level, Ashley and Jeremy always know that the banana is still a banana and not really a telephone; they are merely representing it as a telephone. They are thinking on two levels at once—one imaginative and the other realistic. This dual processing of experience makes dramatic play an early example of metacognition, or reflecting on and monitoring of thinking itself. As we explained in Chapter 3, metacognition is a highly desirable skill for success in school, one that teachers often encourage (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Paley, 2005). Partly for this reason, teachers of young children (preschool, kindergarten, and even first or second grade) often make time and space in their classrooms for dramatic play, and sometimes even participate in it themselves to help develop the play further.

The concrete operational stage: age 7 to 11

As children continue into elementary school, they become able to represent ideas and events more flexibly and logically. Their rules of thinking still seem very basic by adult standards and usually operate unconsciously, but they allow children to solve problems more systematically than before, and therefore to be successful with many academic tasks. In the concrete operational stage, for example, a child may unconsciously follow the rule: “If nothing is added or taken away, then the amount of something stays the same.” This simple principle helps children to understand certain arithmetic tasks, such as in adding or subtracting zero from a number, as well as to do certain classroom science experiments, such as ones involving judgments of the amounts of liquids when mixed. Piaget called this period the concrete operational stage because children mentally “operate” on concrete objects and events. They are not yet able, however, to operate (or think) systematically about representations of objects or events. Manipulating representations is a more abstract skill that develops later, during adolescence.

Concrete operational thinking differs from preoperational thinking in two ways, each of which renders children more skilled as students. One difference is reversibility, or the ability to think about the steps of a process in any order. Imagine a simple science experiment, for example, such as one that explores why objects sink or float by having a child place an assortment of objects in a basin of water. Both the preoperational and concrete operational child can recall and describe the steps in this experiment, but only the concrete operational child can recall them in any order. This skill is very helpful on any task involving multiple steps—a common feature of tasks in the classroom. In teaching new vocabulary from a story, for another example, a teacher might tell students: “First make a list of words in the story that you do not know, then find and write down their definitions, and finally get a friend to test you on your list”. These directions involve repeatedly remembering to move back and forth between a second step and a first—a task that concrete operational students—and most adults—find easy, but that preoperational children often forget to do or find confusing. If the younger children are to do this task reliably, they may need external prompts, such as having the teacher remind them periodically to go back to the story to look for more unknown words.

The other new feature of thinking during the concrete operational stage is the child’s ability to decenter, or focus on more than one feature of a problem at a time. There are hints of decentration in preschool children’s dramatic play, which requires being aware on two levels at once—knowing that a banana can be both a banana and a “telephone”. But the decentration of the concrete operational stage is more deliberate and conscious than preschoolers’ make-believe. Now the child can attend to two things at once quite purposely. Suppose you give students a sheet with an assortment of subtraction problems on it, and ask them to do this: “Find all of the problems that involve two-digit subtraction and that involve borrowing’ from the next column. Circle and solve only those problems.” Following these instructions is quite possible for a concrete operational student (as long as they have been listening!) because the student can attend to the two subtasks simultaneously—finding the two-digit problems and identifying which actually involve borrowing. (Whether the student actually knows how to “borrow” however, is a separate question.)

In real classroom tasks, reversibility and decentration often happen together. A well-known example of joint presence is Piaget’s experiments with conservation, the belief that an amount or quantity stays the same even if it changes apparent size or shape (Piaget, 2001; Matthews, 1998). Imagine two identical balls made of clay. Any child, whether preoperational or concrete operational, will agree that the two indeed have the same amount of clay in them simply because they look the same. But if you now squish one ball into a long, thin “hot dog”, the preoperational child is likely to say that the amount of that ball has changed—either because it is longer or because it is thinner, but at any rate because it now looks different. The concrete operational child will not make this mistake, thanks to new cognitive skills of reversibility and decentration: for him or her, the amount is the same because “you could squish it back into a ball again” (reversibility) and because “it may be longer, but it is also thinner” (decentration). Piaget would say the concrete operational child “has conservation of quantity”.

The classroom examples described above also involve reversibility and decentration. As already mentioned, the vocabulary activity described earlier requires reversibility (going back and forth between identifying words and looking up their meanings); but it can also be construed as an example of decentration (keeping in mind two tasks at once—word identification and dictionary search). And as mentioned, the arithmetic activity requires decentration (looking for problems that meet two criteria and also solving them), but it can also be construed as an example of reversibility (going back and forth between subtasks, as with the vocabulary activity). Either way, the development of concrete operational skills support students in doing many basic academic tasks; in a sense they make ordinary schoolwork possible.

