Theories of Early Childhood: Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky


Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. In her work at the University of Rome's psychiatric clinic, Dr. Montessori developed an interest in the treatment of children and for several years wrote and spoke on their behalf. At age twenty-eight, she became the director of a school for mentally-disabled children. After two years under her guidance, these children, who formerly had been considered uneducable, took a school examination along with normal children and passed successfully. Educators called Dr. Montessori a miracle worker. What was her response? If mentally disabled children could be brought to the level of normal children, Dr. Montessori wanted to study the potential of "normal" children. She went back to school to study anthropology and psychology and finally, in 1907, was asked to take charge of fifty children from the dirty, desolate streets of the San Lorenz slum in the city of Rome.

Motessoris Idea of conducive Learning:

Multi-aged Grouping, based on Periods of Development: Children are grouped in three or six-year spans and have the same teacher for this period. The first group is called the "Nido" and consists of children in necessary daycare for working parents. This is age 0-1, or "until walking". The second group is known as the "Infant Community" and is from around one year to age 2-3. The third group is the "casa dei bambini" and is from 2.5-6 or 3-6, depending on the training of the teacher. The forth group is from 6-12, a larger age span because the children for this 6 years exhibit the same tendencies and learning habits. The emotional and physical growth is steady and the intellectual work strong. The 6 year old learns from and is inspired by children much older, and the teaching is done by older to younger as well as younger to older. This large age span helps to avoid the tendency of some teachers to over-schedule and over-direct students who need ever more freedom of time-planning and research. Sometimes this age group is divided into 6-9 ad 9-12, but this is a new development and still questioned by many. The next group is the 12-15 which is, at least in the West, a more emotional time with less ability to focus on intellectual work. Dr. Montessori called this time the Erdkinder CHildren, and proposed a farm school with real work close to the earth. The high school years are, as in traditional schools, a time of much more intellectual work, but with a different kind of child who has been through years of critical thinking, caring for the earth and other people, and independent research.

The 3-Hour Work Period
: Aft every age, a minimum of one 3-hour work period per day, uninterrupted by required attendance at group activities of any kind is required for the Montessori method of education to produce the results for which it is famous.

The Human Tendencies: The practical application of the Montessori method is based on human tendencies— to explore, move, share with a group, to be independent and make decisions, create order, develop self-control, abstract ideas from experience, use the creative imagination, work hard, repeat, concentrate, and perfect one's efforts

The Process of Learning: There are three stages of learning: 

  • (Stage 1) introduction to a concept by means of a lecture, lesson, something read in a book, etc.
  • (Stage 2) processing the information, developing an understanding of the concept through work, experimentation, creation.
  • (Stage 3) "knowing", to possessing an understanding of, demonstrated by the ability to pass a test with confidence, to teach another, or to express with ease.

Indirect Preparation: The steps of learning any concept are analyzed by the adult and are systematically offered to the child. A child is always learning something that is indirectly preparing him to learn something else, making education a joyful discovery instead of drudgery.

The Prepared Environment: Since the child learns to glean information from many sources, instead of being handed it by the teacher, it is the role of the teacher to prepare and continue to adapt the environment, to link the child to it through well-thought-out lessons, and to facilitate the child's exploration and creativity. The Prepared Environment is essential to the success of Montessori. There must be just the right amount of educational materials to allow for the work of the child. However, one thing that has become very obvious in our materialistic society in the west, is that TOO MUCH is worse than TOO LITTLE. The basic collection of didactic materials (such as that approved by the materials committee of AMI, The Association Montessori International) has been thoroughly tested over many years and has been shown to engage the children as much today as it has, as much in the USA as in other countries. Therefore it is very important to only supplement these materials with essential books and materials that are chosen only by an experienced teacher. The Michael Olaf Company is a well-known source for these tested supplementary books and materials. Instead of constantly adding to their collection of products offered, they continually refine and reduce their list, based on feedback from master teachers and Montessori teacher trainers.

Observation: Scientific observations of the child's development are constantly carried out and recorded by the teacher. These observations are made on the level of concentration of each child, the introduction to and mastery of each piece of material, the social development, physical health, etc. on.

