Age and developmental stages

Whenever we engage with a child or young person we need to consider their developmental age. We want all children and young people to reach their full potential, and keeping an eye on their development and providing support that will help them meet their milestones is vital.

This resource provides social workers with a quick guide to the age and developmental stages of children and young people and ideas about how to interact with them to aid your understanding of their development. Remember that all children and young people will vary in their individual development, and the impact of trauma and abuse can have a significant impact on typical developmental pathways. Also keep in mind that:

  • development does not occur in a straight line or evenly
  • the pace of development occurs more rapidly in the very early years than at any other time in life
  • the achievement of specific developmental milestones depends very much on the opportunities the child or young person has to practice them and on the experiences available to them
  • developmental delays in one area will impact the development in others
  • general health affects development and behaviour - minor illnesses will have short to medium-term effects, chronic ill-health can have long-term effects, and nutritional deficiencies impact negatively on developmental progression (Department of Human Services, 2007).

If you or the parent/caregiver has concerns about the child or young person's progress, seek professional advice.

0-5 months

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage

0-2 weeks:

  • Unable to support head unaided
  • Hands close involuntarily in the grasp reflect
  • Startles at sudden loud noises
  • Anticipates relationship with caregivers through facial expression, gazing, fussing, crying
  • Reflexively asks for a break by looking away, arching back, frowning, crying

By 4 weeks:

  • Focuses on a face
  • Follows an object
  • Changes vocalisation to communicate hunger, boredom, tiredness

By 6-8 weeks:

  • Participates in and initiates interactions with caregivers through vocalisation, eye contact, fussing and crying
  • May start to smile at familiar face
  • May start to ‘coo’
  • Turns in the direction of a voice

By 3-5 months:

  • Lifts head and chest when lying on stomach
  • Follows a moving object or person
  • Can wave a rattle, may reach for things and try to hold them
  • Smiles back at people, laughs out loud, and makes cooing or babbling noises
  • Begins to regulate emotions and self soothe
  • Cries in different ways to tell their caregiver what they need
  • Notices strangers
  • Observe developmental tasks and relationships with others
  • Comfort the baby by talking in a soft and soothing voice
  • Discuss with the caregiver the baby’s schedule, response to caregivers, and any medical or emotional concerns.

By 6 months

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Holds head up
  • Looks around and searches for sounds
  • Pushes up on hands and knees
  • Recognises familiar faces and smiles
  • Is likely to be wary of strangers
  • Coos, giggles and makes lots of sounds                                            
  • Rolls from back to stomach
  • Sits without support
  • Observe developmental tasks and relationships with others
  • Look at colourful books
  • Rock, hold and cuddle
  • Talk to the baby and play with them
  • Discuss with the caregiver the baby's schedule, response to caregivers, and any medical or emotional concerns

By 9 months

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • May be able to bottom shuffle, crawl, stand
  • Recognises and looks for familiar people
  • Likely to be wary of strangers
  • Watches reactions to emotions, starts to recognise and imitate happy, sad, excited or fearful emotions     
  • Works to get to a toy out of reach
  • Lets you know when help is wanted with facial expressions, gestures and sounds
  • Develops object permanence (knows that objects exist even when they aren’t visible)
  • Waves goodbye
  • Observe developmental tasks and relationships with others
  • Play simple games like Peek-a-boo
  • Sing and read to the baby
  • Help them stand up
  • Discuss with the caregiver the baby’s schedule, response to caregivers, and any medical or emotional concerns

By 12 months

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Seeks comfort and reassurance from familiar objects and people
  • Begins to self soothe when distressed
  • Pulls up to a standing position, stands alone holding onto furniture, “cruises” around furniture holding on
  • Picks up objects using thumb and forefinger
  • Begins to learn what they shouldn’t do by responding to a firm but quiet “no”
  • Expresses feelings with gestures, sounds and facial expressions
  • Dances or bounces to music, claps hands
  • Responds to name
  • Observe developmental tasks and realtionships with others
  • Play, sing, talk, read to baby
  • Hold them or help them walk by supporting with both hands
  • Teach them simple hand play e.g. patty cake
  • Discuss with caregivers the baby’s schedule, response to caregivers and any medical or emotional concerns

By 18 months

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Walks, runs, climbs up and down on things
  • Responds with frustration when they can’t do something
  • Can use at least two words
  • Says “no” a lot
  • Clings to caregiver in new situations
  • Basic motor development: feeds self with spoon, stacks blocks, etc                                                
  • Observe developmental tasks and relationships with others
  • Play, sing, talk, read to the baby
  • Recite a poem with simple hand plays or body motions
  • Teach simple songs e.g. row, row, row your boat
  • Discuss with caregivers the baby’s schedule, response to caregivers and any medical or emotional concerns

2-4 years

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Develops impulse control
  • Uses up to 50 (or more) words, communicates in simple sentences
  • Helps with simple household chores
  • Participates in imitation/fantasy play
  • Large motor development
  • Small motor coordination (e.g. holds crayons with fingers, not fists)                                      
  • Develops a sense of time
  • Asserts preferences
  • Developing a conscience
  • Observe developmental tasks and relationships with others
  • Read picture books
  • Play word games
  • Talk about everyday things
  • Take a walk, go to the part
  • Draw together, play with toys
  • Discuss events in terms of “after breakfast” or “before lunch”
  • Discuss with caregivers the baby’s schedule, response to caregivers and any medical or emotional concerns

