23 Unit 6: Cognitive Development – Foundations Of Child And Adolescent Psychology

Introduction to Cognitive Development

By the time you reach adulthood you have learned a few things about how the world works. You know, for instance, that you can’t walk through walls or leap into the tops of trees. You know that although you cannot see your car keys they’ve got to be around someplace. What’s more, you know that if you want to communicate complex ideas like ordering a triple-shot soy vanilla latte with chocolate sprinkles it’s better to use words with meanings attached to them rather than simply gesturing and grunting. People accumulate all this useful knowledge through the process of cognitive development, which involves a multitude of factors, both inherent and learned.Cognitive development in childhood is about change. From birth to adolescence a young person’s mind changes dramatically in many important ways. Cognitive development refers to the development of thinking across the lifespan. Defining thinking can be problematic, because no clear boundaries separate thinking from other mental activities. Thinking obviously involves the higher mental processes:

  • Problem-solving
  • Reasoning
  • Creating
  • Conceptualizing
  • Categorizing
  • Remembering
  • Planning

However, thinking also involves other mental processes that seem more basic and at which even toddlers are skilled, such as perceiving objects and events in the environment, acting skillfully on objects to obtain goals, and understanding and producing language. Yet other areas of human development that involve thinking are not usually associated with cognitive development, because thinking isn’t a prominent feature of them, such as personality and temperament.

As the name suggests, cognitive development is about change. Children’s thinking changes in dramatic and surprising ways. Consider DeVries’s (1969) study of whether young children understand the difference between appearance and reality. To find out, she brought an unusually even-tempered cat named Maynard to a psychology laboratory and allowed the 3- to 6-year-old participants in the study to pet and play with him. DeVries then put a mask of a fierce dog on Maynard’s head, and asked the children what Maynard was. Despite all of the children having identified Maynard previously as a cat, now most 3-year-olds said that he was a dog and claimed that he had a dog’s bones and a dog’s stomach. In contrast, the 6-year-olds weren’t fooled; they had no doubt that Maynard remained a cat. Understanding how children’s thinking changes so dramatically in just a few years is one of the fascinating challenges in studying cognitive development. (51)

In this module, we will focus upon Piaget’s classical theory of cognitive development and language development. However, we will also examine information processing, intelligence, and the school environment. (1)

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget did not believe that children think less than adults; instead, children simply think differently. He believed that between birth and adolescence, children move through four stages of cognitive development. Each stage is qualitatively different from each other, meaning that the characteristics of thought are different in quality. Piaget’s theory did not allot for the skipping of a stage; however, children do move through the stages at their own pace – some faster and some slower. Piaget also posited that not all individuals reach the later stages of cognitive development. For example, an individual with a developmental disability may forever stay in the first stage of cognitive development. Over the next few pages, we shall explore Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development:

  • Sensorimotor
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete operational
  • Formal operational (1)

Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage

Piaget describes intelligence in infancy as sensorimotor or based on direct, physical contact. Infants taste, feel, pound, push, hear, and move in order to experience the world. The sensorimotor stage has six sub-stages. Let’s explore the transition infants make from responding to the external world reflexively as newborns to solving problems using mental strategies as two year olds.

Reflexive Action (Birth through 1st month)

This active learning begins with automatic movements or reflexes. A ball comes into contact with an infant’s cheek and is automatically sucked on and licked. But this is also what happens with a sour lemon, much to the infant’s surprise.

First Adaptations to the Environment (1st through 4th month)

Fortunately, within a few days or weeks, the infant begins to discriminate between objects and adjust responses accordingly as reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. An infant may accidentally engage in a behavior and find it interesting such as making a vocalization. This interest motivates trying to do it again and helps the infant learn a new behavior that originally occurred by chance. At first, most actions have to do with the body, but in months to come, will be directed more toward objects.

Repetition (4th through 8th months)

During the next few months, the infant becomes more and more actively engaged in the outside world and takes delight in being able to make things happen. Repeated motion brings particular interest as the infant is able to bang two lids together from the cupboard when seated on the kitchen floor.

New Adaptations and Goal-Directed Behavior (8th through 12th months)

Now the infant can engage in behaviors that others perform and anticipate upcoming events. Perhaps because of continued maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the infant becomes capable of having a thought and carrying out a planned, goal-directed activity, such as seeking a toy that has rolled under the couch. The object continues to exist in the infant’s mind even when out of sight and the infant now is capable of making attempts to retrieve it. This is an example of a lack of object permanence.

