Developmental Psychology and Toddler Neuropsychology

An introduction to developmental psychology and Toddler Neuropsychology

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and psychologist is credited as being the founding father of developmental psychology. Piaget was famous for proposing that children moved from a position of egocentrism (incomplete differentiation of the self and the world and other people; thinking that everyone in the world thinks feels and sees things the same as them!) to sociocentrism.  Piaget noticed that children gradually progressed from being intuitive to scientific and socially acceptable, he believed they did this because of social interaction, an egocentric child is not a selfish child, rather one who is too young (under 7) to have learned that others may have different beliefs and opinions to them!

The 4 stages of childhood development

Piaget divided childhood development into 4 stages:

Stage One: Sensorimotor Stage from birth to age 2

Children experience the world through movement and senses (use five senses to explore the world).During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others' view points. 

The sensorimotor stage is divided into six sub stages:

1. Simple reflexes (birth to 1 month old). Babies use reflexes such as rooting and sucking.

2. First habits and primary circular reactions* (1-4months).

3. Secondary circular reactions (4-8monthths) e.g. accidentally shaking a rattle, then trying to do it on purpose; this is the age babies become interested in other objects, not themselves!

4. Coordination of secondary circular reactions (8-12months); baby can control the reactions! Object Permanence also takes place now (babies realise something exists when it's not there).

5. Tertiary circular reactions (12-18months); ‘little explorers’, trying new things to get results. Trial and error experiments! “If I throw my food from my highchair mum makes a funny shrieking sound.”

6. Internalization of schemes (18-24months); thinking shifts.*circular reaction = child accidentally sucks his thumb and then tries to do it purposefully.

Stage Two Pre operational Stage From ages 2 to 7

Children start this stage strongly egocentric. Language development is one of the hallmarks of this period. Piaget noted that children in this stage do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism. From our point of view this means that children in this stage cannot use logical thinking(why it is pointless reasoning with a toddler!!!).

Stage Three Concrete Operational Stage from ages 7 to 12

Children can now conserve and think logically but only with practical aids. Egocentrism weakens.

Stage Four Formal Operational Stage from age 12 onwards

It is during this stage that children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts and acquires kills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning.

Ways of Studying Egocentrism

The Three Mountains Experiment.

Piaget used a number of creative experiments to study the mental abilities of children. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Three Mountains. Piaget’s technique for studying egocentrism involved using a three-dimensional model of a mountain scene. In the experiment the children were asked to choose a picture that showed the scene they had just seen. Most children could to do this with little difficulty. In the next part of the experiment the children were asked to select a picture showing what another person would have seen when looking at the mountain from a different viewpoint.  Unsurprisingly the young children almost always chose the scene showing their own view of the mountains.  According to Piaget, children experience this difficulty because they are unable to take on another person's perspective – or what Piaget termed:  Egocentrism.

How does this relate to us when we are lecturing a toddler about how another person feels? Or telling them to apologise for something such as  ‘stealing’ a toy etc.?


A schema describes both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. In Piaget saw a schema as including certain knowledge as well as the process of obtaining that knowledge. Piaget commented that as the child had new experiences then the new information would be used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas. 

E.g.:  If a child had a pet black cat he may believe that all cats have black fur and green eyes, but if he saw a new cat – a tabby cat with orange eyes – he would absorb the new information, modifying the previously existing cat schema to include this new information.  

Schemas are developed through 3 stages:

1. Assimilation:  The process of taking in new information into a previously existing schema, e.g. the child sees a cat and labels it “a cat” – he is assimilating the new cat into his existing cat schema. 

2. Accommodations:  The process of altering an existing schema due to the new information, new schemas may even be formed during this process. 

3. Equilibration:  Toddlers try to find a balance between assimilation and accommodation, through a mechanism called equilibration. As children grow it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behaviour to account for new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration explains how children move from one stage of thought into the next.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

Maslow introduced in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can show what a child (or adult!) of any age needs. Starting at the base of the pyramid, a strong foundation must be built in order for the other levels to build upon one another.  Each foundation level must be strong to get to the next level, and so on.  If one level is weak within a child, then the needs above that level will be very difficult to develop, because all of the needs interrelate. In relation to the Psychoanalysts this pyramid shows us the importance of love, self-esteem and confidence, without it toddlers cannot reach the peak of their pyramid!

Heirarchy of Needs

1. Starting at the bottom (Physiological) the most important needs of toddlers are basic physical requirements which allow them to be comfortable, (i.e.: not hungry, not tired, not thirsty etc.).

2. Next are the need for safety and the need to feel safe, in a safe physical situation.

3. Next is the need to feel loved. A toddler needs to feel loved, and feel like they belong within their family, or group of friends order to feel comfortable within their surroundings.  

