Children Cognitive Development and Teaching Guideline – Part I

Four stages of Cognitive Development.

Infancy (0-2 years): The sensorimotor stage.

The earliest period is called the sensorimotor stage because the child’s thinking involves seeing, hearing, moving, touching, tasting and so on.  During this period, the infant develops object permanence, the understanding that objects exist in the environment whether the baby perceives them or not.  As most parents discover, before infants develop object permanence, it is relatively easy to take something away from them.  The trick is to distract them and remove the object while they are not looking – “out of sight, out of mind.”  The older infant who searches for the ball that has rolled out of sight is indicating an understanding that objects still exist even when they are not in view.

A second major accomplishment in the sensorimotor period is the beginning of logical, goal-directed actions.  Think of the familiar container toy babies.  It is usually plastic, has a lid, and contains several colorful items that can be dumped out and replaced,  A 6-month old baby is likely to become frustrated trying to get to the toys inside.  An older child who has mastered the basics of the sensorimotor stage will probably be able to deal with the toy in an orderly fashion.  Through trial and error the child will slowly build a container toy scheme: (1) get the lid off, (2) turn the container upside down, (3) shake if the items jam, (4) watch the items fall.  The child is soon able to reverse this action by refilling the container. Learning to reverse actions is basic accomplishment of the sensorimotor stage.

Early childhood to the early Elementary Years (2-7 Years): the Preoperational stage.

The first step from action to thinking is the internalization of action, performing an action mentally rather than physically.  The first type of thinking that is separate from action involves making action scheme symbolic.  The ability to form and use symbols – words gestures, signs, images, and soon – is thus a major accomplishment of the preoperational period and moves children closer to mastering the mental operation of the next stage, The semiotic function.  This ability to work with symbols, such as using the work “bicycle” or a picture of a bicycle to represent a real bicycle that is not actually present.  The child’s earliest use of symbols is in pretending or miming.  Children who are not yet able to talk will often use action symbols – pretending to drink from an empty cup or touching a comb to their hairs showing that they know what each object is for.  This behavior also shows what their schemes are becoming more general and less tied to specific actions.  During the preoperational stage, we also see the rapid development of that very important symbol system, language.  Between the ages of 2 and 4, most children enlarge their vocabulary from about 200 to 2,000 words.

As the child moves through the preoperational stage, the developing ability to think about object in symbolic form remains somewhat limited to thinking in one direction only, or using one-way logic.  It is very difficult for the child to think backwards, or imagine how to reverse the steps in a task. The child can only consider one aspect of the situation at a time.  The Preoperational child cannot understand that increased diameter compensates for decreased height, since this would require taking into account two dimensions at once.  Thus, children at the preoperational stage have trouble freeing themselves from their own perceptions of how the world appears.  Preoperational children are very egocentric; they tend to see the world and the experiences of other from their own viewpoint.  Egocentric means children often assume that everyone else shares their feelings, reactions, and perspective.  For example, if a little boy at this stage is afraid of dogs, he may assume that all children share this fear.  This is one reason it is difficult for these children to understand that your right hand is not on the same side as theirs when you are facing them.  Egocentrism is also evident in the child’s language.  For example, young children happily talking about what they are doing even though no one is listening.  This can happen when the child is alone or in a group of children, each child talks enthusiastically without any real interaction or conversation.

Concrete operational (7-11 years)

The basic characteristic of this stage are the recognition of the logical stability of the physical world, the realization that elements can be changed or transformed and still conserve many of their original characteristics and the understanding that these changes can be reversed.  Another important operation mastered at this stage is classification, which depends on a student’s abilities to focus on a single characteristic of objects in a set and group the objects according to that characteristic.  Also seriation – the process of making an orderly arrangement from large to small or vice versa.

With the abilities to handle operations such as conservation, classification, and seriation, the student at the concrete operation stage has finally developed a complete and very logical system of thinking.  However, the concrete operational child is not yet able to reason about hypothetical, abstract problems that involve the coordination of many factors at once.


Formal operational (11- adult)

At the level of formal operations, all the earlier operations and abilities continue in force

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