Active Experimentation of Little Scientists (12th through 18th months)

Infants from one year to 18 months of age more actively engage in experimentation to learn about the physical world. Gravity is learned by pouring water from a cup or pushing bowls from high chairs. The caregiver tries to help the child by picking it up again and placing it on the tray. And what happens? Another experiment! The child pushes it off the tray again causing it to fall and the caregiver to pick it up again! A closer examination of this stage causes us to really appreciate how much learning is going on at this time and how many things we come to take for granted must actually be learned. I remember handing my daughters (who are close in age) when they were both seated in the back seat of the car a small container of candy. They struggled to move the pieces up and out of the small box and became frustrated when their fingers would lose their grip on the treats before they made it up and out of the top of the boxes. They had not yet learned to simply use gravity and turn the box over in their hands! This is a wonderful and messy time of experimentation and most learning occurs by trial and error.

Mental Representations (18th month to 2 years of age)

The child is now able to solve problems using mental strategies, to remember something heard days before and repeat it, to engage in pretend play, and to find objects that have been moved even when out of sight. Take for instance, the child who is upstairs in a room with the door closed, supposedly taking a nap. The doorknob has a safety device on it that makes it impossible for the child to turn the knob. After trying several times in vain to push the door or turn the doorknob, the child carries out a mental strategy to get the door opened-he knocks on the door! Obviously, this is a technique learned from the past experience of hearing a knock on the door and observing someone opening the door. The child is now better equipped with mental strategies for problem-solving. This initial movement from the “hands-on” approach to knowing about the world to the more mental world of stage six marked the transition to preoperational thinking. Achieving object permanence marks this transition. (52)

Piaget’s Preoperational Stage

Early childhood is a time of pretending, blending fact and fiction, and learning to think of the world using language. As young children move away from needing to touch, feel, and hear about the world toward learning some basic principles about how the world works, they hold some pretty interesting initial ideas. For example, how many of you are afraid that you are going to go down the bathtub drain? Hopefully, none of you do! But a child of three might really worry about this as they sit at the front of the bathtub. A child might protest if told that something will happen “tomorrow” but be willing to accept an explanation that an event will occur “today after we sleep.” Or the young child may ask, “How long are we staying? From here to here?” while pointing to two points on a table. Concepts such as tomorrow, time, size and distance are not easy to grasp at this young age. Understanding size, time, distance, fact and fiction are all tasks that are part of cognitive development in the preschool years.

Piaget’s stage that coincides with early childhood is the preoperational stage. The word operational means logical, so these children were thought to be illogical. However, they were learning to use language or to think of the world symbolically.

Let’s examine some Piaget’s assertions about children’s cognitive abilities at this age.

Pretend Play
Pretending is a favorite activity at this time. A toy has qualities beyond the way it was designed to function and can now be used to stand for a character or object unlike anything originally intended. A teddy bear, for example, can be a baby or the queen of a faraway land!

Piaget believed that children’s pretend play helped children solidify new schemes they were developing cognitively. This play, then, reflected changes in their conceptions or thoughts. However, children also learn as they pretend and experiment. Their play does not simply represent what they have learned (Berk, 2007).

Egocentrism in early childhood refers to the tendency of young children to think that everyone sees things in the same way as the child. Piaget’s classic experiment on egocentrism involved showing children a 3 dimensional model of a mountain and asking them to describe what a doll that is looking at the mountain from a different angle might see. Children tend to choose a picture that represents their own, rather than the doll’s view. However, when children are speaking to others, they tend to use different sentence structures and vocabulary when addressing a younger child or an older adult. This indicates some awareness of the views of others.
Syncretism refers to a tendency to think that if two events occur simultaneously, one caused the other. I remember my daughter asking that if she put on her bathing suit whether it would turn to summer.
Animism refers to attributing life-like qualities to objects. The cup is alive, the chair that falls down and hits the child’s ankle is mean, and the toys need to stay home because they are tired. Cartoons frequently show objects that appear alive and take on lifelike qualities. Young children do seem to think that objects that move may be alive but after age 3, they seldom refer to objects as being alive (Berk, 2007).
Classification Errors
Preoperational children have difficulty understanding that an object can be classified in more than one way. For example, if shown three white buttons and four black buttons and asked whether there are more black buttons or white buttons, the child is likely to respond that there are more black buttons. As the child’s vocabulary improves and more schemas are developed, the ability to classify objects improves.

Illustration of different size containers. Does pouring liquid in a tall, narrow container make it have more liquid?
Figure 6-1: Conservation of Liquid by Lumen is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .
Conservation Errors
Conservation refers to the ability to recognize that moving or rearranging matter does not change the quantity. Imagine a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old eating lunch. The 4-year-old has a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He notices, however, that his younger sister’s sandwich is cut in half and protests, “She has more!” (53)

Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage

From ages 7 to 11, the school-aged child is in what Piaget referred to as the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. This involves mastering the use of logic in concrete ways. The child can use logic to solve problems tied to their own direct experience but has trouble solving hypothetical problems or considering more abstract problems. The child uses inductive reasoning which means thinking that the world reflects one’s own personal experience. For example, a child has one friend who is rude, another friend who is also rude, and the same is true for a third friend. The child may conclude that friends are rude.

