5 Stages of Child Development: What You Need to Know

From tiny newborns to school-age children, the stages of development tell parents about child development and exactly what to expect. In unraveling the intricacies of child development, we delve into the stages that lay the foundation for a child’s physical, social, and cognitive capacities. When I look at the first steps, physical activities, and language skills that characterize these stages, it becomes evident that children’s development is a multifaceted journey, influenced by various factors. So, let’s take a comprehensive exploration of a child’s growth, including social development, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and the role of early experiences in shaping their developmental path.

As a parent or caregiver to a child, understanding child development can be unnecessarily complicated. You hear one thing from the pediatrician, something similar but a little different from the teacher or daycare provider, and many personal recommendations from fellow parents who mean well but may be sharing what works best for them as what should be done for all kids. As a school psychologist who frequently works with children and their families, I make it my priority demystify all things development, learning and behavior with two steps: educating parents so that they know what to expect (from a scientific, research-backed perspective) and empowering their understanding of the stages shaping their child’s growth and encouraging them to determine what the next best step is for them and their child(ren).

In this post, with a professional lens, we unravel the complexities of child development, focusing on stages that intricately mold a child’s physical, social, and cognitive capacities. Analyzing the nuances of first steps, physical activities, and language skills within these stages reveals the multifaceted nature of children’s development, influenced by a spectrum of factors. So, let’s dive in.

What is child development?

The definition of the word development is “the process of developing or being developed”. I like to explain the stages of development as stages for growth, as certain difficulties that your child may experience now, such as a developmental delay or difficulty with communication skills, may not always exist as they grow into various skillsets.

Child development is the process of assembling a child’s physical development, social and emotional functioning, and cognitive capacity. When talking to parents about child development, I often ask them to think about it as a symphony. The integration of physical, social, and cognitive “notes” creates harmony and those notes also lead to a well-rounded musical composition (also known as a child’s abilities or capabilities).

There are five stages of child development that will occur while your child is in your care. What your child experiences (and what they need) in their early years is not going to be the same as what they experience and need when they are school age, 

Many aspects of childrearing during these critical stages serve as the foundation of your child’s remaining years of life. As we go through these stages of development I want you to keep this in mind.

The Newborn Stage

The newborn stage, which is widely considered to comprise the first two months of life for your little one, is one of the most important child development stages.

Some of the things that newborns can do include seeing close up objects, making various head movements, and responding to or turning towards different sounds. This phase is often characterized by making all of the adjustments to having a baby (or a new baby) and for that reason, parents often find that this stage typically goes by very quickly. By the time you get the hang of meeting the baby’s needs and starting to meet their own again (like showering and sleeping), you’re on to the stage.

The Infant Stage

Early experiences in this phase can shape so much in a child’s future. This stage encompasses 2 months of life through 1 year old. Some of the developmental milestones you may see during this stage include:

  1. Starting to recognize familiar faces, like those of parents, siblings, and other close loved ones
  2. Being able to sit without support
  3. Recognizing their name

That wraps up the very first year! Next up is the toddler stage.

The Toddler Stage

Physical growth happens drastically; At the toddler stage, kids are between 1 and 3 years of age. This is the stage during which Skills that typically emerge during this stage include:

  1. Waving goodbye
  2. Learning to say several words
  3. Being able to stand independently
  4. Taking first steps and walking without help
  5. Drinking from an open cup (with far fewer accidents or spills than before)

They may even start to follow simple instructions and say short sentences. This is also the stage where a very important milestone comes into play: socializing! Your child may connect with other children their own age when in social spaces or join them in play, demonstrating the emergence of social skills. They may also show signs of trying to learn how to identify and process emotions in ways like looking to you to see how you react to a situation that they haven’t encountered before.

The Preschool Stage

Young children are in this stage when they are 3-5 years of age. By this point in your parenting journey, you’ve seen your child learn and master many new things and you’ve also likely seen some pretty rapid growth in the fine tuning or development of different skills, one of those being their motor skills (or physical child development). They may demonstrate their gross motor skills by kicking and throwing a ball, skipping, hopping, and being able to dress themselves. Dressing themselves is also an area in which fine motor skills may be fine tuned, such as buttoning buttons or zipping zippers.