The formal operational stage: age 11 and beyond

In the last of the Piagetian stages, the child becomes able to reason not only about tangible objects and events, but also about hypothetical or abstract ones. Hence it has the name formal operational stage—the period when the individual can “operate” on “forms” or representations. With students at this level, the teacher can pose hypothetical (or contrary-to-fact) problems: “What if the world had never discovered oil?” or “What if the first European explorers had settled first in California instead of on the East Coast of the United States?” To answer such questions, students must use hypothetical reasoning, meaning that they must manipulate ideas that vary in several ways at once, and do so entirely in their minds.

The hypothetical reasoning that concerned Piaget primarily involved scientific problems. His studies of formal operational thinking therefore often look like problems that middle or high school teachers pose in science classes. In one problem, for example, a young person is presented with a simple pendulum, to which different amounts of weight can be hung (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). The experimenter asks: “What determines how fast the pendulum swings: the length of the string holding it, the weight attached to it, or the distance that it is pulled to the side?” The young person is not allowed to solve this problem by trial-and-error with the materials themselves, but must reason a way to the solution mentally. To do so systematically, he or she must imagine varying each factor separately, while also imagining the other factors that are held constant. This kind of thinking requires facility at manipulating mental representations of the relevant objects and actions—precisely the skill that defines formal operations.

As you might suspect, students with an ability to think hypothetically have an advantage in many kinds of school work: by definition, they require relatively few “props” to solve problems. In this sense they can in principle be more self-directed than students who rely only on concrete operations—certainly a desirable quality in the opinion of most teachers. Note, though, that formal operational thinking is desirable but not sufficient for school success, and that it is far from being the only way that students achieve educational success. Formal thinking skills do not insure that a student is motivated or well-behaved, for example, nor does it guarantee other desirable skills, such as ability at sports, music, or art. The fourth stage in Piaget’s theory is really about a particular kind of formal thinking, the kind needed to solve scientific problems and devise scientific experiments. Since many people do not normally deal with such problems in the normal course of their lives, it should be no surprise that research finds that many people never achieve or use formal thinking fully or consistently, or that they use it only in selected areas with which they are very familiar (Case & Okomato, 1996). For teachers, the limitations of Piaget’s ideas suggest a need for additional theories about development—ones that focus more directly on the social and interpersonal issues of childhood and adolescence. The next sections describe some of these.

Social development: relationships,personal motives, and morality

Social development refers to the long-term changes in relationships and interactions involving self, peers, and family. It includes both positive changes, such as how friendships develop, and negative changes, such as aggression or bullying. The social developments that are the most obviously relevant to classroom life fall into three main areas: (1) changes in self-concept and in relationships among students and teachers, (2) changes in basic needs or personal motives, and (3) changes in sense of rights and responsibilities. As with cognitive development, each of these areas has a broad, well-known theory (and theorist) that provides a framework for thinking about how the area relates to teaching. For development of self-concept and relationships, it is the theory of Erik Erikson; for development of personal motives, it is the theory of Abraham Maslow; and for development of ethical knowledge and beliefs, it is the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and his critic, Carol Gilligan. Their theories are definitely not the only ones related to social development of students, and their ideas are often debated by other researchers. But their accounts do explain much about social development that is relevant to teaching and education.

Erik Erikson: eight psychosocial crises of development

Like Piaget, Erik Erikson developed a theory of social development that relies on stages, except that Erikson thought of stages as a series of psychological or social (or psychosocial) crises—turning points in a person’s relationships and feelings about himself or herself (Erikson, 1963, 1980). Each crisis consists of a dilemma or choice that carries both advantages and risks, but in which one choice or alternative is normally considered more desirable or “healthy”. How one crisis is resolved affects how later crises are resolved. The resolution also helps to create an individual’s developing personality. Erikson proposed eight crises that extend from birth through old age; they are summarized in Table 7. Four of the stages occur during the school years, so we give these special attention here, but it is helpful also to know what crises are thought to come both before and after those in the school years.

Table 7: Eight psychosocial crises according to Erikson

Psychosocial crisis

Approximate age


Trust and mistrust

Birth to one year

Development of trust between caregiver and child

Autonomy and shame

Age 1-3

Development of control over bodily functions and activities

Initiative and guilt

Age 3-6

Testing limits of self-assertion and purposefulness

Industry and inferiority

Age 6-12

Development of sense of mastery and competence

Identity and role confusion

Age 12-19

Development of identity and acknowledge of identity by others

Intimacy and isolation

Age 19-25+

Formation of intimate relationships and commitments

Generativity and stagnation

Age 25-50+

Development of creative or productive activities that contribute to future generations

