The Developing Learner

Psychosocial Development

Social development refers to the long-term changes in relationships and interactions involving self, peers, and family. As with cognitive development, each of these areas has broad, well-known theories (and theorists) that provide a framework for thinking about how the area relates to teaching. Educators need to be aware of the development of self, for which we look to theorists like Erikson and Marcia. For many students, play is a foundation for learning and social interactions, for which we look to theorists like Parten. For the development of ethical knowledge and moral reasoning, it is the work of Kohlberg and Gilligan. These theories are not the only related to the social development of students, but their accounts do explain much about social development that is relevant to teaching and education.

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial 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 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 usually 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, sense of self, and relationships. Erikson proposed eight crises that extend from birth through old age; they are summarized in Table 3.10.1. Four of the stages occur during the school years, so we give this special attention here, but it is also helpful to know what crises are thought to come both before and after those in the school years.

Table 3.10.1. Eight psychosocial crises according to Erikson
Psychosocial crisis Approximate age Description
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 Develop 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

Video 3.10.1 Erikson’s Psychosocial Development explains all stages of this theory.

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 caregiving 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 caregiving.

Almost as soon as this crisis is resolved, however, a new one develops over the issue of autonomy and shame or doubt. 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 daycare 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 overlap 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 anymore, 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 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, they 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 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 Eriks0n 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

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’ confusion 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 primary 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. 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.

Identity development is a stage in the adolescent life cycle. For most, the search for identity begins in the adolescent years. During these years, adolescents are more open to ‘trying on’ different behaviors and appearances to discover who they are. In an attempt to find their identity and discover who they are, adolescents are likely to cycle through several identities to find one that suits them best. Developing and maintaining identity (in adolescent years) is a difficult task due to multiple factors such as family life, environment, and social status. Empirical studies suggest that this process might be more accurately described as identity development, rather than formation, but confirms a normative process of change in both content and structure of one’s thoughts about the self.


Self-concept is the idea of self, constructed from opinions and beliefs about one’s self, and is foundational to developing self-identity. These concepts are defined confidently, consistently, and with stability. Cognitive developments result in greater self-awareness, greater awareness of others and their thoughts and judgments, the ability to think about future possibilities, and the ability to consider multiple possibilities at once. As a result, by adolescence, children experience a significant shift from the simple, concrete, and global self-descriptions typical of young children; as children, they defined themselves by physical traits, whereas adolescents define themselves based on their values, thoughts, and opinions.

Further distinctions in self-concept, called “differentiation,” occur as the adolescent recognizes the contextual influences on their behavior and the perceptions of others, and begin to qualify their traits when asked to describe themselves. Differentiation appears fully developed by mid-adolescence. Peaking in the 7th-9th grades, the personality traits adolescents use to describe themselves refer to specific contexts, and therefore may contradict one another. The recognition of inconsistent content in the self-concept is a common source of distress in these years, but this distress may benefit adolescents by encouraging structural development.

Video 3.10.2. Self-Concept, Self-Identity, and Social Identity explains the various types of self and the formation of identity.

Cooley’s Looking-Glass Self

Charles Horton Cooley (1964) suggested that our self-concept comes from looking at how others respond to us. This process, known as the looking-glass self involves looking at how others seem to view us and interpreting this as we make judgments about whether we are good or bad, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, and so on. Of course, we do not always interpret their responses accurately so our self-concept is not simply a mirror reflection of the views of others. After forming an initial self-concept, we may use our existing self-concept as a mental filter screening out those responses that do not seem to fit our ideas of who we are. So compliments may be negated, for example.

Think of times in your life when you felt more self-conscious. The process of the looking-glass self is pronounced when we are preschoolers. Later in life, we also experience this process when we are in a new school, new job, or are taking on a new role in our personal lives and are trying to gauge our own performance. When we feel more sure of who we are we focus less on how we appear to others.

Video 3.10.3. Charles Cooley–Looking Glass Self explains more about this theory.

Mead’s I and Me

George Herbert Mead (1967) offered an explanation of how we develop a social sense of self by being able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. There are two parts of the self: the “I” which is the part of the self that is spontaneous, creative, innate, and is not concerned with how others view us and the “me” or the social definition of who we are.

When we are born, we are all “I” and act without concern about how others view us. But the socialized self begins when we are able to consider how one important person views us. This initial stage is called “taking the role of the significant other.” For example, a child may pull a cat’s tail and be told by his mother, “No! Don’t do that, that’s bad” while receiving a slight slap on the hand. Later, the child may mimic the same behavior toward the self and say aloud, “No, that’s bad” while patting his own hand. What has happened? The child is able to see himself through the eyes of the mother. As the child grows and is exposed to many situations and rules of culture, he begins to view the self in the eyes of many others through these cultural norms or rules. This is referred to as “taking the role of the generalized other” and results in a sense of self with many dimensions. The child comes to have a sense of self as a student, as a friend, as a son, and so on.

