top of page

Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part I


Developmental Psychology Theories 101 articles, as its name states, addresses different theories regarding psychological human development through life-cycle, and provide an approach on how different factors at each development life stage impact the individual's psyché.

Developmental Psychology serves as one of the academic courses in the field of Psychology, and it conceives of a person's development as a combination of maturation and learning. The maturation would come to consist of the biological unfolding according to a plan contained in the genes. On the other hand, learning would be the process through which experiences produce relatively permanent changes in thought, emotions, or behavior.

Therefore, development is a relatively permanent change, a mix between maturation (genes) and learning (experience), and includes:

1. Phylogenetic Development: development of the species.

2. Ontogenetic Development: development of the individual.

Developmental Psychology Theories 101 is the first part of the Developmental Psychology Theories, and it's divided into the following six chapters:

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part I (Baltes & Smith)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part II (Bronfenbrenner)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part III (Sroufe)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part IV (Gopnik & Wellman)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part V (Piaget)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part VI (Vygotski)

Each chapter will address one different author and their theory regarding the first stage of life: childhood. This series will have a continuation, Developmental Psychology Theories 102, which will deal with the next life stages: Adolescence, Emerging Adulthood, Middle Adulthood, and Elder Adulthood.

Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part I (Baltes & Smith)

For this first article, the theory of Baltes & Smith, which is called "Life Cycle Psychology" or "Life Cycle Perspective", will be addressed. But before delving into the ideas postulated by the authors, we must learn a little bit about them.

Image 1: Paul B. Baltes (PdfSlide, 2014)

Paul B. Baltes was a German psychologist dedicated to establishing and promoting the life-span approach of human development. He was interested in gerontology, also a theory of the psychology of aging. Further, he was a founding member of the European Academy of Sciences, a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and a member and vice-president of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. Paul Baltes became as well a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He died on November 7th of 2006 due to pancreatic cancer. (Gerontology Wiki, n.d.).

Image 2: Jacqui Smith (University of Michigan, n.d.)

Jacqui Smith is a Professor of Psychology and Research Professor in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Her research focus is on the heterogeneity of psychological functioning, well-being, and health in midlife and old age. Smith's investigation is characterized by the use of experimental and survey methodologies to explore age-cohort differences and age-related change in cognitive functioning, self-regulation, and well-being (University of Michigan, n.d.). Her current research focuses on subjective well-being after the age of 50, psychological vitality in the oldest-old, early-life and life course predictors of outcomes in later life, self-perceptions of aging, and cognitive aging (University of Michigan, n.d.).

The text in which the theory we will discuss in this article was proposed, is called Lifespan Psychology: From Developmental Contextualism to Developmental Biocultural Co-constructivism (Baltes & Smith, 2004), and the thesis of it is focused on life-span approaches and studies on contextual influence systems of development, and their ontogenic and evolutionary design (Baltes & Smith, 2004). Historically, development has been understood as evolutionary growth, that is, as something one-dimensional, one-way, sequential, irreversible, finite, and universal. However, the authors Baltes and Smith propose a new conception: from the vital cycle.

Life cycle psychology posits that development occurs throughout life, includes gains and losses, is characterized by permanent plasticity, is shaped by the historical-cultural context, receives multiple influences, and should be studied from many disciplines (Baltes & Smith, 2004). In this sense, it is discontinuous, because it involves gains and losses, it is multidimensional (includes social, cognitive, emotional development, etc), it is multi-directional (there is variability, so it is not linear and there is more than one possible path), and multi-causal (because development is affected by different influences).

In this way, the first relevant concept postulated by the authors arises: co-constructivism, which refers to the fact that the development process is influenced by biological and cultural/environmental aspects, which are structured throughout life (Baltes & Smith, 2004). These influences explain the common and continuous nature of change and, furthermore, they explain inter-individual and intra-individual differences, which are also cumulative and vary over time. Diversity and discontinuity in these are prerequisites for diversity in developmental outcomes, and the importance of each factor will vary with age (Baltes & Smith, 2004).

The second relevant concept within the theory is that of plasticity; it is the main foundation of the life cycle and is defined as "the range of human development that was possible under varying constellations of age-graded, history-graded, and non-normative influences" (Baltes & Smith, 2004, p. 126). It is the ability to change or recover from some event. Biogenetic plasticity decreases as we age, but it is always present.

