Intellectual Development in Children: Examples & Theories

Intellectual Development in Children: Examples & TheoriesReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

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.

intellectual development definition, theories, and examples, text reproduced in appendix

Intellectual development refers to the complex process through which humans acquire the ability to manipulate and use knowledge, think, reason, and communicate about their experiences in their world.

Generally, the focus of intellectual development in on childhood, because this is the period of life in which intellectual development is most rapid.

Child developmental theories analyze diverse factors responsible for intellectual development, such as a child’s brain growth, emotional intelligence, social aptitude, and emerging cognitive abilities.

This article will explore five key intellectual development theories.

Intellectual Development: Nature or Nurture?

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that systematic research into developmental psychology began.

The earliest developmental theories were rooted primarily in biology and believed that genetics entirely dictated human development. We could see these as focusing on ‘nature’ rather than nurture in explaining intellectual development.

In the mid-20th century, one cognitive developmental theory emerged as predominant, emphasizing how children think and learn about their environment. This was called Piaget’s cognitive development theory.

Piaget’s focus on cognitive development (improving abilities to think) gave rise to several different perspectives on cognitive development, including those that centered around information processing, social learning, and constructivism.

However, it wasn’t long until key social psychologists like Lev Vygotsky held that environmental factors such as parenting, education, and culture also significantly shape intellectual outcomes (Sravanti, 2017).

At the same time, psychosocial theories emerged, which emphasized the emotional changes that occur throughout our lives (Lindon, 2010).

These theories often included stages of psychological development focused on crisis points where individuals must address and resolve specific conflicts to move forward healthily (e.g. Freud’s stages of crises).

Below, we’ll explore the 5 most influential theories of intellectual development.

1. Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

Piaget Stages of Development, text reproduced in appendix

Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory suggests that intellectual development in childhood occurs in distinct and discontinuous stages based on cognitive maturation (Beilin & Pufall, 1992).

According to this theory, children actively construct knowledge and understanding of the world around them through experiences and explorations.

In addition, cognitive growth is promoted by certain environmental factors discovered throughout each stage.

The stages are outlined below:

Piaget suggested that children can only move through these various stages once certain cognitive milestones are reached, regardless of environmental factors like educational experience or parenting system.

So, cognitive development precedes other influences promoting increased intellectual functioning over time, finally producing a fully matured way of thinking.

2. Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Freud’s psychosexual developmental theory suggests that human development is shaped by a series of fixed stages focused on satisfying specific biological needs (Lantz & Ray, 2021).

According to this theory, children are born with innate sexual and aggressive impulses that must be channeled into acceptable outlets to reach healthy intellectual development. 

  • Oral: The first stage is the oral stage, occurring from birth to 18 months. Infants explore the world through their mouths and enjoy sucking, eating, and tasting objects. Their intellectual development relies on satisfying their hunger needs and learning that they can trust others to provide for those needs (Lantz & Ray, 2021).
  • Anal: The second stage is the anal stage, lasting from 18 months to three years old. During this period, toddlers enjoy the stimulation of their bowel movements, and the toilet training process helps them learn self-control over these urges (Lantz & Ray, 2021).
  • Phallic: At approximately three to six years old, youngsters embark on the third phase of psychosexual development, the phallic stage. Throughout this time frame, it is typical for them to notice their own genitalia and be inclined toward recognizing disparities between males and females (Lantz & Ray, 2021).

Freud believed that if a child experiences frustration in meeting these developmental challenges, it may result in fixation in a particular stage or notably impact future intellectual growth.

For example, suppose the child does not receive enough physical comfort during infancy (oral) or has a difficult time potty training (anal). 

In that case, they may become preoccupied with those experiences later in life instead of focusing fully on their current situations or tasks at hand.

So, such a child may struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem due to their perceived inability in those areas. 

3. Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Erikson Psychosocial Stages Development, text reproduced in appendix

Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory on intellectual development in childhood outlines the changes and challenges individuals face throughout their lifetime (Orenstein & Lewis, 2022).

The theory emphasizes that an individual’s personality is formed by experiencing psychosocial crises at each stage, with specific tasks to attend to during each phase. 

Although the theory has eight stages, only four of them are relevant to children and their intellectual development. 

