Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 3: Student Development/Social Development: Relationships and Personal Motives

Social Development: Relationships and Personal MotivesEdit

Social development refers to the long-term changes in relationships and interactions involving self, peers, and family. It includes both positive changes, such as how friendships develop, and negative changes, such as aggression or bullying. For teachers, the social developments that are the most obviously relevant to classroom life fall into three main areas: 1) changes in self-concept and in relationships among students and teachers, 2) changes in basic needs or personal motives, and 3) changes in your sense of rights and responsibilities. As with cognitive development, each of these areas has a broad, well-known theory (and theorist) that provides a framework for thinking about the area as it relates to teaching. For development of self-concept and relationships, it is the theory of Erik Erikson; for development of personal motives, it is the theory of Abraham Maslow; and for development of ethical knowledge and beliefs, it is the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and his critic, Carol Gilligan. These psychologists and their theories are definitely not the only ones related to social development of students, and their ideas are often debated by other researchers. But their accounts do explain much about social development that is relevant to teaching, learning, and students.

Erik Erikson: Eight Psychosocial Crises of DevelopmentEdit

Like Piaget, Erik Erikson developed a theory of social development that relies on stages, except that Erikson saw his stages as a series of psychological or social (or psychosocial) crises—turning points in a person’s relationships and feelings about himself or herself (Erikson, 1963, 1980).[1][2] Each crisis presents the person with a dilemma or choice in which each alternative had both advantages and risks, but in which one alternative is normally considered more desirable or “healthy.” How a crisis is resolved affects how later crises are resolved. The resolution also helps to create an individual’s long-term personality. Erikson proposed eight crises that extend from birth through old age; they are summarized in Table 3-2. Four of the stages occur during the school years, so I give these special attention here, but it is helpful also to know what crises are thought to come both before and after those in the school years.

Crises of Infants and Preschoolers: Trust, Autonomy, and InitiativeEdit

Almost from the day they are born, infants face a crisis (in Erikson’s sense) about trust and mistrust. They are happiest if they can eat, sleep, and excrete according to their own physiological schedules, and their major caregiver (often the mother) is in a position to make these activities comfortable by her own flexibility and constant attentiveness. Unfortunately, though, a young infant is in no position to control or influence a mother’s caregiving behavior; so the baby faces a dilemma about how much to trust or mistrust the mother’s helpfulness. Hopefully, between the two of them, they resolve this choice in favor of trust: the mother proves herself at least “good enough” in her attentiveness, and the baby risks trusting her motivation and skill at caregiving.

Almost as soon as this crisis is resolved, however, a new one develops over the issue of autonomy and shame. The child (who is now a toddler) may basically trust his or her caregiver (mother), but the very trust contributes to a desire to assert autonomy by taking care of basic personal needs, such as feeding, toileting, or dressing. Given the child’s lack of experience in doing so, however, self-care is risky at first—the toddler may feed (or toilet or dress) clumsily and ineffectively. The child’s caregiver, for her part, risks overprotecting the child and criticizing his early efforts unnecessarily and causing the child to feel shame for even trying. Hopefully, as with the earlier crisis of trust, the new crisis gets resolved in favor of autonomy through the combined efforts of the child to exercise autonomy and of the caregiver to support the child’s efforts.

Eventually, about the time a child is of preschool age, the autonomy exercised during the previous period becomes more elaborate, extended, and focused on objects and people other than the child and his or her basic needs. The child at a day care center may undertake, for example, to build the “biggest city in the world” out of all available unit blocks—even if other children want some of the blocks for other purposes. The child’s projects and desires create a new crisis of initiative and guilt, because the child soon realizes that not every impulse or desire can be acted upon, even if the desires have a pesky tendency to linger when unfulfilled. As with the crisis over autonomy, caregivers have to support the child’s initiatives where possible, but also not make the child feel guilty just for desiring to have or to do something inappropriate or impossible. By limiting behavior where necessary but not limiting internal feelings, the child can develop a lasting ability to take initiative. In Erikson’s terms, the crisis is resolved in favor of initiative.