Video 3.10.4. George Herbert Mead–The I and the Me explains more about this theory.

Exaggerated Sense of Self

One of the ways to gain a clearer sense of self is to exaggerate those qualities that are to be incorporated into the self. Preschoolers often like to exaggerate their own qualities or to seek validation as the biggest or smartest or child who can jump the highest. Much of this may be due to the simple fact that the child does not understand their own limits. Young children may really believe that they can beat their parents to the mailbox, or pick up the refrigerator.

This exaggeration tends to be replaced by a more realistic sense of self in middle childhood as children realize that they do have limitations. Part of this process includes having parents who allow children to explore their capabilities and give the child authentic feedback. Another important part of this process involves the child learning that other people have capabilities, too and that the child’s capabilities may differ from those of other people. Children learn to compare themselves to others to understand what they are “good at” and what they are not as good at.


Another aspect of identity formation is self-esteem. Self-esteem is defined as one’s thoughts and feelings about one’s self-concept and identity. Most theories on self-esteem state that there is a grand desire, across all genders and ages, to maintain, protect, and enhance their self-esteem.

There are several self-concepts and situational factors that tend to impact self-esteem. Children that are close to their parents and their parents are supportive, yet firm, tend to have higher self-esteem. Further, when people are recognized for their successes, have set high vocational aspirations, are athletic, or feel attractive, they have higher self-esteem. Teens tend to have lower self-esteem when entering middle school, feel peer rejection, and experience academic failure. Also, children that have authoritarian or permissive parents, need to relocate, or have low socioeconomic status, are more likely to experience lower self-esteem.

Girls are most likely to enjoy high self-esteem when engaged in supportive relationships with friends; the most important function of friendship to them is having someone who can provide social and moral support. When they fail to win friends’ approval or cannot find someone with whom to share common activities and interests, in these cases, girls suffer from low self-esteem.

In contrast, boys are more concerned with establishing and asserting their independence and defining their relation to authority. As such, they are more likely to derive high self-esteem from their ability to influence their friends. On the other hand, the lack of romantic competence, for example, failure to win or maintain the affection of romantic interest is the major contributor to low self-esteem in adolescent boys.

Self Esteem Types

According to Mruk (2003), self-esteem is based on two factors: competence and worthiness. The relationship between competence and worthiness defines one’s self-esteem type. As these factors are a spectrum, we can even further differentiate self-esteem types and potential issues associated with each.

Figure 3.10.1. Self-Esteem meaning matrix with basic types and levels. Adapted from Mruk, 2003.

Those with high levels of competence and those that feel highly worthy will have high self-esteem. This self-esteem type tends to be stable and characterized by openness to new experiences and a tendency towards optimism. Those at the medium-high self-esteem type feel adequately competent and worthy. At the authentic level, individuals are realistic about their competence and feel worthy. They will actively pursue a life of positive, intrinsic values.

Individuals with low levels of competence and worthiness will have low self-esteem. At the negativistic level, people tend to be cautious and are protective of what little self-esteem they do possess. Those at the classic low self-esteem level experience impaired function due to their low feelings of competence and worth and are at risk for depression and giving up.

It is also possible to have high levels of competence but feel unworthy. This combination is a defensive or fragile self-esteem type, called competence-based self-esteem, where the person tends to compensate for their low levels of worthiness by focusing on their competence. At the success-seeking level, these individuals’ self-esteem is contingent on their achievements, and they are often anxious about failure. The Antisocial level includes an exaggerated need for success and power, even as to the point of acting out aggressively to achieve it.

The combination of low competence and high worthiness is worthiness-based self-esteem. This type is another defensive or fragile self-esteem where the individual has a low level of competence and compensates by focusing instead on their worthiness. At the approval-seeking level, these individuals are sensitive to criticism and rejection and base their self-esteem on the approval of others. At the narcissistic level, people will have an exaggerated sense of self-worth regardless of the lack of competencies. They also tend to be highly reactive to criticism and are very defensive.

Marcia’s Identity Statuses

Expanding on Erikson’s theory, Marcia (1966) described identity formation during adolescence as involving both exploration and commitment concerning ideologies and occupations (e.g., religion, politics, career, relationships, gender roles). Identity development begins when individuals identify with role models who provide them with options to explore whom they can become. As identity development progresses, young people are expected to make choices and commit to options within the confines of their social contexts. In some cases, options are not provided or are limited, and the individual will fail to commit or will commit without the opportunity to explore various options (Marcia, 1980).