Work Centers: The environment is arranged according to subject area, and children are always free to move around the room, and to continue to work on a piece of material with no time limit.

Teaching Method: There are no text books, and seldom will two or more children be studying the same thing at the same time. Children learn directly from the environment, and from other children—rather than from the teacher. The teacher is trained to teach one child at a time, with a few small groups and almost no lessons given to the whole class. She is facile in the basic lessons of math, language, the arts and sciences, and in guiding a child's research and exploration, capitalizing on interests and excitement about a subject. Large groups occur only in the beginning of a new class, or in the beginning of the school year, and are phased out as the children gain independence. The child is scientifically observed, observations recorded and studied by the teacher. Children learn from what they are studying individually, but also from the amazing variety of work that is going on around them during the day.

Class Size: The most successful 3-6 or 6-12 classes are of 30-35 children to one teacher, with one non teaching assistant, this number reached gradually over 1-3 years. This provides the most variety of personalities, learning styles, and work being done at one time. This class size is possible because the children learn from each other and stay with the same teacher for three to six years. This size help to create much independent work, and peer teaching, and eliminates the possibility of too much teacher-centered, teacher-directed work.

Basic Lessons: A well-trained Montessori teacher spends a lot of time during training practicing the many basic lessons with materials in all areas. She/he must pass difficult written and oral exams on these lessons in order to be certified. She is trained to recognize a child's readiness—according to age, ability, and interest—for a specific lesson, and is prepared to guide individual progress. Although the teacher plans lessons for each child for each day, she will bow to the interests of a child following a passion.

Areas of Study Linked: All subjects are interwoven; history, art, music, math, astronomy, biology, geology, physics, and chemistry are not isolated from each other and a child studies them in any order he chooses, moving through all in a unique way for each child. At any one time in a day all subjects—math, language, science, history, geography, art, music, etc.—are being studied, at all levels.

The Schedule: There is at least one 3-hour period of uninterrupted, work time each day, not broken up by required group lessons or lessons by specialists. Adults and children respect concentration and do not interrupt someone who is busy at a task. Groups form spontaneously but not on a predictable schedule. Specialists are available at times but no child is asked to interrupt a self-initiated project to attend these lessons.

Assessment: There are no grades, or other forms of reward or punishment, subtle or overt. Assessment is by portfolio and the teacher's observation and record keeping. The real test of whether or not the system is working lies in the accomplishment and behavior of the children, their happiness, maturity, kindness, and love of learning, concentration, and work.

Requirements for Age 3-6: There are no academic requirements for this age, but children are exposed to amazing amounts of knowledge and often learn to read, write and calculate beyond what is often thought usual for a child of this age.

Requirements for Ages 6-18: Requirements for ages 6-18: There are no curriculum requirements except those set by the state, or college entrance requirements, for specific grades and these take a minimum amount of time. Students of K-12+ age design 1-2 week contracts with the teacher to balance their work, and learn time management skills. The work of the 6-12 class includes subjects usually not introduced until high school.

Learning Styles: All intelligences and styles of learning—musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, intuitive, natural, and the traditional linguistic and logical-mathematical—are nurtured and respected.

Character Education: Opportunities for the valorization of the personality is considered at least as important as academic education. Children are given the opportunity to take care of themselves, each other, and the environment—gardening, cooking, building, moving gracefully, speaking politely, doing social work in the community, etc.

The Results of learning in this way: In looking at the results one must be sure they are judging a class run by a fully trained teacher. Using Montessori without this training will not have the same results. When the environment meets all of the needs of children they become, without any manipulation by the adult, physically healthy, mentally and psychologically fulfilled, extremely well-educated, and brimming over with joy and kindness toward each other. 


Erik Erikson recognized the basic notions of Freudian theory, but believed that Freud misjudged some important dimensions of human development. Erikson said that humans develop throughout their life span, while Freud said that our personality is shaped by the age of five. Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages that humans encounter throughout their life. The stages are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair.

