Social development refers to the growth in a person’s social skills as they grow. In childhood, examples of social development include emerging abilities to cooperate, see others’ perspectives, and develop social responsibility.
There are several prominent theories regarding social development, including Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory, Erickson’s (1993) theory of psychosocial development, and the work of Bowlby (1958) and Ainsworth (Ainsworth, et al., 1978) on attachment theory:
- Bandura’s social learning theory emphasizes the role of observation, specifying that children learn about social relations by watching the role models in their life.
- Erikson’s psychosocial theory is centered on the role of the self and how the ego learns to cope with various demands in the social world.
- Bowlby and Ainsworth‘s Attachment Theory identified different types of social and emotional bonds between the infant and caregiver and how that affects social and personality development.
- Kohlberg’s stages of moral development which explore development of social responsibility.
Although there are several perspectives regarding social development, developmental theorists tend to believe that all children go through stages of social development; while sociocultural theorists like Bandura, Vygotsky, and Rogoff argue that the path of development depends on your social and cultural contexts more than pre-set stages.
Social Development Examples
- The social smile (from birth): An infant responds to its mother’s embrace with a smile and outreached arms.
- Signaling for help (from birth): A baby cries when it wants to be hugged or fed because that is its only form of communication at that age.
- Preconventional morality (birth to age 9): A child’s understanding of good or bad is related to whether there is a reward or punishment for behavior. Heading into their school years, the child also begins to realize rules can be modified if they’re mutually beneficial for themselves and others.
- Following social norms (Ages 3 and up): Young people start realizing that their society expects certain behaviors from them, which it defines as ‘normal’. By participating in normative behaviors, young people can get social respect
- Emerging non-verbal communication (4 to 10 months): A baby points to a toy on the other side of the room while being held to indicate where he wants to go, using the pointing gesture to communicate.
- Imitating carers and role models (24 months and up): A child grader carefully watches how dad prepares breakfast and then mimics those actions at school during free-play time; children learn by imitating parents.
- Independence (24 months and up): A preschooler refuses to let go of his mother while being dropped-off at school in the morning. After six weeks, as he develops self-confidence, he is starting to walk into new situations without looking back at his mother.
- Emerging parallel play (4 years and up): One toddler sits next to her older brother and plays quietly, but does not interact or communicate with him, demonstrating parallel play.
- Emerging ability to take turns (4 years and up): The teacher has to separate two preschoolers because they are fighting over toys. Six months later, the two are seen taking turns with the toys.
- Associative play (4 and up): At about 4 years of age, children playing near each other may begin to chat and mimic one another while playing, but tend not to play cooperatively yet.
- Cooperative play skills (4 ½ and up): From about 4 and a half years of age through to adulthood, people demonstrate cooperative skills during play. They may take on roles while a playing game and, when older, play team sports with agreed-upon rules.
- Learning to lose graciously (5 and up): Billy likes to compare how fast he runs with his classmates. When he is faster, he feels proud, but when he loses, he can get a bit sulky. After lots of practice and some maturing, he still feels bad when he loses, but doesn’t outwardly show it.
- Emerging leadership skills (6 and up): Jenna enjoys giving instructions to her classmates when they are playing house or engaged in role-playing.
- Overcoming egocentrism (7 and up): Between ages 7 and adulthood, children slowly develop the ability to empathize with others which helps them understand others more easily.
- Emerging emotional self-regulation (7 and up): The act of learning to identify and regulate your own emotions.
- Emerging conventional morality (9 and up): From about 9 years of age, children start to see rules from the perspective of social order. They develop a sense that right and wrong is not about them personally but about maintaining social order for the good of everyone.
- Developing a personal identity (10 and up): Through their teen years, young people try on different social identities and start figuring out what subcultural groups they feel most comfortable in. Erik Erikson argues that at this age the key crisis is how to develop a coherent identity and find out where you fit in the social order.
- Learning to give and accept constructive feedback (12 and up): In our teen years, we learn about constructive criticism and how it’s good for our development. We stop resenting people who give us feedback, but start to realize it can be for our own good.
- Social responsibility (12 and up): Heading into the mid-teen years, many young people develop a sense that they have a responsibility to the marginalized, poor, downtrodden, and even the environment.
- Emerging postconventional morality (15 and up): Into adulthood, out social development continues. We realize that morality and values are dependent upon social contexts, but may still come to the conclusion that there are ideas about human rights that cross all cultures – what we call cultural universals.
- Developing a leadership style (15 and up): As we experience leadership roles in adulthood, we develop our own leadership style, which could be anything from authoritarian to a democratic style.
- Picking your battles (15 and up): As part of the development of conflict resolution skills, John realizes that it’s not worth arguing with his girlfriend over something as insignificant as which flavored ice cream to buy.
- Emerging altruism (15 and up): An advanced social skill, altruism contradicts several theories of social interactions by demonstrating how people can forego their own wellbeing for that of strangers.
Social Development Theories
There is a range of social development theories that come up with examples of how people develop as social beings. Generally, we can split these into the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ camps.
The nature theories argue that people develop their social skills in a generally fixed set of stages.
The nurture theories don’t look at stages of development based on age. Rather, they look at how social skills develop as a result of social interactions.
