Chapter 8

Cognitive Development in Early Childhood


“The greatest person ever known

Is one all poets have outgrown;

The poetry, innate and untold,

Of being only four years old.”


-Christopher Morley

American Novelist, 20th century

Learning Goals

Describe three views of the cognitive changes that occur in early childhood.

Summarize how language develops in early childhood.


Piaget’s Preoperational Stage of Development

§Characteristics of the    Preoperational Stage

§Definition of Operations

§Symbolic Function Substage

§Intuitive Thought Substage


Characteristics of the Preoperational Stage

§The preoperational stage lasts from 2-7 years old.

§During this time stable concepts form, mental reasoning emerges, egocentrism begins, and magical beliefs are constructed.

§Thought is flawed and not organized.

§This stage involves a transition from primitive to more sophisticated use of symbols.

§Children still do not yet think in an operational way.


Definition of Operations

§Operations are internalized sets of actions that allow the child to do mentally what before she did physically.


Symbolic Function Sub stage

§The ability to think symbolically and to represent the world mentally predominates in this substage.

§It occurs roughly between the ages of 2-4.

§Symbolic function is demonstrated by the child’s ability to mentally represent an object not present.

§Symbolism is evident in scribbled designs, language, and pretend play

§Two important limitations in thought at this stage are egocentrism and animism.



§Egocentrism is the inability to distinguish between one’s own perspective and someone else’s perspective.

§It is a salient feature of preoperational thought.

§Perspective-taking doesn’t develop uniformly in preschool children, as they frequently show perspective skills on some tasks, but not others.



§Animism is the belief that inanimate objects have “lifelike” qualities and are capable of action.

§A child may believe that a tree pushes its leaves off in the Fall, or that the sidewalk made him trip and fall down.


Intuitive Thought Substage

§In this stage, children begin to use primitive reasoning and want to know the answers to all sorts of questions.

§It occurs roughly between the ages of 4-7.

§Piaget used the term intuitive because children say they know something, but they know it without the use of rational thinking.

§Children in this stage also ask a barrage of questions, signaling the emergence of their interest in reasoning and why things are the way they are.



§Centration is the focusing or centering of attention on one characteristic to the exclusion of all others.

§It is a major characteristic of preoperational thought, evidenced in young children’s lack of conservation.




§Conservation refers to an awareness that altering an object’s or a substance’s appearance does not change its basic properties.

§Although obvious to adults, preoperational children lack conservation.

§A lack of conservation not only demonstrates the presence of centration, but also an inability to mentally reverse actions.


Vygotsky’s Theory of Development

§The Zone of Proximal Development


§Language and Thought

§Evaluating and Comparing Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s Theories

§Teaching Strategies Based on Vygotsky’s Theory


The Zone of Proximal Development

§The zone of proximal development is Vygotsky’s term for the range of tasks too difficult for children to master alone, but which can be learned with the guidance and assistance of adults or more skilled children.

§The lower limit is the level of problem solving reached by the child working independently.

§The upper limit is the level of additional responsibility the child can accept with the assistance of an able instructor.

§Vygotsky’s emphasis on the ZPD underscores his belief in the importance of social influences, especially instruction, on children’s cognitive development.


Scaffolding in Cognitive Development

§Scaffolding refers to changing the level of support.

§Over the course of a teaching session, a more skilled person adjusts the amount of guidance to fit the student’s current performance level.

§Dialog is an important tool of scaffolding in the zone of proximal development.

§As the child’s unsystematic, disorganized, spontaneous concepts meet with the skilled helper’s more systematic, logical, and rational concepts, through meeting and dialogue, the child’s concepts become more systematic, logical, and rational.


Language and Thought

§Vygotsky believed that young children use language both for social communication and to plan, guide, and monitor their behavior in a self-regulatory fashion – called inner speech or private speech.

§For Piaget, private speech is egocentric and immature, but for Vygotsky it is an important tool of thought during early childhood.

§Vygotsky believed all mental functions have social origins.

§Children must use language to communicate with others before they can focus on their own thoughts.

§Researchers have found support for Vygotsky’s view of the positive role of private speech in development.


Evaluating and Comparing Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s Theories

§Vygotsky’s theory is a social constructivist approach, which emphasizes the social contexts of learning and that knowledge is mutually built and constructed.

§Piaget’s theory does not have this social emphasis.

§For Piaget, children construct knowledge by transforming, organizing, and reorganizing previous knowledge.

§For Vygotsky, children construct knowledge through social interaction.

§The implication of Piaget’s theory for teaching is that children need support to explore their world and discover knowledge.