Integrity and despair

Age 50+

Acceptance of personal life history and forgiveness of self and others

Crises of infants and preschoolers: trust, autonomy, and initiative

Almost from the day they are born, infants face a crisis (in Erikson’s sense) about trust and mistrust. They are happiest if they can eat, sleep, and excrete according to their own physiological schedules, regardless of whether their schedules are convenient for the caregiver (often the mother). Unfortunately, though, a young infant is in no position to control or influence a mother’s care giving or scheduling needs; so the baby faces a dilemma about how much to trust or mistrust the mother’s helpfulness. It is as if the baby asks, “If I demand food (or sleep or a clean diaper) now, will my mother actually be able to help me meet this need?” Hopefully, between the two of them, mother and child resolve this choice in favor of the baby’s trust: the mother proves herself at least “good enough” in her attentiveness, and the baby risks trusting mother’s motivation and skill at care giving.

Almost as soon as this crisis is resolved, however, a new one develops over the issue of autonomy and shame. The child (who is now a toddler) may now trust his or her caregiver (mother), but the very trust contributes to a desire to assert autonomy by taking care of basic personal needs, such as feeding, toileting, or dressing. Given the child’s lack of experience in these activities, however, self-care is risky at first—the toddler may feed (or toilet or dress) clumsily and ineffectively. The child’s caregiver, for her part, risks overprotecting the child and criticizing his early efforts unnecessarily and thus causing the child to feel shame for even trying. Hopefully, as with the earlier crisis of trust, the new crisis gets resolved in favor of autonomy through the combined efforts of the child to exercise autonomy and of the caregiver to support the child’s efforts.

Eventually, about the time a child is of preschool age, the autonomy exercised during the previous period becomes more elaborate, extended, and focused on objects and people other than the child and basic physical needs. The child at a day care center may now undertake, for example, to build the “biggest city in the world” out of all available unit blocks—even if other children want some of the blocks for themselves. The child’s projects and desires create a new crisis of initiative and guilt, because the child soon realizes that acting on impulses or desires can sometimes have negative effects on others—more blocks for the child may mean fewer for someone else. As with the crisis over autonomy, caregivers have to support the child’s initiatives where possible, but also not make the child feel guilty just for desiring to have or to do something that affects others’ welfare. By limiting behavior where necessary but not limiting internal feelings, the child can develop a lasting ability to take initiative. Expressed in Erikson’s terms, the crisis is then resolved in favor of initiative.

Even though only the last of these three crises overlaps with the school years, all three relate to issues faced by students of any age, and even by their teachers. A child or youth who is fundamentally mistrustful, for example, has a serious problem in coping with school life. If you are a student, it is essential for your long-term survival to believe that teachers and school officials have your best interests at heart, and that they are not imposing assignments or making rules, for example, “just for the heck of it.” Even though students are not infants any more, teachers function like Erikson’s caregiving parents in that they need to prove worthy of students’ trust through their initial flexibility and attentiveness.

Parallels from the classroom also exist for the crises of autonomy and of initiative. To learn effectively, students need to make choices and undertake academic initiatives at least some of the time, even though not every choice or initiative may be practical or desirable. Teachers, for their part, need to make true choices and initiatives possible, and refrain from criticizing, even accidentally, a choice or intention behind an initiative even if the teacher privately believes that it is “bound to fail”. Support for choices and initiative should be focused on providing resources and on guiding the student’s efforts toward more likely success. In these ways teachers function like parents of toddlers and preschoolers in Erikson’s theory of development, regardless of the age of their students.

The crisis of childhood: industry and inferiority

Once into elementary school, the child is faced for the first time with becoming competent and worthy in the eyes of the world at large, or more precisely in the eyes of classmates and teachers. To achieve their esteem, he or she must develop skills that require effort that is sustained and somewhat focused. The challenge creates the crisis of industry and inferiority. To be respected by teachers, for example, the child must learn to read and to behave like a “true student”. To be respected by peers, he or she must learn to cooperate and to be friendly, among other things. There are risks involved in working on these skills and qualities, because there can be no guarantee of success with them in advance. If the child does succeed, therefore, he or she experiences the satisfaction of a job well done and of skills well learned—a feeling that Erikson called industry. If not, however, the child risks feeling lasting inferiority compared to others. Teachers therefore have a direct, explicit role in helping students to resolve this crisis in favor of industry or success. They can set realistic academic goals for students—ones that tend to lead to success—and then provide materials and assistance for students to reach their goals. Teachers can also express their confidence that students can in fact meet their goals if and when the students get discouraged, and avoid hinting (even accidentally) that a student is simply a “loser”. Paradoxically, these strategies will work best if the teacher is also tolerant of less-than-perfect performance by students. Too much emphasis on perfection can undermine some students’ confidence—foster Erikson’s inferiority—by making academic goals seem beyond reach.

