Last updated: March 23, 2019
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Cognitive development in Early Childhood

Intellectual ability

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Early childhood is a period of tremendous cognitive development intellectual ability seems to grow through various stages within the first years of life. According to Piaget’s theory, from birth to around 24 months children have sensor motor intelligence (Pechionni, Wright and Nussbaum, 2005). At the sensori-motor stage the baby develops coordinated actions. Sensori-motor stage continues into the pre-operational stage which is not fully logical. The child’s system does not have critical linkages and as such is internally inconsistent from time to time. For example the child may not be able to reverse logic as thinking is unidirectional and irreversible, (Butterworth and Harris, 1994). The child can focus on only one issue of a problem at a time. Thought is therefore pre-logical and egocentric with the child having difficulty in taking other people’s viewpoint. Children at this stage attach emotions to inanimate objects (Pechionni, Wright and Nussbaum, 2005).


Most children in early childhood period are easily distracted a child’s attention span increases as the child gets older. Most children about three years old have a very short attention span and will be quickly attracted to something else that is more colourful and produces more varied sounds than what is currently holding their attention. However when a child’s attention is held for long by one particular thing or task for example a flickering light or rocking back and forth it may indicate that the child has special needs.


The memory of younger children is generally not as good as that of older children. That is not to say however that early childhood is characterised by poor memory. On the contrary, young children have the capacity to remember personally significant events. Research has revealed that young children have the ability to recall and describe in a sequential manner events that recur often though their reports may not be as elaborate as those of older children. Increasing experience leads to more complex reports and are they more likely to recall an event or a specific of it deviates from normal recurring events.

Academic everyday knowledge

The academic everyday knowledge of a pre-school child is lower than that of a child at kindergarten. This can be attributed to the fact that the pre-school child has had fewer experiences but as the child reaches school going age and attends kindergarten their academic everyday knowledge increased due to increased exposure to recurring information at kindergarten. As they develop from pre-school to school going age their attention and language also increases leading to a higher retention of academic knowledge.

Problem solving

Due to the fact that most young children are egocentric problem solving to them is generally seen from their point of view. As such the children will desire to have control over their environment and do not like to be told what to do. This is especially the case with two years olds. To get their way children will frequently throw tantrums. In a classroom setting problems solving through experimenting and trying out hypothesis makes learning easier for the child since the child wants to control his environment, allowing the child to discover or invert something makes learning more personal and meaningful. Young children also desire independence and have initiative and these two factors are important in problem solving, as it serves as a motivation to change their own behaviour or learn something new.

Imagination and creativity

Imagination is a cognitive ability in early childhood that is used frequently by children often to fill in gaps in information. The more involved children are with various modes of representation, the more likely they are to have highly developed imagination and creativity (Essa, 2002). Involvement in play activities further enriches a child’s imagination and creativity since it provides more opportunities for problems to present themselves and children to find solutions to them.


The complexity and sophistication of language increases as the young child grows older. Young children initially may use one word to ask various questions and make statements, for example saying “Daddy” could mean, “Please pick me up Daddy” or “is Daddy home yet?” But as the child grows older and is exposed to more experiences their vocabulary becomes longer and as their perspective shifts away from themselves they acquire more meanings for words, people and situations increasing their language ability strategies of persuasion ((Pechionni, Wright and Nussbaum, 2005).

Common Concerns

The cognitive abilities of children give rise to various concerns from their parents. Children generally have different developmental rates and these leads to the issue of inaccurate judgment and categorization of a child who may be slower or faster than others. Determining learning outcomes for young children is another concern. If the learning outcome is too specific, the child may end up learning narrowly defined skills that could lead to neglect of emotional, social and physical needs thus limiting the development needs of the whole child. This is especially the case if the goals set for children are not challenging enough or responsive to diversity in terms of language and culture.


Interventions in dealing with the cognitive changes of early childhood include teaching kindergarten teachers about the various stages of cognitive development in early childhood. This empowers the teacher and makes it possible to have realistic expectations concerning the young child’s achievement levels and aids in setting mastery goals. Identification of special needs is also facilitated by a good understanding of the developmental changes expected. Allowing the child to control this environment as much as possible is also an intervention that hones their cognitive skills since it presents a challenge to their problem solving abilities (Essa, 2003)

Cultural variations

Cultural variations in early childhood are a significant factor in development of young children. Cultural aspects such as language influence children differently. Depending on the complexity of a child’s first language, the child’s language ability might be extremely developed compared to another. Cultural activities may focus on instructing children to count, read books increasing readiness for school activities. Other cultural influences include parents’ beliefs and attitudes to learning, social contexts that influence ways of imparting knowledge and the nature parent-child interaction and experiences that support learning in a school environment (

B) Emotional and social changes

Emotional communication is very important for a young child. For the child to develop normally the child has to perceive emotional security which for the child is read from the gestures and facial expressions of those around him or her. Closeness to patients facilitates emotional communication and most of the communication is usually with parents and adults that the young child can trust (Rodd, 1996).

