Helping Your Child’s Cognitive Development
  • July 1, 2022
  • By Content Writer at The Center for Developmental Psychiatry

Helping Your Child’s Cognitive Development

During their first five years of life, children grow and develop rapidly, particularly in the four main areas of cognitive development that were first described by Jean Piaget, a French/Swiss psychologist who contributed greatly to the understanding of children’s cognitive development. Among the most important findings of Piaget’s work is that children are not born with the same cognitive processes as adults.

Piaget’s theory centered around the principle that cognitive development occurs in a series of four distinct, universal stages, each characterized by increasingly sophisticated and abstract levels of thought. These stages always occur in the same order, and each stage builds on what the child learned during the previous stage. Children’s cognitive processes:

  • develop over time
  • develop in response to their environment
  • develop through exposure to new information

Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development are:

Sensorimotor stage (infancy): This is the physical stage where children demonstrate intelligence primarily through motor activity without the use of symbols. Your baby’s knowledge of the world is limited, but developing, because it is based solely on physical interactions and experiences. Physical development and mobility allow your infant to begin developing new intellectual abilities.

Pre-operational stage (toddlers and early childhood): During this stage, your child demonstrates intelligence using symbols, maturing use of language, and developing memory and imagination. Their thought patterns are non-logical and non-reversible, and egocentric thinking predominates.

Concrete operational stage (elementary and early adolescence): This stage is characterized by a child learning to understand numbers, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, and volume), and demonstrating intelligence through the logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. The child develops operational thinking with mental actions that are reversible and egocentric thought diminishes.

Formal operational stage (adolescence and adulthood): This is the stage where your child demonstrates intelligence through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. There is a return to egocentric thought early in this period. Only 35 percent of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.

It was once believed that infants lacked the ability to think or form complex ideas. They were without cognition until they learned language. But it is now known that babies are aware of their surroundings and interested in exploring from the time they are born. They gather, sort, and process information from their environment, using this data to develop their perception and thinking skills.

What is cognitive development?

In its simplest terms, cognitive development is how children think, explore and figure things out. It is how they develop knowledge, skills, problem solving abilities and dispositions, which help them understand the world around them. It is also about their brain development. It is important for parents to foster their child’s cognitive development from birth to provide the foundation for success in school and later in life. Cognitive development is defined as the construction of thought processes, which include remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood.

The cognitive development of children has been studied in a variety of ways through history. The oldest method is through intelligence tests, such as the widely used Stanford Binet Intelligence Quotient test first adopted for use in the United States in 1916. IQ test scoring is based on a person’s “mental age.” According to IQ test scores, a child of average intelligence will match his or her age, while a gifted child’s performance is comparable to that of an older child. Conversely, a slow learner’s scores are more like those of a younger child. While IQ tests are still widely used in the United States, they have received increasing criticism for defining intelligence too narrowly and for being biased around race and gender.

Instead of focusing mainly on a child’s native abilities through intelligence testing, behaviorist researchers such as John Watson and B. F. Skinner argued that children are completely malleable and they develop by learning. In contrast to IQ testing, learning theory focuses on the role of environmental factors in shaping children’s intelligence, especially on a child’s ability to learn by having certain behaviors rewarded and others discouraged by parents.

How did Piaget develop his theory of cognitive development?

Piaget’s theory, first published in 1952, was based on decades spent observing children, including his own, in their natural environments. Piaget envisioned a child’s knowledge as composed of basic patterns called schemas, used to organize past experiences, and serve as a basis for understanding new ones.

Piaget noted that children continually modify their schemas using two complementary processes he called assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of taking in new information by incorporating it into an existing schema. In other words, children assimilate new experiences by relating them to things they already know. Accommodation is what happens when the schema changes to accommodate new knowledge. According to Piaget, cognitive development involves an ongoing attempt to achieve equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation.

Piaget believed that children learn about the world by interacting with it, a concept known as constructivism. Through their interactions, children construct cognitive patterns or schemas about how the world works. These schemas develop when children begin organizing items together into categories based on common characteristics. For example, an infant may have this schema about a rattle: if you shake it, it makes a noise.

Schemas are not static. They can be improved and updated based on new information. When children learn new information, they do not abandon their previous schemas. They build upon them. As a result, children’s cognitive development happens in the four stages previously mentioned as schemas that are continuously updated with new information. The four stages can also be described as:


This describes how children update their current cognitive organizations and schemas with new information. Adaptation takes place in two ways: assimilation and accommodation.


This describes how children incorporate new information into existing schemas. For example, a child may refer to dogs as ‘woofs.’ When they see a cat for the first time, they refer to the cat as a ‘woof,’ too.


This describes how children adapt their cognitive abilities to match new information from the world around them. Using the previous example, the child realizes that dogs and cats are different. The child updates their cognitive schema and now refers to cats as ‘meows’ and dogs as ‘woofs’.


Piaget’s concept of equilibrium resembles the idea of homeostasis. He believed that children’s cognitive processes are aimed at achieving equilibrium. When children learn new information that is at odds with their current schemas, they are in an undesirable state of disequilibrium until they can adapt to achieve equilibrium.

How can you support your baby’s cognitive development?

You can promote your child’s cognitive development by actively engaging in quality interactions with them every day. For example, you should:

  • Talk with your baby and name commonly used objects or toys
  • Let your baby explore toys and move about freely
  • Sing and read to your baby
  • Expose your toddler to books and puzzles
  • Expand your toddler’s interests in specific learning activities (e.g., if your toddler shows an early interest in dinosaurs, you can take him/her to a natural history museum or provide picture books that stimulate learning more about dinosaurs)
  • Answer your child’s “why” questions

Remember that children don’t ask “why” to be annoying. They ask why because they are hungry for new information that will foster their cognitive development. You can also foster your child’s cognitive development by providing choices and prompting them to make their own thoughtful decisions. Allow your child to explore different ways of solving problems. Give them time to figure things out like a new puzzle. This may take patience on your part, but it will ultimately help them learn and navigate their way through life.

If you have questions regarding the ways that you can proactively help with your child’s cognitive development, please contact the Center for Developmental Psychiatry in Teaneck, NJ. Call 201-304-7552 for more information.

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