The crisis of adolescence: identity and role confusion

As the child develops lasting talents and attitudes as a result of the crisis of industry, he begins to face a new question: what do all the talents and attitudes add up to be? Who is the “me” embedded in this profile of qualities? These questions are the crisis of identity and role confusion. Defining identity is riskier than it may appear for a person simply because some talents and attitudes may be poorly developed, and some even may be undesirable in the eyes of others. (If you are poor at math, how do you live with family and friends if they think you should be good at this skill?) Still others may be valuable but fail to be noticed by other people. The result is that who a person wants to be may not be the same as who he or she is in actual fact, nor the same as who other people want the person to be. In Erikson’s terms, role confusion is the result.

Teachers can minimize role confusion in a number of ways. One is to offer students lots of diverse role models— by identifying models in students’ reading materials, for example, or by inviting diverse guests to school. The point of these strategies would be to express a key idea: that there are many ways to be respected, successful, and satisfied with life. Another way to support students’ identity development is to be alert to students’ confusions about their futures, and refer them to counselors or other services outside school that can help sort these out. Still another strategy is to tolerate changes in students’ goals and priorities—sudden changes in extra-curricular activities or in personal plans after graduation. Since students are still trying roles out, discouraging experimentation may not be in students’ best interests.

The crises of adulthood: intimacy, generativity, and integrity

Beyond the school years, according to Erikson, individuals continue psychosocial development by facing additional crises. Young adults, for example, face a crisis of intimacy and isolation. This crisis is about the risk of establishing close relationships with a select number of others. Whether the relationships are heterosexual, homosexual, or not sexual at all, their defining qualities are depth and sustainability. Without them, an individual risks feeling isolated. Assuming that a person resolves this crisis in favor of intimacy, however, he or she then faces a crisis about generativity and stagnation. This crisis is characteristic of most of adulthood, and not surprisingly therefore is about caring for or making a contribution to society, and especially to its younger generation. Generativity is about making life productive and creative so that it matters to others. One obvious way for some to achieve this feeling is by raising children, but there are also many other ways to contribute to the welfare of others. The final crisis is about integrity and despair, and is characteristically felt during the final years of life. At the end of life, a person is likely to review the past and to ask whether it has been lived as well as possible, even if it was clearly not lived perfectly. Since personal history can no longer be altered at the end of life, it is important to make peace with what actually happened and to forgive oneself and others for mistakes that may have been made. The alternative is despair, or depression from believing not only that one’s life was lived badly, but also that there is no longer any hope of correcting past mistakes.

Even though Erikson conceives of these crises as primarily concerns of adulthood, there are precursors of them during the school years. Intimacy, for example, is a concern of many children and youth in that they often desire, but do not always find, lasting relationships with others (Beidel, 2005; Zimbardo & Radl, 1999). Personal isolation is a particular risk for students with disabilities, as well as for students whose cultural or racial backgrounds differ from classmates’ or the teacher’s. Generativity—feeling helpful to others and to the young—is needed not only by many adults, but also by many children and youth; when given the opportunity as part of their school program, they frequently welcome a chance to be of authentic service to others as part of their school programs (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kay, 2003). Integrity—taking responsibility for your personal past, “warts and all”, is often a felt need for anyone, young or old, who has lived long enough to have a past on which to look. Even children and youth have a past in this sense, though their pasts are of course shorter than persons who are older.

Abraham Maslow: a hierarchy of motives and needs

Abraham Maslow’s theory frames personal needs or motives as a hierarchy, meaning that basic or “lower-level” needs have to be satisfied before higher-level needs become important or motivating (1976, 1987). Compared to the stage models of Piaget and Erikson, Maslow’s hierarchy is only loosely “developmental”, in that Maslow was not concerned with tracking universal, irreversible changes across the lifespan. Maslow’s stages are universal, but they are not irreversible; earlier stages sometimes reappear later in life, in which case they must be satisfied again before later stages can redevelop. Like the theories of Piaget and Erikson, Maslow’s is a rather broad “story”, one that has less to say about the effects of a person’s culture, language, or economic level, than about what we all have in common.

In its original version, Maslow’s theory distinguishes two types of needs, called deficit needs and being needs (or sometimes deficiency needs and growth needs). Table 8 summarizes the two levels and their sublevels. Deficit needs are prior to being needs, not in the sense of happening earlier in life, but in that deficit needs must be satisfied before being needs can be addressed. As pointed out, deficit needs can reappear at any age, depending on circumstances. If that happens, they must be satisfied again before a person’s attention can shift back to “higher” needs. Among students, in fact, deficit needs are likely to return chronically to those whose families lack economic or social resources or who live with the stresses associated with poverty (Payne, 2005).

