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Intellectual and Cognitive Development in Children and Teens

When parents usually think about intellectual or cognitive development they are thinking more about learning academic skills and building a knowledge base. They usually limit their concept to knowing colors, recognizing shapes, learning the alphabet, and for sure the “3Rs” consisting of reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, cognitive and intellectual development is much broader than that. Cognitive development and intellectual development really focuses on the way changes in the brain occur related to how we think and learn as we grow. Children do not just know less than adults do, there are differences in the very way that they think about and understand their experiences. The Chart below provides a better picture of what we mean by cognitive development.
MilestoneDescriptionApproximate Age 
Early object permanence.Follows an object out of sight, searches for a partially hidden object. 4-8 months
Object permanenceSearches for an object completely hidden from view 9-12 months
Cause and effect Realizes his/her action causes another action or is linked to a response 9 months
Functional use of objectsRealizes what objects are used for 12-15 months
Representational playPretends to use objects functionally on others, or dolls 18 months
Symbolic playUses an object to symbolize something else during pretend play 2-3 years
Pre-academic skillsKnows letters, numbers, shapes, colors, and counts 3-5 years
Logical thinkingUnderstands conservation of matter, multistep problem-solving; realizes there can be differing perspectives 6-12 years
Abstract thinkingAble to hypothesize, think abstractly, draw conclusions >13 years
Jean Piaget was a Swiss biologist and psychologist who developed theories of cognitive development based on his observation of children and through experiments with children to discover how they learn and develop and to determine at what age they acquire various knowledge and skills.  Piaget saw intelligence as an active, constructive, and dynamic process. He stated that the mistakes children make in their thinking indicate the nature of their thought processes.  As children develop, the structure of their thinking changes and these new modes of thought are based on the earlier structures which he named schemes. According to Piaget’s theory, children are naturally curious and begin to explore and experiment and build their knowledge base and skill set as they move along.  In a way children and like “little scientists”.  At some point, a baby will touch an object like something on a crib mobile and will notice that it moves.  He/she then try this with other objects.  As their brain and physical development mature they have a greater capacity to explore their world.  Through play and interaction with others in their environment, young children to learn new things and add them to their database because there is always a discrepancy between what they know and what they need to know. Piaget theorized that there were two processes a child employs as they try to make more sense of their ever-expanding world.  He defines these as (1) Assimilation in which they continue to discover new information which they try to fit into one of their schemes and (2) Accommodation is when the new information does not exactly fit into one of their schemes, the child modifies the scheme to accommodate the new information.  This process repeats itself each time a child discovers something new. Through his observations, Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development:
  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth-2 years)
  2. Preoperational stage (2-7 years)
  3. Concrete operational stage (7-12 years)
  4. Formal operational stage (12 years and older)
While Piaget thought that children were programmed to move from one stage to the next as their brain developed, another theorist, Lev Vygotsky stated that cognitive development takes place a result of social interactions with others.  He refers to this as Social Constructivism.  He described three ways in which knowledge and skills are shared with a child by a more experienced person.  He defined them as (1) Zone of Proximal Development which is what a child cannot do alone but could do with a little assistance from a person with greater skills and knowledge, (2) Scaffolding which involves a more knowledgeable person helping the child to acquire new piece of information or learn a new skill and (3) Private Speech in which the child talks to himself, often out loud, to guide his own actions. Parents may see their child trying to do something and come alongside and show them how to do it and then talk the child through the process until they are doing it on their own.  In other situations, a parent may feel that a child is ready to learn something like doing a simple board puzzle or learning shapes and colors.  They will present the child with the materials and let the child try on their own and if they are having difficulty they will guide them.  During these experiences, the child is not only learning new things but continues to bond with the parent as well as socialize by which they develop socialization skills and language skills as well.  When children start school they receive more formal instruction.  Most schools base their approach to teaching based on the theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky. The role of the parent is to spend time observing and interacting with their child and provide opportunities for them to learn and develop by exposing them to new things by taking them to interesting places or providing materials at home including a household object, toys, and books.  Play with parents, solo play and play with other children is key to a child developing not only promote cognitive development but physical, social and language development as well.  Play means interacting with people and objects not watching videos or playing electronic games.  Play also means going outside to explore and engage in physical activity.  Research is finding that lack of exercise and over-exposure to electronics of all kinds results in poor physical development as well as impairment in attention and concentration.
Tips for Parents

