What Is Cognitive Development? 3 Psychology Theories

Cognitive DevelopmentCognitive development is certainly not an easy topic to grasp.

But don’t worry, we will try our best to help you with the essentials of this complex field of study.

We’ll start with some background, then show you how cognitive skills are used every day. In addition, we will explain a few theories and describe fascinating studies.

Since cognitive development goes beyond childhood and into adolescence, we are sure you will want to know all about this, too.

To end this article, we provide some helpful resources. You can use these to support the cognitive skills of your students or clients.

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What Is Cognitive Development in Psychology?

Cognitive development is how humans acquire, organize, and learn to use knowledge (Gauvain & Richert, 2016).

In psychology, the focus of cognitive development has often been only on childhood. However, cognitive development continues through adolescence and adulthood. It involves acquiring language and knowledge, thinking, memory, decision making, problem solving, and exploration (Von Eckardt, 1996).

Much of the research within cognitive development in children focuses on thinking, developing knowledge, exploring, and solving problems (Carpendale & Lewis, 2015).

Nature vs nurture debate

The nature versus nurture debate refers to how much an individual inherits compared to how much they are influenced by the environment. How do nature and nurture shape cognitive development?

American psychologist Arthur Jensen (1969, 1974) emphasized the role of genetics within intelligence, arguing for a genetic difference in the intelligence of white and Black people.

Jensen (1969) made some very bold assertions, stating that Black people have lower cognitive abilities. His research was heavily criticized for being discriminatory. He did not consider the inbuilt bias of psychometric testing (Ford, 1996). The lower test scores of Black individuals were more likely to be a result of a lack of resources and poor-quality life opportunities (Ford, 2004).

In an enormous cross-sample of 11,000 adolescent twins, Brant et al. (2013) found that those with a higher intelligence quotient (IQ) appeared to be more influenced by nurture and stimulation. The researchers suggested this may be because of their heightened attention and arousal system, absorbing more information from the environment, being more open to new experiences, and allowing brain plasticity and changes to occur.

They also found that adolescents with a lower IQ showed more genetic influence on their IQ from their parents. The researchers suggested that their lower levels of intelligence may result in lower motivation levels and an inability to seek out new experiences.

This study highlights the need for those with lower IQ levels to be supported with positive interventions to increase their cognitive abilities and capacity.

Cognitive Development Skills & Important Milestones

Cognitive Development SkillsDevelopmental milestones are specific skill achievements that occur predictably over time.

These milestones reflect skill achievement and take into account genetic makeup and environmental influence (Dosman, Andrews, & Goulden, 2012).

Here are a few of these important milestones, the associated skills, and the age at which they are typically achieved. The following table is modified from the Child Development Institute.

Milestone Description Approximate age
Object permanence (early) Follows an object until it is out of sight.
Searches for a partially hidden object.
4–8 months
Object permanence Will search for a completely hidden object. 9–12 months
Cause and effect Begins to understand cause and effect in actions. Realizes how to get a response. 9 months
Functional use of objects Understands what objects are used for. 12–15 months
Play (Representational) Can use dolls in a functional manner. 18 months
Play (Symbolic) Can use an object symbolically to represent something else. 2–3 years
Skills (Pre-academic) Knows letters, numbers, shapes, and colors and can count. 3–5 years
Thinking (Logical) Understands conversation and multi-step problem solving. Understands others’ perspectives. 6–12 years
Thinking (Abstract) Abstract thinking, hypothesizing, and drawing conclusions. >13 years

Table 1. Children’s cognitive milestones and skill development

Language and other cognitive skills

Language skills are essential for a child’s ability to communicate and engage with others. These skills support other areas of a child’s development, such as cognitive, literacy, and social development (Roulstone, Loader, Northstone, & Beveridge, 2002).

The modified table below was sourced from the Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au and describes how language develops in children.

Language activity Approximate age
Singular word use. Often resembling exact words such as ‘dada’ meaning dad. Toward the end of 18 months, a child will be able to follow simple instructions such as ‘sit down’ and ‘get up.’ 12–18 months
The use of two-word sentences. A child can understand what familiar people say and vice versa, and unfamiliar people understand about half of what they say. 18 months–2 years
A child will make use of three to four words with more accuracy. Play is combined with talking. 2–3 years
A child will illustrate abstract thought and show their thoughts and feelings through more complex conversations. The ability to discuss many topics is apparent at least by the end of 5 years old. There will be an understanding of basic grammar and stories. 3–5 years
By now, children are becoming good at storytelling and putting together words and sentences creatively. Children can share opinions, and by the age of 8 years, they can have adult-style conversations. 5–8 years

Table 2. Language development from 0 to 8 years

Thinking skills

Thinking concerns manipulating information and is related to reasoning, decision making, and problem solving (Kashyap & Minda, 2016). It is required to develop language, because you need words to think.

Cognitive development activities helps thinking and reasoning to grow. Thinking is a skill that does not commence at birth. It develops gradually through childhood and advances more rapidly when children are around two years old. Reasoning develops around six. By the time they’re 11, children’s thinking becomes much more abstract and logical (Piaget, 1936).

Developing knowledge

Knowledge is essential for cognitive development and academic achievement. Increased knowledge equates to better speaking, reading, listening, and reasoning skills. Knowledge is not only related to language. It can also be gained by performing a task (Bhatt, 2000). It starts from birth as children begin to understand the world around them through their senses (Piaget, 1951).

