Erik Erikson: Lessons Learned

For Theories on Thursday, I only write about theories we can put into practice the next day.  Or for my 6 a.m readers, put into practice that day.  I am a practical person as I described in yesterday's post.  I need as much time as possible to teach and plan lessons, parent the way I like to parent and do the 30 day Shred.  Yep, I am on my way to being shredded.

Today's theorist, Erik Erikson, is just my cup of....smoothie.  His eight stages of psychoemotional development is easy to understand and apply to students.  I will spare you a lengthy discussion of the eight stages as 1) if you are a teacher, you have studied all eight before in your Educational Psychology  or human development class and 2) You can read Wikipedia for yourself if you are not an educator or cannot remember Erikson.  Yep, I just hyperlinked to Wikipedia.  Take that!

By the way, if you are one of my current Educational Psychology students, our textbook author, R. Slavin, does a bang up, superb job discussing Erikson's eight stages.  You can by-pass Wikipedia.

Here, however, is what I want to emphasize today with regard to Erikson.
  • Erikson's eight stages are stepping stones - one to another.  Thus, if a student gets stuck in one stage or doesn't quite make it out of a stage unscathed - which is more likely - expect some disequilibrium to arise.  Read this post if you are unfamiliar with Piaget's disequilibrium.
  • From my armchair, bullies didn't make it out of Erikson's initial stages.  Though I dislike bullying and bullies, we, as educators, need to be sensitive to our bullies as they have major (self-improvement) work to do as they are the definition of scathed and disequilibrium; They just like to mask it by picking on others and having faux-control.
  • Students need our help and guidance to navigate through a stage.  How to do this:  Identify which stage(s) your students are in and create opportunities to help them master and balance the qualities of that stage.
    • For example, if you are working with high school students who are typically in Erikson's Identity v. Role Confusion stage, design lessons, activities and/or assignments that allow students to explore their identity in structured ways.  They can compare themselves to a science concept.  A metaphor like Captain-crew-cargo.  Write an essay comparing themselves to a character in a novel. Or design their own life soundtrack.  Plenty of structured ways.
  • Since one of the earliest stages in Erikson's eight is Autonomy v. Doubt, provide as much student choice as you can - at any grade level - without overwhelming students.  I do this all the time as a mom with little O.   "Do you want a vanilla yogurt or strawberry?"  "Do you want to take a bath or a shower?"  "Do you want to wear pants or a skirt today?"  A small menu of choices.  Offered succinctly.  Special tip:  Make sure the choices you offer sit well with you before offering them.  For example, if I really don't want little O to take a bath because she is muddy, I don't offer that choice as an option.  If you really don't want a student to work with a partner, don't offer that choice as an option.  You must be OK with the options.  "Do you want to write an essay or create a glog?"  See?  
  • For your own teacher fun, think about which stage of Erikson you are currently in and if any waves of disequilibrium have risen.  Some writers believe the only way to embrace a concept or theory is to apply it to yourself.
Alright, off I go to contemplate my own stage of development.  If you have other practical ways you like to apply Erikson's (useful) work, please leave your ideas in the comments section below. 

Happily in Stage 7, I believe,


  1. I like Erikson's stages and they are clearly identifiable with students, but sometimes I've noticed students are way off from where age wise they should be. Then again I notice this more with special education students. It's intriguing how one student who is labeled to have social problems can be in so many stages, at this point in time how do you identify with students that are mostly on the same level, while identifying with the ones all over the board?
    Intrigued at Stage 7. Lucy A

  2. What an interesting point you made about bullies. During my fieldwork for EDU 211, I observed a young man who kept picking-on one of his classmates. This student seemed bored by the material being taught and found any excuse to get up from his desk. Most of the time when he was up from his desk he would find a way to bother his classmate. I wonder if this student, being that he was 12 or 13 years old, might not have made it out of Erickson's stage of Industry vs Inferiority. It was my understanding that he required extra help with most school work; maybe he bullies his classmate because he feels he's failure due to needing extra help with his school work.
    Patricia L

  3. I believe this to be such a critical theory to understand as both a teacher and a parent. Understanding and utilizing this theory is what makes intentional teachers. This theory is a great piece of successful pedagogy, "surveying the makeup of the students".

  4. It is important to always remember that bullies are bullies because they are masking their own insecurities. In the elementary school many students are in the "Industry vs. Inferiority" phase, asking themselves "Am I good". If a child feels inadequate, or not good, they begin to do things to gain attention. As educators we need to remember that these children are in need of something and we need to help them understand what that is.

    Meredith L.

  5. While I like Erikson's stages, and find them interesting, when trying to identify parts of my life with each stage, I am unable. I think the stages are too limiting and there is always going to be overlap-whether it is a transition stage or maybe a person performs differently on different stages of the theory depending on their surroundings. For example, children behave much differently with their friemds as opposed to their family. More autonmous with friends I think, and go back a stage with family- or wait, maybe I as a parent am just not facilitating the growth in each stage well enough>????

  6. Eriksonian dyads (yuck!)

    (Sorry, Jen, in advance)

    I like Erikson sui generis, but I find his use of either-or (dyadic) logic far too constraining. It's almost as if the learner has to "choose" beforehand a strong disjunction before (s)he moves on in life-stages...

    Also, what if we FAIL the lesson learned at a specific stage. We are DOOMED, or so it appears to me. If the negative part of the dyad is achieved--as opposed to the one that lets us move on--, then we are done for.

    Sorry, but sometimes, Erikson is far too Aristotelian for my taste. Aristotle's psychology is based on his teleological biology; TELOS means "goal" or "end" in Greek. If we learners don't make the goal, then we are done for...


    I like Adler better; he had the "acorn theory," in which trauma acts as the impetus for new growth!


    John H, shrink in training

  7. Amen,Kristin!

    Again, sorry, Jen...

    Kristin, imho, is right. (See her comment above my own on Eriksonian dyads)

    In my experience as a teacher and philosopher I find static categorization (like the dyads) quite resistant to the vicissitudes of experience. Kristin is implying here that the dyads are too constraining.

    In my view, they are downright fatalistic.

    John H

  8. Response to Meredith (Dec. 9th)

    Perhaps the use of teh Eriksonian model may not allow us to completely handle the variability of experience that children bring to table.

    If a child fails in choosing/accomplishing the "correct" Eriksonian stage, then...

    So what? How is the failure to choose completely fatalistic and irrevocable?! GIVE THE KID ANOTHER CHANCE!!


    If we a prioristically assign the kid a Eriksonian interpretation as per his/her growth as per stages, we get to ignore the child's dynamism in light of a theoretical categorization!


    We cease to grow as educators in relation to said child--because Dr. Erikson has all the answers.

    No way, uh-uh.

    The day I turn over my mind to a pre-theoretical conceptual schema for the assessment of a child is the day I tear down my shingle...

    John H

  9. This is my favorite theorist! I believe that most of the emotional/behavioral disorders stem from this theory. I think we can into the history of special education to see that. In the early days the method was to lock the children away and forget about them so they could not thrive. Most children can/want to learn even with a special need. I feel since the IDEA we have gotten to see that despite a child's need with the right nurture, they can be successful in learning. We should welcome differences not tolerate them. Who are we if we cannot over come challenges?!?!?!

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