Know How a Child Sees the World

Everything you thought you knew about childhood development and then some…

According to the Child Development Institute, children go through distinct periods of development as they grow from infants to young adults. During each of these stages, multiple changes in the development of the brain are taking place. What occurs and approximately when these developments transpire are genetically determined. However, environmental circumstances and exchanges with key individuals within that environment have a significant influence on how each child benefits from each developmental event.

Here is a simplified guide that should come in handy for volunteers working with refugee children. Children around the world share similar stages in their development process, and refugee children have similar desires and needs as children in any other culture. Being aware of these stages should give you as a volunteer the confidence to help a child in almost any situation to grow and reach their full potential.

Understanding a child’s motivation and behavior, even in general terms, is a critical component of working with children and helps to protect both the volunteer as well as the child from mishaps. Developmental stages are another layer of complexity, in addition to the demands of the cultural and traumatic circumstances discussed elsewhere.

Some Behavioral and Cognitive Highlights

0-3 months

Reacts toward sounds, watches faces, coos, and babbles, develops sleep/wake times


5 years

Uses full sentences, tells stories, copies letters, tries solving problems, likely to agree with rules

4-7 months

Responds to others’ expressions, explores objects with hand and mouth


6-7 years

Reads short sentences, can draw, takes pride in mastering tasks, has more control of behavior

8-12 months

Imitates sounds and gestures, explores, pulls self up to stand, may walk briefly without help.


8-10 years

Reads well, does multiplications, shows unique personality, can solve conflicts, overcomes most disappointment

2 years

Says single words, follows simple instructions, points to objects, walks


11-14 years

May have mood swings, gets a sense of identity, has hobbies, overcomes failures, makes “best” friends



Uses four to five sentences, follows two or three-part instructions, can recognize and identify objects, draws lines, manages stairs, runs


15-18 years

Identity and self-worth formed beyond physical appearance, can handle anger, sets and achieves goals, accepts family rules, responsibilities, needs time for emotions and reasoning skills to align with rapid physical changes

4 years

Tells stories, knows some numbers and colors, copies shapes, balanced




You can also gain a working awareness by familiarizing yourself with the Psychosocial Theory of Development presented by Erik Erickson. He suggests that how we interact with others is what affects our sense of self. Specifically, each stage presents a crisis in a child’s development that needs to be handled successfully to achieve competence in areas such as hope, will, purpose, competency, and fidelity.

Below are Erickson’s first five stages, from birth to age eighteen, which encompass the definition of “child” by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. RAMP Foundation focuses on this age group. The website, Simple, discusses these stages, summarized below. You find more insights at

1. Trust vs. Mistrust

This stage begins at birth and continues to approximately eighteen months of age. During this stage, the child looks toward their primary caregiver for stability and consistency of care. If the care the infant receives is consistent, predictable, and reliable, they will develop a sense of trust which will carry with them to other relationships, and they will be able to feel secure even when threatened.
Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of hope. By developing a sense of trust, the infant can have hope that as new crises arise, there is a real possibility that other people will be there as a source of support.

2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

This stage occurs between the ages of eighteen months to approximately three years. According to Erikson, children at this stage are focused on developing a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence.
Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of will. If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.
If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not allowed to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lacking self-esteem and feeling a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.

3. Initiative vs. Guilt

Between the ages of three and five, children assert themselves more frequently through directing play and other social interactions. According to Bee (1992), it is a “time of vigor of action and of behaviors that the parents may see as aggressive.”
Central to this stage is play, as it provides children with the opportunity to explore their interpersonal skills through initiating activities. Children begin to plan activities, make up games, and initiate activities with others. If given this opportunity, children develop a sense of initiative and feel secure in their ability to lead others and make decisions.
Conversely, if this tendency is squelched, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt. It is at this stage that the child will begin to ask many questions as his thirst for knowledge grows. If the parents treat the child’s questions as trivial, a nuisance, or embarrassing, or other aspects of their behavior as threatening then the child may have feelings of guilt for “being a nuisance”.
A healthy balance between initiative and guilt is important. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of purpose, while failure results in a sense of guilt.

4. Industry vs. Inferiority

Erickson’s fourth stage concerns industry (competence) vs. inferiority and occurs between the ages of five and twelve. Teachers become an important source of specific skills and the child’s peer group will gain greater significance and will become a major source of the child’s self-esteem. The child now feels the need to win approval by demonstrating specific competencies that are valued by society and begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments.
Children need to be encouraged and reinforced for their initiatives, to begin to feel industrious (competent) and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If taking initiatives is not encouraged, and instead is restricted by parents or teachers, the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his or her abilities and therefore may not reach his or her potential.
Some failures may be necessary so that the child can develop some modesty. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of competence.

5. Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage occurs during adolescence, from about twelve to eighteen years. During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.
During adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood is most important. Children are becoming more independent, and begin to look at the future in terms of career, relationships, families, housing, etc. The individual wants to belong to a society and fit in.
It is a time when the child has to learn the roles he will occupy as an adult and will re-examine his identity and try to find out exactly who he or she is. By exploring possibilities, adolescents can begin to form their own identities. This multifaceted search should lead to a reintegrated sense of self. Failure to establish a sense of identity within society can lead to role confusion.
According to Erickson, success in this stage will lead to the virtue of fidelity. Fidelity involves being able to commit oneself to others based on accepting others, even when there may be ideological differences.