Since Erikson Institute’s founding, we have been committed to preparing a new kind of early childhood practitioner, one with a deep understanding of child development.
To reflect this unique approach, the school was renamed in 1969 for renowned psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, a former colleague of Erikson Institute co-founder Maria Piers. He was the first to propose that children are not simply biological organisms but also products of society’s expectations, prejudices, and prohibitions.
One of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century, Erik Erikson was born in 1902 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. After completing high school, he moved to Florence to pursue his interest in art, and in 1927 became an art teacher at a psychoanalytically enlightened school for children started by Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud in Vienna.
The move changed his life and career. He earned a certificate from the Maria Montessori School, then embarked on psychoanalytic training at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. By 1936, he had joined the Institute of Human Relations, part of the department of psychiatry at Yale University.
Erikson’s best-known work is his theory that each stage of life is associated with a specific psychological struggle, a struggle that contributes to a major aspect of personality. His developmental progression — from trust to autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity — was conceived as the sequential reorganization of ego and character structures. Each phase was the potential root of later health and pathology.
By focusing on the social as well as the psychological, Erikson’s stages represented a quantum leap in Freudian thought, which had emphasized the psychosexual nature of development. While much of his theoretical work has since been challenged, Erikson’s basic developmental framework — conflict negotiated in the context of relationships — continues to illuminate our thinking, as does the concept of the identity crisis, the confusion of roles that Erikson first identified.
Another lasting contribution is Erikson’s emphasis on placing childhood squarely in the context of society. He advanced the idea that children are not simply biological organisms that endure, nor products of the psyche in isolation. Rather, they develop in the context of society’s expectations, prohibitions, and prejudices.
Another major contribution of Erikson’s work is the notion that personality is shaped over the life span, which implies that experiences later in life can heal or ameliorate problems in early childhood.
Finally, Erikson powerfully advocated for a “new education of children” based on self-knowledge and a complex world view that scorned “immediate diagnoses of health or sickness, judgments of goodness or badness, or advice on ‘how to’.” Erikson’s beliefs in the complexity and resilience of children and in the importance of mutuality in helping relationships led Institute founders Maria Piers, Barbara Bowman, and Lorraine Wallach to name the Institute in his honor.