Stages of Cognitive Development

Original Editor - Robin Tacchetti based on the course by Krista Eskay
Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti and Jess Bell

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Cognitive development refers to the development of our ability to know, comprehend or understand. Jean Piaget was a famous 20th century psychologist who studied cognitive development and his findings are still used today.[1] His research led to the idea that children's interactions developed their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. Piaget classified childhood cognitive development into four sequential periods:

  1. Sensorimotor period: birth to 24 months
  2. Pre-operational period: 2 to 7 years old
  3. Concrete operational period: 7 to 11 years old
  4. Formal operational period: 11 years to adolescence[1]

Piaget believed all children move from one stage to the next as a continuous process regardless of their culture or environmental context.[2] Each step is a prerequisite for the next step and there is a smooth transition from one stage to the next.[3][4] Lastly, Piaget believed that children move through the stages at differing rates after being exposed to relevant experiences and reaching the necessary level of maturation.[4]

Sensorimotor Period[edit | edit source]

The sensorimotor stage is a period of time where the infant observes their surroundings using their sense of sound, touch and sight.[4] Their senses and motor skills allow them to manipulate their surroundings. This subsequently teaches them about their environment. The sensorimotor stage can be divided into six substages[4]:

  1. Simple reflexes
  2. First habits and primary circular reactions
  3. Secondary circular reactions
  4. Coordination of secondary circular reactions
  5. Tertiary circular reactions
  6. Beginnings of thought

Simple Reflexes[edit | edit source]

Basic reflex actions take place during birth-1 month. Reflexes are simple action patterns such as grasping, biting and sucking that are at the centre of an infant's "physical and cognitive life".[4]

First Habits and Primary Circular Reactions[edit | edit source]

Between 1 and 4 months, infants begin to integrate simple reflex actions by coordinating separate action patterns that focus on self. These patterns are repeated because they are pleasurable or interesting to the infant, and this creates habits. An examples of a repeated circular reaction that becomes a habit is thumb sucking.[4]

Secondary Circular Reactions[edit | edit source]

Between 4 and 8 months of age, the infant's interest in the environment increases. Secondary circular reactions are when there is a transition of focus from self to the external environment. An example of a secondary circular reaction would be to pick up a rattle and shake it.[4]

Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions[edit | edit source]

Between 8 and 12 months, goal-directed behaviour begins to emerge. Through manipulation of objects, infants come to understand cause-and-effect relationships and object permanence.[5] [4] An example of object permanence would be the infant reaching for a toy that is hidden behind another toy, knowing of it existence without it being seen.[4]

Tertiary Circular Reactions[edit | edit source]

Between 12 and 18 months, children begin to carry out mini experiments to learn about their environment. They become captivated with object properties and start to solve problems using trial and error methods. An example of tertiary circular reaction is dropping food on the floor to see what happens.[4]

Beginning of Thought[edit | edit source]

From 18 months to 2 years, the child begins to use insight and creativity. During this stage, you might see make-believe activities, accepting others but a focus on self, complex schematic understanding, and internalisation of images of past events. An example of beginnings of thought would be a child playing with an imaginary friend.[4]

Preoperational Stage[edit | edit source]

Between 2 and 7 years old, the child begins to use symbolic thinking with mental representations of ideas and events. During this time, there is less reliance on sensorimotor activity to understand their environment. Communication increases by way of gestures, words and symbols. Examples of the preoperational stage would be a child noticing their parents picking up keys and then asking if they are leaving. Three main features occur during this stage:[4]

  1. Conservation
  2. Centration
  3. Egocentricism

Conservation[edit | edit source]

Conservation describes the understanding that a quantity is constant even when there is a change in physical appearance or arrangement. An example of conservation is when a child is shown two different sized drinking glasses. Milk is poured from a short wide glass to a taller thin glass. The child is asked whether there is more milk in the tall glass. If they respond no, they understand conservation.[4]

Centration[edit | edit source]

Centration refers to making decisions based on one aspect of a stimulus/situation while disregarding all other features. Children tend to focus on one outstanding feature/detail in their "perceptual array of sight".[4] An example of centration would be a child focusing on the number of cookies each person gets regardless of the size of each cookie.[4]

Egocentricism[edit | edit source]

Egocentricism describes when a child does not take into account the views of others or see the world from another's perspective. An example of egocentricism is when a child, who has an older sibling, assumes that all other children have older siblings. Egocentricism is not the same as selfishness and is not a lasting behaviour.[4]

Concrete Operational Stage[edit | edit source]

Between the ages of 7 and 12 years, children develop logical thinking versus just perception. They can "decentre" - i.e. they can focus on multiple aspects of a stimulus. In addition, they are able to understand the concept of reversibility - i.e. they can acknowledge that transformation of a stimulus can be reversed. An example of reversibility would be using playdoh to make a thin rope and then returning it to a ball shape.[4]

Formal Operational Stage[edit | edit source]

Around the age of 11 or 12 years, children enter the formal operational stage where they have the ability to think abstractly and reason. They are able to solve problems and conduct experiments using deductive and inductive reasoning.[4] An example of the formal operational stage is a child being able to solve algebraic equations.[5]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Paiget's cognitive development has been widely studied and used, but it is not without its critics. Some researchers believe there are other factors that contribute to cognitive development that are not included in his theory, including social and cultural influences.[2] It has also been suggested that there is a poor generalisability of Piaget's stages and that infants' capabilities emerge earlier than suggested.[2]

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Scott HK, Cogburn M. Piaget. Stat Pearls: Treasure Island, Florida. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Babakr Z, Mohamedamin P, Kakamad K. Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory: Critical review. Education Quarterly Reviews. 2019 Aug 15;2(3).
  3. Winstanley MA. Stages in Theory and Experiment. Fuzzy-Structuralism and Piagetian Stages. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science. 2022 Jun 15:1-23.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 Sanghvi P. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: a review. Indian Journal of Mental Health. 2020;7(2):90-6.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Klahr D, Wallace JG. Cognitive development: An information-processing view. Routledge; 2022 Feb 16.