Psychosocial Development in Middle to Late Childhood

Martha Lally; Suzanne Valentine-French; Julie Lazzara; Laura Overstreet; Alisa Beyer; Diana Lang; and Naomi H. Dan Karami

Erikson: Industry vs. Inferiority

According to Erikson, children in middle and late childhood are very busy or industrious.[1] They are constantly doing, planning, playing, getting together with friends, and achieving. This is a very active time, and a time when they are gaining a sense of how they measure up when compared with their peers. Erikson believed that if these industrious children can be successful in their endeavors, they will get a sense of confidence for future challenges. If not, a sense of inferiority may develop during middle and late childhood.


Self-concept refers to beliefs about general personal identity.[2] These beliefs include personal attributes, such as one’s age, physical characteristics, behaviors, and competencies. Children in middle and late childhood have a more realistic sense of self than do children in early childhood, and they better understand their strengths and weaknesses. This can be attributed to greater experience in comparing their own performance with that of others, and to greater cognitive flexibility. Children in middle and late childhood are also able to include other peoples’ appraisals of them into their self-concept, including parents, teachers, peers, culture, and media. Internalizing others’ appraisals and creating social comparison affect children’s self-esteemwhich is defined as an overall evaluation of one’s identity. Children can have individual assessments of how well they perform a variety of activities and also develop an overall global self-assessment. If there is a discrepancy between how children view themselves and what they consider as their ideal selves, their self-esteem can be negatively affected.

Photo of children playing at a violin recital.
Children developing self-efficacy while playing the violin. (Image Source: Stilfehler via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License).

Another important development in self- understanding is self-efficacy, which is the belief that you are capable of carrying out a specific task or of reaching a specific goal.[3][4][5] Large discrepancies between self-efficacy and ability can create motivational problems for the individual.[6] If students believe that they can solve mathematical problems, then they are more likely to attempt the mathematics homework that the teacher assigns. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. Students who believe that they are incapable of accurately completing math assignments are less likely to attempt their math homework regardless of their actual ability in math. Since self-efficacy is self-constructed, it is possible for students to miscalculate or misperceive their true skill, and these misperceptions can have complex effects on students’ motivations. It is possible to have either too much or too little self-efficacy, and according to Bandura[7] the optimum level seems to be either at, or slightly above, true ability.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Kohlberg[8] built on the work of Piaget and was interested in finding out how our moral reasoning changes as we get older. He wanted to find out how people decide what is right and wrong. Just as Piaget believed that children’s cognitive development follows specific patterns, Kohlberg[9] argued that we learn our moral values through active thinking and reasoning, and that moral development follows a series of stages. Kohlberg’s six stages are generally organized into three levels of moral reasons. To study moral development, Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas to children, teenagers, and adults, such as the following:

A man’s wife is dying of cancer and there is only one drug that can save her. The only place to get the drug is at the store of a pharmacist who is known to overcharge people for drugs. The man can only pay $1,000, but the pharmacist wants $2,000, and refuses to sell it to him for less, or to let him pay later. Desperate, the man later breaks into the pharmacy and steals the medicine. Should he have done that? Was it right or wrong?


Level One-Preconventional Morality

In stage one, moral reasoning is based on concepts of punishment. A child believes that if the consequence for an action is punishment, then the action was wrong. In the second stage, children base their thinking on self-interest and reward. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” The youngest children seemed to answer based on what would happen to the man because of the act. For example, they might say the man should not break into the pharmacy because the pharmacist might find him and hurt him. Or they might say that the man should break in and steal the drug and his wife will give him a big kiss. Right or wrong, both decisions were based on what would physically happen to the man because of the act. This is a self-centered approach to moral decision-making. Kohlberg called this most superficial understanding of right and wrong preconventional morality. Preconventional morality focuses on self-interestPunishment is avoided and rewards are sought. Adults can also fall into these stages, particularly when they are under pressure.

