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Cognitive Development Theory: How Parents Can Support It

One of the popular theories regarding childhood development is the cognitive development theory. 

You might have questions about what it is and how you can support your child as a parent.

We’ll define cognitive development theory, its stages, and how parents can support their children as they progress through it.

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What Is Cognitive Development?

The Encyclopedia of Mental Health defines cognitive development as “the process by which human beings acquire, organize, and learn to use knowledge.

The systematic research of cognitive development began in the late 1950s and was led by the works of Jean Piaget. Piaget became interested in children’s cognitive development by observing his daughter and nephew.

Through his observations, he concluded that children’s minds were not just smaller versions of adult minds. Instead, he proposed that intelligence develops and grows via a series of developmental stages. He called this theory the Theory of Cognitive Development. 

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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget broke the cognitive development of children down into four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operation.

The Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 Years)

During this earliest stage of cognitive development, infants and toddlers acquire knowledge through manipulating objects and sensory experiences. Likewise, a child experiences the world in this earliest stage through basic senses, motor responses, and reflexes.

Developmental changes and significant characteristics of this stage include:

  • Understanding that what they do can cause things in the world around them to happen
  • Get to know the world through sensations and movements
  • Grasp that they are separate entities from the objects and people around them
  • Learn and begin to understand object permanence
  • Experience the world through basic actions like listening, looking, sucking, and grasping

Ways Parents Can Support Their Children in the Sensorimotor Stage

A great way to support your children in the sensorimotor stage is to respond to their chatter by communicating with them repeatedly and exaggeratedly with happy vocalizations. Play peek-a-boo to teach them about object permanence.

At this age, you can allow them to use toys as tools. Allow children to experiment and learn in a safe environment and shake, mouth, and grasp toys and objects in different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures.

You can also build your child’s vocabulary by frequently reading and talking to them. 

 

Children Playing Outside Together

 

The Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 Years)

While the foundations of language development were established in the previous stage, the preoperational stage is where the emergence of language truly begins.

Developmental changes and significant characteristics of this stage include:

  • Children in this stage can be selfish and have difficulty seeing things from other people’s perspectives.
  • Children begin to think more symbolically and learn to associate pictures and words that represent objects.
  • While children improve their thinking and language, they still think in more concrete terms than abstract ones.

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Ways Parents Can Support Their Children in the Preoperational Stage

The preoperational stage is a great time to encourage imaginary play. Try to work in elements of the “Theory of Mind,” which is the ability to think not only of their mental state but the mental state of those around them.

You can tell stories and try simple role-playing games to help expand your child’s comprehension of human emotions. Nursery rhymes, thinking games, and puzzles can also be very beneficial during this stage.

The Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 Years)

Children in the concrete operational stage are still very literal in their thinking and become better at using logic. However, some of the selfishness from the preoperational stage begins to wane as they become better at understanding how others might see a situation.

Developmental changes and significant characteristics of this stage include:

  • Children start to use inductive logic or being able to reason from specific information to a general principle.
  • A child begins to think in a more logical and organized manner.
  • They can begin to grasp abstract concepts like the concept of conservation. In comparison, the amount of liquid in a tall skinny glass is the same as that in a short, wide one.

Ways Parents Can Support Their Children in the Concrete Operational Stage

You’ll need to be patient with kids in the concrete operational stage. While they start to grasp logic, their thinking can still be rigid, and they can struggle with theoretical and abstract concepts.

Food is a great way to help them understand abstract concepts like reversibility and fractions, so that meals can be great teaching moments. You can also use building blocks to help teach the idea of conservation.

This is also the stage where kids lose some of their selfishness and begin to sympathize with how others think and feel.  

The Formal Operational Stage (12 Years and Up)

The final stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, the formal operational stage, introduces the increase of the use of logic, the understanding of abstract ideas, and the use of deductive reasoning

From this stage on, adolescents can see the world more scientifically and that there can be multiple potential solutions to problems.

Developmental changes and significant characteristics of this stage include:

  • Adolescents can use deductive logic and reason from general principles to specific information.
  • Teens begin to think more abstractly and apply reason to hypothetical problems.
  • In the final stage, it’s possible to think and understand moral, ethical, philosophical, and political issues that can only be understood using theoretical and abstract reasoning.

Girl With Pink Bonnet

 

Ways Parents Can Support Their Children in the Formal Operational Stage

Volunteering is a great way to engage your teen and teach the value of giving back to society. 

You can engage with them in complex discussions and help guide them through some questions they may have. It’s a great time to teach them to try and look at and explore information from various sources.

This time is also the age to introduce more complex board games that can challenge them creatively and intellectually. 

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Support Your Child as They Develop Cognitively

As a parent, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to help support them as they progress through their cognitive development.

In the sensorimotor stage, you can play peek-a-boo to teach them about object permanence. Let them touch and feel toys with different colors, shapes, and textures to help with their tactile and motor skills.

You can build their language skills in the preoperational stage by talking, reading, and working on puzzles with them. This stage is the time for them to think about how others experience life.

The concrete operational stage lets you use mealtimes and food to teach abstract concepts like math. Let them play with building blocks to grasp conservation.

In the formal operational stage, teach them about volunteering and giving back to the community. 

You can help their cognitive development by spending time with them and helping them be the best they can be while you both have fun doing it! 

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