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Cognitive Development in Childhood

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Cognitive Development in Childhood

Young children discover the world like little scientists: discovering, testing hypotheses, and creating little experiments. Through exploring and discovery, children make their way through several stages of cognitive development.

  • What are the cognitive development milestones in childhood?
  • What are the benefits of cognitive development in childhood?
  • How can adults promote cognitive development in children?
  • What are some examples of cognitive development in childhood?
  • What are some characteristics of atypical cognitive development in childhood?

Cognitive Development Milestones in Childhood

Jean Piaget developed stages of cognitive development by observing children while they solved problems. He noticed that children's thinking abilities are very different from adults, and they change in specific ways as the child grows.

Read more about Piaget's stages of cognitive development here!

Stages of Development According to Piaget

The three stages that occur during childhood are the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, and concrete operational stage.

Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years)

Children in this stage understand and explore their world through sensory and motor activities. This is why babies put toys and objects in their mouths. Babies, especially newborns, also rely heavily on their reflexes. Reflexes help them know when they need to eat or sleep, and their reflexes control motor skills like turning their head and sucking. Babies younger than six months old lack object permanence.

Cognitive Development in Childhood, baby laying on the floor lifting one foot into their mouth, StudySmarterSensory discovery, pixabay.com

Object permanence is the awareness that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived (seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted).

Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

Children in this stage learn to use language, which allows them to explore more about the world and relationships. They are able to use images, words, and gestures to represent objects and experiences through pretend play.

Children in this stage tend to focus on only one aspect of a situation. Their logical thinking abilities are not yet fully formed. If someone pours the same amount of liquid into a tall glass and a short glass, children in the preoperational stage will think there is more liquid in the tall glass because it looks bigger. They lack the ability to understand conservation.

Conservation is the idea that quantity remains the same even if the object changes form.

Cognitive Development in Childhood, a preschool girl hiding behind a tree and a preschool boy looking around the tree for her, StudySmarterPreschool children, pixabay.com

Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years)

Children in this stage develop the ability to perform complex math problems. They also develop decentration or the ability to consider more than one attribute of an object. With these new operational skills, children begin to reason more logically. They are not yet able to think in hypothetical, abstract ways. Abstract thinking skills develop in the formal operational stage from age 12 to adulthood.

Benefits and Importance of Cognitive Development in Childhood

Understanding cognitive development in childhood is especially beneficial to teachers and parents. Every child's cognitive development is different. Rather than viewing children as bottomless receptacles for knowledge, adults should tailor lessons to the child's cognitive abilities and build on what the child already knows.

Cognitive development in childhood can affect development later in life and throughout adulthood. Children with positive cognitive development may have more occupational opportunities in the future. Additionally, cognitive development can affect a child's social development. Being able to read emotional cues or having strong language skills can help a child connect more with their peers.

How to Promote Cognitive Development in Childhood

Several activities can help promote cognitive development in childhood. Physical activity can help promote cognitive development such as motor skills in children. Going to the park, playing at recess, and reducing time in front of a screen are great ways to work physical activity into a child's routine. Other activities can promote cognitive development as well, such as:

  • Learning to play a musical instrument

  • Playing sports

  • Helping with chores

  • Playing pretend

  • Doing art projects

  • Looking in the mirror

Children can benefit from interacting and socializing with adults. The gap between what a child can do independently and with the assistance of an adult or peer is called the zone of proximal development. Adults can assist children in moving forward in their cognitive development by providing just enough help until the child can do something on their own. Scaffolding or tailoring temporary support to match a child's current skill level is also important.

Cognitive Development in Childhood, mother helping daughter learn to draw, StudySmarterMother helping daughter, pikwizard.com

Examples of Cognitive Development in Childhood

While every child is different, there are several common examples of cognitive development in childhood. Take the marshmallow test, for example. In this study, researchers placed children in a room with a single marshmallow and told them they could have a second marshmallow if they could wait just 15 minutes. Many children, especially younger ones, would last only a few minutes before eating the marshmallow. However, some had enough self-control to wait 15 minutes to reap the reward of a second marshmallow. These children understood the concept of delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification is the ability to resist an impulsive and immediate reward in order to reap the benefit of a more valuable reward in the future.

Delayed gratification is linked to a higher chance of future success and strongly correlates with good academic performance.

