Discontinuous Development (Psychology): with 10 Examples

continuous vs discontinuous development psychology theories definitions, explained below

Discontinuous development is a concept that proposes that growth and development occur in a series of sudden shifts or “leaps.” 

This means that individuals may move from one stage of development to another abruptly, often without any warning or indications of progressive change.

For example, a child may have been struggling with forming simple sentences for months but then suddenly seem to have a breakthrough and can easily form complex sentences. 

Discontinuous Development (Psychology Definition)

Discontinuous development, or discontinuity, refers to a concept in developmental psychology that proposes that development occurs with abrupt shifts or “leaps” (Sternberg & Okagaki, 1989). 

This theory suggests that individuals may move from one stage of development to another abruptly and without any warning or indications of progressive change.

In other words, discontinuous development is marked by rapid changes that occur in discrete steps or stages.

The term “discontinuity” has been used to describe various aspects of developmental processes. 

As mentioned by Adoplh and colleagues (2008),

“…discontinuities can take on other shapes, such as episodic changes, where development advances like climbing a staircase, with sudden improvements in children’s conceptual understanding separated by long periods in a single stage, or small fits and starts of physical growth separated by periods of stasis” (p. 528).

For example, it can refer to the idea that certain skills emerge unexpectedly during infancy and childhood (such as language acquisition). It can also suggest that some traits remain relatively stable across the lifespan while others fluctuate.

According to Isaac and O’Connor (1976),

“…a discontinuity theory of psychological development is designed such that the associated experimental work relies on quantitative variates of behavior to discriminate stages” (p. 41). 

Simply, discontinuous development suggests that while growth and learning are ongoing processes, they are not necessarily gradual or linear. 

Rather than always building on existing skills and experiences, leaps or breakthroughs may occur suddenly when least expected.

10 Examples of Discontinuous Development

  • Walking Milestone: As infants reach the one-year milestone, they often suddenly transform from crawling or scooting to walking. However, this development is discontinuous as it does not occur gradually over time.
  • Language Acquisition Milestone: Babies take a remarkable stride in their development when they start speaking, typically between 12 and 18 months old. This sudden jump from non-verbal to verbal communication is called discontinuous development – an impressive feat!
  • Puberty Leap: Puberty is a distinct period in human development, characterized by remarkable changes that can be seen as “jump” or discontinuous. These include growth spurts, the emergence of secondary sexual traits, and shifts in hormonal production.
  • Learning to Read Milestones: By the age of six, kids usually develop a knack for reading. It is an abrupt progression rather than a gradual one. This remarkable cognitive agility allows them to decipher written language with ease.
  • Moral Reasoning Milestone: According to Kohlberg’s theory, children advance through precise phases of moral reasoning in a sudden leap rather than gradually. So, at around age 10, the child is seen to complete the transition from moral reasoning based on external rewards or punishments to understanding principles of justice and rights.
  • Abstract Thinking Milestone: Children at approximately 12 years old can suddenly think abstractly and reason beyond concrete examples. Kids often become more creative and imaginative as they progress through adolescence, relying on their abstract thinking skills for problem-solving.
  • Perspective-Taking Milestone: At the tender age of six, children begin to grasp the concept of taking on another person’s point of view. They can understand that the other person’s thoughts and feelings may differ from their own.
  • Stages of Psychosocial Development: Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development proposes that individuals progress through eight distinct stages, each with its own crisis or challenge to overcome. Each stage is a sudden leap in development rather than a gradual progression.
  • Attachment Theory: As early as six to eight months, infants start forming a deep emotional connection with their primary caregivers. This attachment is a clear sign of discontinuous development, as it occurs rapidly compared to other developmental milestones.
  • Self-Awareness Milestones: Infants start recognizing their reflection in a mirror around 18-24 months old, demonstrating discontinuous development as they experience sudden self-awareness. It suggests that infants can identify themselves as separate entities from others.

Continuous vs. Discontinuous Development

While the continuity approach focuses on gradual development, the discontinuity approach proposes that growth and learning could occur in sudden jumps (Sternberg & Okagaki, 1989). 

Continuous development is a concept that suggests that growth and learning occur gradually over time. This means an individual’s skills slowly emerge, building upon existing abilities and experiences (Sternberg & Okagaki, 1989). 

There may be short periods of advanced growth, but overall the development process is seen as a slow progression.

In comparison, discontinuous development proposes that individuals experience sudden, dramatic changes in their abilities or understanding (Adolph et al., 2008).

For example, a child who has previously been struggling with language acquisition might suddenly begin to form complex sentences without much warning or indication of progressive change.

The idea behind discontinuity is that growth does not always occur gradually. Sometimes it happens in leaps or bursts instead.

Ultimately, both concepts can impact how we view developmental processes and the potential for sudden breakthroughs at certain points during an individual’s life.

Theories of Discontinuous Development

From Piaget’s theoretical framework of cognitive development to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, several theories propose that development may be discontinuous in nature. 