4. Linked to this is the need for a toddler to achieve recognition within this group, whether that maybe at home with family or at nursery in their peer group. A toddler needs to feel accepted and recognised in order to feel truly comfortable and to build self-esteem and confidence. 

5. Next up is the accumulation of knowledge, learning and understanding about the world, but more importantly about themselves in order to realise who they are. Self-Actualisation.

The ToddlerCalmTM Toddler’s Hierarchy of Needs*

Starting at the base of the pyramid, a strong foundation must be built in order for the other levels to build upon one another.  Each foundation level must be strong to get to the next level, and so on.  If one level is weak within a child, then the needs above that level will be very difficult to develop, because all of the needs interrelate. This pyramid shows us the importance of love, self-esteem and confidence, if these needs are not met toddlers cannot reach the peak of their abilities!*Based on the work of Abraham Maslow and his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ (1943)

Carl Rogers

 Carl Rogers was a Humanistic Psychologist. Rogers agreed with much of Maslow’s theories, but added that for somebody to really grow, they needed an environment that provided them with “genuineness” (openness and self-disclosure), “acceptance” (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and “empathy” (being listened to and understood). 

Rogers believed without these elements that a health personality would not grow as it should. He also believed that everybody had the ability to achieve those goals in life and that when they did a process called Self Actualisation took place. Self-Actualisation "The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, 1951). Rogers believed that our one basic motive in life was to “self-actualize” - i.e.: to fulfil our potential and achieve the highest level of 'human-beingness' we can.  Like a flower that will grow to its full potential if the conditions are right, but which is constrained by its environment, so people will flourish andr each their potential if their environment is good enough. Rogers also believed that we are alli nherently good and creative, destructive behaviour occurring only when we develop a poor self concept or external constraints override our self-valuing.  Rogers also believe that the main determinant of whether we will become self-actualised is our experience of childhood.

Toddler Neuropsychology


The Triune Brain Theory

1. Reptilian brain: the survival brain, controlling essential body functions such as breathing temperature regulation and hunger and thirst. 

2. Mammalian brain (the limbic brain): the emotional brain, giving us the capacity to feel and give love. 

3. Thinking brain (the rational brain): The neocortex (“new brain”), giving us the ability to think critically and rationally. The language brain and the seat of long term memory.

The nurture debate and the tabula rasa Tabula rasa = blank slate

"The little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences."  John Locke 

Locke was a 17th century physician and philosopher and has been credited as the first to describe “consciousness” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). He described the self as "that conscious thinking thing (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends”. 

Locke believed that the self of a newborn baby was a blank slate at birth and that our experiences of the world from birth would shape our adult personality. Locke stated these early experiences and markings on the tabular rasa were much more important than the experiences and learnings of adulthood, in particular warning parents not to let their child develop negative associations.  

At birth most of the baby's brain cells are formed however most of the connections between the cells are made during early childhood. These connections are enormously influenced by a child's environment – over and above genetic influence. A child's brain growth does not follow a biologically predetermined path, instead the child's early experiences have an enormous impact the development of their brain by influencing ways in which the pathways of their brain become connected. 

During a child's first three years they experience the world in a more complete, multi-sensory way than they will during the rest of their life. Therefore the baby and toddler's social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language development are stimulated during multi-sensory experiences meaning that young children need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with stimulating sights, sounds, touch and smells. A toddler's brain is incredibly active (at 3years old the brain is approximately twice as active as that of an adult!) and by the age of 3 years the brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections (again about twice as many as adults!). 

The young child's brain will retain these connections until around the age of10 or 11, when the brain prunes the extra, unused, connections – on a “use it or lose it” principle, if a connection is used repeatedly in the early years of the child's life it becomes permanent, if the Connection is not reinforced it is pruned. These remaining connections are very powerful and efficient. Therefore what happens in the child's early years is hugely influenced by their babyhood and toddlerdom. For instance the part of the brain that regulates emotion, the amygdala, is shaped very early on. Early nurturing is vitally important to the child's future learning of empathy, happiness, hopefulness and resiliency.

Social Development

Social development (self-awareness and ability to interact with others) however occurs in stages.  A child does not really develop the social development necessary to share until around the age of 3 onwards. The networks are just not there in their brain! The neocortex does not begin to really form until later infancy and toddlerdom, remember here that the neocortex is the home of impulse control and the ability to understand that a choice we make now may continue to have consequences later. The neocortex is also the home of empathy as well as our abilities to use reason, and logic and understand and use language. The neocortex remember here is the last part of the triune brain to form and is therefore is not mature in toddlers. A toddler simply does not have the neural connections necessary to understand logic, reasoning, sharing and why it is not acceptable to throw a tantrum in Tescos!