Everything you need to know about…

Cognitive Development

The term “cognition” refers to conscious mental processes.

The word itself is derived from the Latin for to get to know. When we talk about cognitive function, we are referring to functions like our brain’s ability to think, reason and remember.

It is important to nurture cognitive development.

Know that a child’s cognitive development refers to the growth in their ability to solve problems, reason and think for themselves. Sometimes, these cognitive functions are impaired.

Cognition may be assessed through testing.

Testing focuses on: how knowledge is acquired and understood; the decision-making process; and problem-solving – among many other things. There are intelligence tests that are designed specifically for children.

Defining Cognition

Cognition (pronounced: cog-nish-uhn) is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

Cognition can refer to several aspects of intellectual function. An assessment or test of a child’s cognition might set out to determine how well the following processes function:

  • Attention
  • Memory, including working memory
  • Reasoning
  • Comprehension
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Language
  • Computation and processing speed

Incredibly, each of these fields offer different approaches to the understanding and assessment of cognition:

  • Neuroscience
  • Linguistics
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Education
  • Logic
  • Anthropology
  • Computer science

Understanding Cognitive Development

The term cognition traces its origins back to the 15th century. The concept was considered as far back as 384-322 BC – beginning with Aristotle and his curiosity about the inner workings of the human mind. He focused his attention on perception, memory and mental imagery.

Two millennia later, the study of psychology started to emerge and scientists dedicated themselves to learn more about the development of human cognition. It’s been a slow process, and much is left to be discovered, but advances in understanding mean experts can now determine whether a child’s cognitive function is impaired and take steps to intervene.

Piaget’s theory

One of the most influential people in the field of developmental psychology was Jean Piaget. He proposed that humans were distinct from animals in their capacity to reason – a concept now known as abstract symbolic reasoning, and is most famously known for his work on cognitive development in children.

Piaget studied his own three children by observing their intellectual development and described the different stages children pass through as they develop.

The sensoriomotor stage

In this stage, a child’s knowledge is developing but is extremely limited. Intelligence is present and some motor activity is typical. A child’s knowledge is based on experiences and interactions; and mobility allows infants to explore and learn new things. Some language skills are also developed towards the end of this stage. The goal here in this stage is for children to develop a basic understanding of causality, time and space.

The preoperational stage

Symbols or language skills are present at this stage. Memory and imagination is also being developed as well as other forms of non reversible and non-logical thinking. A child within this category will be starting to display intuitive problem-solving and be able to see patterns or relationships. They will even have grasped the concept of numbers and their values.

The concrete operational stage

In this stage, the child will be developing logical and systematic forms of intelligence such as the manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. They will also be able to grasp the concepts of length, mass, weight and volume – building on everything else they picked up in the previous stage.

The formal operational stage

From here, children acquire flexibility in thinking as well as hold the capacity for abstract thinking and mental hypothesis testing. They are also able to consider possible alternatives in complex reasoning and problem-solving.

Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills essentially make up the brain’s ability to read, think, remember, learn, reason and stay focused. Each of our different cognitive skills play a vital role in how we process information – so if even one of these skills is weak or low-functioning, our ability to use, grasp and retain it may be impaired. Note that some learning difficulties in children are actually a direct result of one or more impaired cognitive skills.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory refers to the ability to recall information stored in the past. Signs of impaired long-term memory may be a child who performs poorly in tests,  and finds it difficult to remember names or dates.

Short-term memory

Short-term memory refers to the ability to keep information at the front of one’s mind, while we’re in the process of using it. Signs that this ability is impaired include: a child who needs to read instructions several times before carrying out a task; struggling to follow multi-step instructions; and forgetting what has just been said by another person when engaged in conversation.

Logic and reasoning

Reasoning refers to the ability to form ideas, reason, decide and solve problems. If this cognitive skill is weak, your child will likely find themselves saying “I don’t get this” and may struggle with feeling overwhelmed or stuck. 

Sustained attention

Sustained attention refers to the ability to stay on task and hold focus for a continued time period. If this cognitive function is impaired, your child may find themselves jumping from task to task; and starting projects without finishing them.

Selective attention

Selective attention refers to the ability to keep our focus while completing a project despite distractions. If this cognitive skill is impaired, your child will find that they are easily distracted – and you may notice that outside interruptions win their attention over the task at-hand.

Divided attention

Divided attention refers to the ability to remember information while multitasking. If this cognitive function is impaired, your child might find balancing various tasks at once quite difficult.

Visual processing

Visual processing refers to the ability to think in images. If this cognitive skill is impaired, your child might find understanding and remembering what they’ve just read challenging and struggle with problem-solving or following directions.

Auditory processing

Auditory processing refers to the ability to evaluate, blend and divide sounds. If this cognitive function is impaired, your child might find learning to read difficult and have problems with comprehension or fluency.

Processing speed

Processing speed refers to the ability to perform tasks accurately and within an allocated period of time. If this cognitive skill is impaired, your child might find most tasks more difficult than others. It may take them a long time to complete school-work and they may find themselves repeatedly being the last one in a group to complete a task.

Brain Training

It may be possible to nurture and enhance cognitive skills through brain training. Making this part of daily family life may help you promote your child’s healthy brain development.

Here, we’ve outlined a few ideas for techniques and games that can be played – all of which may (although the jury is still officially out) assist your child in building the skills they need to excel.

Concentration Game

Select some of your child’s toys and line them up. Cover them up and take one away. Can they tell which one is missing? You may also encourage them to remember items on a short list of household objects – then ask them to recall these in top to bottom order and then in reverse. 

Games Night

Surprisingly, playing games like Monopoly, UNO, Go Fish, Jenga and Chess is a fun way to teach your child how to problem solve and hold focus. Consider holding a family game night to help build these skills in your children.

Elevator Breathing

Have child to sit cross-legged. Then get them to imagine that their breath is like an elevator riding up and down their body. The top floor is the deepest breath they can manage – but it’s OK because they’ve worked up to it gradually.

Supporting Your Child

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult your pediatrician.

If you are worried that your child is experiencing challenges with their cognitive development, it is important to seek help and assistance from a healthcare professional. A specialist can help to evaluate your child for any potential learning disabilities or disorders and provide the guidance and support you need moving forward.