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.

Milestone Description Approximate Age 
Early object permanence. Follows an object out of sight, searches for
a partially hidden object.
 4-8 months
Object permanence Searches 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 objects Realizes what objects are used for  12-15 months
Representational play Pretends to use objects functionally on others,
or dolls
 18 months
Symbolic play Uses an object to symbolize something else during
pretend play
 2-3 years
Pre-academic skills Knows letters, numbers, shapes, colors, and counts  3-5 years
Logical thinking Understands conservation of matter, multistep
problem-solving; realizes there can be differing perspectives
 6-12 years
Abstract thinking Able 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
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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