Erik Erikson's Theory of Development: A Teacher's Observations

Suchitra Ramkumar

Erik Erikson was a psychologist who did most of his work in the post-Freudian era, in the 1930s to the 1950s. He was a student of Freud, and was greatly influenced by the latter's theories of personality development. However, unlike his predecessor, Erikson gave a great deal of importance to the social environment in a person's psychological development.

Thus his theory is generally called a psychosocial theory of personality development. Erikson's theory posits that every human being passes through several distinct and qualitatively different stages in life, frombirth to death. According to him, the stages are universal, and the ages at which one is said to have passed from one to another stage are also fairly universal. However, it must be kept in mind that Erikson did not have much knowledge of cultures and societies other than his own, and thus the universality of his theory can and must be questioned.

The key idea in Erikson's theory is that the individual faces a conflict at each stage, which may or may not be successfully resolved within that stage. For example, he called the first stage 'Trust vs Mistrust'. If the quality of care is good in infancy, the child learns to trust the world to meet her needs. If not, trust remains an unresolved issue throughout succeeding stages of development.

According to Erikson, although there is a predominant issue at each stage, the stages are not watertight. Issues of one stage overlap with issues of another; how one has dealt with earlier issues determines how one will resolve later issues. Most important, there is a connection between present patterns of thinking and feeling, and earlier unresolved or resolved developmental issues. But Erikson also said that developmental blocks at any stage can be resolved at any point.

I shall now present a brief sketch of those parts of Erikson's theory of developmental stages that are relevant to schooling, and what each of these means for me as a teacher.

Stage I: 0 - 2 years. Trust vs Mistrust

Trust comes from the consistent meeting of needs. An infant who can trust the mother or father to meet her needs, will take from this stage a basic sense of trust in the world (to meet her needs). A sense of trust helps the acceptance of limits and boundaries.

Stage II: 2 - 4 years. Autonomy vs Shame

A child of this age is beginning to explore the world at will. This is the age commonly known as the 'terrible twos'. The very young child learns by feeling with all the senses, and an expression of autonomy in this process seems very relevant to the child's growth. If this autonomy is thwarted, three consequences may ensue:

  1. A sense of shame develops.
  2. It prevents a healthy acceptance of limits.
  3. The child feels devastated by small crises.

I have personally never been able to understand why a child is restricted from touching various objects at home, and then sent to a Montessori school to play 'sensorial' games!

This is also the age when feelings are beginning to be expressed. It is important not to condemn feelings the child may hold, such as anger or jealousy, but to help the child be sensitive to his behavioural expressions in a particular situation.

Stage III: 4 - 6 years. Initiative vs Guilt

The child in this stage is beginning to make decisions, and carry them out, primarily through play activities. Imagination is the key mover. A sense of purpose develops when she is able to envision something in her imagination and pursue it. Such initiative must be encouraged.

Some features of a kindergarten programme suggest themselves fromthese perceptions.

  1. The child must be allowed room for the expression of imagination, such as playing with various natural, simple materials, and role-playing. Ready-made toys often inhibit this expression, as there is very little that can be done imaginatively with most of them. For example, a matchbox can become a car or an aircraft, but a ready-made car cannot become anything other than what it is. It can only be manipulated.
  2. Stories and songs that stimulate the imagination can be introduced.
  3. Real-life activities like serving food, chopping vegetables or making chappatis, prepare children for participation in the community around them. Children of this age are capable of contributing productively to the environment in which they live. I would go so far as to say that it is vital that they do so, and that they feel their contribution is 'real' and not just 'pretend'. This is commonly observed in poorer families, where children of this age take charge of the younger siblings and certain home responsibilities.
  4. Child-directed activities where the child chooses her activity and repeats it as often as she wants must be encouraged. This again is an opportunity for the child to show initiative and take responsibility. Ridiculing, making fun of the child's imagination, and subtle or overt expectation can inhibit the natural sense of initiative. One may also distort the child's initiative by linking it to reward and performance. Lying should be dealt with sensitively at this age, as spinning imaginative stories may not be the same as lying. Discouraging initiative by inducing guilt or shame may lead to a repressed child, or to one who does things on the sly.

Stage IV: 6 - 12 years. Industry vs Inferiority

These are the years when a child can begin to work hard academically and gain competence in various areas of activity.

This is also a time when the child is praised for the 'doing', for achievement. The question I would ask is, what do we communicate to the child about his 'being'? Adults affirm competence, and that becomes a strong motivation for the child to pursue an activity. While that may be a strong encouragement to a child, it also makes him value himself for his achievements alone, and may promote a sense of comparison and inferiority. What then happens to all those parts of him that are not visible to the world as 'achievement'? It seems to be a very sensitive balance. It also seems relevant not to affirm only certain kinds of aptitudes, as that may restrict the areas of exploration to those that are approved of.

At the same time, it is vitally important to help the child feel that he can pursue a task and do it well. Sometimes, in this age group, there is a tendency for teachers to excuse lack of skill, lack of completion or lack of accuracy in a child's work, the child being young and there being enough time to learn. This may be counterproductive to developing a sense of competence. Small learning targets may be set in a variety of areas. There seems to be a clear case for a firm and consistent demand for the child to actually reach the target, and show proof of learning, not just of engagement. This phase is directly linked to productivity in later life. Thus the junior and middle school is a time to validate the child in his or her own multiple talents and to build a work ethic.

The later part of this phase begins a redefining of the child's relationship with the world. So the curriculum must include a different kind of input to cater to this. Observational exercises, area studies, understanding the flow of resources and materials, examining lifestyle through resource audits, are some of the activities that have been tried out in our school, and have proved very helpful in this regard.

Stage V: 12 - 19 years. Identity vs Role Confusion

The questions arising at this stage are, 'Who am I?', 'What are my values?', 'What is my identity?' Identity is defined as the ability to exercise choice. This is the last stage relevant to school education.

Being able to take initiative and show proof of learning would be appropriate at this stage. There is a book called the Walkabout Papers by Dr Maurice James, which talks of this process of student initiative in great detail. In it is described how a student sets a challenge for himself in certain areas, and plans and executes a project in each of these. Teachers and resource persons in the community can act as facilitators in this process, but the student is working independently. At the end of this process, there can be a presentation to the community of the work done as tangible proof of effort and achievement.

For Erikson, this is also the stage where values have to be chosen, beliefs understood and the 'self' explored. If values are imposed rather than chosen by the child herself, they are not internalised and there is a lack of meaning in later life. How are these values chosen? Erikson says that adolescents are often influenced by role models and tend to imitate and hold their values. Individuating without rebellion is important for a healthy sense of self.

How do we respond to the characteristics of this developmental stage? Of supreme importance is the need for an open and warm relationship between the adult and the young adolescent, which will keep channels of communication open. For instance, since it is evident that the young adult is influenced by role models promoted by the media or society at large, it is important that we help her see that all imitation is limited and cripples creativity. This is also the stage when we can explore issues of responsibility to society and the world at large.

An awareness of such psychological findings does, no doubt, widen a teacher's horizons. It sets us thinking about what is appropriate at each stage, in our approaches to teaching and learning, and may thus help enrich the school's curricular objectives. All the same, the limitations of a theory, any theory, must be underscored. Any theory is just a framework and cannot substitute for but only aids the teacher's ability to observe and respond to students.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Ms. Anita of Parivarthan whose lecture on Erik Erikson provided me with many of the facts presented.

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