Level Two-Conventional Morality

Children who based their answers on what other people would think of the man as a result of his act, were placed in the Conventional Morality stage. For instance, they might say he should break into the store, and then everyone would think he was a good husband, or he should not because it is against the law. In either case, right and wrong are determined by what other people think. In stage three within conventional morality, the person wants to please others. At stage four, the person acknowledges the importance of social norms or laws and wants to be a good member of the group or society. A good decision is one that gains the approval of others or one that complies with the law. Kohlberg called this conventional morality, wherein people care about the effect of their actions on others. Some older children, adolescents, and adults use this reasoning.

Level Three-Postconventional Morality

Right and wrong are typically based on social contracts established for the good of everyone and that can transcend the self and social convention. For example, the man should break into the store because, even if it is against the law, his wife needs the drug and her life is more important than the consequences the man might face for breaking the law. Alternatively, the man should not violate the principle of the right of property because this rule is essential for social order. In either case, the person’s judgment goes beyond what happens to the self. It is based on a concern for others; for society as a whole, or for an ethical standard rather than a legal standard. This level is postconventional moral development because it goes beyond convention or what other people think to a higher, universal ethical principle of conduct that may or may not be reflected in the law. Notice that such thinking is similar to what Supreme Court justices do all day when deliberating whether a law is moral or ethical, which requires being able to think abstractly. Often this is not accomplished until a person reaches adolescence or adulthood. In the fifth stage (of postconventional moral development), laws are recognized as social contracts. The reasons for the laws, like justice, equality, and dignity, are used to evaluate decisions and interpret laws. In the sixth stage, individually determined universal ethical principles are weighed to make moral decisions. Kohlberg said that few people ever reach this stage. All six stages and three levels are shown in Table 2.

Table 2.: Lawrence Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Reasoning[11]


Moral Level


Young children- usually prior to age 9

Preconventional morality

Stage 1: Focus is on self-interest and punishment is avoided. The man shouldn’t steal the drug, as he may get caught and go to jail.

Stage 2: Rewards are sought. A person at this level will argue that the man should steal the drug because he does not want to lose his wife who takes care of him.

Older children, adolescents, and most adults

Conventional morality

Stage 3: Focus is on how situational outcomes impact others and wanting to please and be accepted. The man should steal the drug because that is what good husbands do.

Stage 4: People make decisions based on laws or formalized rules. The man should obey the law because stealing is a crime.

Rare with adolescents and few adults

Postconventional morality

Stage 5: Individuals employ abstract reasoning to justify behaviors The man should steal the drug because laws can be unjust and you have to consider the whole situation.

Stage 6: Moral behavior is based on self-chosen ethical principles. The man should steal the drug because life is more important than property.

Although research has supported Kohlberg’s idea that moral reasoning changes from an early emphasis on punishment and social rules and regulations to an emphasis on more general ethical principles, similar to Piaget’s approach, Kohlberg’s stage model is probably too simple. For one, people may use higher levels of reasoning for some types of problems, but revert to lower levels in situations where doing so is more consistent with their goals or beliefs.[12] Second, it has been argued that the stage model is particularly appropriate for Western, rather than non- Western, populations in which allegiance to social norms, such as respect for authority, may be particularly important.[13] In addition, there is frequently little correlation between how we score on the moral stages and how we behave in real life.

Perhaps the most important critique of Kohlberg’s theory is that it may describe the moral development of males better than it describes that of females. Gilligan[14] has argued that, because of differences in their socialization, many males tend to value principles of justice and rights, whereas many females tend to value caring for and helping others. Although there is little evidence for a gender difference in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development,[15] research has consistently shown that many females tend to focus more on issues of caring, helping, and connecting with others than do most males.[16]

Social Development in Middle and Late Childhood: Friends and Peers

Photo of teenage girls jumping.
Friends and peers are extremely important during this stage. (Image Source: Pixabay, CC 0)

Friendships typically take on new importance as judges of one’s worth, competence, and attractiveness in middle and late childhood. Friendships provide the opportunity for learning social skills, such as how to communicate with others and how to negotiate differences. Children get ideas from one another about how to perform certain tasks, how to gain popularity, what to wear or say, and how to act. This group of children tend to mark transitions from a life focused on the family to a life more concerned with peers. During middle and late childhood, peers increasingly play an important role. For example, peers play a key role in a child’s self-esteem at this age, as any parent who has tried to console a rejected child will tell you. No matter how complimentary and encouraging a caregiver may be, being rejected by peers is typically only remedied by renewed acceptance. Children’s conceptualization of what makes someone a “friend” changes from a more egocentric understanding to one based on mutual trust and commitment. Both Bigelow[17] and Selman[18] believe that these changes are linked to advances in cognitive development.

