Periods of Human Development

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the basic periods of human development

Think about the lifespan and make a list of what you would consider the basic periods of development. How many periods or stages are on your list? Perhaps you have three: childhood, adulthood, and old age. Or maybe four: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Developmentalists often break the lifespan into eight stages:

  1. Prenatal Development
  2. Infancy and Toddlerhood
  3. Early Childhood
  4. Middle Childhood
  5. Adolescence
  6. Early Adulthood
  7. Middle Adulthood
  8. Late Adulthood

In addition, the topic of “Death and Dying” is usually addressed after late adulthood since overall, the likelihood of dying increases in later life (though individual and group variations exist). Death and dying will be the topic of our last module, though it is not necessarily a stage of development that occurs at a particular age.

The list of the periods of development reflects unique aspects of the various stages of childhood and adulthood that will be explored in this book, including physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes. So while both an 8-month-old and an 8-year-old are considered children, they have very different motor abilities, cognitive skills, and social relationships. Their nutritional needs are different, and their primary psychological concerns are also distinctive. The same is true of an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old, both considered adults. We will discover the distinctions between being 28 or 48 as well. But first, here is a brief overview of the stages.

Prenatal Development

image of tiny embryo depicting some development of arms and legs, as well as facial features starting to show.

Figure 1. An embryo at 8 weeks of development.

Conception occurs and development begins. There are three stages of prenatal development: germinal, embryonic, and fetal periods. All of the major structures of the body are forming and the health of the mother is of primary concern. There are various approaches to labor, delivery, and childbirth, with potential complications of pregnancy and delivery, as well as risks and complications with newborns, but also advances in tests, technology, and medicine. The influences of nature (e.g., genetics) and nurture (e.g., nutrition and teratogens, which are environmental factors during pregnancy that can lead to birth defects) are evident. Evolutionary psychology, along with studies of twins and adoptions, help us understand the interplay of factors and the relative influences of nature and nurture on human development.

Infancy and Toddlerhood

An infant baby with his toddler brother.

Figure 2. Major development happens during the first two years of life, as evidenced by this newborn baby and his toddler brother.

The first year and a half to two years of life are ones of dramatic growth and change. A newborn, with many involuntary reflexes and a keen sense of hearing but poor vision, is transformed into a walking, talking toddler within a relatively short period of time. Caregivers similarly transform their roles from those who manage feeding and sleep schedules to constantly moving guides and safety inspectors for mobile, energetic children. Brain development happens at a remarkable rate, as does physical growth and language development. Infants have their own temperaments and approaches to play. Interactions with primary caregivers (and others) undergo changes influenced by possible separation anxiety and the development of attachment styles. Social and cultural issues center around breastfeeding or formula-feeding, sleeping in cribs or in the bed with parents, toilet training, and whether or not to get vaccinations.

Early Childhood

Young girl smiling in a field of flowers.

Figure 3. Early childhood, or the preschool years, around ages 2-6, is filled with incredible amounts of growth and change.

Early childhood is also referred to as the preschool years, consisting of the years that follow toddlerhood and precede formal schooling, roughly from around ages 2 to 5 or 6. As a preschooler, the child is busy learning language (with amazing growth in vocabulary), is gaining a sense of self and greater independence, and is beginning to learn the workings of the physical world. This knowledge does not come quickly, however, and preschoolers may initially have interesting conceptions of size, time, space and distance, such as demonstrating how long something will take by holding out their two index fingers several inches apart. A toddler’s fierce determination to do something may give way to a four-year-old’s sense of guilt for doing something that brings the disapproval of others.

Middle Childhood

Two brothers smiling at the camera, around ages 8 and 11.

Figure 4. Middle childhood spans most of what is traditionally primary school, or the ages between 6-11.

The ages of 6-11 comprise middle childhood and much of what children experience at this age is connected to their involvement in the early grades of school. Now the world becomes one of learning and testing new academic skills and assessing one’s abilities and accomplishments by making comparisons between self and others. Schools participate in this process by comparing students and making these comparisons public through team sports, test scores, and other forms of recognition. The brain reaches its adult size around age seven, but it continues to develop. Growth rates slow down and children are able to refine their motor skills at this point in life. Children also begin to learn about social relationships beyond the family through interaction with friends and fellow students; same-sex friendships are particularly salient during this period.


Four teenagers having a conversation.

Figure 5. Adolescence, or the age roughly between 12-18, is marked by puberty and sexual maturation, accompanied by major socioemotional changes.

Adolescence is a period of dramatic physical change marked by an overall physical growth spurt and sexual maturation, known as puberty; timing may vary by gender, cohort, and culture. It is also a time of cognitive change as the adolescent begins to think of new possibilities and to consider abstract concepts such as love, fear, and freedom. Ironically, adolescents have a sense of invincibility that puts them at greater risk of dying from accidents or contracting sexually transmitted infections that can have lifelong consequences. Research on brain development helps us understand teen risk-taking and impulsive behavior. A major developmental task during adolescence involves establishing one’s own identity. Teens typically struggle to become more independent from their parents. Peers become more important, as teens strive for a sense of belonging and acceptance; mixed-sex peer groups become more common. New roles and responsibilities are explored, which may involve dating, driving, taking on a part-time job, and planning for future academics.

