Cognitive Development
The Core of Child's Intelligence

Cognitive development is an adaptive effort of a child in response to various environmental influences. This is accomplished in the following two ways.

  • Assimilation
    ncorporating new thoughts, behavior and objects into the existing structures.

  • Accommodation
    hanging the existing structures in response to new challenges.


Cognition is a scientific term for thought processing of information, applying knowledge, and changing preferences.

The term is derived from Latin word “cognoscere” which means “to conceptualize”. Animals’ cognitive skills development process is nearly similar to that of humans.

Children have sharp senses with keen observation and are active learners: Note the dynamic brain growth and development during the first 2 years of life. They continuously perceive information and store it as their memory in the specific areas of the brain.  Good and bad experiences right from early age modulate human brain development.

Memory is the basis of children's cognitive development.
Memories are classified into concepts so that thinking, reasoning, and understanding is made possible and used to solve problems. 

Factors that influence cognitive development

  • Neurological maturation: It enables children to understand the new experiences and to apply more complex reasoning as they get older.

  • Opportunity to practice newly acquired skills.

  • Opportunity for social interaction: Benefits from varied strata of interpersonal interactions at school and at home.

  • Emergence of internal psychological mechanisms helps the child to construct successively more complex cognitive models based on maturation and experience.

  • Neuronal plasticity is crucial for learning and remembering and therefore for the cognitive development. It permits the central nervous system to reorganize neuronal networks in response to environment’s positive and negative stimulation.

    In face of injury or new learning, the body draws upon the reservoir of neurons bank created as a result of large number of neurons produced during the third trimester and early infancy. Each neuron develops about 15,000 synapses by 3 years of age.

    The neuronal “pruning” leads to preservation of synapses of frequently used pathways and atrophy of those that are less-used. The strength of synapses increases or decreases as a direct effect of a child’s experiences that influence the synaptic activity.

  • Good development of gross and fine motor skills is also crucial for child to be able to effectively exhibit the developed cognitive skills.

  • The early experiences are particularly important.
    Learning proceeds more efficiently along established synaptic pathways.

  • Children can be molded by controlling the stimuli and the associated responses: Smaller achievable challenges instill confidence in a growing child to accomplish the tasks and thus lead to better cognitive development during early childhood.

Nativism versus Empiricism

There has been a major debate on “nativism versus empiricism” in cognitive development theory.

Nativism implies that children  are born with certain skills; native abilities, On the other hand, Empiricism believes in theory of 'blank slate' of mind at birth. Thereby meaning that the brain has inborn capabilities for learning from environmental experiences but does not contain any inherent skills.However, this dichotomy is now proved to be false.

Evidences from biological and behavioral sciences confirm that genetic potential interacts with experiences right from birth through entire childhood development process; and cognitive development is no exception.

Children because of their individualized environmental influences and genetic make up differ in their temperament and skills development; and elicit different stimuli from the same environment.

Thus cognitive development is the core of human intelligence and language development is its outcome. It also influences the personality development of an individual.

Theory of cognitive development

In 1929, the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget detailed the most comprehensive cognitive development theory. His theory was based on a basic fact that “to survive adaptation is a must”.

This implies that the cognitive development is the result of interaction between an individual and the environment. The contribution of each is complex, as both are continuously changing over time.

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Types of intelligence

There are two types of intellectual structure:

  • Schema are those that a child is born with.
    They are the internal representation of some specific action, such as sucking and grasping. Most of the neonatal reflexes get included in this category.

  • Operational intellectual structure develops during middle childhood. Operations are the internal rules of a higher order and are reversible. Example multiply and divide, keep and take etc

Stages of cognitive development

Piaget proposed that children move through following 4 stages of cognitive skills development:

1. Sensorimotor stage is from birth to 2years of age.

  • During the early infancy, behaviour of an infant is dominated by inborn reflexes like sucking, swallowing, visually following an object and so on.

    At this stage of development, a child performs actions in response to stimuli from the five senses. The behavior that leads to an interesting or pleasant result is repeated.

  • Gradually begins to distinguish “Self” from “Non-Self”, namely where his own body ends and the world outside begins.

  • Intentional and purposeful behavior slowly sets in as an infant begins to understand that his behaviour can influence his environment.

  • Object permanence begins in the second half of first year and is firmly established by 2 years of age, whereby children recognize that objects exist even if they are not visible. 

  • Cause and effect are better understood:
    Thereby toddlers demonstrate flexibility in problem solving (e.g., using a stick to obtain a toy that is out of reach, figuring out how to wind a mechanical toy).

  • Symbolic thought transformations:
    Ability to represent and think about external objects and events emerges toward the end of second year. This is seen as child’s make believe play with dolls, where he reconstructs events that he has observed.