A Few Things Parents Can Do To Promote Cognitive Development

  • The best thing parents can do is play with your kids (baby to teens) doing things that you both enjoy.
  • Introduce your child early to music.  Sing to them and with them. Play different kinds of music in the background while you are playing with your baby.  Get your child a play music set.  Teach them to play the key board.  Take them for music lessons. We highly recommend the Yamaha Program which starts kids out a preschool but goes all the way to high school.  They learn music theory, how to play instruments and how to write their own music. Go to concerts for kids.
  • Introduce your children to art.  Crayons and other art materials should be available.  Young Rembrandt’s has a national directory for art classes.
  • Spend time with younger children reading to them.  When they can read on their own, encourage reading and discuss with them about they are reading.  Ask questions.
  • Play games with your child starting with “pat a cake” and moving on to card games and board games.  Have a family game night.
  • Encourage your child to get outdoors.  Exercise and fresh air are good for brain development.  Take them to the park, the beach or the forest.
  • Go on nature walks and talk about what you see.  Get books or information on things of interest.  Watch TV shows on topics they are interested in and talk about it later.  Here are the top 12 Tv channels for kids:  Discovery, Animal Planet, Science Channel, History Channel, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr, The Learning Channel, Disney Channel, PBS, and Sprout.
  • Introduce them to the local library.  Get the card.  Talk to the children’s librarian for book recommendations for your child.  Also, ask about the programs they have for children.
  • Check with your local community college and department of recreation and parks for special programs they have for kids and teens.
  • Go to museums of all kinds and any other attractions around you.
  • Take trips to places you can have fun and be out in nature or visit cultural or historical centers.
  • Let them play with things around the house.  Bring a box or two home and watch they can do.
  • Select toys with play value (they can make believe, build things, learn things) and that are age appropriate.  Amazon has a great toy department that provides excellent tools to select the right toys for your child.
Recommended Books for Parents

Ages and Stages: A Parent's Guide to Normal Childhood Development Ages and Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development  A comprehensive parent’s guide to your child’s psychological development from birth through age 10 Written in an engaging, practical style, Ages and Stages offers you the benefits of the most current research on child development, featuring helpful tips and techniques to foster your child’s maturation. Charles Schaefer and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo tell you what behaviors you can expect as your child grows and how you can help him or her to advance to the next level of development. They include numerous examples, stories, and activities you can use immediately to positively influence your child’s development. 


Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence  Hailed by parents and educators, Your Child’s Growing Mind is a window into the fascinating process of brain development and learning. It looks at the roots of emotion, intelligence, and creativity, translating the most current scientific research into practical suggestions for parents and teachers.