Table 8: Maslow’s hierarchy of motives and needs

Deficit Needs

Physiological needs

Safety and security needs

Love and belonging needs

Being needs


Cognitive needs

Aesthetic needs

Self-actualization needs


Deficit needs: getting the basic necessities of life

Deficit needs are the basic requirements of physical and emotional well-being. First are physiological needs— food, sleep, clothing, and the like. Without these, nothing else matters, and especially nothing very “elevated” or self-fulfilling. A student who is not getting enough to eat is not going to feel much interest in learning! Once physiological needs are met, however, safety and security needs become important. The person looks for stability and protection, and welcomes a bit of structure and limits if they provide these conditions. A child from an abusive family, for example, may be getting enough to eat, but may worry chronically about personal safety. In school, the student may appreciate a well-organized classroom with rules that insures personal safety and predictability, whether or not the classroom provides much in the way of real learning.

After physiological and safety needs are met, love and belonging needs emerge. The person turns attention to making friends, being a friend, and cultivating positive personal relationships in general. In the classroom, a student motivated at this level may make approval from peers or teachers into a top priority. He or she may be provided for materially and find the classroom and family life safe enough, but still miss a key ingredient in life— love. If such a student (or anyone else) eventually does find love and belonging, however, then his or her motivation shifts again, this time to esteem needs. Now the concern is with gaining recognition and respect—and even more importantly, gaining self-respect. A student at this level may be unusually concerned with achievement, for example, though only if the achievement is visible or public enough to earn public recognition.

Being needs: becoming the best that you can be

Being needs are desires to become fulfilled as a person, or to be the best person that you can possibly be. They include cognitive needs (a desire for knowledge and understanding), aesthetic needs (an appreciation of beauty and order), and most importantly, self-actualization needs (a desire for fulfillment of one’s potential). Being needs emerge only after all of a person’s deficit needs have been largely met. Unlike deficit needs, being needs beget more being needs; they do not disappear once they are met, but create a desire for even more satisfaction of the same type. A thirst for knowledge, for example, leads to further thirst for knowledge, and aesthetic appreciation leads to more aesthetic appreciation. Partly because being needs are lasting and permanent once they appear, Maslow sometimes treated them as less hierarchical than deficit needs, and instead grouped cognitive, aesthetic, and self- actualization needs into the single category self-actualization needs.

People who are motivated by self-actualization have a variety of positive qualities, which Maslow went to some lengths to identify and describe (Maslow, 1976). Self-actualizing individuals, he argued, value deep personal relationships with others, but also value solitude; they have a sense of humor, but do not use it against others; they accept themselves as well as others; they are spontaneous, humble, creative, and ethical. In short, the self- actualizing person has just about every good quality imaginable! Not surprisingly, therefore, Maslow felt that true self-actualization is rare. It is especially unusual among young people, who have not yet lived long enough to satisfy earlier, deficit-based needs.

In a way this last point is discouraging news for teachers, who apparently must spend their lives providing as best they can for individuals—students—still immersed in deficit needs. Teachers, it seems, have little hope of ever meeting a student with fully fledged being needs. Taken less literally, though, Maslow’s hierarchy is still useful for thinking about students’ motives. Most teachers would argue that students—young though they are—can display positive qualities similar to the ones described in Maslow’s self-actualizing person. However annoying students may sometimes be, there are also moments when they show care and respect for others, for example, and moments when they show spontaneity, humility, or a sound ethical sense. Self-actualization is an appropriate way to think about these moments—the times when students are at their best. At the same time, of course, students sometimes also have deficit needs. Keeping in mind the entire hierarchy outlined by Maslow can therefore deepen teachers’ understanding of the full humanity of students.

Moral development: forming a sense of rights and responsibilities

Morality is a system of beliefs about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity. Moral beliefs are related to, but not identical with, moral behavior: it is possible to know the right thing to do, but not actually do it. It is also not the same as knowledge of social conventions, which are arbitrary customs needed for the smooth operation of society. Social conventions may have a moral element, but they have a primarily practical purpose. Conventionally, for example, motor vehicles all keep to the same side of the street (to the right in the United States, to the left in Great Britain). The convention allows for smooth, accident-free flow of traffic. But following the convention also has a moral element, because an individual who chooses to drive on the wrong side of the street can cause injuries or even death. In this sense, choosing the wrong side of the street is wrong morally, though the choice is also unconventional.

When it comes to schooling and teaching, moral choices are not restricted to occasional dramatic incidents, but are woven into almost every aspect of classroom life. Imagine this simple example. Suppose that you are teaching, reading to a small group of second-graders, and the students are taking turns reading a story out loud. Should you give every student the same amount of time to read, even though some might benefit from having additional time? Or should you give more time to the students who need extra help, even if doing so bores classmates and deprives others of equal shares of “floor time”? Which option is more fair, and which is more considerate? Simple dilemmas like this happen every day at all grade levels simply because students are diverse, and because class time and a teacher’s energy are finite.

