LCSW & MFT Exam Prep: Stages of Development

By Bethany Vanderbilt on May 23, 2012

Baby with blocks

It’s hard for me to believe, but we’ve been at this blog for 19 weeks now…we’re rolling through our 50 Topics pretty quick!  This week, our attention turns to Stages of Development.  You can guarantee that there will be a handful of questions on your exam that pertain to developmental stages, and most will reference either Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development or Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Let’s take a look at a potential test item that incorporates this topic:


A 32 year-old man seeks treatment from a social worker for ongoing problems with both his personal and professional functioning.  He reports that even though he has been moderately successful in his career, he continues to feel uncertain about his abilities, feeling as if at any moment he will be exposed as a fraud.  When the social worker inquires about his personal relationships, he looks down and says that he doesn’t really let anyone get close to him.  According to Erikson, this client likely experienced difficulty during which developmental stage?

A.     Trust vs. Mistrust

B.     Industry vs. Inferiority

C.     Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

D.     Initiative vs. Guilt

Several stages of development in Erikson’s theory can be particularly confusing… How can you remember the difference between inferiority, guilt, or shame and doubt when they all sound like similar concepts?  Try thinking about building blocks.  Still confused?  One of the tricks I used when I was studying for the exam was to focus on the first word in each stage and think about building blocks – each stage builds on the one before it.  Let’s just think about answers B, C, and D above, since these are the most frequently confused stages.  First, the child must learn to be autonomous (a big part of this is learning to walk and separate physically from caregivers) – success at this stage translates into feelings of self-assurance in adults.  Then, once the child learns to be independent, they can take the initiative to explore and play in their world (think of the imaginative play that preschoolers are known for!) – success at this stage of development translates into motivated, goal-directed behavior in adults.  Finally, now that the child has both independence and the urge to do things, they can be industrious (keep in mind all of the work, academic and social, that happens for school-age children) – success at this stage translates into competence and achievement in adults.


I hope it’s clear from the summary above that the correct answer to the question above is C, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.  The prevailing characteristic that comes through about the client is his lackof self-assurance – we see him doubting himself professionally and perhaps also personally, which may explain his tendency to keep others at arm’s length (protecting himself from failure). If the ‘building blocks’ strategy doesn’t work for you, keeping playing with it and find something that does – it’s not important why it works, only that it helps you remember and apply the information when you need to about the different stages of development!

Coming up next week: Normal Child Development

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your social work or MFT exam? If you're preparing for a social work exam, check out our Social Work Study Materials. If you're preparing for an MFT exam, check out our MFT Study Materials. Learn more about our offerings at The Therapist Development Center.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our exam prep FAQ or our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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