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Kids Health: Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

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From birth until 12 months old, newborns almost triple their weight and increase their length by more than a half. This rapid physical development, however, is only one of the developmental milestones you will notice in children, which also include social and emotional development, speech and language development and cognitive development. Discussed below will be the stages of cognitive development in children.

Cognitive Development in Children

Cognitive development is the ability to learn and solve problems. For a child of 12-24 months, this might include the basic understanding of their surroundings. Alternatively, for a school age child this may include learning simple maths problems (like subtraction). Development milestones occur in the blink of an eye and for children, are closely linked with their experiences in the world around them.

According to Development Psychologist and Philosopher Jean Piaget, children go through Four Universal Stages of Cognitive Development. While each child may progress through stages at different rates, no stage can be missed and every individual will complete them in the order (i.e. firstly, sensory motor, secondly, pre-operational, thirdly, concrete operational and finally, formal operations). Check them out below!

Stage 1: Cognitive Development Milestone – Sensory Motor Stage

The first stage of cognitive development is the sensory motor stage. This generally occurs in children between birth and 24 months of age. During the first two years of life, children experience fast cognitive growth. While remaining egocentric (the inability to consider other people’s needs and view), babies of this age begin to experience the outside world and acquire knowledge of the objects around them. Around the age of 8 months, this knowledge of external objects develops into object permanence – an understanding that even when objects are not visually present, they still exist. By learning through the senses, cognitive development within the sensory motor stage usually comprises of 6 Sub-stages:

The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development for Childcare Providers

The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development: Sensory motor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operations stage.

Sub-stage 1: Use of Reflexes

When: Birth – 2 months
What: An example of reflex use is clutching, reaching for or sucking objects.

Sub-stage 2: Primary Circular Reactions

• When: 2 month – 4 months
• What:
Primary circular reactions represent the use of reflexes in a repetitive way from an unintentional occurrence. An example might be sucking a thumb.

Sub-stage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions

• When: 4 months – 8 months
• What:
Secondary reactions, while not based on reflexes, but do amount from an unintentional occurrence. An example is a child kicking their feet to move an object.

Sub-stage 4: Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions
Between the ages of birth and 2 years, babies remain in the sensory motor stage.

Between the ages of birth and 2 years, babies remain in the sensory motor stage.

• When: 8 – 12 months
• What:
In this stage, children’s cognitive development allows them to understand the concept of a chain of events. An example is where a moves an object which is obstructing a toy.

Sub-stage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions

• When: 12 months – 18 months
• What:
During the fifth stage, actions start to occur deliberately. It is defined as a new way to produce the same goal.

Sub-stage 6: Coordination of Tertiary Circular Reaction

• When: 18 months – 24 months
• What:
The final sub-stage of Sensory Motor cognitive development is where the internalisation of behaviour occurs. For example, if the toddler needs an object that is not present, they will realise this need and seek out that object or something of similar value.

Stage 2: Cognitive Development Milestone – Pre-operational Stage

Usually, children reach the pre-operational stage between 24 months and 7 years of age. There are two phases to this stage. Firstly, all thoughts and communications are egocentric (self-centred). Children believe everyone shares their view and that they are the centre of the world. The second defining characteristic of this stage is the absence of a logical thought process.

Here, children are still developing a sense of reality and haven’t yet distinguished morality or understand rules and others behaviour. Children also show signs of animism, which is the belief that inanimate objects experience the same feelings as them. Another noticeable characteristic of this stage of cognitive development is a child’s newfound ability to rationalise the presence of objects, even when they cannot see them.

The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development for Childcare Providers: Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage is defined as a turning point in cognitive development.

Stage 3: Cognitive Development Milestone – Concrete Operational Stage

The third stage is known as the concrete operational stage and is typically reached by children between the ages of 7 and 11 years, it has been defined by some as a major turning point in cognitive development. During this stage, children gain the ability to replace their egocentric behaviour with logic and work towards problem solving.

Children also learn the concept of conservation. Conservation is where the same amount of an object can transform to another shape, without minimising in quantity. An example of this is building blocks. When combined into a tower, they minimise in physical volume, but not in quantity. A child who has not reached this stage will think some blocks have disappeared.

Stage 4: Cognitive Development Milestone – Formal Operations Stage

Finally, cognitive development in children ends with the formal operation stage. Generally, children experience this development from 11 years onward. Here, the thought process is transitioning to that of an adult and becomes more abstract.

Children are able to problem solve and create hypothesis for situations. For example, they may be given simple maths problems that call for inferential reasoning. Children are able to consider a conclusion to a problem that has not physically presented itself to them.

While Piaget’s theory has its critics, it is indisputable that he revolutionised the way children are studied and changed the world’s understanding of cognitive development in children.

Are you a parent or child care worker? Have you noticed these cognitive developments in children or have any experience/knowledge on kids health and development milestones? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know in a comment below!

Topics: Cognitive Development, Cognitive Development in Children, Kids Health, Development Milestones

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