§The implication of Vygotsky’s theory for teaching is that students need many opportunities to learn with the teacher and more skilled peers.

§Vygotsky’s theory has been embraced by many teachers and successfully applied to education.


Teaching Strategies Based on Vygotsky’s Theory

§Use the child’s zone of proximal          development in teaching.

§Use scaffolding.

§Use more skilled peers as teachers.

§Monitor and encourage children’s use                  of private speech.

§Assess the child’s ZPD, not IQ.

§Transform the classroom with Vygotskian ideas.


Information Processing




§The Young Child’s Theory      of Mind



§The child’s ability to pay attention changes significantly during the preschool years.

§Preschool children are influenced strongly by the features of a task that stand out, or are salient.

§This deficit can hinder problem solving or performing well on tasks.

§By age 6 or 7, children attend more efficiently to the dimensions of a task that are relevant.

§This is believed to reflect a shift in cognitive control of attention.



§Short-Term Memory

§How Accurate Are Young Children’s Long-Term Memories?


Short-Term Memory

§In short-term memory, individuals retain information for up to 15-30 seconds, assuming there is no rehearsal, which can help keep information in STM for a much longer period.

§Differences in memory span occur across the ages due to:

§Rehearsal: older children rehearse items more than younger children.

§Speed and efficiency of processing information: the speed with which a child processes information is an important aspect of the child’s cognitive abilities.


How Accurate Are Young Children’s Long-Term Memories?

§Young children can remember a great deal of information if they are given appropriate cues and prompts.

§Sometimes the memories of preschoolers seem to be erratic, but these inconsistencies may be to some degree the result of inadequate prompts and cues.



§Strategies consist of using deliberate mental activities to improve the processing of information:


§Organizing information

§Young children typically do not use rehearsal and organization.

§Children as young as 2 can learn to use other types of strategies to process information.



The Young Children’s Theory of Mind

§Theory of mind refers to individuals’ thoughts about how mental processes work.

§Even young children are curious about the nature of the human mind.

§Children’s developing knowledge of the mind includes the awareness that:

§The mind exists.

§The mind has connections to the physical world.

§The mind can represent objects and events accurately or inaccurately.

§The mind actively interprets reality and emotions.


Becoming Aware that the Mind Exists

§By the age of 2 or 3, children refer to needs, emotions, and mental states.

§They also use intentional action or desire words, such as wants to.

§Cognitive terms such as know, remember, and think usually appear after perceptual and emotional terms, but are used by age 3.

§Later children distinguish between guessing vs. knowing, believing vs. fantasizing, and intending vs. not on purpose.


Understanding Cognitive Connections to the Physical World

§At about 2 or 3 years of age, children develop an awareness of the connections among stimuli, mental states, and behavior.

§This provides them with a rudimentary mental theory of human action.

§Children can infer connections from stimuli to mental states, from mental states to behavior or emotion, and from behavior to mental states.

§Children also develop an understanding that the mind is separate from the physical world.


Detecting Accuracies/ Inaccuracies of the Mind

§Children develop an understanding that the mind can represent objects and events accurately.

§Understanding of false beliefs doesn’t usually occur until 4 or 5 years.


Understanding the Mind’s Active Role in Emotion and Reality

§Children develop an understanding that the mind actively mediates the interpretation of reality and the emotion experienced.

§In the elementary school years, children change from viewing emotions as caused by external events without any mediation by internal states to viewing emotional reactions to an external event as influenced by a prior emotional state, experience, or expectation.


Language Development

§Young children’s understanding sometimes gets ahead of their speech.

§Many of the oddities of young children’s language sound like mistakes to adult listeners, but from the children’s perspective, they are not.

§As children go through early childhood, their grasp of the rules of language increases (morphology, semantics, pragmatics).



§As children move beyond two-word utterances, they know morphology rules.

§They begin using plurals and possessive forms of nouns.

§They put appropriate endings on verbs.

§They use prepositions, articles, and various forms of the verb to be.

§Children demonstrate knowledge of morphological rules with plural forms of nouns, possessive forms of nouns, and the third-person singular and past tense forms of verbs.



§As children move beyond the two-word stage, their knowledge of meanings rapidly advances.

§The speaking vocabulary of a 6-year-old ranges from 8,000 to 14,000 words.

§According to some estimates, the average child of this age is learning about 22 words a day!



§No difference is as dramatic as the difference between a 2-year-old’s language and a 6-year-old’s language in terms of pragmatics—the rules of conversation.

§At about 3 years of age, children improve their ability to talk about things that are not physically present—referred to as “displacement.”

§Displacement is revealed in games of pretend.

§Large individual differences seen in preschoolers’ talk about imaginary people and things.