According to the text, moral development is a construct that describes the changes that occur during the development of views of justice, and right versus wrong. As one can imagine, moral development in children is both an intriguing and complex question, and there are theories that attempt to describe moral development and aggressive behaviors in children.
Piaget’s Stages of Moral Development
First, Piaget’s (1932) theory on moral development takes the view that this process occurs in stages. In the first stage, reached in early life, from the ages of 4 through 7, children are engaging in a moral thinking style called heteronomous morality. Children in this stage view rules as concrete and inflexible. For children in this developmental stage, there is only black and white when it comes to rules; there is only one way to play a game, and there is no flexibility. As children approach the ages of 7 to 10, they may move on to later stages of moral development. In this next stage, children are in the incipient cooperation stage, where they learn the formal rules of games, and they can play based on this shared understanding (as opposed to the earlier stage, where children may make up their own inflexible rules). Still, rules at this stage are not malleable. Next is the autonomous cooperation stage, a stage that most children reach around the age of 10 years of life. It is during this time that children understand that there is flexibility in rules, but only if all playing members agree to this new shared understanding. Overall, children in these early stages tend to view rules as rather concrete entities and they do not tend to consider intention. Furthermore, they believe in a concept referred to as immanent justice (which states that broken rules deserve immediate punishment). At this stage, children do not consider the severity or intention of transgressions.
In terms of support and criticisms for Piaget’s (1932) conceptualization, the text states that Piaget was generally correct in his assertion of the developmental stages; however, he underestimated the ages at which these important developmental tasks occur. Specifically, the textbook states that children as young as three years of age understand intentionality, and by four years of age, children can state that lying intentionally is bad behavior.
Social Learning Theory
In contrast to Piaget’s (1932) approach and conceptualization, social learning theory approaches focus more on the environment and pro-social behaviors. One of the basic foundations of social learning theory is that children receive positive reinforcement for acting in a just and moral manner (and this increases the chance of this behavior happening again over time). Interestingly, those who subscribe to this theory do not believe that every behavior needs to be reinforced for it to occur. Rather, children may see others receive praise for pro-social behaviors, and this makes them more likely to learn it via modeling. In this conceptualization, modeling sets the stage for a concept referred to as abstract modeling. This refers to the development of generalized and abstracted rules and principles that are typically paired with positive praise and reinforcement.
In stark contrast to both the behaviorally-based social learning theory, and Piaget’s (1932) developmental stages theory of moral development, a genetic approach to morality is discussed in the text. This theory posits that our moral behaviors may be partly genetically determined. Interestingly, the text mentions a study in which children were observed sharing versus saving stickers, and they found that the more selfish children were more likely to have a specific gene which plays a role in regulation of a hormone that is related to social behavior.
While many children will develop these pro-social behaviors, others may develop aggression, and the understanding of the development of this construct is also complex and equivocal. Aggression, as defined in the text, refers to the act of intentionally harming another person.
Social learning theory states that aggression occurs due to observation of aggressive behaviors, and prior learning. For instance, a child may see another child hit a friend in order to obtain a toy. Building on the famous Bobo doll study, in which children observed an adult hitting a Bobo doll, only to engage in this same behavior themselves, social learning theory relies on modeling and prior learning to explain the development of aggression.
In contrast, cognitive approaches to explain the development of aggression tend to focus on the environment, and the child’s interpretation of the behavior of others. For instance, a child may misinterpret a situation, and therefore act aggressively.
To target aggression from a cognitive perspective, this theory would argue that behavior modification can occur if children are taught to be an accurate interpreter of the situation. This may be undertaken by role playing various situations, taking perspectives, and developing empathy. If approaching childhood aggression from a social learning perspective, the teacher may wish to pursue one of two interventions, while simultaneously considering that children at this age are rather concrete in the developmental level, according to Piaget (1932). First, the teacher could praise pro-social and non-aggressive behaviors. According to social learning theory, this intervention should help those children who are engaging in the acts, and it should also help those who are observing the praise with the associated behavior. Next, the teacher may wish to be involved in a more systemic approach to helping preschool-age children who engage in aggressive behaviors. For instance, the teacher may wish to send home information on how to provide a safe environment for children, free from poor modeling behaviors. Information in this pamphlet may encourage parents to avoid allowing their children to watch aggressive behavior on television, in movies, or even in cartoons.
In order to adapt these three strategies for those in middle childhood, when children are at a stage of moral development in which they can take perspective, and think outside of the box, so to speak, the teacher will have to carefully consider the developmental level of the children. From a cognitive perspective, the intervention would remain very much the same. For instance, if a middle-school child feels that all other children are out to get him or her, cognitive restructuring and accurate appraisal should be encouraged. If this alone is not enough, it may be best to refer this child to a school guidance counselor or psychologist who can help him or her challenge these thoughts and learn coping skills to reduce anger and frustration in these situations. As for rewarding pro-social behavior and tailoring this intervention to middle-school children within the context of their developmental levels, it may be most helpful to continue to reward pro-social behaviors, as with younger students, but it may also be necessary to allow these older students to have a voice in terms of defining classroom rules. Because children at this age are becoming more flexible in their moral and ethical development, it may be important to voice their opinion and understanding of rules in order to promote rule-following behaviors and engagement.
In sum, there are numerous theories that attempt to explain both moral development and the development of aggression in children. While these theories posit different factors lead to these desired and undesired behaviors, there are interventions that can be deduced based on these theories.
- Feldman, R.S. (2016). Child development (7th ed). New York, NY: Pearson.
- Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan, Paul, trench, Trubner, & Co.