5-7 years

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Gender identification
  • Develops ability to problem solve
  • Understanding concept of rules
  • Very active but may tire easily
  • Becoming increasingly proficient in skills, games, sports
  • Needs rest periods – quiet activities such as reading books together or doing simple art projects
  • Likes to talk and is rapidly increasing their vocabulary
  • Has difficulty making decisions
  • Anxious to please and gain adult approval and praise
  • Reassured by predictable routines
  • Able to share, although not all of the time
  • Friendships very important
  • Emerging literacy and numeracy abilities
  • Discuss relationships with others
  • Be open to discuss boy/girl similaries and differences, gender roles, read books about heroes and heroines together
  • Discuss rules and consequences
  • Encourage choices in everything
  • Point out cause/effect
  • Play simple games e.g. snakes and ladders
  • Discuss friends and school/social activities
  • Begin life story book

8-12 years

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Large and fine motor skills becoming highly coordinated
  • Does well at games/sports requiring skill, strength and agility
  • Belonging to a peer group is very important
  • Develops self-awareness
  • Preparation for puberty
  • Capable of prolonged interest
  • Wants more independence while knowing they need guidance and support
  • Beginning to think and reason in a logical way
  • Shows interest in people, awareness of differences, a willingness to give more to others but also to expect more
  • Often idolizes heroes, movie/television stars and sports figures
  • Spends a great deal of time in talk and discussion, eager to answer questions
  • Discuss developmental tasks and relationships
  • Help with homework, practice sports, show support in interests, observe at school and at play                                   
  • Involve peer in visit activities
  • Attend team activities with child
  • Provide feedback
  • Discuss physical changes expected, answer questions openly
  • Discuss their plan, care situation, their wishes

13-17 years

Stage/age developmental taskWhen you engage
  • Significant physical growth and body changes
  • Begins abstract thinking
  • Becomes independent of parents/caregivers
  • Changes in peer group associations, separation from family
  • Experiences emotional turmoil, strong feelings and unpredictable mood swings                     
  • Has more interest in current events and social issues
  • Loves to argue and can begin to see more than one side of an issue
  • Feels challenged rather than defeated by reasonably hard work
  • Tends to be a perfectionist; if they attempt too much they may feel frustrated
  • Can be both playful and serious
  • May have bad diet and sleep habits and, as a result, low energy levels
  • Enjoys testing limits; may exhibit a ‘know-it-all’ attitude
  • Is very concerned with what others say and think about them
  • Understands appropriate behaviour but may lack self-control/insight
  • Discuss attention to personal appearance, provide information
  • Discuss choice and decision-making skills
  • Plan and discuss the future
  • Talk about politics and religious ideas
  • Discuss their plan, care situation, their wishes
  • Discuss plans for driving
  • Transport to peer activities, discuss peer relationships
  • Possible therapeutic or wellbeing needs
  • Encourage independence by activities directed at planning for post-secondary education or training, applying for jobs, etc
  • Discuss lifelong connections with caring adults

The impact of trauma on development

Neurodevelopment and psychosocial development are affected by early (and ongoing) abuse and neglect. A child or young person who has suffered serious neglect from birth will likely not develop in the same way as a child who hasn’t. The children and young people that Child, Youth and Family work with are the most vulnerable children and young people in New Zealand, and have likely suffered significant harm or trauma in their short lifetimes. As a result, we can’t measure their development against ‘expected’ milestones until we have considered the following points and understood more about the impact of trauma on development:

  • Children and young people will adapt to frightening and overwhelming circumstances by the body’s survival response. Prolonged exposure can lead to ‘toxic stress’ which changes their brain development
  • Traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain to other memories – they tend to be unprocessed and are likely to ‘flood’ the child or young person when triggers likes sounds and smells present later in life.
  • Flashbacks to traumatic events can evoke intense feelings, with alcohol and drugs commonly used to numb out the pain and avoid these distressing experiences.

See the table below for details about possible indicators of trauma in children and young people:

Children aged 0-4 yearsChildren aged 5-9 yearsChildren aged 10-17 years
  • Increased tension, irritability, reactivity, inability to relax or self soothe
  • Increased startle response
  • ‘Frozen watchfulness’
  • Lack and/or avoidance of eye contact
  • Loss of acquired language/motor/eating skills
  • Inability to be soothed
  • Uncharacteristic crying, aggression, neediness
  • Sleep and eating disruption
  • Limp, displays no interest, can appear ‘numb’
  • High anxiety when separated from primary caregiver/s
  • Avoids touching new surfaces e.g. grass, sand
  • Avoids trauma related reminders e.g. sights, sounds, smells
  • Behavioural changes, regression to behaviour of a younger child
  • Loss of confidence
  • Behavioural change
  • Specific fears
  • Withdrawal, depressed affect
  • Vulnerable to anniversary reactions caused by seasonal events/holidays, etc
  • ‘Blanking out’ or loss of concentration when under stress
  • Nightmares, night terrors, difficulty falling or staying sleep
  • Repeated retelling of traumatic event
  • Toileting accidents/enuresis, encompresis, smearing of faeces
  • Firelighting
  • Hurting animals
  • Truanting from school
  • Acute psychological distress
  • Personality changes
  • Increased self-focusing and withdrawal
  • Wish for revenge and action oriented responses to trauma                  
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-harming
  • Partial loss of memory and ability to concentrate

Children and young people who have experienced trauma, and whose development has been affected by this experience, require calm, patient and safe parenting, and support and understanding by family/whānau and friends. They also require opportunities to integrate and make sense of their experiences. 

For more information

Daniel, B., Wassell, S. & Gilligan, R. (2010). Child Development for Child Care and Protection Workers (2nd ed). Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London, United Kingdom.

Department of Human Services (2007). Every child every chance: Child Development and Trauma Guide. Victoria, Australia – a significant amount of information for this resource, particularly regarding the indicators of trauma, came from this document.

Putnam, F.W. (2006). The impact of trauma on child development. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, pp. 1-11.

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Updated on 30 July 2013