Another example of cognitive development in childhood is the third eye experiment. Here, researchers asked children to draw where they would place the third eye. Most 9-year-olds who were concrete operators would choose to place the third eye on the forehead between the other two eyes. On the other hand, 12-year-olds forming formal operational thinking would find more creative and inventive places to draw the third eye.

Theory of Mind

A child's theory of mind develops as the child grows. Young children are egocentric -- unable to understand someone else's perspective. As children grow, they are able to sense the mental and emotional state of others. This type of cognitive development is called the theory of mind.

Even infants as young as seven months old begin to develop some awareness of another person's feelings. Children can recognize what made a friend angry or how to get a sibling to share. They are able to use their awareness of another person's feelings to make decisions. This is how they begin to develop empathy and persuasion skills.

By around age four, children are able to recognize when others hold false beliefs. Jenkins and Astington (1996) showed 3-year-old children a band-aids box filled with pencils. The children were surprised to see that band-aids were not in the box. When researchers asked what others would think was inside the box, the most common answer was "pencils". When they showed the same box to 4- and 5-year-old children, the answer was different - the children said that other people would think that band-aids were in the box.

Atypical Cognitive Development in Childhood

A toddler learning to walk is very clumsy, and a 2-year-old's attention span is pretty short. These behaviors are expected based on what we know about cognitive development in childhood. Even though every child develops at their own pace, some children experience significant delays or struggles in cognitive development.

A 3-year-old will probably have trouble focusing on a task for more than 5 minutes. If the same is true for a 10-year-old, we may suspect that their cognitive development is atypical. Signs of atypical cognitive development in early childhood may be the result of several disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or down syndrome.

Delayed language skills or motor skills can be signs of a child not meeting the expected gains for their age. You may notice that children with ASD show obsessive behavior, do not make eye contact, and become upset when their routine is disrupted. Children with ADHD may talk excessively, have a hard time sitting still, act impulsively or without thinking, or constantly fidget.

Cognitive Development in Childhood - Key takeaways

  • Jean Piaget developed stages of cognitive development by observing children while they solved problems.

  • The three stages that occur during childhood are the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, and concrete operational stage.

  • Children in the sensorimotor stage understand and explore their world through sensory and motor activities and develop an understanding of object permanence.

  • Children in the preoperational stage learn to use language and understand conservation, which allows them to explore more about the world and relationships.

  • Children in the concrete operational stage develop the ability to perform complex math problems and to understand decentration.

  • The Theory of Mind is a child's ability to sense the mental and emotional state of others.

  • Signs of atypical cognitive development in childhood can be the result of autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or down syndrome.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Development in Childhood

Cognitive development in early childhood is how a child's thinking abilities change as they age.

Cognitive development in middle childhood can be promoted through reading, board games, cooking, and puzzles.

The four cognitive stages of child development are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stage.

Factors affecting cognitive development in early childhood include environment, nutrition, and genetics.

Cognitive development is important in early childhood because it determines how children learn problem-solving and analytical skills. 

Final Cognitive Development in Childhood Quiz

Question

What are the four stages of cognitive development?

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The four stages of cognitive development are the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage. 

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What was Jean Piaget?

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Piaget was a Swiss psychologist that studied the development of children from birth through their teens. His main goal was to study the process in which they develop logical thinking.

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What is the Sensorimotor stage?

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The sensorimotor stage is where the child uses their senses to interact with the world around them and to learn about their environment and surroundings.

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What is the Preoperational Stage?

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The preoperational stage is when children start developing abstract thinking and keep building on object permanence.

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What is the Concrete Operational Stage?

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The concrete operational stage is when children become less egocentric and develop and master abstract thought.

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What is the Formal Operational Stage?

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The formal operational stage is when a child’s rules of logic become more sophisticated and they use these rules to help them understand abstract concepts and to solve problems.

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What are the six substages to the sensorimotor stage?

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The six substages to the sensorimotor stage are reflexes, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination of reactions, tertiary circular reactions, and early representational thought.

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What is Object Permanence?

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Object permanence is when the child understands that people and objects continue to exist whether they can be seen or not.

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What are the five main behaviors exhibited by children in the preoperational stage?

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The five main behaviors exhibited by children in the preoperational stage are imitation, symbolic play, drawing, mental imagery, and verbal evocation of events.

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What is Egocentric?

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Egocentric is when the child cannot understand that events take place without them or that other children and adults may think differently than they do.