Even though only the last of these three crises overlaps with the school years, all three of them relate to issues faced by students of many ages, as well as their teachers. A child or youth who is fundamentally mistrustful, for example, has a serious problem in coping with school life. If you are a student, it is essential for your long-term survival, to believe that teachers and other school officials have your best interests at heart, and that they are not imposing assignments, setting limits, and the like, “just for the heck of it.” And even though students are hardly infants, teachers are like Erikson’s caregiver in that they need to prove worthy of students’ trust through their initial flexibility and attentiveness.

Classroom parallels also exist for the crises of autonomy and of initiative. To learn effectively, students need to make choices and undertake academic initiatives, at least some of the time and even though not every choice or initiative may be practical or desirable. Teachers, for their part, need to make true choices and initiatives possible, and refrain from criticizing, even accidentally, the act of choice or the intention behind an initiative even when the teacher privately believes that it is “bound to fail.” Support for choice and initiative should be focused on providing resources and on guiding the student’s efforts toward more likely success. In this underlying sense teachers are like the parents of toddlers and preschoolers in Erikson’s theory of development.

The Crisis of Childhood: Industry and InferiorityEdit

Once into elementary school, the child is faced for the first time with becoming competent and worthy in the eyes of the world at large, or more precisely of classmates and teachers. To achieve their esteem, he or she must develop skills and qualities that usually require effort that is both sustained and somewhat focused. The challenge of doing so creates the crisis of industry and inferiority. To be respected by teachers, the child must learn to read, for example, and to behave like a “true student”; to be respected by peers, he or she must learn to cooperate and to be friendly, among other things. There is risk involved in undertaking to achieve these skills and qualities, because there can be no guarantee in advance of success with them. If the child does succeed, he or she experiences the satisfaction of a job well done and of skills well learned; if not, the child risks feeling lasting inferiority compared to others. Teachers therefore have a very direct, explicit role in helping students to resolve this crisis in favor of industry or success. They can, for example, set realistic academic goals for students—ones that will probably lead to success—and then provide the materials and assistance that students need to reach the goals. Teachers can also frequently express their belief that students can meet their goals even when the students get discouraged, and avoid any hints (even accidental ones) that a student is simply a “loser.” Paradoxically, these strategies will work best if the teacher is also tolerant of less-than-perfect performance by students. Too much emphasis on perfection can undermine some students’ confidence—foster Erikson’s inferiority—by making academic goals seem beyond reach.

The Crisis of Adolescence: Identity and Role ConfusionEdit

As the child develops lasting talents and attitudes as a result of the crisis of industry, he begins to face a new question: what do all these talents and attitudes add up to be? Who is the “me” embedded in this profile of talents and attitudes? These questions are the crisis of identity and role confusion. It is riskier than it may first appear for a person simply to define himself or herself as identical to the profile of talents and attitudes developed in childhood. For one thing, some of them may be poorly developed and other may be undesirable in your eyes or in the eyes of others. Still others may be valuable but fail to be noticed by others in a person’s world. So who a person wants to be may not be the same as who he or she actually is, or the same as who others want the person to be. Role confusion is the result.

Teachers can minimize the risk and extent of confusion in a number of ways. One is to provide students with lots of diverse role models—by pointing them out in students’ reading materials, for example, and by inviting a diversity of guests to school. The point of these strategies is to express a key idea, that there are many ways to be respected, successful, and satisfied with life. Another way to support students’ identity development is to be alert to students’ confusions and stresses about their futures, and refer them to counselors or other services outside school that can help them sort these out. Still another strategy for teachers is to tolerate changes in students’ goals and priorities—seemingly sudden or drastic changes in extra-curricular activities or plans for after graduation. Remember, in these cases, that students are trying on roles, and that discouraging their experimentation prematurely may not be in students’ best interests.

