Learning Differences in School Children Based on Their Developmental Phases

One of the major factors in differentiating instruction is the development phase. The development phases are often likened to age groups, but studies and experience has shown that that is not entirely accurate. This is because individuals evolve at their own pace, and different areas of life may be developing at different pace as well.

Understanding the development phases in terms the of the age can be extremely helpful in understanding the child’s behavior and learning style.

Development Stages and Learning

Development Stages and Learning

From this chart we can see that depending on what is the ongoing development stage, the primary motivator changes. Primary motivator is that which child will naturally learn and is a new capability that requires exercising and practice.

As an example: if one is teaching a group of children of are group 11-18 years old, students have passed the concrete operations phase, and are ready to understand simple abstract concepts, build meaning for everything they encounter and are curious to put their attention to the things that are unknown. This curiosity to understand triggers lots of cognitive dis-equilibrium which can be understood as confusion. A teacher of this age group often is challenged by the students (who break all rules), knowledge is questioned and classes are perceived to be hard to control. The trick here is to understand that it is a normal and natural thing that is happening in the minds, bodies, hormones of the students and consequently in the classrooms. Besides understanding that it is normal, a talented teacher can be a classroom version of an Aikido master, redirecting all of that confused and curious energy towards the goals that the district has given to cover. As a result, the mutual trust and respect is built and learning happens. Students get support for the life phase they are going through so that they are ready for the next development phase where they can explore meaning of life and such things.

Anyone that has taught a class knows that not all in the age group are on the same development phase. Thus it is best to observe the children in the classroom and as part of their student profile, take notes on what development phase they most express their behavior and learning in. Then focus on planning the classes around that neurological and behavioral development. This will help students go through all of their development phases in natural order to them and helps them evolve into fully developed and integrated human beings.

To be more thorough, the development to fully developed individual related to maturation phases is supported by well accepted modern development theories (Piaget, Kohlberg, Gibbs, Loevinger)


Age Brain Maturation Cognitive Development (Piaget) Moral Development (Kohlberg) Moral and existential Development (Gibbs) Ego development (Loevinger) Primary Motivators
0-2 Neural Exuberance and Myelination of Sensory and Motor Areas (Behavior/senses) Sensori-motor Preconventional:
1st stage: Punishment and obedience
Moral Development
Stage 1: Centrations on salient features
E1 – Symbiotic
Biological Senses, hunger, thirst, arousal
2-7 Maximum Number of Connections (desire) Pre-operations 2nd stage: Instrumental purpose and exchange 2nd stage: Pragmatic exchanges E2 – Impulsive Behavioral Towards pleasure/avoid pain
7-11 Corpus callosum myelinates and pruning begins around age 10 (mind) Concrete Operations Conventional:
3rd stage: Interpersonal accord (college)
3rd stage: Ideal moral reciprocity
E3 – Self-Protective Social Role models, or group pressure
11-18 Prefrontal connections begin to myelinate at age 12, and pruning finishes at age 18 (Intellect) Formal Operations 4th stage: Societal accord and systems maintenance (college) 4th stage: Systems Conventional
E4 – Conformist
E5 – Self-Aware
E6 – Conscientious
Cognitive Attention, meaning, cognitive dis-equilibrium, curiosity
18-25 Prefrontal myelination finishes (Feeling and intuition) Post-Formal Operations Postconventional:
5th stage: Social contract (Highschool)
E7 – individualistic
E8 – Autonomous
Affective Feel good/bad, threat to security, meaning in  life
25 Experience continues to shape brain circuits throughout one’s life span. (Individual Ego) Post-Formal Operations 6th stage: universal ethical principles (Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela) Existential development phase: Philosophical reflection on ethics and purpose of life  E9 – Construct aware (Cook-Greuter) Conative Goals, control of life, will
Techniques such as meditation practices are needed to promote post-symbolic experiences  (Universal Ego) Post-Formal Operations E10 – Integrative or unitive Spiritual Understand purpose of life


For more on what motivates us to learn, read my paper on Neurophysiology of Development and Learning: Learning Motivators of School Children.



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