  • Approximately by 18 mo of age, several milestones are reached.
    They correlate with important changes in the emotional and linguistic domains and mark the end of the sensory-motor period.

2. Pre-operational stage is from 2-7 years of age, and refers to 
early childhood development.

  • Language use begins and a child can now represent objects by image and words.

  • Egocentric thinking: Children in this age group are unable to see others view point.

  • Animistic thinking: Children in this age group believe that everything, including the inanimate objects, has feelings, thoughts and wishes.

  • A principle of conservation for number, volume and mass is not changed by any visual alteration in its display or appearance. Example: Children of this age believe that a tall beaker has more milk than a soup bowl when the same milk is poured from one container to the other.

  • They reject the concept of chance or coincidence, but believe that every event has a preceding cause.

  • Children’s moral sense in this phase of development is rigid and believe that a punishment is invariable, irrespective of the circumstances.

  • They regard illness as a consequence for misdeeds and a punishment for misbehaviour.

3. Concrete operations stage is between 7 and 11 years of age.

  • Thinking at this age becomes more logical and less egocentric.

  • Achieves conservation of number by 6 years of age, volume by 7 years of age and mass by 8 years of age.

  • Attains the ability to arrange objects in rank order.

  • Begin to see events from another person’s stand.

  • Children are now able to appreciate and utilize reversibility. Example, 2+2=4 and 4-2=2

4. Formal operations stage starts from 12 years onwards,

This represents the most complex mode of thinking. Please note that not everyone achieves this stage of thinking, even as an adult!

  • Children in this age group use logical operations in a systematic fashion.

  • They are also able to think in abstract manner about propositions and hypotheses.

  • They can formulate general rules and principles.

  • Can devise and test hypothesis

Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development theory has had tremendous impact on educational concepts and teaching that has put a new meaning to children’s acquisition of early literacy and numeracy skills.

Milestones of cognitive development

Age (mo.)







17 - 18



60 - 72


Stares for few seconds at the spot where the object was.

Observes own hands.

Bangs 2 cubes

Uncovers toy after seeing it being hidden

Egocentric symbolic play
Ex. Pretends to drink from cup

Uses stick to reach toy

Pretend play with doll Ex. Feed doll with bottle




Developmental Implications

Lack of presence permanent

Self discovery: Learns cause & effect.

Active comparison of objects

Object permanence

Symbolic thought process begins

Able to link action to solve problems

Symbolic thoughts are put in to practice

Begins to understand the concept of present: Today

Begins to understand the concept of future & past: Tomorrow & Yesterday

Begins to understand the concept of right and left.

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Cognitive development disorders

  • Lead to learning difficulties and school related problems

    a.) Autism

    b.) Attention deficit hyperactive disorder - ADHD

    c.) Dyslexia (difficulty reading)

    d.) Dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematical calculations)

    There are yet more to enumerate. The minor learning disabilities often go unnoticed.

  • The concept of cognitive disabilities is broad and cannot be well defined.

  • Disturbed psychology affects children's cognitive performance and thus the scholastic achievements.
  • Thoughts under childhood depression get self defeating and lead to certain cognitive errors.

The two common type of cognitive errors

  • Personalization:
    In this type of thinking, children tend to
     take the blame on self for every undesired event that occurs in their environment.
  • Dichotomus thinking:
    It is also known as black or white, good or bad, and all or none thinking. It can lead to seeing oneself as a complete 'loser', with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. 

    It is a form of cognitive rigidity with inability to see probable options in face of an unpleasant situation. Example, a child who is not selected for national team of a sport, promptly concludes that he is no good at any sport.

    Dichotomous thinking forms the basis of perfectionism and causes one to fear any mistake or imperfection

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Related Pages

Childhood Development

Neuronal plasticity

Development Stages

Developmental Domains

Physical Domain

Cognitive Domain

Language Development

Social and Emotional 

Early Development
conception - 2 years of age


Neonatal Period

Infancy and toddlerhood

Early Childhood Development,
2-6 years of age

Infant Attachment

Child of Rage

Middle Childhood Development

Logical thinking

Intelligence development

Information processing

Attention span

Memory strategies

Communication capabilities

Teens Developmental Stages

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Motor Skills Development

Motor skills development process

Gross motor skills

Fine motor skills

Cognitive Development

Influencing Factors

Nativism versus empiricism

Types of Intellectual structure

Stages of cognitive development

Milestones of cognitive development

Cognitive disorders

Language development

What is language development

Building communicative abilities

Language development pg.2



Receptive language

Expressive language

Milestones of language development

Patterns of learning language

Factors affecting language development

Developmental Milestones

Milestones charts

Causes of delay & deterioration


Speech Fluency

Components of Stuttering

Developmental Dysfluency

Causes of Exacerbation

Psychological Implications



Cerebral Palsy

Disability Benefits

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