Using psychology in class

Definitive Article

Using psychology in class

Being a teacher may seem like an easy task, a task that some may find frightening while others find joyful. I can understand why some people become frightened. I was one of those people. One of those people, daunted by the fact I had to jump into a classroom with a bunch of 3 year olds, and teach them. This was until I realized that teachers do what I have been doing my whole life. They analyze behavior and foster development.


Coming from a psychological background in South Africa, I found this analysis to be stimulating. I was able to use some theories in psychology to help others and myself, become a better teacher. And I am going to share that with you now.


The secret is known as Erik Eriksons Theory of Human Development. This theory goes to state that we go through stages in our lives. Each stage contains a conflict that must be resolved in order for healthy development of the person. There are seven stages in total, from birth to death. For the purposes of this article we will only focus on the ages from 0-6 years old. If ou want to find more information please visit :


Stage one is Trust vs Mistrust. This stage is for kids from 0 – 2 years of age. The basic premis of this stage is; “Can I trust the world or can’t I trust the world?” A healthy upbringing and trust for mother and father can develop a sense of trust in the world, and a sense of trust helps the acceptance and limits and boundaries.


Stage two is Autonomy vs Shame. This is the stage where the child begins to explore the world by using all the senses, thus a sense of autonomy is relevant to the child growth. If thwarted; a sense of shame develops, it prevents a healthy acceptance of limits and the child can be devastated by small crisis. This is also the stage in which feelings are beginning to be expressed.


Stage three is Initiative vs Guilt. This is the age where the child starts to make decisions and carry them out, primarily through play activities. That being said, this is an extremely important time for imagination development as well, as this is the drive of their sense of purpose when they are able to envision something and pursue it.


Now, you may be saying, “This is great and all by why and how do we use it?” Well, simply put, the why we use it, is for three main reasons. The first is to understand the mindset and thought process of the child. The second is to understand the child’s interests. Finally, to understand the child’s cognitive processes and focus.


So that was the why, now let’s have a look at the how. There are three main areas in which you can use Erikson’s theory. The first is in the games you use with students. The second is your interaction with the students and the third is in how you praise or discipline your students.


Let’s have a look at the first stage, trust vs mistrust using the three main areas of games, interaction and praise or discipline. The games you must use for kids in this stage are very simple games. Children at this stage, being so young, are often not in class; however there are some games one can play. Simple guessing games, yes or no and true or false games will suffice at this age due to their simplicity and reinforcement of their trust in the world that this game is there to help satisfy a need and not there to harm.

Our interaction with students at this age should be one that reinforces trust in the world. Speaking to the children at their eye level helps the child feel comfortable with you as you are not looming over them but are now being represented as the same as them. Acting silly with the children also helps them feel more confident in themselves and in the teacher as they learn that everyone can be nice and fun.

This interaction with the children extends to praise and discipline. Good behavior needs to be highly praised and recognized. This helps the child learn what is right and wrong, the basis of many of our human life morals. When praising a child at this age it is important not to punish but to positively punish. By negatively punishing the student, such as smacking, or making them do something that they perceive as causing harm is only creating a negative association with the behavior, which may lead them to become defiant in the future. Instead, positive punishment should be used. This is where the positive stimulus is presented after the undesired behavior. For example; a student grabs the pen of another student, the pen is then taken by the teacher and handed back to the student, and the student who grabbed the pen will then have to sit in the “clown” chair. This helps the child understand that what he was doing wrong and what he must do right in order to get his chair and place back.


In our second stage (Autonomy vs shame) is where we find a lot more students that have just started going to school. This age is a great age for you to be more creative with your games. This where the games being played, need to use as many of the senses as possible. Games like; “guess what’s in the bag”, flashcard races and musical chairs are great games to play at this age. Games need to be active, this means getting out of their seats and getting them to move around the classroom. Games at this age can start to become more and more competitive so long as they encourage autonomy and discourage shame. This means encouraging the students to take it upon themselves to play the game and to learn.

When it comes to our interactions at this stage; we need to remember this is the stage where the children are learning to be autonomous and do things and explore the world themselves. Hence why this age is also known as “the terrible-twos”. If I child does something by his or herself, then great praise and attention must be given to that child for accomplishing something by his or herself. This develops the autonomy need for a child to become an independent learner in the future.

Children at this age can be very sensitive to how we praise or discipline them. This is a stage where children are starting to express their emotions through their behavior. Thus it is important to help the child be aware of their behavioral expressions. This can be done by taking the kid out of class and talking to them with a translator. Creating a “Chinese chair” (as I like to call it) for kids that are disrupting other students is a good way to remind the child of the correct way to behave. Also, make behavior itself, a game for the whole class. As students at this age are continuously trying to ‘press your buttons’ so to speak, ensure that your management technique in class can run throughout the entire lesson and do not falter on it, as their developing autonomy will make them push you even further away from your system. So keep to your system and do not falter. A thought to remember for this age group, do not shame the kids in front of other students for minor mistake and issues, as this can have lasting effects in their memory and therefore in their future personality development. Rather call them aside and speak to only them.


The final stage is our initiative vs guilt stage. This is the stage where we need to start to foster a sense of purpose for the child and help develop their imagination. Games for this age group can focus on creativity and self expression. Games such as “mini-teacher”, “hot seat” and role plays are excellent for this age group. During this stage, kids will primarily express their feelings through play, thus in order to create a fully engaging class, we need to ensure that emotions can be expressed through the games played. Hence games which allow multiple choice and self expression are encouraged during this time. Games that also encourage creativity and encourage social interaction are also great games as they will help foster the sense of initiative that a child needs in order to pursue a dream.

When it comes to our interactions with these children, we need to foster and help develop their imaginations at this time. Encourage children to create things and stories all the time to help stimulate and develop their imaginations. One also needs to help the children start to develop good social relations. An increase in student talk time is great because it gets the students to speak more, but by also having student to student interaction, one is also helping develop a social sense of awareness. Awareness of the world and the people around them. We can do this in class y ensuring that students are sharing their stationary if there is a shortage. By stomping out any conflicts that may arise in the class very quickly and addressing why these conflicts are happening. Try to get the kids to speak to you only in English. This will create a sense of initiative for the students to talk to you and increase their courage over time as they initiate more and more tasks. Fostering this initiative stops children from ever feeling guilty about doing something.

At this stage, praise and discipline, I feel, can be split into two categories; acknowledgement and ignoring. Behaviors that need to be acknowledged and at times reprimanded in front of the class, include things like; violent behavior, distracting other students, and speaking improperly on purpose to act a fool. These kinds of behaviors need to be corrected immediately and can be done in front of the class. This will help the child learn the limits and boundaries of behavior. Behaviors that need to be ignored are things like; attention seeking (dry crying and temper tantrums), language slips and mispronunciation, not listening to the teacher and general defiance. This is when the teacher can take the child outside the classroom and speak to them privately. The attention seekers especially, do better from being ignored than they do if they are coddled.


Using this theory has helped me in many ways in the classroom, and we could talk for days and days about the benefits. It can really help you to understand the child’s thought processes and their current state of mind and emotions. It can also help you reflect on how best to deal handle these students if you ever do teach this age.


However, I do feel I have stolen lots of your time reading this so here is a potato to help make things a lot better





  • Ramkumar, S. (2002) Journal of Krishnamurti Schools, Vol 6, 2002. Retrieved on March 19, 2016 from
  • How to apply psychological development in the classroom. (Nov 28, 2010). Retrieved March 19, 2016 from

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