The word concrete refers to that which is tangible; that which can be seen or touched or experienced directly. The concrete operational child is able to make use of logical principles in solving problems involving the physical world. For example, the child can understand principles of cause and effect, size, and distance. As children’s experiences and vocabularies grow, they build schema and are able to classify objects in many different ways.


One feature of concrete operational thought is the understanding that objects have an identity or qualities that do not change even if the object is altered in some way. For instance, mass of an object does not change by rearranging it. A piece of chalk is still chalk even when the piece is broken in two.


The child learns that some things that have been changed can be returned to their original state. Water can be frozen and then thawed to become liquid again. But eggs cannot be unscrambled. Arithmetic operations are reversible as well: 2 + 3 = 5 and 5 – 3 = 2. Many of these cognitive skills are incorporated into the school’s curriculum through mathematical problems and in worksheets about which situations are reversible or irreversible.


[click and reveal] Reciprocity Remember the earlier example of children thinking that a tall beaker filled with 8 ounces of water was “more” than a short, wide bowl filled with 8 ounces of water? Concrete operational children can understand the concept of reciprocity, which means that changing one quality (in this example, height or water level) can be compensated for by changes in another quality (width). So there is the same amount of water in each container although one is taller and narrower and the other is shorter and wider. These new cognitive skills increase the child’s understanding of the physical world. (54)

Piaget’s Formal Operational Stage

In the formal operations stage, children attain the reasoning power of mature adults, which allows them to solve the pendulum problem and a wide range of other problems. However, this formal operations stage tends not to occur without exposure to formal education in scientific reasoning, and appears to be largely or completely absent from some societies that do not provide this type of education. (51)

Some aspects of formal thinking are discussed here.

Abstract Thinking

Adolescents become better able to think about abstract concepts. Unlike young children, whose thinking is more bound to observable events, concrete objects, and their own (or their friends’) experiences, adolescents begin to recognize that certain concepts are intangible and can’t be quantified or measured. (48)

Thinking about Possibilities

Adolescents become better able to think about what’s possible, instead of limiting thought to what’s real. They can reason about chance and probability and can envision and evaluate alternatives. (51)

Thinking about Things in Different Ways

Adolescents develop the ability to think about things in multiple ways at the same time and can approach problems with more sophisticated lenses. They can imagine multiple perspectives, consider different dimensions, and weigh those dimensions before taking a course of action.

Thinking about Thinking

Thinking about thinking is referred to as metacognition. Adolescents become more reflective and show signs of increased introspection and self-consciousness. They can understand complex relationships between ideas and people.

Abstract vs. Concrete Thinking

There’s often a difference between what young people are capable of thinking and how thought influences behavior. These cognitive capacities progressively become part of the young person’s repertoire. But adolescents don’t use these new abilities consistently over time or over a variety of situations. Teens may have mature thought processes sometimes, but not all the time. As teens mature, their decision-making skills increase.

When dealing with concrete thinkers , parents and teachers should:

  • Understand that, to them, pregnancy is an abstract concept.
  • Walk them through the process of complex decision-making.
  • Use concrete, realistic examples in which they can “see” themselves when talking about the future.
  • Be more aware that alternatives and consequences may make it difficult for them to make decisions.
  • Allow them the time they need to process their thoughts.

When dealing with abstract thinkers , parents and teachers should:

  • Be aware that abstract thinking skills may still be inconsistent.
  • Be more aware that alternatives and consequences may make it difficult for them to make decisions.
  • Allow them the time they need to process their thoughts.

Risk-Taking Behaviors

Some characteristics of adolescent thinking can interfere with teens’ ability to use “adult-like” thinking and planning on a consistent basis, increasing the likelihood of taking risks and engaging in unsafe behavior:

Focused on The Present

Adolescents focus more on the present and are less able to think about the future. Many adolescents either seem unable to think about the future—that is, they can’t think beyond the present—or they discount the future and weigh more heavily the short-term risks and benefits when making decisions.

Feelings of Invulnerability

Adolescents are more likely to see themselves as invulnerable. Many teenagers think that they’re invincible and that they can’t get hurt. These beliefs contribute to adolescents weighing risks differently than adults do.

Seeking Novel and Varied Experiences

Adolescents are more likely to seek out novel and varied experiences for the sake of trying “something different.” Because adolescents value new experiences more than adults do, they may undertake risky behaviors even though they may recognize possible harmful consequences, including physical and social risks. (48)


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