Once you get to the end of this stage, the truest early years are officially over.

The School-Age Stage

The fifth stage is my personal favorite! I get to assess, coach, and work with the families of school-age children all the time and love every single minute of it. There are so many changes that occur in this stage because it spans such a large age range (6 to 12 years of age). During this stage, you see major advancements in cognitive skills and cognitive development overall. You also get a front row seat to some pretty significant growth spurts in emotional development. 

Some new skills you may see emerging for the first time include:

  1. The ability to identify complex emotions
  2. Increased language development and acquisition, usually demonstrated through well-developed and complex sentences
  3. The ability to form really meaningful friendships
  4. The emergence of personality in the truest sense when adolescence is on the horizon

What are developmental milestones?

We’ve talked a lot about a child’s developmental stages and listed some of the skills that you can expect to notice during that phase. These skills are actually called developmental milestones and they are abilities, based on research, that a child is expected to acquire by a certain age. As explained above, there are five main stages of child development; each stage has several developmental milestones associated with it.

Child developmental milestones can be defined as particular abilities a child is expected to acquire by a certain age group, such as walking for the first time, developing a sense of empathy, and many more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies child development milestones into four large categories: social/emotional milestones, cognitive milestones, language/communication milestones, and movement/physical development milestones.

Helpful Guidelines for Monitoring Child Development

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended developmental screenings at a few different early months of age: the 9th month, the 18th month, and the 30th month. The goal of this monitoring is to improve the early identification of any developmental disorders or developmental disabilities so that you can get help as early as possible. As a school psychologist, I can say without question that a solid early intervention program plays a significant role in overall progress. The students who tend to get the earliest intervention services tend to experience the most growth.

There are so many things for parents to pay attention to and track as their children develop and developmental milestones are one set of things to add to the list. But the nice thing about this is that you can get help with the monitoring. You can consult with your trusted medical professional (your child’s doctor or pediatrician and developmental specialists). You can also consult them regarding the best ways to facilitate your child’s growth in different stages of their development. These are also the kinds of people you would want to reach out to for a developmental screening to identify any potential developmental issues, and to track your child’s progress. If needed, they can point you in the direction of trusted professionals who provide occupational therapy, speech therapy, and other supportive services for overall development.

Every child develops at their own pace and not meeting a developmental milestone at the appropriate stage of development does not mean that there’s a serious or long term issue. For some kids, their actual stages of growth come after the typical developmental milestones, and that’s okay! Just like so many things factor into developmental delays or issues, so many things contribute to the positive outcomes of healthy development and ultimately a child’s ability to grow, like strong parent-child bonds, secure attachment, social interaction, and a healthy external environment.

TL;DR: A Comprehensive Guide to Your Child’s Five Developmental Stages

As I bring this to a close, I invite you to stand empowered as the guide for your child’s journey. I like to remind parents that I may be the subject-matter expert, but you are always the expert on your child and you have plenty of opportunities to sharpen your expertise. My job is not just about providing information. I’s about arming you with the knowledge to decipher the stages, milestones, and intricacies that define your child’s development so that you can parent with confidence.

Understanding child development doesn’t have to be a puzzle with mismatched pieces from various sources. Instead, let what I shared here be your roadmap. From the newborn’s first gaze to the school-age child’s complex emotions, each stage is a chapter in a unique story. As a parent or caregiver, you hold the reins to decode these stages and determine the next best steps for your child.

Again, developmental milestones are not one-size-fits-all, and the journey might unfold at its own pace. Embrace the strengths of strong parent-child bonds, secure attachment, social interaction, and a healthy environment. Should you need guidance, do not hesitate to consult with trusted medical professionals. They are your allies in understanding and facilitating your child’s growth.

Remember, every child’s journey is as unique as they are, and your role as a knowledgeable and caring parent is one of the most (if not the most) important pieces of the puzzle.

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