22 About This Module: Cognitive Development


This module deals with the changing ways that infants, children and adolescents think. What exactly do we understand when we are just babies, crawling around on the floor and putting things in our mouth? And exactly how is a 3 year old different from a 5 year old? There are actually many changes that occur quite rapidly in our ability to think and process information.In this module, you will learn about the Cognitive Developmental Theory of Jean Piaget. Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development revolutionized the ways that children are educated and gave parents and psychologists alike a new way to understand the child’s developing mind.

You will want to learn every stage (and, where applicable, the substages) — particularly, what the developing child is doing, learning, and exhibiting that is new or different. Keep in mind that, though we arrive in this life with some inborn reflexes that help us survive and adapt to our world, we are constantly learning and constructing our understanding of the world.

At times, it is important for parents to set clear boundaries with kids. Many parents set themselves up for failure because they don’t provide enough positive opportunities for kids to question things. As you will learn, “questioning things” is a natural outgrowth of cognitive maturation, so just as you would take a toddler to a park to let him run and get out his physical energy, having thoughtful discussions and debates with a teen is a positive way to let him “run out” his new-found abilities in young adulthood. In fact, parents who regularly discuss things with their teens also tend to have warmer, closer relationships and their teens have fewer problems at school.

We will also explore the many facets of intelligence. You will learn about various, sometimes conflicting, definitions of intelligence. For example, is “intelligence” a single , unitary ability, or is it possible that “intelligence” comes in multipleforms or multiple abilities? This is a debate within psychology that still generates quite a bit of controversy. The implications of how we define intelligence are huge — if someone is merely ” average ” intelligence (assuming intelligence is a single, unitary ability), does that mean that we can only expect “average” things (average levels of success) from him or her and, therefore, should not invest heavily in their education? What if the person is of “low” intelligence — should we just train him or her for low-level jobs that don’t require complex thought or high-level thinking (janitors, service work)? And what if the person is “highly” intelligent — do we put him or her in specialized educational settings so that we really identify and hone his or her talents, making sure he or she don’t get lost in the shuffle? In fact, this is how our educational system is set up, to some extent.

These questions don’t have easy answers. As you can tell, the debate over how to define intelligence isn’t purely an intellectual debate — it’s one with real consequences for how we deliver education and services. Keep in mind that the definition and components of intelligence — even the way we measure it — is still very much open for debate.

Finally, we will look at the most unique, fascinating, and fundamentally human aspects of life on Earth: The complex and delicate development of language . I want you to pay particular attention to the ways that the human language unfolds over time and major language milestones. The human language — our unique way of communicating with each other — is unlike that of ALL other species and, even though it seems we all figure out talking somewhat automatically, some of us actually get a much bigger head start; while others of us start way behind the ‘starting line’ of language.

We seem to be born ready to communicate and most of us end up being able to speak some language (or sign it!). Yet, if we don’t receive a lot of social interaction, our ability to communicate (including speaking, writing, and reading) is severely hindered. In fact, our ability to use language is so pre-wired that our sense of hearing is fully developed by month six in the womb , which allows us to hear our mothers voice, which then, in turn, stimulates our brains to develop the neural pathways (brain circuitry) that will lay the foundation for later speaking and listening. More simply put, hearing in the womb causes brain development, and that very brain development allows us to speak and understand what is spoken to us years down the road! Children deprived of this stimulation (due to cochlear problems or hearing impairments) experience different patterns of language development than children whose hearing is fully functioning.

Thus, while the human capacity for language seems to be largely innate or inborn, we are still very much in the process of understanding the mechanisms in the brain that are responsible for the emergence of this very complex and critical skill. What’s more, the important events in language development do not end with birth; rather, they continue well up until the child’s 5th birthday! (1)

Learning Outcome

1.  Students will be able to explain the important milestones encountered within the biological/physical, cognitive, andsocioemotional domains from infancy throughout adolescence. (1)


Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Describe Piaget’s four stages of development.
  • Compare and contrast Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development.
  • Explain modern theories of intelligence.
  • Explicate language development milestones. (1)


Online Learning Unit


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Child and Adolescent Psychology Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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