Embedded in this rather ordinary example are moral themes about fairness or justice, on the one hand, and about consideration or care on the other. It is important to keep both themes in mind when thinking about how students develop beliefs about right or wrong. A morality of justice is about human rights—or more specifically, about respect for fairness, impartiality, equality, and individuals’ independence. A morality of care, on the other hand, is about human responsibilities—more specifically, about caring for others, showing consideration for individuals’ needs, and interdependence among individuals. Students and teachers need both forms of morality. In the next sections therefore we explain a major example of each type of developmental theory, beginning with the morality of justice.

Kohlberg’s morality of justice

One of the best-known explanations of how morality of justice develops was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1991). Using a stage model similar to Piaget’s, Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development, grouped into three levels. Individuals experience the stages universally and in sequence as they form beliefs about justice. He named the levels simply preconventional, conventional, and (you guessed it) postconventional. The levels and stages are summarized in Table 9.

Table 9: Moral stages according to Kohlberg

Moral stage

Definition of what is “good”

Preconventional Level:

Stage 1: Obedience and punishment

Stage 2: Market exchange


Action that is rewarded and not punished

Action that is agreeable to the child and child’s partner

Conventional Level:

Stage 3: Peer opinion

Stage 4: Law and order


Action that wins approval from friends or peers

Action that conforms to community customs or laws

Postconventional Level:

Stage 5: Social contract

Stage 6: Universal principles


Action that follows social accepted ways of making decisions

Action that is consistent with self-chosen, general principles

Preconventional justice: obedience and mutual advantage

The preconventional level of moral development coincides approximately with the preschool period of life and with Piaget’s preoperational period of thinking. At this age the child is still relatively self-centered and insensitive to the moral effects of actions on others. The result is a somewhat short-sighted orientation to morality. Initially (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), the child adopts an ethics of obedience and punishment—a sort of “morality of keeping out of trouble”. The rightness and wrongness of actions is determined by whether actions are rewarded or punished by authorities such as parents or teachers. If helping yourself to a cookie brings affectionate smiles from adults, then taking the cookie is considered morally “good”. If it brings scolding instead, then it is morally “bad”. The child does not think about why an action might be praised or scolded; in fact, says Kohlberg, he would be incapable at Stage 1 of considering the reasons even if adults offered them.

Eventually the child learns not only to respond to positive consequences, but also learns how to produce them by exchanging favors with others. The new ability creates Stage 2, an ethics of market exchange. At this stage the morally “good” action is one that favors not only the child, but another person directly involved. A “bad” action is one that lacks this reciprocity. If trading the sandwich from your lunch for the cookies in your friend’s lunch is mutually agreeable, then the trade is morally good; otherwise it is not. This perspective introduces a type of fairness into the child’s thinking for the first time. But it still ignores the larger context of actions—the effects on people not present or directly involved. In Stage 2, for example, it would also be considered morally “good” to pay a classmate to do another student’s homework—or even to avoid bullying or to provide sexual favors—provided that both parties regard the arrangement as being fair.

Conventional justice: conformity to peers and society

As children move into the school years, their lives expand to include a larger number and range of peers and (eventually) of the community as a whole. The change leads to conventional morality, which are beliefs based on what this larger array of people agree on—hence Kohlberg’s use of the term “conventional”. At first, in Stage 3, the child’s reference group are immediate peers, so Stage 3 is sometimes called the ethics of peer opinion. If peers believe, for example, that it is morally good to behave politely with as many people as possible, then the child is likely to agree with the group and to regard politeness as not merely an arbitrary social convention, but a moral “good”. This approach to moral belief is a bit more stable than the approach in Stage 2, because the child is taking into account the reactions not just of one other person, but of many. But it can still lead astray if the group settles on beliefs that adults consider morally wrong, like “Shop lifting for candy bars is fun and desirable.”

Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands even more, he or she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends. He or she is therefore more likely to encounter disagreements about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order, in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what the majority of society believes. Now, an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from ethical mistakes. A community or society may agree, for example, that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect, or that a factory owner is entitled to dump waste water into a commonly shared lake or river. To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these require further stages of moral development.

