There are 5 types of development: physical, intellectual/cognitive, social, emotional, and moral. Each type refers to specific characteristics in a developing child that start out being basic and then progress to being ever more advanced.
Scientists that study development have been able to identify distinct stages that occur with each type of development. These stages are invariant, which means that all children go through the stages in the same sequence.
Even though the stages are believed by developmental theorists to be invariant, there is a great deal of variation in the rate at which children pass through the stages.
Some children may go through the first couple of stages very rapidly, and then stall for a bit before moving forward.
Other children may go through the first stages more slowly, but then start to develop quickly.
Research usually focuses on identifying the stages and the factors that affect their development pattern.
Detailed Explanations of the 5 Types of Development
1. Physical Development
Physical development refers to the growth of the muscles and skeletal structure of the body from infancy to adulthood. This type of development is usually divided between fine motor skills and gross motor skills.
Fine motor skills refer to the control of the fingers and hands, while gross motor skills refer to control over the limbs (i.e., arms and legs).
An infant is born with virtually no control over their body. The first development is in the neck and mouth, which allows the newborn to turn its head for suckling.
Development then progresses down and outward through the body as the child grows in processes called cephalocaudal and proximodistal development.
Gross motor skills will develop first and can be seen when the baby can sit up, pull itself to a standing position, be able to walk with support, and eventually be able to run (awkwardly) and jump with both feet.
From there, physical coordination will become more advanced and include being able to bounce a ball and catch.
Fine motor skills manifest in the baby’s ability to grasp chunky objects, move a cup to its mouth, and transfer objects from hand to hand.
Later, physical development will progress from being able to scribble, hold a pencil with its fist, and eventually holding a pencil between the index finger and thumb to write letters and make crude drawings.
2. Intellectual/Cognitive Development
Intellectual, or cognitive, development refers to how humans receive, organize, and process information from the environment. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is the most famous scholar in this area.
Because babies are born with brains that are vastly underdeveloped, only the sensory areas are working in the first months of life. Therefore, the newborn is only able to process information through the 5 sense modalities: touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing.
As the brain matures, so does intellectual development. Babies begin to develop language skills and can understand the meaning of words. Their effort to communicate comes in the form of babbling, and of course, crying.
Over the next several years there will be a steady development of intellectual skills that includes a rapidly expanding vocabulary and rudimentary problem-solving skills.
These facets of intellectual development continue to grow more advanced and complex. Eventually, the young adult is able to engage in scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and innovative creation.
3. Social Development
Social development is all about interacting with other human beings. It refers to the way a child plays with classmates, forms friendships, and later in adulthood, how a person functions in romantic relationships.
There are four main scholars whose works are most notable:
- Albert Badura and his social learning theory
- Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, and
- John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s work on attachment styles.
Early forms of social interaction take place between the mother and infant. Whether or not a healthy emotional bond is formed during these early interactions has a tremendous effect on how the child views the world around them.
As the child grows, other adults, role models, and peers begin to have effects on the child’s social development. Some children develop a friendly and open-minded style of interacting with others, and so are able to form positive and healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, other children may be raised in hostile or cold environments and therefore develop an aggressive or withdrawn demeanor when interacting with others.
4. Emotional Development
Emotional development has to do with the child’s emotional state and their ability to self-regulate. Emotional development is directly related to social development and is therefore influenced by caregivers, peers, and role models.
Similar to other types of development, the human infant is born with minimal abilities. For the first few months, infants only have very basic emotions such as fear, happiness, anger, surprise, and disgust.
As children get older, emotions become more complex to include embarrassment, pride, and jealousy.
One key component of emotional development has to do with emotional regulation. Over time, children learn to control their feelings and how they are expressed.
For example, when a very young child wants a toy that another child is playing with, they might just grab it and run.
However, when they learn to control their emotional impulses, they can repress the urge to take the toy and instead find a way to get what they want by asking or negotiating.
Eventually, children learn to repress the expression of their feelings and can even portray emotions that are not authentic, but are appropriate to the situation.
Emotional self-regulation is necessary for healthy adult functioning.
5. Moral Development
Moral development refers to the progression of ethical reasoning from early childhood to adulthood. It involves the ability to consider situational factors and principles of right and wrong to reach a moral conclusion or course of action.
Lawrence Kohlberg is most commonly associated with moral development, as he postulated a series of stages that children/adults progress through, known as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.
Kohlberg stated that moral reasoning passes through 6 stages. Each stage exhibits a more advanced level of reasoning that is directly linked to cognitive development and individual life experiences.
In the early stages, moral reasoning is based on strict adherence to rules. If the behavior in question is against the rules, then the act is immoral.
In later stages, what is morally right or wrong is a matter of perspective. Children are able to consider the different opinions of people involved in the situation under scrutiny.
At the most advanced stages, moral reasoning centers on individual rights and universal principles. The fact that a particular act is against the law is less important than an individual’s right to take action or defend a universal cause.
The five main types of development have similarities. Each starts out as rudimentary and basic in its expression and function. For example, an infant has very little control over their limbs and can only experience a few emotions.
As the brain and body goes through maturational processes, abilities become more advanced. Over time, the baby learns to stand, walk, jump and run. They can grasp objects and can eventually write letters and simple words, although it may take 5 or 6 years.
Emotions become more complex. Children learn to control their emotional impulses and can even hide their true feelings when necessary.
All human beings go through the stages of each type of development in the same sequence, but there is a lot of variation in the rate of that progress.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Cambridge; Prentice Hall.
Berk, L. E. (2003). Development Through the Lifespan. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Casey, B. J., Heller, A. S., Gee, D. G., & Cohen, A. O. (2019). Development of the emotional brain. Neuroscience Letters, 693, 29–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2017.11.055
Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.
Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of Intelligence in the Child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.