Early Adulthood

Three women in early adulthood sitting on a couch together, each with a laptop, and all three looking at something on one woman's screen.

Figure 6. Early adulthood, roughly ages 20-40, may be split into yet another category of “emerging adulthood,” as there are often profound differences between younger adults and those in their late 30s.

Late teens, twenties, and thirties are often thought of as early adulthood (students who are in their mid to late 30s may love to hear that they are young adults!). It is a time when we are at our physiological peak but are most at risk for involvement in violent crimes and substance abuse. It is a time of focusing on the future and putting a lot of energy into making choices that will help one earn the status of a full adult in the eyes of others. Love and work are the primary concerns at this stage of life. In recent decades, it has been noted (in the U.S. and other developed countries) that young adults are taking longer to “grow up.” They are waiting longer to move out of their parents’ homes, finish their formal education, take on work/careers, get married, and have children. One psychologist, Jeffrey Arnett, has proposed that there is a new stage of development after adolescence and before early adulthood, called “emerging adulthood,” from 18 to 25 (or even 29) when individuals are still exploring their identities and don’t quite feel like adults yet. Cohort, culture, time in history, the economy, and socioeconomic status may be key factors in when youth take on adult roles.

Middle Adulthood

Middle-aged adults after work at a pub

Figure 7. Middle adulthood spans the years between ages 40-65.

The late thirties (or age 40) through the mid-60s are referred to as middle adulthood. This is a period in which physiological aging that began earlier becomes more noticeable and a period at which many people are at their peak of productivity in love and work. It may be a period of gaining expertise in certain fields and being able to understand problems and find solutions with greater efficiency than before. It can also be a time of becoming more realistic about possibilities in life; of recognizing the difference between what is possible and what is likely. Referred to as the sandwich generation, middle-aged adults may be in the middle of taking care of their children and also taking care of their aging parents. While caring about others and the future, middle-aged adults may also be questioning their own mortality, goals, and commitments, though not necessarily experiencing a “mid-life crisis.”

Watch It: The UP Series

In 1964, researchers and filmmakers began a fascinating and landmark documentary series known as the UP Series. The UK-based World in Action team, inspired by the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” interviewed a diverse group of seven-year-old children from all over England. In the first film, called “Seven Up!,” they asked seven-year-old children about their lives, dreams, and fears for the future. Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, has returned to interview these individuals every seven years since then, at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, and finally at age 63. 

This video gives a nice overview of the series (through the lens of a film analysis about what makes it so successful and engaging). You can watch the Up Series on YouTube.

You can view the transcript for “Some Kind of Connection- the Up Series” here (opens in new window).

Late Adulthood

An older man.

Figure 8. Late adulthood is generally viewed as age 65 and older, but there are incredible variations in health and lifestyle between the “young old” and the “oldest old,” who may be well into their 100s.

This period of the lifespan, late adulthood, has increased in the last 100 years, particularly in industrialized countries, as average life expectancy has increased. Late adulthood covers a wide age range with a lot of variation, so it is helpful to divide it into categories such as the “young old” (65-74 years old), “old old” (75-84 years old), and “oldest old” (85+ years old). The young old are similar to middle-aged adults; possibly still working, married, relatively healthy, and active. The old old have some health problems and challenges with daily living activities; the oldest old are often frail and in need of long term care. However, many factors are involved and a better way to appreciate the diversity of older adults is to go beyond chronological age and examine whether a person is experiencing optimal aging (like the gentleman pictured in Figure 8 who is in very good health for his age and continues to have an active, stimulating life), normal aging (in which the changes are similar to most of those of the same age), or impaired aging (referring to someone who has more physical challenge and disease than others of the same age).

Death and Dying

A tombstone.

Figure 9. How people think about death, approach death, and cope with death vary depending on many factors. Photo Courtesy Robert Paul Young

The study of death and dying is seldom given the amount of coverage it deserves. Of course, there is a certain discomfort in thinking about death, but there is also a certain confidence and acceptance that can come from studying death and dying. Factors such as age, religion, and culture play important roles in attitudes and approaches to death and dying. There are different types of death: physiological, psychological, and social. The most common causes of death vary with age, gender, race, culture, and time in history. Dying and grieving are processes and may share certain stages of reactions to loss. There are interesting examples of cultural variations in death rituals, mourning, and grief. The concept of a “good death” is described as including personal choices and the involvement of loved ones throughout the process. Palliative care is an approach to maintain dying individuals’ comfort level, and hospice is a movement and practice that involves professional and volunteer care and loved ones. Controversy surrounds euthanasia (helping a person fulfill their wish to die)—active and passive types, as well as physician-assisted suicide, and legality varies within the United States. 

Try It

Think It Over

Think about your own development. Which period or stage of development are you in right now? Are you dealing with similar issues and experiencing comparable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development as described above? If not, why not? Are important aspects of development missing and if so, are they common for most of your cohort or unique to you?