Cognitive development – The stages of growth and change

Does it blow you away when you see your little one master a new skill? Are you fascinated by how your child learns?

Understanding a little about cognitive development gives you an insight into how little minds work. Cognitive development refers to the process of growth and change in intellectual abilities such as how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world.  By learning what is typical and appropriate for general age groups, behaviour can be considered in the context of a child’s cognitive development. 

You might learn behaviour that’s bothering you is a typical part of development and this knowledge may ease any accompanying frustration you feel.  You might even feel relieved knowing you don’t need to try to change your child. You don’t have a ‘naughty’ child nor are you a ‘bad’ parent.

Piaget (1936) was an influential psychologist and his theory of cognitive development continues to shape our understanding of child development. His four proposed stages are outlined below:

father and baby playing WEBSensorimotor Stage

From birth until about 2 years, infants are busy discovering relationships between their bodies and the environment. The child relies on their senses of seeing, touching, sucking and feeling to learn.

Object permanence is an important part of this stage. If you cover a toy with a blanket and your baby stops showing interest then it is likely that he hasn’t mastered object permanence yet. He thinks that the object doesn’t exist anymore as it cannot be seen. If your baby actively looks for the toy under the blanket then you can be confident that your little one understands that the toy still exists even though it can’t be seen. 

Babies also learn through trial-and-error and cause-and-effect multiple times a day. It might be that he shakes a rattle to make noise or pulls a string to bring a toy closer to himself. Babies are little scientists and quickly learn to solve problems, and make predictions about how their behaviour has an effect on others. They way you respond has an impact on the conclusions infants will make.

Preoperational Stage

Have you noticed that your 2-year-old calls all ladies ‘mummy’? Or all men ‘daddy’?  Welcome to the preoperational stage of development! During this stage, children react to all similar things as if they are identical.  They also make inferences from one specific object to another.  Looking at an orange in the fruit bowl your child is likely to reason, “My ball is round, that thing is round, so that thing must be a ball”.

Children are yet to use logic to understand ideas. This is why you might be experiencing frustration trying to use logic to explain something to your preschooler.

Most preoperational thinking is self-centred. I bet you’ve noticed that your child has difficulty understanding life from any other perspective than his own, right? Your child at age 4-7 is very me, myself, and I oriented. At this stage your child assumes that other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same as he does.

Notice that when two children at this developmental stage are playing with one another, although they probably talk to each other in turn, they have their own agenda and may seem oblivious to the content of what the other child is saying! All normal! 

As children work through this stage they build on their experiences and adapt to the world around them. They become able to mentally represent events and objects, and engage in symbolic play.

The Concrete Operational Stage

Children in this stage are generally around 7-11 years. This is when we see children use logic to solve problems, but for the most part this logic is limited to physical objects. These children are not yet able to think abstractly or hypothetically.

You will find your child has lost their “all about me” thinking as well.

One indication that a child has reached this stage is that they understand something stays the same quantity even though its appearance changes. This is called conservation. For example, if liquid is poured from a short wide container into a tall narrow container your 8-year-old will likely tell you it’s the same quantity of water. Your 5 year-old, on the other hand, is likely to suggest that there is more water in the taller container because the appearance has changed.

The Formal Operational Stage

This final stage in Piaget’s theory begins at about 11 years of age and continues throughout adulthood. Piaget did indicate, and this is supported by subsequent research, that some people never reach this stage of cognitive development.

This stage sees adolescents gain the ability to think in an abstract manner. Ideas (such as maths problems) can be manipulated in your child’s head without having to rely on physical objects.

How a child solves the following problem gives an indication of whether or not they have reached the formal operation stage of development: If Sam swims faster than James and Declan swims faster than Sam, who is the fastest swimmer? Children in the Concrete Operational stage might need to draw a picture to help them solve the problem, whereas children in the Formal Operational stage can reason the answer in their heads. 

In the early years of life, relationships with primary caregivers provide the experience that shapes how genes express themselves within the brain. Piaget’s take home message was that children need to be active in exploring the world around them and making discoveries. Opportunities are everywhere! So encourage your child to learn through experience and observe the beauty that is a child learning and developing. Caring, responsive adults play a vital role in providing stimulation and support for children’s cognitive development.

Jessica ClearyJessica Cleary is the Director and Principal Psychologist of Hopscotch & Harmony, a child and family psychology practice in Melbourne, Australia. As well as leading a passionate team of psychologists, Jessica supports parents who feel frustrated, disconnected and overwhelmed.  She helps them manage stress and learn effective strategies to keep calm during even the most chaotic times.  Jessica’s approach will appeal to parents looking for non-punitive and respectful ways to respond to challenging child behaviour. She teaches parents effective ways to communicate with children that promotes cooperation and minimises drama. She strives to improve the relationship between parent and child and to bring the joy back to parenting. If you have had enough of the power struggles in your house and are resorting to bribes and threats more often than you would like, then Jessica can give you the skills, knowledge and tools to turn things around.

Jessica is registered with the Psychology Board of Australia (PBA), is a full member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), and has a Masters degree in Educational and Developmental Psychology. Jessica has provided psychological services in schools, early intervention settings and in the corporate sector. She delivers workshops and presentations to parents, health professionals, teachers and business leaders in areas including Parenting, Trauma, Grief and Loss, Challenging Behaviour, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Personality and Leadership. You can also find this article on her website HERE.

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