8 Stages of Development:
Stage Basic Conflict Important Events Outcome
Infancy (birth to 18 months) Trust vs. Mistrust Feeding Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliabilty, care, and affection. A lack of this will lead to mistrust.
Early Childhood (2 to 3 years) Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Toilet Training Children need to develop a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.
Preschool (3 to 5 years) Initiative vs. Guilt Exploration Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.
School Age (6 to 11 years) Industry vs. Inferiority School Children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.
Adolescence (12 to 18 years) Identity vs. Role Confusion Social Relationships Teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.
Yound Adulthood (19 to 40 years) Intimacy vs. Isolation Relationships Young adults need to form intimate, loving relationships with other people. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation.
Middle Adulthood (40 to 65 years) Generativity vs. Stagnation Work and Parenthood Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.
Maturity(65 to death) Ego Integrity vs. Despair Reflection on Life Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair.


Jean Piaget's stage theory describes the cognitive development of children. Cognitive development involves changes in cognitive process and abilities. In Piaget's view, early cognitive development involves processes based upon actions and later progresses into changes in mental operations.

Key Concepts of Piaget

- A schema describes both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. Schemas are categories of knowledge that help us to interpret and understand the world.
  • In Piaget's view, a schema includes both a category of knowledge and the process of obtaining that knowledge. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas.

    For example, a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child's sole experience has been with small dogs, a child might believe that all dogs are small, furry, and have four legs. Suppose then that the child encounters a very large dog. The child will take in this new information, modifying the previously existing schema to include this new information.

Assimilation - The process of taking in new information into our previously existing schema's is known as assimilation. The process is somewhat subjective, because we tend to modify experience or information somewhat to fit in with our preexisting beliefs. In the example above, seeing a dog and labeling it "dog" is an example of assimilating the animal into the child's dog schema.

Accommodation - Another part of adaptation involves changing or altering our existing schemas in light of new information, a process known as accommodation. Accommodation involves altering existing schemas, or ideas, as a result of new information or new experiences. New schemas may also be developed during this process.

Equilibration - Piaget believed that all children try to strike a balance between assimilation and accommodation, which is achieved through a mechanism Piaget called equilibration. As children progress through the stages of cognitive development, it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behavior to account for new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration helps explain how children are able to move from one stage of thought into the next.

4 Stages of Development:

  1. Sensorimotor: (birth to about age 2)

    During this stage, the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. Thought derives from sensation and movement. The child learns that he is separate from his environment and that aspects of his environment -- his parents or favorite toy -- continue to exist even though they may be outside the reach of his senses. Teaching for a child in this stage should be geared to the sensorimotor system. You can modify behavior by using the senses: a frown, a stern or soothing voice -- all serve as appropriate techniques.

  2. Preoperational: (begins about the time the child starts to talk to about age 7)

    Applying his new knowledge of language, the child begins to use symbols to represent objects. Early in this stage he also personifies objects. He is now better able to think about things and events that aren't immediately present. Oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time. His thinking is influenced by fantasy -- the way he'd like things to be -- and he assumes that others see situations from his viewpoint. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas. Teaching must take into account the child's vivid fantasies and undeveloped sense of time. Using neutral words, body outlines and equipment a child can touch gives him an active role in learning.

  3. Concrete: (about first grade to early adolescence)

    During this stage, accommodation increases. The child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgements about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past he needed to manipulate physically to understand. In teaching this child, giving him the opportunity to ask questions and to explain things back to you allows him to mentally manipulate information.

  4. Formal Operations: (adolescence)

    This stage brings cognition to its final form. This person no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgements. At his point, he is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. Teaching for the adolescent may be wideranging because he'll be able to consider many possibilities from several perspectives.


Lev Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition, as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning."

More Knowledgeable Other

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept.  Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case.  Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience. (For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teen-age music groups, how to win at the most recent Playstation game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze - a child or their parents?)
In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems.  Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process.  The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to an important principle of Vygotsky's work, the Zone of Proximal Development.  This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

Vygotsky sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given - allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own - developing higher mental functions.

Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies.  He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skilful peers - within the zone of proximal development
Piaget's Stages of Development:

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