Developmental Theory

This information on developmental theory is an instructional tool created to fulfill course requirements for Child and Adolescent Development (CONG-550) at Wesley Seminary.

To varying degrees, all human beings are developmental theorists. They observe behavior, make hypotheses, observe more behavior, test the hypotheses to be true or untrue, and make conclusions. While the conclusions made may or may not be accurate (limited observational pool and other observable fallacies), they are definitely authoritative to the way humans live their lives. These conclusions are often the working theories humans operate out of.

According to Miller (1989), a theory is “is a set of interconnected statements…that describe unobservable structures, mechanisms, or processes and to relate them to each other and to observable events” (p. 3). Furthermore, “all these elements should meet certain requirements…logically sound, internally consistent, empirically sound, testable and parsimonious” (Miller, 1989, p. 4). In other words, a theory is the result of a postulation of certain behavior and explaining said behavior accurately over time. Theories are humanity’s working assumptions that seek to explain what we see, experience, and know to be true and accurate.

Theories breed more theories. The actual practice of theorizing—making a hypothesis, observing behavior, making some observational conclusions over time, and organizing those observations into working theories—propels more ideas for further research and hypothesis. Additionally, theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are interrelated to other theories and must work together to form a broad description of the case of study—in this case human development. Perhaps it could be said that many informal theories, loosely held, will eventually form a particularly powerful and cohesive formal theory about the nature of human development.

It is understood that developmental theory is informal and experimental. It is understood that the process of faith formation is also somewhat informal and experimental. At the very least, faith formation is unique to each individual and group. In other words, faith formation is human. We have seen that a formal theory of developmental processes is still a long ways off (if at all every attainable). Why? Because the process is inherently human and entirely dependent upon humans to deduce. Contrasted with the hard sciences like chemistry and physics, developmental psychology is intrinsically human. Additionally, faith formation in action is the work of the Spirit of God amidst a human environment.


The theory of cognitive development from Jean Piaget.


The theory of moral development from Lawrence Kohlberg.


The theory of faith development from James Fowler.


The theory of psycho-social development from Erik Erikson.


Crain, W. (2000). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Elkind, D. (1998). All grown up and no place to go: Teenagers in crisis. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Estep, J. R. & Kim, J. H. (2010). Christian formation: Integrating theology & human development. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Miller, P. H. (1989). Theories of developmental psychology. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Patty, S. (1997). A developmental framework for doing youth ministry. In R. R. Dunn & M. H. Senter III (Eds.), Reaching a generation for christ (pp. 69-86). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Santrock, J. W. (1998). Adolescence (7th ed). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Seifert, K. L. & Hoofnung, R. J. (1994). Children and adolescent development (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Wilhoit, J. C. & Dettoni, J. M. (1995). Nurture that is christian: Developmental perspectives on christian education. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.