1. Normative influences according to age (ontogenic): events that occur in a similar way for

most people who are the same age.

2. Normative influences according to history: events that occur in a similar way for all people who experienced those same events. They involve environmental and biological contexts, and they contribute to short- and long-term changes in development trajectories. For instance: war, crisis,

earthquakes, pandemics, etc.

3. Non-normative (idiosyncratic) influences: unique, biological, and environmental events individual-idiosyncratic, which are not clearly related to an ontogenetic time or history. These events are powerful because they disrupt the sequence and rhythm of the expected life cycle, thus generating conditions of uncertainty, which may be points of critical break; for instance: winning the lottery, change of city, death of a family member, unemployment extended, incredible employment, etc.

*It is important to note that in these cases the concept of normative is considered as the allusion to a series of events that occur in a very similar way (in timing and duration) for most people in a society.

Regarding the aforementioned influences, the authors suggest that, based on this bio cultural dynamic, there would be an adaptive (successful) development and aging in which a development mechanism/gradient operates, which is responsible for managing resources among the general functions: Selective Optimization with Compensation (SOC)

This mechanism that initially sought to describe successful aging, since it promotes the development and prevents losses, is a strategy to master life tasks:

S: selection of goals and results: define paths oriented according to the result. There are two selection methods; based on choice or loss.

O: Optimization of means to achieve goals: acquisition, application, coordination, and maintenance of internal and external resources (means) involved in obtaining better levels of functioning.

C: compensation means that helps offset losses in specific means that have been used to achieve goals through alternative means that maintain operation.

Thus, an adult, by selecting goals, optimizing the means to achieve them, and compensating through the use of substitute means, will have a greater capacity to perform tasks, will obtain more adaptive results, and will promote their development. However, these processes have been seen to operate throughout development, despite the fact that they were initially believed to be only for old age; they occur in different degrees and forms at different stages of life (Baltes & Smith, 2004). According to the authors, the OSC gradient reaches its peak in middle adulthood.

Image 3. Representation of three meta-principles that co-regulate human ontogeny. Together, they describe the dynamics between biology and culture across the life course (Baltes & Smith, 2004).

The allocation of resources occurs from growth to maintenance and regulation of loss and there are changes throughout the life cycle in the configuration of three general functions of development:

Growth: behaviors to reach higher levels of functioning or ability adaptive.

Maintenance: behaviors that ensure stability to face new contextual challenges or a potential loss.

Loss regulation: behaviors that organize functioning at lower levels when maintenance or recovery is no longer a possibility.

In this sense, individuals need to invest more and more internal and external resources in maintenance and loss management, rather than growth, to ensure effective and successful adaptation.

In the study of human development, we are interested in understanding and explaining the ways in which people change (or stay the same) over time. In many cases, to explain why a child, unlike another, performs or does not, has or has not, certain behaviors not only look at age but also in what learning and socialization processes there are differences (Baltes & Smith, 2004). The idea that development is a process alludes to the fact that we have to see a more dynamic conception than what a child does at a certain age. Age is not the most important determinant in describing what a person does, and it predicts even less from adolescence to the later stages of the life cycle.

Development has an inter-generational perspective: through adapting plastically, the human being creates, and contributes, not only to his ontogenesis but also changes the development of the people with whom he relates. Family history has a great impact, in addition to having lived through certain normative historical processes.



Baltes, P.B. & Smith, J. (2004). Lifespan psychology: From developmental contextualism to developmental biocultural co-constructivism. Research in Human Development, 1 (3), 123-144.

University of Michigan. (n.d.). People Faculty: Jacqui Smith. Retrieved from

Gerontology Wikipedia. (n.d.). Paul B. Baltes. Retrieved from

Images References

Image 1: PdfSlide. (2014). Aprendizaje y Ciclo Vital I. Retrieved from

Image 2: University of Michigan. (n.d.). People Faculty: Jacqui Smith. Retrieved from

Image 3: Baltes, P.B. & Smith, J. (2004). Lifespan psychology: From developmental contextualism to developmental biocultural co-constructivism. Research in Human Development, 1 (3), 130.

Cover Image: Sargent, J.S. (1885). Carnation, Lily, Lily and Rose. Retrieved from:,_Lily,_Lily,_Rose_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Author Photo

Dinka Hernández Avilés

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page