Here is a brief overview of some of the most influential theories which support the idea of discontinuity:

1. Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget proposed that children go through several stages during cognitive development and that they must reach a certain level of maturity before leaping to the next stage (Byrnes, 2020).

As children grow and develop, they experience cognitive growth in spurts through distinct stages. For example, during the sensorimotor stage (birth-2 years), many are just beginning to explore their environment. 

By age 2 to 7, children enter the preoperational period, where learning is based on experiences, symbolic thought forms, and language skills start emerging. 

At 7-11 years of age, kids reach a concrete operational phase with more abstract thinking and new problem-solving abilities that aid them when dealing with tangible objects or events from everyday life

Finally, at 12+ years, kids become aware of hypothetical situations during the formal operational stage, which allows them to think beyond immediate facts and consider potential alternatives before making decisions (Byrnes, 2020).

Piaget suggested that these changes occurred suddenly, rather than gradually, with each new level requiring more effortful processing due to its increased complexity.

Often, child psychologists measure a child’s abilities against Piaget’s norms to see if a child has achieved normal adaptive functioning for their age.

For a direct contrast to a continuous theory, see: Piaget vs Vygotsky

2. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

According to Kohlberg, individuals experience leaps forward in their sense of right and wrong as they progress through his famous stages of moral development.

Moral development is built upon cognitive growth and can be broken down into three distinct progressive stages: preconventional (before 9 years old), conventional (early adolescence), and post-conventional (adolescence and beyond) (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977).

These periods often involve a sudden understanding or shift in how an individual interprets situations or a person’s actions.

3. Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson also argued that individuals could move from one stage to another in a discontinuous fashion. Still, he emphasized the social aspects which drive this change (Jones & Waite-Stupiansky, 2022).

A child embarks on a journey of development from infancy to adulthood. 

Along the way, they must navigate eight distinct stages, each containing its own unique crisis requiring resolution: 

Successfully passing through each stage makes a person better equipped for life’s challenges (Jones & Waite-Stupiansky, 2022).

Erikson suggested that people can make sudden shifts in outlooks or identities depending on the environment and relationships around them.

4. Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development

Freud argued that humans pass through distinct psychosexual stages which influence our sexual identity over time (Renkins, 2017).

From infancy to adulthood, children progress through five stages of psychosexual development as they learn how to cope with pleasure-seeking energies. 

These include: 

  • oral stage (from 0-18 months), 
  • anal stage (from 18-36 months), 
  • phallic stage (from 3-6 years), 
  • latent stage (from 6 years until puberty),
  • and genital stage (during and after puberty) (Renkins, 2017).

Freud argues that individuals progress through five distinct phases during childhood, which give rise to different behavioral patterns. 

These changes often come about with surprising speed or intensity, and so could be seen as examples of discontinuous development too.

Critique of Discontinuous Development in Developmental Psychology

While several different theorists have explored the idea of discontinuous development, it is often criticized since it does not always fit into the normal pattern of gradual change.

One major critique of discontinuous development theories is that they emphasize certain breakthroughs or moments in an individual’s life, obscuring the fact that development often occurs gradually and subtly.

It is important to remember that even during periods of sudden advancement, there may also be smaller, incremental changes in understanding or ability that go unnoticed.

Another potential issue is that these theories might create a rigid framework for understanding growth, ignoring the fact that individuals can experience different paths and rates of change.

For example, a child may progress through one stage quickly but then take longer over others. 

This could indicate something about their specific development or learning style, yet this could be obscured if we focus solely on the big leaps forward.


Discontinuous development is a concept explored by many different theorists in psychology, each having their own perspective on how this process works.

It means that instead of a slow, gradual growth process, development can occur with surprising intensity or speed and may involve huge changes in outlook or identity.

Compared to continuous development, this concept may have some drawbacks, as it does not always account for the nuances of growth or consider the individual’s unique learning style. 

While it is important to recognize the big leaps that people can make, it is also essential to remember that even during these periods, smaller changes may not be overlooked.


Adolph, K. E., Robinson, S. R., Young, J. W., & Gill-Alvarez, F. (2008). What is the shape of developmental change? Psychological Review115(3), 527-543.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.115.3.527

Byrnes, J. P. (2020). Piaget’s cognitive-developmental theory. Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, 532-539. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-809324-5.23519-0

Isaac, D. J., & O’Connor, B. M. (1976). A discontinuity theory of psychological development. Human Relations29(1), 41-61. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872677602900103

Jones, E., & Waite-Stupiansky, S. (2022). The Eriksons’ psychosocial developmental theory. Theories of Early Childhood Education, 34-49. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003288077-4

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory Into Practice16(2), 53-59. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405847709542675

Renkins, J. (2017). Freud’s theory for beginners: About dreams, psychosexual stages, id, ego and superego. Lulu Press. 

Sternberg, R. J., & Okagaki, L. (1989). Continuity and discontinuity in intellectual development are not a matter of ‘Either-Or’. Human Development32(3-4), 158-166. https://doi.org/10.1159/000276463

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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