Self understanding

Young children generally begin to understand themselves first before they understand the outside world. Everything is viewed from their perspective and once they have some degree of self understanding that allows them to control their environment and their activities they begin to see other people’s viewpoints. Above the age of two years the young child has developed self-control, they are less impulsive and are able to tolerate frustration, postpone gratification and make a plan to be carried out later (Butterworth And Harris, 1994).

Interpersonal skills

This are developed during play for most children and as children develop self-understanding and control of behaviour at about two years and above they become better at relating to other children and even begin to share their things since the focus on themselves in decreasing.


Friendships are forged us the interpersonal skills of young children become better and the the children become more social through group activity and play. The development of language and other cognitive abilities also aid the friendship making process.

Intimate relations

Intimate relations in childhood are common with parents and sometimes caregivers. These are the people that the child’s trust and young children view them as the source of emotional and social security. When adults and parents keep their promises to children they are seen as dependable.

Moral reasoning and behaviour

Young children’s behaviour is often modelled after that of the adults around them attention. The young child initially has egotistical tendencies and will indulge in behaviour with immediate gratification. As the child grows older these tendencies decrease as the child becomes sensitive to the needs and the approval of others in his environment especially parents, siblings and close friends.  Children will also copy what adults do and especially if the actions seem to be enjoyable (Butterworth And Harris, 1994).

Common concerns

Common concerns that arise form emotional and social changes in early childhood include the issue of modelling. Parents often disregard the effect their behaviour has on children. By failing to synchronise their words and actions parents and adults send confusing messages to children .The major concern for parents when sending their children to kindergarten is that they might pick up bad habits due to the impressionable nature of young children.


In dealing with emotional and social changes it is important for children to have proper and conscious models dealing with them. In addition giving attention to good behaviour rather than bad behaviour is likely to yield better results. Since children like to seek attention they are more likely to better behaved when attention is paid to good behaviour they are more likely to repeat it and engage less in bad behaviour. Positive reinforcement rather than punishment are more effective in managing behaviour.

Cultural variations

Parental beliefs and social conventions and interactions influence the emotional and social development of young children significantly. Social conventions that have to do with rules of conversation, ways of displaying respect all influence the transition from home to school. A child who interacts freely at home will likely interact freely at school and often the socially withdrawn child is affected by issues that can be traced back to the homes or the culture at home (

Cognitive changes in Adolescence

Intellectual Ability

The adolescent has cognitive abilities similar to those of an adult. According to Piaget’s development stages by an adolescent falls in the last stages, formal operational thought stage and has the ability to think on an abstract level. Hero worship, understanding art, literature and cultural history all require high intellectual ability. Thinking ahead, thinking about thought, about possibilities, hypothesis and beyond limits of convention are characteristic of adolescence (Brenner, 2008).


The attention span of an adolescent is significantly higher than that of a young child or one in middle school. They are therefore less easily distracted and once they have the initiative to do something, they have the ability to pursue the plan until it is completed successfully (Brenner, 2008).


Memory is well developed in adolescence and adolescents can give a complex report of past events, those that recur and those that do not. They are also able to recall an atypical deviation in a recurring event. This may be because they have greater language ability and exposure to experiences.

Academic everyday knowledge

The understanding of literature, cultural history and art are required of the average adolescent in school. Due to better developed intellectual abilities, attention and memory the adolescent commands a higher knowledge of greater academic everyday knowledge. He or she can make logical judgments which aid significantly in the more challenging subjects like mathematics, chemistry and physics among others.

Problem solving

Problem solving skills in the adolescent are also well developed owing to the greater sophistication in cognitive processes and also because of a desire to be independent and find one’s own identity Brenner, 2008). However, problem solving can be difficult for the adolescent who may have other issues such as drugs and family problems. The nature of adolescence being a time of rapid changes may also overwhelm the adolescent compromising their problem solving abilities.

Imagination and creativity

Imagination and creativity are some of the cognitive abilities that continue to develop on the child matures into an adolescent. If imagination and creativity are not stifled at childhood he adolescence becomes an imaginative person with the ability to think beyond conventional ways explaining adolescent idealism to a degree.