Dr. Healy also addresses academic learning, offering countless suggestions for how parents can help without pushing. She explains the building blocks of reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics and shows how to help youngsters of all ages develop motivation, attention, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. The Yes Brain The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child  When facing challenges, unpleasant tasks, and contentious issues such as homework, screen time, food choices, and bedtime, children often act out or shut down, responding with reactivity instead of receptivity. This is what New York Times bestselling authors Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call a No Brain response. But our kids can be taught to approach life with openness and curiosity. Parents can foster their children’s ability to say yes to the world and welcome all that life has to offer, even during difficult times. This is what it means to cultivate a Yes Brain. When kids work from a Yes Brain, they’re more willing to take chances and explore. They’re more curious and imaginative, less worried about making mistakes. They’re better at relationships and more flexible and resilient when it comes to handling adversity and big feelings. They work from a clear internal compass that directs their decisions, as well as the way they treat others. Guided by their Yes Brain, they become more open, creative, and resilient. In The Yes Brain, the authors give parents skills, scripts, ideas, and activities to bring kids of all ages into the overwhelmingly beneficial “yes” state. You’ll learn. Mind Benders  Mind Benders: Deductive Thinking Skills   Mind Bendersreg are best-selling deductive thinking puzzles, develop logic, reading comprehension, and mental organizational skills that are vital to achieving high grades and top test scores in all subjects. They’re also great for developing real-life, problem-solving skills. Methods Your students will learn to carefully analyze each Mind Bendersreg; puzzle and its clues, identifying logical associations between people, places, and things. The key is to start with the most obvious associations, then deduce less obvious associations until everything finally fits together. Teaching Support Includes step-by-step instructions and detailed answers. Book levels spiral in difficulty within the grade range. (Kindergarten through 12th grade)

Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five  In his New York Times bestseller Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina showed us how our brains really work—and why we ought to redesign our workplaces and schools. Now, in Brain Rules for Baby, he shares what the latest science says about how to raise smart and happy children from zero to five. This book is destined to revolutionize parenting. Just one of the surprises: The best way to get your children into the college of their choice? Teach them impulse control.

Brain Rules for Baby bridges the gap between what scientists know and what parents practice. Through fascinating and funny stories, Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and dad, unravels how a child’s brain develops – and what you can do to optimize it.

Gymboree Series On Activities for Children  We highly recommend this series for parents because the books provide numerous “how to do it” play activities to nurture (provide the scaffolding) child development.  From babies to young children they cover cognitive, language, physical and social development.  Not only will these activities stimulate development but build a strong parent and child relationship.  Plus they are fun for both parents and kids.

Videos on Cognitive Development

Cognitive Developmental Mile Stones:

Infant (0 to 18 m)Toddler (18 m – 3y)Preschooler (3y – 5y)School Age (6y – 12y)Teens (13-18)
Birth to Six Months
  • Listens attentively to sounds and voices (by 1 month)
  • Cries deliberately for assistance (by 1 month)
  • Coordinates eye movements (by 2 months)
  • Discovers hands and feet as an extension of self (by 3 months)
  • Likes to repeat enjoyable acts (by 4 months)
  • Recognizes and responds to name (by 5 months)
  • Studies objects intently (by 6 months)
  • Recognizes and responds to own name.
  • Discriminates between familiar and unfamiliar faces.
  • Demonstrates happiness and unhappiness with sounds.
  • Demonstrates memory by waiting while feeding is prepared and stopping crying when a person enters a room.
  • Looks forward to feeding by sight.
Six to 12 Months
  • Anticipates events (by 7 months)
  • Finds hidden objects (by 10 months)
  • Can point to body parts
  • Puts nesting toys together correctly
  • Develops expectations about familiar events
  • Waves bye-bye
  • Follows simple directions.
  • Searches for an object that has disappeared.
  • Pours objects out of a container and puts each back in.
  • Imitates actions of others.
  • Understands basic cause and effect relationships (touching hot stove burns hand).
  • Enjoys the repetition of events.
  • Enjoys picture book for a short period of time.
  • Assembles simple nesting toys.
12 to 18 Months
  • Identifies family members in photographs
  • Enjoys cause and effect relationship
  • Is able to make choices between clear alternatives
  • Begins to solve problems
  • Remembers more
  • Learns by exploring.
  • Responds to simple directions.
  • Points to familiar objects upon request.
  • Remembers where things are in different areas of the house (room).
  • Hunts for a hidden toy.
  • Shows brief interest in a picture book
  • Gives a mechanical toy to the caregiver to activate
  • Places a large round shape in a form board.
18 To 24 Months
  • Sorts shapes and colors
  • Mimics adult behavior
  • Points to and names objects
  • Refers to self by name
  • Learns by helping
  • Learns concepts such as size, shape, and weight as he/she moves and plays with objects in the environment.
  • Points to body parts upon request.
  • Acknowledges absence of familiar persons (points to the door, says gone).
  • Points to and names objects in a book.
  • Begins to recognize shapes.
  • Enjoys cause-and-effect relationships (banging drum, turning on TV).
  • Follows simple instructions.
  • Asks names of objects.
  • Identifies more objects with names
Two to Three Years
  • Comprehends size
  • Beginning to understand time sequences (e.g. before lunch)
  • Matches shapes and colors
  • Counts and manipulates objects
  • Is beginning to think about consequences
  • Is able to concentrate for longer periods of time
  • Follows simple directions.
  • Enjoys reciting fingerplays, nursery rhymes, and songs.
  • Repeats radio and TV commercials.
  • Responds to rhythms.
  • Learns simple relationships such as big and small.
  • Invents simple sentences to express thoughts.
  • Uses names of familiar people and objects.
  • Asks names of objects.
Three to Four Years
  • Is curious about how things work.
  • Begins to understand the reasoning of caregivers.
  • Interested in size and shape.
  • Identifies colors.
  • Counts from one to ten.
  • Counts two or more objects.
  • Asks why questions.
  • Responds to how questions.
  • Learns the name, address, phone number, sex, age and parents names.
  • Holds up fingers to indicate age.
  • Uses bathroom words and laughs.
  • Enjoys doing things for self.
  • Develops a better understanding of cause and effect.
  • Distinguishes between fact and fiction
Four to Five Years
  • Comprehends special concepts (e.g. around, in front, high, next to)
  • Rote counts up to 2
  • Can complete a 6-8 piece puzzle
  • Begins to understand time concepts
  • Understands simple math concepts
  • Recalls main details of a store
  • Improves their ability to reason.
  • Knows birthday.
  • Identifies coins such as penny, nickel and dime.
  • Understands seasons.
  • Begins to understand the need for rules.
  • Understands the concept of texture, size, distance, and temperature.
  • Forms logical conclusions.
  • Enjoys games that test abilities.
  • Improves their ability to remember past events.
  • Has difficulty understanding time.
Five to Six Years
  • Learns right from wrong.
  • Accepts rules, but doesn’t always understand the reason.
  • Enjoys routines.
  • Exhibits increased attention span and concentration.
  • Follows instructions concerning numbers.
  • Understands terms like more than and less than.
  • Uses many words without understanding definitions.
  • Understands simple. classifications such as groups of trees and animals.
  • Places blocks and nesting toys in order (small to large).
  • Asks a lot of questions, especially, “Why?”
Six to Nine Years
  • Asks more complex questions.
  • Desires detailed answers.
  • Shows unusual interest in numbers.
  • Accepts and understands rules.
  • Exhibits longer attention span.
  • Likes active, competitive games.
  • Enjoys simple games such as checkers and cards.
  • Draws symbolic pictures.
  • Understands the value of coins.
  • Enjoys hobbies and collections.
  • Likes to experiment.
  • Enjoys playing with dolls, blocks, and tools.
Nine to 12 Years
  • Recognizes problems and can work out solutions.
  • Draws conclusions from what is seen.
  • Learns to generalize and draw conclusions.
  • Is interested in factual information.
  • Enjoys group projects such as science and art.
  • Likes to construct things.
  • Enjoys learning experiences involving pets.
  • Applies math concepts to daily life.
  • Spends long periods of time working on hobbies and crafts.
  • Has increased memory and thinking
  • Becomes more abstract.
  • Understands the value of money.
13 – 14 years of age
  • Growing capacity for abstract thought
  • Mostly interested in present with limited thought to the future
  • Intellectual interests expand and become more important
  • Deeper moral thinking
14 – 18 years of age
  • Continued growth of capacity for abstract thought
  • Greater capacity for setting goals
  • Interest in moral reasoning
  • Thinking about the meaning of life