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What are the three main parts of the concrete operational stage?

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The three main parts of the concrete operational stage are conservation and reversibility, classification, and seriation.

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What is Conservation?

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Conservation is knowing that things can change in volume, look, or size, but in the end, they are still the same thing.

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What is Reversibility?

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Reversibility is when an item that has changed, can either return to its original state or cannot return to its original state.

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What is Classification?

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Classification is when the child can classify things or objects into groups or subgroups.

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What is Seriation?

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Seriation is when the child can group things or objects by their weight, importance, or height.

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What is Schema?

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Schema is a process of thinking that lets someone know what to expect based on information that they already have.

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What is Assimilation?

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Assimilation is the way that one uses schemas to identify a new thing.

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What is Accommodation?

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Accommodation is when you change a schema or make a new schema based on newly learned information.

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What is Equilibrium?

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Equilibrium is when one uses assimilation and accommodation to keep all of their schemas in order and balanced.

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What were the two main points that Vygotsky said?

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Culture and teachers matter!

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What does Vygotsky define a teacher as?

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Someone with more information than you. It could be an actual teacher or jut an adult. 

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What is one of the biggest limitations of Piaget's cognitive development theory?

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He does not account for culture and how that would impact development 

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What is scaffolding?

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When teachers adjust their support of a child in order to fit with the child's needs

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What is the zone of proximal development?

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The range of what children know and can do and what they aren’t quite ready to do yet (but can with some help!)

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What happens if someone gets information that is outside of their zone of proximal development?

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They won't learn it! If it's not in their zone, then it's too complicated for them to understand and learn. 

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What are the differences between Piaget and Vygotsky when it comes to cognitive development in general?

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Piaget believed it happens in stages and Vygotsky believed it's continual

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What are the differences between Piaget and Vygotsky when it comes to learning?

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Piaget believed the children themselves are the most important factor and Vygotsky believed that teachers are crucial to learning 

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Who said that learning should have a horizontal relationship?

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Both! They both emphasized the importance of peers in learning. 

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Who said that learning should have a vertical relationship?

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Vygotsky! A vertical relationship is between an adult and a child where the child is trying to learn to get to the adult's level. 

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What is private speech?

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Your inner thoughts. This is a stage of cognitive development that Vygotsky put forth. 

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How do children ages - to 2 years old understand and explore their world? 

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Through sensory and motor activities

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_________________ is the awareness that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived (seen, heard, touched, smelled, or sensed).

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Object permanence

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What is conservation?

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Conservation is a principle that states that quantity remains the same even if the object changes form. 

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At about what age does the preoperational stage begin?

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2 to 7 years old

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At about what age does the concrete operational stage begin?

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7 to 11 years

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At what stage do children begin to grasp concepts of conservation and decentration?

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Concrete operational stage

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True or False? Children in the preoperational stage have a hard time understanding another viewpoint. 


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True

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True or False? Stages of development do not occur in the same order for everyone.  

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False. Stages occur in the same order but not at the same rate

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What did Lev Vygotsky suggest?

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Social contexts interact with cognitive development in childhood.

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Babies look longer at objects or events that violate their expectations of the world.  What is this evidence of?

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Early development of object permanence

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The gap between what a child is able to do independently and with the assistance of an adult or peer is called __________________

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the zone of proximal development

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Children from an early age are able to sense the mental and emotional ​state of others. What is this called?


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Theory of mind

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Babies are able to perform "baby math" in which they can recognize a change in _____ rather than a change in _______

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mass ; quantity

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Stacy and her brother James both ask for a juice box. Their mother grabs two of the same juice boxes and pours them into separate glasses. Stacy starts to cry, proclaiming that her brother got more juice because his glass is taller than hers. What age might Stacy be?

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5

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True or False? It is impossible for someone to show traits of more than one stage of cognitive development.


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False

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If you hide a teddy bear from a 10-month-old baby, and he tries to look for it, he demonstrates:

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Object permanence

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Abstract thinking skills develop in the ____________ from age 12 to adulthood.

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formal operational stage

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Children in the _______ develop the ability to perform complex math problems.


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concrete operational stage

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A child with speech delay and difficulty focusing may be experiencing _______ cognitive development.

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Atypical

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A child who likes Barbie dolls gifts her sister a Barbie because she thinks her sister might like it. What characteristic of young children does this behavior show?


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Egocentric

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