How to Apply Erikson's Theory in Instruction


According to Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, each individual's psyche is shaped through a series of conflicts called developmental crises. Three of these crises occur during childhood and adolescence, which means that teachers who believe in Erikson's theory should focus on these crises to ensure that students develop healthy, fully realized identities. According to Erikson, the key crisis for children between the ages of three and six is "initiative vs. guilt." From six to twelve, the crisis is "industry vs. inferiority," and for teenagers, "identity vs. role confusion."

Initiative vs. Guilt

  • Give children the opportunity to make choices and act upon those choices. Because the crisis of initiative vs. guilt determines whether a child learns to plan activities on her own or comes to associate self-directed behavior with punishment, she must have the opportunity to make decisions. Provide a portion of the day when children can choose their own activities. Have a classroom library where children can pick their own books during reading time. This allows children the opportunity to learn how to make decisions for themselves.

  • Break instruction and activities down into small steps. This makes it easier for children to succeed and encourages them to take risks. Without this framework, children may become frustrated by activities and sense that they are doomed to complete them poorly.

  • Ensure that any competitive games or activities have well-balanced teams. If children consistently lose at math games, they may believe they are bad at math. Conversely, even a struggling student may feel confident in her mathematical abilities if her team performs well overall.

  • Accept mistakes that result from students attempting activities on their own. If a student damages something or makes a serious error, show him how to fix, clean or redo it instead of simply punishing him. This will make students feel more confident in their abilities to attempt activities on their own.

Industry vs. Inferiority

  • Allow students the opportunity to set realistic goals. Have them create academic and personal goals for each quarter and revisit those goals every few weeks to monitor their own progress. Break down each assignment into parts so the students can learn how to set time management goals. For instance, instead of collecting all parts of a project at once, collect a brainstorming worksheet on a certain date, a rough draft two weeks later and a final draft the next week. If a child successfully navigates the crisis of industry vs. inferiority, he will enter adolescence with a sense that hard work and perseverance will pay off. If not, he will feel that he is a helpless observer of his life.

  • Assign jobs to the students. Let them stack chairs, feed class pets, hand out and collect papers, take attendance sheets to the office and so on. Rotate these jobs regularly so all students have a chance to participate. This will give the students a sense of accomplishment.

  • Teach children study skills. Explain how to budget time and keep notebooks, binders and folders organized. If students fail at these organizational skills, their grades will suffer and they may feel that they are stupid or doomed to failure.

  • Provide regular feedback to students, particularly those who seem discouraged. Praise them for what they are doing right and give constructive criticism of what they are doing wrong. If your school has a program such as Student of the Month, choose students who have academic or behavioral issues but are making strong efforts at improvement as well as high achievers. This will show them that their efforts are paying off even if they are not making straight A's.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

  • Provide a variety of positive role models for students. Adolescence is a time of discovering one's own identity. A teenager who successfully navigates the crisis of identity vs. role confusion will be able to answer the question, "Who am I?" with confidence. Provide a series of role models to give students a potential identity model. Teach students about women and minorities who succeeded at a variety of careers, so all students have a role model to whom they can relate. Mention individuals who made lesser-known contributions to your academic discipline. A budding poet may feel more kinship with Eavan Boland than Emily Dickinson.

  • Provide models of exemplary work so students know what an excellent project looks like and can compare their own work to the model. This will show them how to incorporate academic success into their identities, essentially providing role models for their work instead of their career goals.

  • Provide opportunities for students to bring their own interests into projects and assessments, as they may feel these interests are vital parts of their identities. Allow students to choose between a variety of final projects -- skits, essays, art projects, music compositions, etc. -- so they can either choose a project that appeals to their interests or explore new aspects of their identities.

  • Criticize behaviors rather than making personal condemnations of the students themselves. Students are "trying on" roles at this point, and negative feedback for a behavior may encourage them to drop it and try another.

  • Explain the long-term consequences of misbehavior or poor performance so students will know how it affects themselves and others. This may encourage them to adopt a more responsible identity.

  • Encourage and support student interests. Attend school plays, concerts and games to affirm students' identities as actors, musicians and athletes.


  • "Educational Psychology: Ninth Edition"; Anita Woolfolk; 2004.
  • Photo Credit Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
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