The Crises of Adulthood: Intimacy, Generativity, and IntegrityEdit

Beyond the school years, according to Erikson, individuals continue psychosocial development through facing additional crises. The next one is faced by young adults, and is called the crisis of intimacy and isolation. It is about risking the establishment of close relationships with a select number of other individuals. Whether the relationships may be heterosexual, homosexual, or not sexual at all, their defining quality is their depth and sustainability. Without them, the individual risks feeling isolated. Assuming that a person resolves this crisis in favor of intimacy, he or she then faces a crisis about generativity and stagnation. This crisis is characteristic of middle-age in adulthood, and not surprisingly therefore is about caring for or making a contribution to society, and especially to its younger generation. It is about making life productive and creative—making it matter to others. An obvious way for some to achieve this feeling is by raising children, but there are many other ways as well to contribute to the welfare of others. The final crisis is about integrity and despair, and is characteristic of individuals as they approach the end of their lives. At this point a person is likely to review the past and ask whether it has been lived as well as possible, even if it was clearly not lived perfectly. Since a personal history can no longer be altered at the end of a person’s life, it is important to feel at peace with it and to forgive oneself and others for any apparent mistakes that have been made. The alternative is despair, or depression from believing that not only was one’s life lived badly, but also that there is no longer any hope of correcting or making up for past mistakes.

Even though Erikson conceives of these crises as primarily concerns of adulthood, there are hints of them during the school years. Intimacy, for example, is a concern of many children and youth in that they often desire, but do not always find close, lasting relationships with others (Beidel, 2005; Zimbardo & Radl, 1999).[3][4] Personal isolation is a particular risk for students with disabilities (as I discuss in Chapter 5: Students with Special Educational Needs, as well as for students whose cultural or racial backgrounds differ from classmates’ or the teacher’s (see Chapter 4: Student Diversity). Generativity—feeling helpful to others, and especially to the young—is needed not only by many adults, but also by many youngsters; when given the opportunity as part of their school program, they frequently welcome a chance to be of authentic service to others as part of their school programs (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kay, 2003).[5][6] And integrity—taking responsibility for your personal past, “warts and all”—is often a felt need for anyone, young or old, who has lived long enough to have past experiences to look back on. Even children and youth have a past in this sense, though their pasts are of course shorter than older persons’.

Abraham Maslow: A Hierarchy of Motives and NeedsEdit

Abraham Maslow formulated a theory that portrays personal needs or motives as a hierarchy, meaning that basic or “lower-level” needs have to be satisfied before higher-level needs become important or motivating (1976, 1987).[7][8] Compared to the stage models of Piaget and Erikson, Maslow’s hierarchy is only loosely “developmental.” Maslow was not especially concerned with tracking universal changes across long spans of time (like all of childhood or the entire lifespan). Like Piaget and Erikson, though, he was concerned with the sequence or order in which changes occur, regardless of a person’s age, and in particular in the sequence in which needs are felt as motivations. Like the theories of Piaget and Erikson, as well, Maslow’s is a rather broad “story,” one that has little to say about possible effects of a person’s culture, language, or economic level.

In its original version, Maslow’s theory distinguishes two types of needs, called deficit needs (or deficiency needs) and being needs (or growth needs). Figure 3-2 summarizes the two levels and their sublevels. The deficit needs are “prior” to the being needs, not in the developmental sense of happening earlier in life, but simply in the hierarchical sense that deficit needs must be satisfied first before being needs can be addressed. As I point out below, deficit needs can reappear at any age, in which case they must be satisfied again before a person’s attention can shift back to “higher” needs. Among students, in fact, deficit needs are likely to return chronically to those whose families lack economic or social resources or who live with the associated stresses of poverty (Payne, 2005).[9]

Deficit Needs: Getting the Basic Necessities of LifeEdit

Deficit needs are the basic requirements of physical and emotional well-being. The most basic are physiological needs—food, sleep, clothing, and the like. Without these, nothing else matters, and especially nothing very “elevated” or self-fulfilling. A student who is not getting enough to eat, for example, is not going to feel thirst for knowledge! Once physiological needs are met, however, safety and security needs become important. The person looks for stability and protection, and welcomes a bit of structure and limits in life. At this level, a person is less concerned with immediate physical survival and more focused on the fear that survival may not continue. In school, a student motivated by safety and security may appreciate a well-organized classroom that insures personal safety and predictability, even if the classroom provides little else.