  • Trust vs Mistrust: The first stage of Erikson’s theory is the Trust versus Mistrust stage, starting from birth until 18 months old, which involves developing trust and a sense of safety with the primary caregiver (Orenstein & Lewis, 2022). For example, when a baby cries from hunger or discomfort, they expect their parent to respond promptly.
  • Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt: The second stage is Autonomy versus Shame/Doubt, occurring between one and a half to three years. During this time span, toddlers start mastering new physical abilities like walking/talking and use exploration to develop self-awareness (Orenstein & Lewis, 2022).
  • Initiative vs Guilt: Thirdly, there is Initiative versus Guilt which lasts from age three to six years old. This period is marked by increased curiosity and independence in children and increased socializing endeavors (Orenstein & Lewis, 2022). During this stage, children become more supportive of interacting with others, escalating their friendship’s foundation.
  • Industry vs Inferiority: The fourth stage of Erikson’s theory – Industry versus Inferiority – starts at around six. Here, knowledge can be best gained through attendance and participation in academic activities while being measured against external standards for progress, such as grades for exams (Orenstein & Lewis, 2022).

It has been shown that when individuals successfully navigate these stages, they are more capable of dealing with life stresses, thereafter promoting better intellectual development overall, shaping them into well-rounded adults to contribute to society.

4. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s attachment theory highlights the importance of early and consistent emotional bonds between caregivers and infants (Holmes, 2014).

Bowlby proposed that these early attachments form the foundation for later social, emotional, and intellectual growth. 

The theory suggests that children develop a sense of security based on the level of care and attention provided by their primary caregiver(s).

  • Pre-attachment: The first stage is pre-attachment which lasts from birth until six weeks. During this time, babies learn how to relate to others in a pleasant or unpleasant fashion (Holmes, 2014).
  • Attachment in the making: The second stage is attachment-in-the-making (from 6 weeks to around eight months old) (Holmes, 2014). This is when an infant begins to distinguish their main caretakers from strangers, develop trust, and identify others’ individual voices/face traits or preferences.
  • Clear-cut attachment: The third stage considers clear-cut attachment (starting at around eight months until one year or two months), in which separation anxiety can significantly impact social functioning, especially if attachment figures aren’t sufficiently accessible (Holmes, 2014).
  • Reciprocal relationships: Finally, there comes the formation of reciprocal relationships starting at one year onwards. As a child matures, their speech and communication style develops and becomes more advanced. 

This progression in communication skills contributes to a deeper understanding and fosters mutual respect throughout childhood.

An example might be that when a child has a secure attachment with reliable and responsive caregivers, they are more likely to feel confident in exploring their environment.

Such children know that their caregiver will attend to them if anything goes wrong (Holmes, 2014).

On the other hand, children who have insecure attachment experiences may face challenges in developing healthy relationships later in life. 

This is because these children may have lacked proper nurturing and care during crucial developmental stages, such as infancy and toddlerhood (Holmes, 2014).

As a result, they may struggle to establish trust with new people and feel threatened, leading them to alienate themselves from their peers. This can significantly impact their intellectual development.

5. Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of intellectual development suggests that learning and cognitive growth are shaped by the cultural context in which an individual is raised (Daniels, 2017).

Vygotsky emphasized that social interaction, language, and culture play critical roles in acquiring knowledge. This theory downplays biological predetermined developmental trajectories but rather society’s approach to upbringing.

Through social experiences that positively nurture children’s development, skills such as advanced reasoning and problem-solving with imaginative play help improve logic significantly (Daniels, 2017).

For instance, a child participates in group games by playing various roles and characters during imaginative storytelling with peers. 

They act out different scenes and enthusiastically discuss creative solutions to complex problems, promoting healthy levels of creativity and advanced learning skills through contagious ideas.

Another example might be when children learn literacy tools by observing adults using their own reading books or writing content. 

This creates a setting for adult-young interactions, fostering enhanced communication and leading to effective literacy acquisition as it builds strong foundations for academic excelling later on.

Vygotsky’s theory highlights that intellectual growth is not only based on cognitive maturity but also on the influence of others in the community who guide them and set expectations for them (Daniels, 2017).

This interaction among individuals fosters greater mental progress and contributes to broader social dynamics, which leads to outcomes that surpass individual achievements.


Several theories explore the complexities of intellectual development in childhood. These theories have helped psychologists and educators better understand and cater to the needs of children at different stages of growth. 

By highlighting the significant impact of biological, social, cultural, and environmental experiences and relationships on child development, it gives a clear picture that intellectual development is involving both social and individual aspects.

Freud’s psychosexual developmental theory illustrates how early biology plays a role in intellectual formation. 

Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory stresses cognitive abilities maturing through certain milestone achievements and coordinating them with social interactions. 

Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory emphasizes parent-child dynamics shaped throughout early life regarding emotional well-being and encouraging healthy mental growth. 

Bowlby’s attachment theory reveals the importance of secure attachment experiences on children’s development and how it impacts later life relationships. 

Finally, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory demonstrates how environments influence brain maturity through its own unique lens, creating different beliefs/attitudes on ideology leading to different developmental outcomes.

So, all these theories offer us new perspectives for guiding children toward healthy intellectual growth towards becoming successful adaptable adults. 


Beilin, H., & Pufall, P. (1992). Piaget’s theory: Prospects and possibilities. Los Angeles: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Daniels, H. (2017). Introduction To Vygotsky. New York: Routledge.

Holmes, J. (2014). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge.

Lantz, S. E., & Ray, S. (2021, December 11). Freud developmental theory. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.

Lindon, J. (2010). Understanding child development: Linking theory and practice. New York: Hodder Education.

Orenstein, G. A., & Lewis, L. (2022, November 7). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.

Sravanti, L. (2017). Nurture the nature. Indian Journal of Psychiatry59(3), 385.

Appendix (Images reproduced as text)

Feature Image: Intellectual Development

Intellectual development refers to the complex process through which humans acquire the ability to manipulate, use, and communicate knowledge.

The earliest developmental theories were rooted in biology, believing that genetics dictated human intellect. They focused on ‘nature’ rather than nurture in explaining intellectual development. However, social psychologists in the 20th Century increasingly argued that environmental factors such as parenting, education, and culture also shape intellectual outcomes.

Different theories have their own ideas about how intellect develops. Key theories include:

  • Cognitive Development Theory (Piaget)
  • Psychoanalytic Theory (Freud)
  • Psychosocial Theory (Erikson)
  • Attachment Theory (Bowlby)
  • Sociocultural Theory (Vygotsky)

Image: Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Sensorimotor Stage (0 – 2 years)

  • Object permanence: Babies learn that objects out of sight still exist.
  • Goal Directed Action: Babies learn to act intentionally to achieve a goal.
  • Deferred Imitation: Babies continue to imitate others after the event.

Preoperational Stage (2 – 7 years)

  • Symbolic Thought: Young children learn to use language to represent their thoughts. They develop imaginative play.
  • Egocentrism: Young children struggle to see things from other perspectives

Concrete Operational Stage (7 – 12 years)

  • Logical thought: children begin to see relationships between mass, time, space, etc.
  • Conservation: Children discover that changes in appearance do not necessarily correspond with changes in weight, volume, etc.

Formal Operational Stage (12 – 18 years)

  • Children form inductive and deductive reasoning. They can use abstract thought and general principles to develop increasingly complex hypotheses.

Image: Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages

Infancy (0 – 1 year)Trust vs MistrustChildren who are treated with consistent love and care and have their needs met by their parent should develop the capacity for trust.
Early Childhood (2 – 3 years)Autonomy vs Shame and DoubtChildren should be encouraged to exercise free will and try out new skills. Discouragement (or lack of encouragement) may lead to sustained self-doubt.
Play Age (4 – 6 years)Initiative vs GuiltChildren should be encouraged to be independent. If a child’s independent initiatives and play activities are overly controlled, they may develop sustained guilt.
School Age (7 – 12 years)Industry vs InferiorityA sense of industry is a desire to be creative and productive. A school child should be encouraged in their creative and productive endeavors. If belittled for incompetence, a sense of inferiority may set in.
Adolescence (13 – 18 years)Identity vs Role ConfusionYoung people seek a sense of self and their place in the world. If they feel they lack a sense of belonging to any identity group, they may develop uncertainty about their identity that lasts into adulthood.
Young Adulthood (Early 20s)Intimacy vs IsolationYoung adults commit their efforts to developing intimate relationships with significant others. If they are unsuccessful, they will develop a sense of isolation.
Adulthood (Late 20s – Late 50s)Generativity vs StagnationGenerative adults contribute to society and the raising of future generations through parenting. Self-absorbed adults stagnate and fail to contribute to the flourishing of their societies.
Old Age (60s onward)Ego Identity vs DespairAs people enter their twilight years, they reflect on their contributions to society. Those dissatisfied with their lives will develop a sense of despair as they face the looming end of their lives.
Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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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