cognitive development

As we talk further about developmental psychology, let’s discuss cognitive development. This is the growing and changing process of thinking; the acquiring, understanding, and collection of knowledge.  Each age group has their own way of thinking, of acquiring, storing, and using information; everyone, however, uses experience for their cognitive development. Children, especially infants, draw on the smallest of experience to learn greatly. They learn language by listening to it over and over, just as they learn their motor skills and emotional control, by watching us. Infants and children are exceptionally attuned to what people are doing, more so than any other age group. This is why the village plays a vital role in the way a child is going to think. If we provide healthy, caring, engaging environments then a child will acquire this knowledge and understand how they should think and behave.

Adults provide the main source of role-modeling for children. Ok, we know that, but it’s more than learning how to behave, it is learning how to think. This can come from the child’s culture as well. Studying the cultural context of young children gives us an insight on how different children from different cultures think, which, in turn, reveals how they are going to behave. In some cultures, women are still thought to be the weaker gender, giving a thinking process to children in this culture who will have a hardwired compulsion to think this way and behave as such. Just as a culture of racial hatred in young children is hard to change; it’s hard to change the thinking process and knowledge that has been acquired, understood, collected, nurtured, and bloomed from infancy.

Infants and young children are active learners, truly engaged in acquiring everything and anything they experience through all of their senses. We are born to learn and change is inevitable; understanding cognitive development can help us to teach each age group accordingly.

Jean Piaget

 As the study of cognitive development began, so did the initial theories. Jean Piaget was a biologist and psychologist and his theories were specifically about children, not adults, and his influence on teaching children has been useful and inspiriting in cognitive development. Piaget changed how we studied children, as opposed to the way that Freud studied them. Many of Piaget’s theories have been used, and are still being used, in the way we understand, communicate, and teach children. He believed that intelligence was fluid, that is, it is ever changing and not fixed as was previously believed. Piaget’s theories on cognitive development state that it is a process combining biological maturation and how a person interacts with their environment.

Piaget had three main components to the cognitive development of children (which would translate into adulthood): Schemas, Adaption, and Stages of Cognitive Development.


Schemas are the building blocks and foundation of knowledge. Children will go through phases of intellectual growth through experience, acquiring information upon information, adapting and changing prior knowledge with the introduction and experience of new knowledge. For example, a little boy is introduced to a bird; it has wings and flies. That little boy is introduced to a plane and he sees it as a bird. As it is explained to be different because it not alive and has an engine, his schema about what a bird is has changed. Then he is introduced to a car and sees it as a plane because it is not alive and has an engine. As it is explained to be different because it is on the ground and not the air, his schema about a plane has changed. And so on.

The biggest problem with schemas is that sometimes they can hinder learning or the acquisition of new knowledge. Existing schemas about certain beliefs, such as all men are worthless and all Mexicans are thieves, can make it tricky to learn new information because a person will not want to be in the company of these people so they won’t be able to acquire new information to change their established schema. And if the initial schema is taught and encouraged from birth (the white man is supreme) then even if there is a seen, changed schema (white man marries black woman) it can be excused off as an anomaly rather than the norm.

Adaption Process

 Next is the adaption process which includes the stages of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. The adaption process follows the concepts of schemas starting with assimilation. Assimilation is when we use an existing schema to understand and categorize new information. For example, that child sees that plane and assimilates it into his schema of birds. He sees other birds and assimilates them to his schema of birds.

Accommodation is when we get new information that doesn’t fit into an already established schema; we have to accommodate that new information into a new schema. For example, that child has all of these objects in the schema of birds, but when he gains the information that a plane is not a bird he has to put, or accommodate, that information into a new schema.

Going through the process of creating schemas, assimilating new information into existing schemas or accommodating new information to create new schemas can get confusing, frustrating, and difficult, especially as these concepts were defined for the cognitive development of children. If you have ever tried to teach a young child about ‘stranger danger’ and yet they still openly approach and talk to strangers, then you know that sometimes children do not accommodate new information but rather they assimilate it (strangers are assimilated into the existing schema of all people are good rather than to accommodate the information about strangers into a new schema of strangers are not all good). When this happens, it is called disequilibration.  Piaget explained that disequilibration is an unpleasant state within the process of cognitive development that happens when there’s difficulty in placing new information – assimilation into existing schemas or accommodating new information into new schemas. We search for equilibration to drive our learning process so that there is balance as we learn to master assimilation and accommodation.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Along with the concepts of the adaption process, Piaget also defined Stages of Cognitive Development, which are specifically addressed to children. He observed children in a variety of environments and noted their process of learning, thinking, and developing. He theorized that every child, no matter their gender, culture, or ethnicity, goes through four stages of development. These stages cannot be skipped; every child must go through each stage in order to go on to the next stage. His Stages of Cognitive Development consists of Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational and Formal Operational.