Postconventional justice: social contract and universal principles

As a person becomes able to think abstractly (or “formally”, in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from acceptance of what the community does believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed. The new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract. Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that respect the rights of the people affected. Consider, for example, the laws in some areas that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In what sense are the laws about this behavior ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? Were cyclists consulted and did they give consent? Or how about doctors or the cyclists’ families? Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes should be. In focusing on the processes by which the law was created, however, individuals are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of the position they take about wearing helmets. In this sense, beliefs on both sides of a debate about an issue can sometimes be morally sound even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it should help to avoid mindless conformity to conventional moral beliefs. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to the content of what gets decided. In principle (and occasionally in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, for example, but would deciding this by due process make it ethical? The realization that ethical means can sometimes serve unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), but also other principles, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or the sacredness of the natural environment. At Stage 6, the universal principles will guide a person’s beliefs even if the principles mean disagreeing occasionally with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).

Gilligan’s morality of care

As logical as they sound, Kohlberg’s stages of moral justice are not sufficient for understanding the development of moral beliefs. To see why, suppose that you have a student who asks for an extension of the deadline for an assignment. The justice orientation of Kohlberg’s theory would prompt you to consider issues of whether granting the request is fair. Would the late student be able to put more effort into the assignment than other students? Would the extension place a difficult demand on you, since you would have less time to mark the assignments? These are important considerations related to the rights of students and the teacher. In addition to these, however, are considerations having to do with the responsibilities that you and the requesting student have for each other and for others. Does the student have a valid personal reason (illness, death in the family, etc.) for the assignment being late? Will the assignment lose its educational value if the student has to turn it in prematurely? These latter questions have less to do with fairness and rights, and more to do with taking care of and responsibility for students. They require a framework different from Kohlberg’s to be understood fully.

One such framework has been developed by Carol Gilligan, whose ideas center on a morality of care, or system of beliefs about human responsibilities, care, and consideration for others. Gilligan proposed three moral positions that represent different extents or breadth of ethical care. Unlike Kohlberg, Piaget, or Erikson, she does not claim that the positions form a strictly developmental sequence, but only that they can be ranked hierarchically according to their depth or subtlety. In this respect her theory is “semi-developmental” in a way similar to Maslow’s theory of motivation (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995). Table 10  summarizes the three moral positions from Gilligan’s theory

Table 10: Positions of moral development according to Gilligan

Moral position

Definition of what is morally good

Position 1: Survival orientation

Action that considers one’s personal needs only

Position 2: Conventional care

Action that considers others’ needs or preferences, but not one’s own


  Position 3: Integrated care


Action that attempts to coordinate one’s own personal needs with those of others

Position 1: caring as survival

The most basic kind of caring is a survival orientation, in which a person is concerned primarily with his or her own welfare. If a teenage girl with this ethical position is wondering whether to get an abortion, for example, she will be concerned entirely with the effects of the abortion on herself. The morally good choice will be whatever creates the least stress for herself and that disrupts her own life the least. Responsibilities to others (the baby, the father, or her family) play little or no part in her thinking.

As a moral position, a survival orientation is obviously not satisfactory for classrooms on a widespread scale. If every student only looked out for himself or herself, classroom life might become rather unpleasant! Nonetheless, there are situations in which focusing primarily on yourself is both a sign of good mental health and relevant to teachers. For a child who has been bullied at school or sexually abused at home, for example, it is both healthy and morally desirable to speak out about how bullying or abuse has affected the victim. Doing so means essentially looking out for the victim’s own needs at the expense of others’ needs, including the bully’s or abuser’s. Speaking out, in this case, requires a survival orientation and is healthy because the child is taking caring of herself.

Position 2: conventional caring

A more subtle moral position is caring for others, in which a person is concerned about others’ happiness and welfare, and about reconciling or integrating others’ needs where they conflict with each other. In considering an abortion, for example, the teenager at this position would think primarily about what other people prefer. Do the father, her parents, and/or her doctor want her to keep the child? The morally good choice becomes whatever will please others the best. This position is more demanding than Position 1, ethically and intellectually, because it requires coordinating several persons’ needs and values. But it is often morally insufficient because it ignores one crucial person: the self.

In classrooms, students who operate from Position 2 can be very desirable in some ways; they can be eager to please, considerate, and good at fitting in and at working cooperatively with others. Because these qualities are usually welcome in a busy classroom, teachers can be tempted to reward students for developing and using them. The problem with rewarding Position 2 ethics, however, is that doing so neglects the student’s development—his or her own academic and personal goals or values. Sooner or later, personal goals, values, and identity need attention and care, and educators have a responsibility for assisting students to discover and clarify them.

Position 3: integrated caring

The most developed form of moral caring in Gilligan’s model is integrated caring, the coordination of personal needs and values with those of others. Now the morally good choice takes account of everyone including yourself, not everyone except yourself. In considering an abortion, a woman at Position 3 would think not only about the consequences for the father, the unborn child, and her family, but also about the consequences for herself. How would bearing a child affect her own needs, values, and plans? This perspective leads to moral beliefs that are more comprehensive, but ironically are also more prone to dilemmas because the widest possible range of individuals are being considered.