Nature: Stage-Based Theories of Social Development
The following theories explain social development (at times, along with other types of development such as emotions and morality) as a series of fixed linear stages:
1. Attachment Theory
Attachment theory explores how children develop their social skills in four stages that cover the first two years of their lives.
Each stage reveals the development of the child’s independence and changing reliance on the parent:
- Pre-attachment (newborn to 6 weeks): Babies demonstrate complete reliance upon the caregivers for their wellbeing, but don’t tend to show preference for one parent over another.
- Attachment in making (6 weeks to 6-8 months): The baby and parent bond, and the baby develops an increasing attachment to its primary caregiver.
- Clear-cut attachment (6-8 months to 18-24 months): The parents and baby develop such a strong bond that independent social interaction is very minimal. The baby is highly reliant on the parent socially and emotionally.
- Formation of reciprocal relationships (24 months+): Toddlers slowly overcome separation anxiety as they get more experience with independence and self-efficacy.
Erikson proposes a series of stages of psychosocial development. In each stage, there is a core social and psychological conflict that must be overcome.
- Stage 1 (0-1 years): Trust vs mistrust. The child learns to trust its parents or else it may struggle to trust people throughout its life.
- Stage 2 (1-3 years): Autonomy vs. shame & doubt. Infants need to develop autonomy. Parents should encourage them or else they may develop a sense of self-doubt.
- Stage 3 (3-6 years): Initiative vs guilt. Children should be encouraged to take initiative during play or else they may develop a sense of guilt.
- Stage 4 (6-12 years): Industry vs inferiority. If they are belittled or teased for their creativity, they may develop a sense of social inferiority.
- Stage 5 (12-19 years): Identity vs role confusion. Adolescents attempt to create a social identity. They try on different identities. If they don’t find a comfortable sense of self they will struggle to form a clear identity throughout their lives.
- Stage 6 (20-25 years): Intimacy vs isolation. Young adults focus on developing an intimate relationship. If they fail to develop healthy relationships, they will feel a sense of social isolation.
- Stage 7 (26-64 years): Generativity vs stagnation. In adulthood, the main focus is on their life projects like raising children. If they feel successful, they will feel accomplished.
- Stage 8 (65 years – death): Ego identity vs despair. In our final decades, we reflect on our lives. The core challenge in this stage is whether we feel content with our lives or a sense of despair.
3. Moral Development Theory
Kohlberg’s moral development theory has many elements of social development throughout the framework.
The six stages of the theory are outlined below:
|Stage 1: Obedience/Punishment Orientation||For young children, morality is not about social awareness but about reward and punishment.|
|Stage 2: Individualism||Children are aware of others and their competing interests, but still see the world from an egocentric perspective.|
|Stage 3: Establishing Interpersonal Relationships||Moral decisions are made based upon social norms and the desire to fit in.|
|Stage 4: Maintaining Social Order||Students develop a greater awareness of the needs of society. They see morality as a matter of maintaining social order.|
|Stage 5: Social Contract And Individual Rights||The individual understands everyone has rights that should be respected.|
|Stage 6: Universal Principles||People who reach Stage 6 develop complex moral frameworks with an understanding that morality is difficult to define and changes based upon contexts. Nevertheless, they develop a sense of universal rights that transcend cultures.|
Note: Stages 1 and 2 are considered the preconventional morality stages. Stages 3 and 4 represent conventional morality, and Stages 5 and 6 represent postconventional morality.
Nurture: Development of Social Skills through Social Interaction
The following theories dispute the idea that social development occurs in clear stages. Instead, they argue that social development is most heavily influenced by social and cultural contexts.
1. Social Learning Theory
Bandura argues that social skills are first and foremost developed through observing the people around them.
To test this Bandura conducted the bonobo doll study. This now famous study explored two groups of children.
The first group observed an adult hitting a doll. The second group observed an adult cuddling a doll.
The groups then got to play with the doll and – as you’d expect – the group that watched the adult hitting the doll were rough with it. The group that watched the adult cuddling the doll were gentle with it.
This, according to Bandura, challenges the idea that social development develops in clear-cut stages. Instead, perhaps, our social development is more influenced simply by who we are observing in our day to day lives.
2. Ecological Systems Theory
Like Bandura, Bronfenbrenner believes that identities are formed through social and cultural contexts.
To describe identify formation, Bronfenbrenner uses a drawing of concentric circles leading out from the individual in the middle.
The individual’s immediate family and peers are a strong influence in the inner circle. Outer circles represent more distant relationships like communities and, further out, the economic circumstances and national and global cultures.
All these factors can impact a child’s development – not just their social but also their cognitive and emotional development.
Other Domains of Development
Developmental psychologists tend to examine development in the following domains:
- Physical development – Commonly, we look at physical development by exploring refinement of fine and gross motor skills.
- Social development – The emerging ability to interact with others, achieve independence and positive interdependence, and understand how to live in a community.
- Cognitive development – Brain development, including (but not limited to) the ability to develop complex thinking skills and engage in metacognition.
- Emotional development – The development of a child’s ability to regulate their own emotions and grow to an emotionally stable adult.
As you can see, social development there are many ways to conceptualize social development. The core theoretical question is whether children develop social skills at clearly defined stages, or whether the role of society and culture have a greater affect on when children develop social skills (and which skills they develop).
Nevertheless, some key and common social development examples in childhood include the development of attachment to others, independence, self-efficacy, and social responsibility.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.