Most children want to be liked and accepted by their peers. Some popular children are nice and have good social skills. These popular-prosocial children tend to do well in school and are cooperative and friendlyPopular-antisocial children may gain popularity by acting tough or spreading rumors about others.[19] Children who are not accepted by their peers may be more likely to experience conflict, lack confidence, and have trouble adjusting.[20][21]


Photo of a sad boy sitting on the floor of a classroom.
Withdrawn children are often targets for bullies. (Image Source: Mikhail Nilov on Pexels, CC0)

According to, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Further, aggressive behavior happens more than once or has the potential to be repeated. There are different types of bullying, including verbal bullying, which is saying or writing mean things, teasing, name calling, taunting, threatening, or making inappropriate sexual comments. Social bullying, also referred to as relational bullying, involves spreading rumors, purposefully excluding someone from a group, or embarrassing someone on purpose. Physical Bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions.

A more recent form of bullying is Cyberbullying, which involves electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include sending mean text messages or emails, creating fake profiles, and posting embarrassing pictures, videos, or rumors on social networking sites. Children who experience cyberbullying have a harder time getting away from the behavior because it can occur at any time of day and without being in the presence of others. Additional concerns of cyberbullying include that messages and images can be posted anonymously, distributed quickly, and be difficult to trace or delete. Children who are cyberbullied are more likely to experience in-person bullying, be unwilling to attend school, receive poor grades, use alcohol and drugs, skip school, have lower self-esteem, and have more health problems.[22]

Bullying can happen to anyone, but some students are at an increased risk for being bullied including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) youth, those with disabilities, and those who are socially isolated. Additionally, those who are perceived as different, weak, less popular, overweight, or having low self-esteem, have a higher likelihood of being bullied.

Bullies are often thought of as having low self-esteem, and then bully others to feel better about themselves. Although this can occur, many bullies in fact have high levels of self-esteem. They possess considerable popularity and social power and have well-connected peer relationships. They do not lack self-esteem, and instead lack empathy for others. They like to dominate or be in charge of others.

Unfortunately, most children do not let adults know that they are being bullied. Some fear retaliation from the bully, while others are too embarrassed to ask for help. Those who are socially isolated may not know who to ask for help or believe that no one would care or assist them if they did ask for assistance. Consequently, it is important for parents and teachers to know the warning signs that may indicate a child is being bullied. These include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed possessions, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, declining school grades, not wanting to go to school, loss of friends, decreased self-esteem and/or self-destructive behaviors.


Emotional regulation tends to advance during middle childhood connecting to maturation in the prefrontal lobe. Middle childhood is a good time to develop more coping strategies due to the heightened development of cognitive thinking, interpersonal understanding, and complex problem solving when compared to their younger years.[23][24]

Many 7 to 10-year-olds are able to implement different coping strategies when they are upset. Many also have an awareness and understanding that they can have multiple emotions towards the same person.[25] As children gain more maturity, many become better able to appraise how well they can control emotions in stressful or upsetting events and generate multiple strategies to deal with their emotions.[26] Many learn to manage displaying their emotions (e.g., may feel upset but smile) and to determine if someone close to them has an emotional expression that is genuine or not. Most also become more aware of expectations for the display of emotions that may be culturally defined (e.g., when culturally acceptable to cry).[27] Children’s perspective-taking abilities and empathy skills tend to also increase during this stage.

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Individual and Family Development, Health, and Well-being Copyright © 2022 by Martha Lally; Suzanne Valentine-French; Julie Lazzara; Laura Overstreet; Alisa Beyer; Diana Lang; and Naomi H. Dan Karami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.