After physiological and safety needs are met, love and belonging needs emerge. The person turns attention to making friends, being a friend, and cultivating positive personal relationships in general. In the classroom, a student at this level may seek more approval than usual from peers or teachers. They may be well provided for materially and find their classrooms and families safe enough, but still be missing a key ingredient in their lives, love. Assuming that such a student (or anyone else) eventually does find love and belonging, however, his or her motivation shifts again, this time to esteem needs. Now the concern is with gaining recognition and respect from others—and even more importantly, gaining self-respect. A student at this level of motivation may be unusually concerned with achievement, for example, though only if the achievement is visible or public enough to earn recognition from others.

Being Needs: Becoming the Best That You Can BeEdit

Being needs are the desire to become fulfilled as a person, or to be the best person that you can possibly be. They include cognitive needs (a desire for knowledge and understanding), aesthetic needs (an appreciation of beauty and order), and most importantly self-actualization needs (a desire for fulfillment of one’s potential). Such needs emerge only after all of a person’s deficit needs have been met, at least in large part. Unlike deficit needs, being needs beget more being needs; that is, they do not disappear once they are met, but create a desire for even more satisfaction of the same needs. A thirst for knowledge, for example, leads to further thirst for knowledge, and aesthetic appreciation leads to more aesthetic appreciation. Partly because being needs are lasting and permanent once they appear, Maslow sometimes treated them as less hierarchical than deficit needs, and instead grouped cognitive, aesthetic, and self-actualization needs into the single category self-actualization needs.

People who are motivated by self-actualization have a variety of positive qualities, and Maslow went to some lengths to identify and describe those individuals by analyzing information about them, both through published documents of their lives and through personal interviews and contacts[3]. Self-actualizing individuals, he argued, value deep personal relationships with others, but also value solitude; they have a sense of humor, but not one used against others; they accept themselves as well as others; they are spontaneous, humble, creative, and ethical. In short, the self-actualizing person has just about every good quality imaginable! Not surprisingly, therefore, Maslow felt that true self-actualization is rare, and especially infrequent among young people.

In a way this is discouraging news for teachers, who apparently must spend their lives providing as best they can for individuals—students—still immersed in deficit needs. Teachers, it seems, have little hope of ever witnessing fully fledged being needs, at least in their workplace. Taken a bit less literally, though, Maslow’s hierarchy can still be a useful for thinking about students’ motives clearly. Most teachers would argue that students—as young as they are—do sometimes display positive qualities similar to the ones described in Maslow’s self-actualizing person. However annoying students may sometimes be, there are also moments when they show care and respect for others, for example, as well as spontaneity, humility, or a sound ethical sense. This reality makes self-actualization an appropriate way to think about the best in students—their best motivations. At the same time, as I already mentioned, students frequently also show signs of various deficit needs. Keeping in mind the entire hierarchy outlined by Maslow can therefore make us more humane as professionals and more effective as classroom instructors.

Moral Development: Forming a Sense of Rights and ResponsibilitiesEdit

Morality is a system of beliefs about ethics, about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to the changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity....(read more...)


  1. Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
  2. Erikson, E. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton.
  3. Beidel, B. (2005). Childhood anxiety disorders. Oxford, UK: Brunner-Routledge.
  4. Zimbardo, P. & Radl, S. (1999). The shy child: Overcoming and preventing shyness from birth to adulthood. Cambridge, MA: Malor Books
  5. Eyler, J. & Giles, D. (1999). Where's the service learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Kay, C. (2003). The complete guide to service learning. New York: Free Spirit Publishing.
  7. Maslow, A. (1976). The further reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.
  8. Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. New York: Harper & Row.
  9. Payne, R. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: aha!Process, Inc.