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Like Piaget, Erik Erikson developed a theory of social development that relies on stages, except that Erikson thought of stages as a series of psychological or social crises—turning points in a person’s relationships and feelings about himself or herself (Erikson, 1963, 1980).
Each crisis consists of a dilemma or choice that carries both advantages and risks, but in which one choice or alternative is normally considered more desirable or “healthy”. How one crisis is resolved affects how later crises are resolved. The resolution also helps to create an individual’s developing personality.
Erikson proposed eight crises that extend from birth through old age; they are summarised in the table on the right.
Crises of infants and pre-schoolers: trust, autonomy, and initiative
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, regardless of whether their schedules are convenient for the caregiver (often the mother).
Unfortunately, though, a young infant is in no position to control or influence a mother’s care giving or scheduling needs; so the baby faces a dilemma about how much to trust or mistrust the mother’s helpfulness. It is as if the baby asks, “If I demand food (or sleep or a clean diaper) now, will my mother actually be able to help me meet this need?” Hopefully, between the two of them, mother and child resolve this choice in favour of the baby's trust: the mother proves herself at least “good enough” in her attentiveness, and the baby risks trusting mother's motivation and skill at care giving.
Almost as soon as this crisis is resolved, however, a new one develops over the issue of autonomy and shame. The child may now trust his or her caregiver, 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 these activities, however, self-care is risky at first—the toddler may feed (or toilet or dress) clumsily and ineffectively. The child’s caregiver risks overprotecting the child and criticizing his early efforts unnecessarily and thus causing the child to feel shame for even trying.
Hopefully, as with the earlier crisis of trust, the new crisis gets resolved in favour of autonomy through the combined efforts of the child to exercise autonomy and of the care giver 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 basic physical needs.
The child at a day care centre may now 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 themselves.
The child’s projects and desires create a new crisis of initiative and guilt, because the child soon realises that acting on impulses or desires can sometimes have negative effects on others—more blocks for the child may mean fewer for someone else.
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 that affects others' welfare. By limiting behaviour where necessary but not limiting internal feelings, the child can develop a lasting ability to take initiative. Expressed in Erikson’s terms, the crisis is then resolved in favour of initiative.
Even though only the last of these three crises overlaps with the school years, all three relate to issues faced by students of any age, and even by their teachers. A child or youth who is fundamentally mistrustful, for example, has a serious problem in coping with school life. As a student, it is essential for your long-term survival to believe that teachers and school officials have your best interests at heart, and that they are not imposing assignments or making rules, for example, “just for the heck of it.” Even though students are not infants any more, teachers function like Erikson’s caregiving parents in that they need to prove worthy of students’ trust through their initial flexibility and attentiveness.
Parallels from the classroom 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, even though not every choice or initiative may be practical or desirable. Teachers need to make true choices and initiatives possible, and refrain from criticising, even accidentally, a choice or intention behind an initiative even if the teacher privately believes that it is “bound to fail”.
Support for choices and initiative should be focused on providing resources and on guiding the student’s efforts toward more likely success. In these ways teachers function like parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers in Erikson’s theory of development, regardless of the age of their students.
The crisis of childhood: industry and inferiority
Once into formal schooling, the child is faced for the first time with becoming competent and worthy in the eyes of the world at large, or more precisely in the eyes of classmates and teachers. The child must develop skills that require effort that is sustained and somewhat focused. The challenge creates the crisis of industry and inferiority. To be respected by teachers, for example, the child must learn to read and to behave like a “true student”. To be respected by peers, he must learn to cooperate and to be friendly, among other things.
There are risks involved in working on these skills and qualities, because there can be no guarantee of success with them in advance. If the child does succeed, therefore, he experiences the satisfaction of a job well done and of skills well learned—a feeling that Erikson called industry. If not, however, the child risks feeling lasting inferiority compared to others.
Teachers therefore have a direct, explicit role in helping students to resolve this crisis in favour of industry or success. They can set realistic academic goals for students and then provide materials and assistance for students to reach their goals. Teachers can also express their confidence that students can in fact meet their goals if and when the students get discouraged, and avoid hinting (even accidentally) 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 confusion
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 the talents and attitudes add up to be? Who is the “me” embedded in this profile of qualities? These questions are the crisis of identity and role confusion. Defining identity is riskier than it may appear for a person simply because some talents and attitudes may be poorly developed, and some even may be undesirable in the eyes of others. Still others may be valuable but fail to be noticed by other people.
The result is that who a person wants to be may not be the same as who she is in actual fact, or the same as who other people want her to be. In Erikson's terms, role confusion is the result.
Teachers can minimise role confusion in a number of ways. One is to offer students lots of diverse role models— by identifying models in students’ reading materials, for example, or by inviting diverse guests to school. The point of these strategies would be 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 about their futures, and refer them to counsellors or other services outside school that can help sort these out. Still another strategy is to tolerate changes in students’ goals and priorities—sudden changes in extra-curricular activities or in personal plans after graduation. Since students are still trying roles out, discouraging experimentation may not be in students’ best interests.
The crises of adulthood: intimacy, generativity, and integrity
Beyond the school years, according to Erikson, individuals continue social development by facing additional crises.
Young adults face a crisis of intimacy and isolation. This crisis is about the risk of establishing close relationships with a select number of others. Whether the relationships are heterosexual, homosexual, or not sexual at all, their defining qualities are depth and sustainability. Without them, an individual risks feeling isolated.
Assuming that a person resolves this crisis in favour of intimacy, however, he then faces a crisis about generativity and stagnation. This crisis is characteristic of most of adulthood, and not surprisingly therefore is about caring for or making a contribution to society, and especially to its younger generation.
Generativity is about making life productive and creative so that it matters to others. One obvious way for some to achieve this feeling is by raising children, but there are also many other ways to contribute to the welfare of others. The alternative is stagnation which is self-absorption, and ceasing to be a productive member of society.
The final crisis is about integrity and despair, and is characteristically felt during the final years of life. At the end of life, a person is likely to review the past and to ask whether it has been lived as well as possible, even if it was clearly not lived perfectly. Since personal history can no longer be altered at the end of life, it is important to make peace with what actually happened and to forgive oneself and others for mistakes that may have been made.
The alternative to integrity is despair, or depression from believing not only that one’s life was lived badly, but also that there is no longer any hope of correcting past mistakes. Even though Erikson conceives of these crises as primarily concerns of adulthood, there are precursors 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, lasting relationships with others (Beidel, 2005; Zimbardo & Radl, 1999).
Personal isolation is a particular risk for students with disabilities, as well as for students whose cultural or racial backgrounds differ from classmates’ or the teacher’s.
Generativity—feeling helpful to others and to the young—is needed not only by many adults, but also by many children and youth; 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).
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 a past on which to look. Even children and youth have a past in this sense, though their pasts are of course shorter than persons who are older.