Theory of Human Development

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Theories of human development can provide insight to the multiple changes a human goes through over their life span. These theories range from focusing on cognitive development to emotional development. These theories may also focus on accomplishing certain life tasks before achieving the next stage of development. However other theories may emphasize a natural progression from one stage to the next. Theories also vary in how individuals move from stage to stage. In certain theories, an individual achieves a stage and continues towards the next stage, while in other theories an individual may jump from stage to stage. The large variety of human development theories makes it difficult to understand the full scope of human development. Most human development theories focus on only one aspect of development. Through the development of a theory that incorporates all aspects of human development, a comprehensive theory can be formulated. This theory will draw upon other human development theories in order to be complete.

This theory of development will be dividing by the various life stages during which important life tasks need to be completed. Each life stage will incorporate information regarding physical, social, emotional and social functions as Newman and Newman (2007) discussed that a human development theory should incorporate these functions. Other human development theories focus on these functions as only a small part of their theories. However for the human development theory that will be formulated these functions will be the primary focus. These functions will largely be able to be complete in the environment that an individual is present within. The direction of change for this theory will be sequential in that one phase must be accomplished to be successful in the next stage. The risks of not completing the stage would be that they would not be successful in the life tasks for the next stage.  

This theory will be divided by age groups as age is an important distinction in our society and an effective way to categorize life tasks. “The focus on age as a way to divide the life stream is thus a recent practice, speaking in terms of the history of humanity, now widespread in the industrialized United States and Europe” (Rogoff, 2003). These stages would be early childhood (0-6 years of age), childhood (7-12 years of age), adolescence (13-18 years of age), early adulthood (19-25 years of age), middle adulthood (26-40 years of age), late adulthood (41-60 years of age) and elderly (61-death). Childhood is an important developmental phase which can be divided up by the influences on an individual’s life. During early childhood, the main influence on a child is the home environment and their caregivers. During childhood the main influence shifts to the school setting where teachers heavily influence children. During adolescence, peers become the main influence in a teenager’s life. In other developmental theories, adulthood has been lumped together into one stage however an adult goes through multiple life changes over the years and distinct stages are needed. These stages will formulate the basis for the human development theory.

The early attachment phase of childhood faces multiple emotional, physical, cognitive and social tasks before they are able to effectively move onto the next stage. During this stage, a child forms an emotional attachment to a secure caregiver which will form the foundation for all future relationships. In his theory of psychosocial development, Erikson depicted this stage as being the one in which a child is able to learn to trust or mistrust others. (Newman and Newman, 2011). During this phase children rapidly experience both physical and cognitive growth as they become ready to take on the demanding tasks of having to begin school. Children also begin to engage in social play with their peers and begin to form friendships. The most important mechanism for change during this stage is the attachment to a primary caregiver. Without this basic emotional attachment, the other areas of physical, cognitive or social growth cannot occur. A child may be unable to attach to a caregiver if their environment is maladaptive or if their caregiver is neglectful. A child who does not accomplish this task through the relationship with their caregiver will not be effective in accomplishing the next stage of being able to go to school and learn. A child may remain stuck in this stage which would be demonstrated by behavioral challenges later in life.

 The second stage is childhood during which the primary task is to learn and be able to function within the school setting. While a child continues to grow physically and emotionally the main focus during this stage is on cognitive ability and social interactions with others. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development described this phase as being the operational stage in which children are able to form logic which becomes the basis for advanced learning (Newman, 2011). Children must be able to take the skills developed in the home environment to the school setting. The school environment is the primary mechanism for achieving this task as a child must be able to effectively function in the setting that they will attend for the next 12 years of their life. If a child does not achieve the early cognitive development that is completed in the first stages a child will not be able to be academically successful in this stage of life. As these stages build on each other if a child is not able to accomplish this life stage they will not be effective in accomplishing the tasks of adolescence. 

The main task of adolescence is to form relationships with peers and through these relationships to form an identity of themselves. Adolescence physical growth continues to occur in the form of puberty however cognitive growth does not occur as rapidly. Increased hormones and a still-developing frontal cortex can result in impaired decision making. During this stage, an adolescent is focused on the social aspects of their life and forming emotional bonds with others. The relationship with their primary caregiver allows adolescents to form relationships with others. If an adolescent continues to struggle with being able to function in the school setting, where most of the relationships with others develop, they will not be able to effectively achieve this stage. This would make it difficult to complete the next stage of development.

During the early adulthood stage, the brain is still not fully developed as the frontal cortex continues to form. Due to this early adulthood could be seen as an extension of adolescence. During this stage, an individual becomes independent and must achieve the tasks of becoming responsible on their own. This independence can come in the form of going to college, moving out of the parents’ home or even getting married and starting a family of their own. However, the lack of brain development makes this a difficult task to achieve. If this stage is not effectively achieved an individual may find it difficult to be a successful adult.

By the time someone enters middle adulthood, they have acquired the skills to be able to be a responsible adult. During this life stage, the main task for most individuals is to find a partner and create a family. However, not all individuals will have the desire to have children or become married. To be all-inclusive this stage could be seen as creating any form of a family. During this stage, most physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth should be completed. Individuals may be unable to accomplish this life stage if they have not been able to accomplish previous stages of being able to form an identity or achieve responsibility. An individual uses these areas to be a functioning member of society and be able to continue onto the next stage of development. 

The stage of late adulthood can be described as the stage of life when an individual’s children become adults and leave the home. During this stage, physical and cognitive growth continues to remain stable. Individuals may experience changes in social and emotional growth as they begin to deal with the emotions of their children leaving home. They may also see an increase in their social life as they begin spending time with adult friends. The adult is no longer left in charge of caring for a child and must develop interests that focus more on themselves. In pop culture individuals who go through this stage of life experience a midlife crisis. This could accurately describe this stage as individuals have to find their place outside of the relationship with their children. Individuals may focus on their careers or develop hobbies and interests to occupy their time. Successful completion of this stage can prepare an individual for the final stage of their life when they become elderly.

During the final stage of life, an elderly individual looks back on their lives and prepare for the certainty of death. During this stage of life physical and cognitive development begin to regress as multiple health concerns can impact the quality of life. Cognitive development also falters as individuals begin to have problems with their memory and thinking. Often times during this stage individuals are isolated from others either due to the physical and cognitive limitations outlined above or a lack of desire to interact with others. This final stage is completed by all individuals however the peace that an individual feels at the end of their life can relate to how effectively they accomplished previous life tasks. 

"The expression human development refers to the way people change with the passing of time” (Thomas, 2001). This explanation is the basis for this human development theory. The change all individuals feel is common to all human beings as they grow older. Although individuals will have their own unique experiences the shared commonality of growth exists for everyone. The use of age and time as distinctions within the theory are important in accurately grasping the development that occurs for an individual over their life span. The theory can be used across multiple cultures and groups of individuals. 


Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (2007). Theories of human development. Lawrence Erlbaum

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford University Press, USA.

Thomas, R. M. (2000). Recent theories of human development. Sage Publications, Incorporated.