Erik Erickson (1902–1994), noted psychoanalyst and student of Anna Freud, is not a figure who immediately comes to mind when one thinks about the great contributors to understanding of the psychology of classroom learning. Erikson stands out among Freudians as one of the first to use a psychoanalytic perspective with children and to develop play therapy techniques for counseling. His work with World War II U.S. veterans experiencing shell shock helped solidify his understanding of the mechanisms of identity, and his famous 1968 publication, Identity: Youth in Crisis, helped explain the generational, social, and racial tensions of his day. The central question of his work had to do with identifying factors that affect personality.

Erik Erikson in his home study, March 4, 1975.Erik Erikson in his home study, March 4, 1975.TED STRESHINSKY/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES.


Erikson's contribution to the field of educational psychology may be subtler than the mainstays of school-related research pertaining to learning and achievement. It lies not in the products of schooling, but in helping people understand the importance of interactions between teachers and students.

Erikson's work is likely to be known in many areas outside educational psychology, and any casual student of identity is familiar with his theory. His description of identity development and the mechanisms associated with this interpersonal milestone are familiar to most teachers of adolescents either through personal experience or through observation. In this context, Erikson made two important contributions regarding classroom interaction: (a) recognition that adolescence is a time when individuals search for the standards and truths that really matter, and (b) adults, and especially teachers, play an important role in adolescents' identity development. These two contributions provide insight into effective strategies teachers can use when interacting with their adolescent students.


The first contribution has to do with how Erikson understood ego and identity. Erikson agreed with Sigmund Freud's triadic model of the human psyche (id, ego, superego). Unlike Freud, who focused on the conflict between id and superego and the mediating role of the ego, Erikson described the work of the ego in terms of differentiating itself from the superego. In Erikson's view, each stage of psychosocial development, from birth to old age, involves some form of differentiation of self from others.

Differentiation of the ego has to do with the degree to which a person is what others tell him versus how much a person controls what he is. During the stage of psychosocial development associated with adolescence, the work of identity formation involves examination of social standards or values and selection of those that the adolescent believes are truly important. If choices are not actively made, the person's identity is in a state of foreclosure. If adolescents are actively involved in searching, but have not yet chosen standards, identity can be described as being in a state of moratorium, the condition most often associated with adolescence.


Given Erikson's perspective on identity development, the second important contribution is his description of the role that adults play in adolescents' identity development. This description is particularly relevant for educators. During the time of adolescent moratorium, adults can facilitate identity development in two ways. The first way is by being a “sanctioner of capabilities.” (Erikson, 1968, p. 87) To adolescents, adults are the bearers of society's standards. In this generational role, adults should be clear about the standards they hold, exhibit behaviors consistent with stated beliefs, and use those standards to judge adolescents. By using society's standards to judge, adults communicate with adolescents about their capabilities and help clarify their selection of standards. Judged in an honest fashion, adolescents learn about their capabilities for adult roles. The second way adults assist with identity development is by providing an environment in which identity can be explored. During the time of moratorium, adolescents need opportunity to scrutinize society's standards and try on identities in a setting that does not impose an uncritical choice.


Adults, and especially teachers through their generational role, can contribute to adolescents' identity development by being sanctioners of capabilities and by providing a safe environment in which adolescents can deal with their identity crisis. In his understanding the dynamics of schools and classrooms, Erikson believed these two actions are keys for effective interactions between teachers and adolescent students. Teachers who are honest about their beliefs, consistent in their actions, and who find capabilities in adolescents to sanction are, according to Erikson, more likely to sustain adolescents' initiative and elicit their cooperation in academic matters.



Erikson, E. (1993). Childhood and Society (3rd ed.), New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis, New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. (1994). Identity and the Life Cycle (3rd ed.), New York: Norton.


Burston, D. (2007). Erik Erikson and the American psyche: ego, ethics, and evolution. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity's architect: a biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner.

Hoare, C. H. (2002). Erikson on development in adulthood: new insights from the unpublished papers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hoover, K. R. (Ed.). (2004). The future of identity: centennial reflections on the legacy of Erik Erikson. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Welchman, K. (2000). Erik Erikson: his life, work, and significance. Buckingham, PA: Open University Press.