In classrooms, integrated caring is most likely to surface whenever teachers give students wide, sustained freedom to make choices. If students have little flexibility about their actions, there is little room for considering anyone’s needs or values, whether their own or others’. If the teacher says simply: “Do the homework on page 50 and turn it in tomorrow morning”, then the main issue becomes compliance, not moral choice. But suppose instead that she says something like this: “Over the next two months, figure out an inquiry project about the use of water resources in our town. Organize it any way you want—talk to people, read widely about it, and share it with the class in a way that all of us, including yourself, will find meaningful.” An assignment like this poses moral challenges that are not only educational, but also moral, since it requires students to make value judgments. Why? For one thing, students must decide what aspect of the topic really matters to them. Such a decision is partly a matter of personal values. For another thing, students have to consider how to make the topic meaningful or important to others in the class. Third, because the time line for completion is relatively far in the future, students may have to weigh personal priorities (like spending time with friends or family) against educational priorities (working on the assignment a bit more on the weekend). As you might suspect, some students might have trouble making good choices when given this sort of freedom—and their teachers might therefore be cautious about giving such an assignment. But the difficulties in making choices are part of Gilligan’s point: integrated caring is indeed more demanding than the caring based only on survival or on consideration of others. Not all students may be ready for it.

Understanding “the typical student” versus understanding students

In this chapter, in keeping with the general nature of developmental theory, we have often spoken of students in a generalized way, referring to “the” child, student, or youngster, as if a single typical or average individual exists and develops through single, predictable pathways. As every teacher knows, however, development is not that simple. A class of 25 or 30 students will contain 25 or 30 individuals each learning and developing along distinct pathways. Why then study developmental patterns at all? Because underlying their obvious diversity, students indeed show important similarities. This chapter has indicated some of the similarities and how they relate to the job of teaching. Our references to “the” student should not be understood, therefore, as supporting simple-minded stereotypes; they refer instead to common tendencies of real, live children and youth. Pointing to developmental changes is like pointing to a flock of birds in flight: the flock has a general location, but individual birds also have their own locations and take individual flight paths. Development and diversity therefore have to be understood jointly, not separately. There are indeed similarities woven among the differences in students, but also differences woven among students’ commonalities. We recommend therefore that you read this chapter on development together with the next one, which looks explicitly at student diversity.

Chapter summary

Understanding development, or the long-term changes in growth, behavior, and knowledge, helps teachers to hold appropriate expectations for students as well as to keep students’ individual diversity in perspective. From kindergarten through the end of high school, students double their height, triple their weight, experience the social and hormonal effects of puberty, and improve basic motor skills. Their health is generally good, though illnesses are affected significantly by students’ economic and social circumstances.

Cognitively, students develop major new abilities to think logically and abstractly, based on a foundation of sensory and motor experiences with the objects and people around them. Jean Piaget has one well-known theory detailing how these changes unfold.

Socially, students face and resolve a number of issues—especially the issue of industry (dedicated, sustained work) during childhood and the issue of identity during adolescence. Erik Erikson has described these crises in detail, as well as social crises that precede and follow the school years. Students are motivated both by basic human needs (food, safety, belonging, esteem) and by needs to enhance themselves psychologically (self-actualization). Abraham Maslow has described these motivations and how they relate to each other.

Morally, students develop both a sense of justice and of care for others, and their thinking in each of these realms undergoes important changes as they mature. Lawrence Kohlberg has described changes in children and youth’s beliefs about justice, and Carol Gilligan has described changes in their beliefs about care.

On the Internet

<www.srcd.org/press> This is part of the website for the Society for Research in Child Development, an organization that supports research about children and youth, and that advocates for government policies on their behalf. The specific web page recommended here contains their press releases, which summarize findings from current research and their implications for children’s welfare. You will need to register to use this page, but registration is free.

<www.apa.org> This is the website for the American Psychological Association, the largest professional association of psychologists in the English-speaking world. From the homepage you can go to a section called “psychology topics”, which offers a variety of interesting articles and press releases free of charge. Among other topics, for example, there are articles about obesity and its effects, as well as about factors that support (and/or detract from) children’s well-being.

Key terms




Cognitive stages

Jean Piaget

Sensorimotor stage

Object permanence

Preoperational stage

Dramatic play

Concrete operational stage



Formal operational stage

Hypothetical reasoning

Social development

Erik Erikson

Abraham Maslow

Lawrence Kohlberg

Carol Gilligan

Psychosocial crises

Trust, autonomy, and initiative


Integrated Care



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