Identity confusion/diffusion occurs when individuals neither explore nor commit to any identities. Foreclosure occurs when an individual commits to an identity without exploring options.  A moratorium is a state in which people are actively exploring options but have not yet made commitments. As mentioned earlier, individuals who have explored different options, discovered their purpose, and have made identity commitments are in a state of identity achievement.

Figure 3.10.2. Marcia’s identity statuses. Adapted from Discovering the Lifespan, by R. S. Feldman, 2009.

The least mature status, and one common in many children, is identity diffusion. Identity diffusion is a status that characterizes those who have neither explored the options nor made a commitment to an identity. Marcia (1980) proposed that when individuals enter the identity formation process, they have little awareness or experience with identity exploration or the expectation to commit to an identity. This period of identity diffusion is typical of children and young adolescents, but adolescents are expected to move out of this stage as they are exposed to role models and experiences that present them with identity possibilities. Those who persist in this identity may drift aimlessly with little connection to those around them or have little sense of purpose in life. Characteristics associated with prolonged diffusion include low self-esteem, easily influenced by peers, lack of meaningful friendships, little commitment, or fortitude in activities or relationships, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent.

Those in identity foreclosure have committed to an identity without having explored the options. Often, younger adolescence will enter a phase of foreclosure where they may, at least preliminarily, commit to an identity without an investment in the exploration process. This commitment is often a response to anxiety about uncertainty or change during adolescence or pressure from parents, social groups, or cultural expectations. It is expected that most young people will progress beyond the foreclosure phase as they can think independently, and we have multiple identity options. However, sometimes foreclosure will persist into late adolescence or even adulthood.

In some cases, parents may make these decisions for their children and do not grant the teen the opportunity to make choices. In other instances, teens may strongly identify with parents and others in their life and wish to follow in their footsteps. Characteristics associated with prolonged foreclosure well-behaved and obedient children with a high need for approval, authoritarian parenting style, low levels of tolerance or acceptance of change, high levels of conformity, and conventional thinking.

During high school and college years, teens and young adults move from identity diffusion and foreclosure toward moratorium and achievement. The most significant gains in the development of identity are in college, as college students are exposed to a greater variety of career choices, lifestyles, and beliefs. This experience is likely to spur on questions regarding identity. A great deal of the identity work we do in adolescence and young adulthood is about values and goals, as we strive to articulate a personal vision or dream for what we hope to accomplish in the future (McAdams, 2013).

Identity moratorium is a status that describes those who are actively exploring in an attempt to establish identity but have yet to have made any commitment. This time can be an anxious and emotionally tense period as the adolescent experiments with different roles and explores various beliefs. Nothing is guaranteed, and there are many questions, but few answers. This moratorium phase is the precursor to identity achievement. During the moratorium period, it is normal for adolescents to be rebellious and uncooperative, avoid dealing with problems, procrastinate, experience low self-esteem, feel anxious, and uncertain about decisions.

Identity achievement refers to those who, after exploration, have committed. Identity achievement is a long process and is not often realized by the end of adolescence. Individuals that do reach identity achievement feel self-acceptance, stable self-definition, and are committed to their identity.

While Marcia’s statuses help us understand the process of developing identity, there are several criticisms of this theory. First, identity status may not be global; different aspects of your identity may be in different statuses. An individual may be in multiple identity statuses at the same time for different aspects of identity. For example, one could be in the foreclosure status for their religious identity, but in moratorium for career identity, and achievement for gender identity.

Further, identity statuses do not always develop in the sequence described above, although it is the most common progression. Not all people will reach identity achievement in all aspects of their identity, and not all may remain in identity achievement. There may be a third aspect of identity development, beyond exploration and commitment, and that is the reconsideration of commitment. This addition would create a fifth status, searching moratorium. This status is a re-exploring after a commitment has been made (Meesus et al., 2012). It is not usual that commitments to aspects of our identity may change as we gain experiences, and more options become available to explore. This searching moratorium may continue well into adulthood.

Video 3.10.5. Macia’s Stages of Adolescent Identity Development summarizes the various identity statuses and how an individual may move through them.

Supporting Identity Development

As the process of identity development can be a confusing and challenging period, how can adults support children through this process? First, affirm that the anxiety, doubts, and confusion are reasonable and that most teens do not complete identity achievement before graduating high school. Exposing young people to various role models can help them imagine different roles or options for their future selves. Role models can come from within the family, schools, or community. Adults should talk with children about their values, goals, and identities to help build awareness. They may be interested to know how others made decisions while developing their own identities. Finally, support the commitments that adolescents have made. Identity commitments can help someone feel grounded and less confused while they engage in identity exploration.


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