The first stage is the sensorimotor stage that occurs between birth and the age of two. This is when a child starts to use their senses to explore and develop their motor skills. If you have ever been around a baby, you know that they put everything in their mouths. They explore, learn, and adapt through their senses, starting with their sense of taste. At the beginning of this stage, the child lacks the ability to understand object permanence. This is the understanding that an object is permanent even if it can’t be observed. So, if you show an infant their favorite stuffed bear and then hide it behind your back, the baby will cry because they will think that the object is gone for good. This is why babies get upset when they see us leave the room; they believe we will be gone forever.

The second stage is the preoperational stage that occurs between the ages of two and seven. This is the major stage of learning language, symbols, letters, and numbers. In this stage, Piaget theorized that children are egocentric and that they have difficulty putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. Children are unable to perform operations, and believes that all things are living (their friends are their stuffed animals that they still talk to).

The next stage is the concrete operational stage that occurs between the ages of seven and eleven. Children in this stage gains ability to understand cause-and-effect, serial ordering, and that things are reversible, that changes in shape or appearance can be reversed (you can melt ice cubes, then freeze them again, then melt them again, etc.). This stage is the concrete stage, meaning that children cannot yet think hypothetically or abstractly.

The fourth and final stage is the formal operations stage that occurs between the ages of 11 and up. The child learns to think abstractly and can look and understand things hypothetically. This is also the stage of learning and understanding how to deduce, compare, and classify information. This is also the stage where personal fable is formed and then grown out of. Personal fable is the belief that teenagers have that they are unique and special, different from everyone around them, even their peers. It is important to properly address this phenomenon because it can really mess up a kid who doesn’t grow out of it. This is when risky behaviors are taken because a youth believes that nothing bad can happen to him; they are invincible. Also, that no one has the problems that they have so no one can understand what they are going through. Teens in this stage can over-estimate their ability to ‘handle’ certain situations without the negative consequences that happen to other kids (like a responsible sex life or using recreational drugs). Personal fable can also work in reverse, where a teenager sees themselves as less than his peers; not as smart, weak or fragile, and simply secondary or inferior to everyone else. This, of course, leads to depression and social withdrawal.

There are so many issues with Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. First, there are individual problems within each of the stages. For example, in the preoperational stage, children between two and seven can be empathetic and not egocentric (my five-year-old giving me his favorite blanket to make me feel better when I am sick). Also, in the concrete operational stage, children within the ages of seven and eleven can respond to hypothetical situations (asking a nine-year-old what could happen if he doesn’t check for cars before crossing the street and that kid would say that he could get hit by a car). Piaget also does not account for culture, ethnicity, gender, and other differences between children, such as socioeconomic levels and parental education levels.

Further Cognitive Description

Cognitive development has evolved into the construction of thinking and thought processing, from infancy and childhood, through adulthood and geriatrics. Interestingly, it used to be thought that infants were unable to think and were without cognitive abilities; same was thought of older people. What a terrible way to look at a person’s development; to start off not being able to think, then live a life full of wondrous thoughts, and then to end one’s life without thought. Luckily, we know that is not the case.

Another interesting bit of history is that the study and testing of cognitive development in children started with intelligence testing, most notable one being the Intelligence Quotient – the IQ test, first developed for use in the United States in 1916. There’s the idea that scores on an IQ test is based on a child’s mental age, which is basically the score of average intelligence matches a child’s age; if a child is particularly gifted in learning then his IQ scores will match those of an older child, whereas scores from a slower learner would match scores of a younger child. This is how the United States generally tests for intelligence, especially after thousands upon thousands of intelligence tests that have been conducted. However, the U.S. has been under criticism for a long time in regard to our choice of defining intelligence this way; it is too narrow and can be biased against gender, socioeconomic levels, culture, etc.

There are a lot of learning theories that contribute to the development of a person. Learning theories focus on not just a person’s native abilities (which is basically what IQ tests score on) but also through the role that a person’s environment, motivation, and reward/consequence play on that learning.