As the adolescent interact with more people and develops the ability to tolerate other people’s perspectives, the adolescent’s language becomes more complex and sophisticated. This is shown by the adolescent’s ability to make persuasive arguments, greater uses of comforting messages and listening abilities (Pechioni, Wright and Nussbaum, 2005)

B) Common Concerns

One of the major concerns that is common with respect to adolescent cognitive ability includes the adolescent’s tendency to question authority and the standards of society. This in some cases has led to adolescents being involved in juvenile delinquency as they try to show that they have their won thoughts and ideas. In addition, formation and inclusion in certain groups may cause the adolescents to get into questionable behaviour and push their parents to change rules that they had adhered to previously (Brenner, 2008).


To encourage positive cognitive development in adolescence, some strategies that would be useful include, encouraging adolescents to share their ideas and thoughts with adults, parents and teachers, including them in discussions about various topics, current events, helping the adolescents in goals setting and stimulating them to think about their future. Paying compliments where adolescents make good decisions and helping them to evaluate decisions that were made poorly are also interventions that will help adolescents have healthier cognitive development (Brenner, 2008)

Cultural variations

Adolescent cognitive ability is also influenced by cultural differences. A culture that views school as important will cause an adolescent to hone his intellectual abilities in a bid to get better education. A culture where drug use adolescents is the norm will eventually compromise the adolescent’s abilities of problem solving and other cognitive abilities. Cultural attitudes towards the role of adolescents determine whether they will be involved in activities that promote development of healthy cognitive ability (Brenner, 2008)

Emotional and social changes

Emotional communication may become strained especially with authority figures. Adolescents are known for frequent outbursts periods of silence where they are not talking to their parents. In class they may choose to remain quiet even when they have information that could make a discussion more interesting. This however happens when there is a problem the adolescent is going.

Self understanding

Self understanding is heightened during adolescence as the adolescent seeks independence, a sense of identity and changes in self esteem. Often adolescents think about how to work out their own problems and begin to plan for their future lives. As the adolescent’s body changes they begin to develop concepts concerning who they are, and their self esteem is also affected. It may dip with the beginning of adolescence due to the awkwardness of bodily changes but as new thoughts and ways of thinking develop their self esteem improves (Brenner, 2008)

Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills improve as the adolescent matures. This is due to the move away from family relationships to relationships with other people with similar attitudes. This change means more interaction with new people and new experiences leading to improved interpersonal skills.


Friendships in adolescent are based on similarities, attitudes, loyalties, values, and intimacy and common activities unlike those of childhood based on common activities. Adolescent girls are likely to be close to each other and have self disclosing conversations while boys will have friends with whom they participate in activities together that validate each others worth (Brenner 2008)

Intimate relations

Intimate levels are increased in adolescence and this is especially the case for girls who form more intimate relationships between themselves than boys. Intimacy through sexual relations begins at this stage for most people with girls and boys exploring attraction to each other that eventually leads to partnership and intimacy in a love relationship (Brenner, 2008)

Moral reasoning and Behavior

The new ways of thinking characteristic of adolescence influence moral reasoning and behaviour significantly. Often adolescents try to defy authority (parental and school) and societal norms on morality and other issues but in late adolescence most of the questioning becomes less extensive and the adolescents are more likely to conform then to societal norm.

2.  Implications for the school/voc rehab/MH counsellor

Common concerns pertaining to adolescent emotional and social development include the fear of early sexual activity, involvement in destructive behaviour to compensate for low self esteem such as bullying others and failure to obtain one’s own identity.


Making an effort to know the friends of one’s adolescent is a strategy that ensures the parent is aware of possible activities that their child may indulge in. provision for extracurricular activities for adolescents to be involved in keeps from occupied and provides an opportunity for development of their self-esteem involvement of parents in these activities by showing support is also helpful in self esteem development.

Assisting adolescents in making decisions concerning career choices, college choice is an important intervention that can help in achieving independence and a sense of identity (Brenner 2008)

Cultural variation

Differences in socialization of females and males influence the way adolescents handle male-female relations as well as relationships with their peers. The social interaction process at home is reflected in the quality of relationships that the adolescent has with his or her friends (Brenner, 2008)


















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Brenner, J 2008 Adolescent Medicine, Relationship Development retrieved from

Cultural Diversity and Early Education retrieved from

Essa E, 2002 Introduction to Early Childhood Education Thomson Delmar Learning
ISBN 0766800318

Harris M and Butterworth G, 1994 Principles of developmental Psychology
Psychology Press Developmental psychology ISBN 086377279X

Rodd J, 1996 Understanding Young children’s Behavior a guide for Early educators

Allen & Unwin ISBN 1864481633

Pecchioni LL, Wright KB and Nussbaum F, 2005 Lifespan Communication, Routledge
Interpersonal communication ISBN 0805841113