Building knowledge is important for children to encode and retrieve new information. This makes them able to learn new material. Knowledge helps to facilitate critical thinking (Piaget, 1936). Clearly, the development of children’s knowledge base is a critical part of cognitive development.

Memory development

The development of memory is lifelong and related to personal experiences.

Explicit memory, which refers to remembering events and facts of everyday life, develops in the first two years (Stark, Yassa, & Stark, 2010). Explicit memory develops around 8 to 10 months.

Working memory and its increase in performance can be seen from three to four years through adolescence (Ward, Berry, & Shanks, 2013). This is demonstrated through increased attention, the acquisition of language, and increased knowledge.

Implicit memory, which is unconscious and unintentional, is an early developing memory system in infants and develops as the brain matures (Ward et al., 2013).

Perceptual skills

Perceptual skills develop from birth. They are an important aspect of cognitive development. Most children are born with senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell (Karasik, Tamis-LeMonda, & Adolph, 2014).

As children develop, they learn to communicate by interacting with their environment and using their sensory and motor skills (Karasik et al., 2014).

When visual, tactile, and auditory skills are combined, they emerge as perceptual skills. These perceptual skills are then used to gauge spatial relationships, discriminate between figure and ground, and develop hand–eye coordination (Libertus & Hauf, 2017).

Exploring and solving problems

Problem solving can be seen in very young children when they play with blocks, objects, and balls. It is entwined with perceptual skills and memory. Very young children playing with blocks, picking up a spoon, or even looking for objects demonstrate the development of problem solving skills (Goldschmied & Jackson, 1994). This is known as heuristic play (Auld, 2002).

As children develop cognitively and gain language, the problem solving then transfers to abstract thinking and solving logical problems (Needham, Barrett, & Peterman, 2002). Problem solving and exploring are interconnected. Science, engineering, and mathematics are all based around exploration and problem-solving skills.

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5 Real-Life Examples of Cognitive Development

To understand how people think and process information, it is important to look at how cognitive skills are used in everyday life. Here are some real-life examples of cognitive development.

Decision making

To make a decision, a person needs to weigh up information and make the best choice. As an example, think about a restaurant menu. There is a lot of information on the menu about food options. Reading the menu requires you to analyze the data then reduce it to make a specific meal choice.

Recognition of faces

Have you ever wondered why it is possible to recognize a person even when they have grown a beard, wear makeup or glasses, or change their hair color?

Cognitive processing is used in facial recognition and explains why we still recognize people we meet after a long time, despite sometimes drastic changes in their physical appearance.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This widely used therapeutic intervention is based on an understanding of cognition and how it changes behavior.

It is based on the premise that cognition and behavior are linked, and this theory is often used to help individuals overcome negative thinking patterns. CBT provides them with alternative positive thinking patterns to promote positive behavior.


The cognitive processes of short-term and long-term memory explain forgetting. An example of forgetting can be seen in students who do not study for exams. If they do not transfer the information from short-term to long-term memory, they forget the knowledge required for the examination and may fail.


Thinking and cognition are required for reasoning. Reasoning involves intellect and an attempt to search for the truth from new or existing information. An example of this activity can be seen in political debates on television.

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3 Ground-Breaking Cognitive Development Theories

There are several cognitive development theories, some more well known than others.

They all attempt to explain how cognitive development occurs.

Piaget’s cognitive development theory

Cognitive Development TheoriesJean Piaget (1936) is famous for his theory of cognition that considers four specific stages of development.

The sensorimotor stage (0–2 years) is when infants build an understanding of the world through their senses and movement (touching, feeling, listening, and watching). This is when children develop object permanence.

The pre-operational stage (2–7 years) is when language and abstract thinking arise. This is the stage of symbolic play.

When a child is 7 years old, they enter Piaget’s concrete-operational stage, which goes up to 11 years. This is when logical and concrete thought come into action.

At the age of 11 onward, children learn logical and abstract rules and solve problems. Piaget described this as the formal operational stage.

Vygotsky’s theory

Lev Vygotsky described an alternative theory. He believed that children’s cognitive development arises through their physical interaction with the world (Vygotsky, 1932). Vygotsky’s theory is based on the premise that the support of adults and peers enables the development of higher psychological functions. His is known as the sociocultural theory (Yasnitsky, 2018).

Vygotsky believed that a child’s initial social interactions prompt development, and as the child internalizes learning, this shifts their cognition to an individual level.

Vygotsky (1932) considered children akin to apprentices, learning from the more experienced, who understand their needs.

There are two main themes of Vygotsky’s theory.

The zone of proximal development is described as the distance between the actual development level and the level of potential. This is determined by independent problem solving when children are collaborating with more able peers or under the guidance of an adult (Vygotsky, 1931).

This may explain why some children perform better in the presence of others who have more knowledge and skills but more poorly on their own. These skills, displayed in a social context but not in an isolated setting, are within the zone of proximal development. This highlights how a more knowledgeable person can provide support to a child’s cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1932).

Thinking and speech are considered essential. Vygotsky described a connected relationship between language development and the thinking process. His theory explains how younger children use speech to think out loud. Gradually, they evolve silent inner speech once mental concepts and cognitive awareness are developed (Vygotsky, 1931).

Ecological systems theory

Another more modern theory, similar in some sense to Vygotsky’s, is one by American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner (1974). He suggested that a child’s environment, within an arrangement of structures, has a differing impact on the child (Bronfenbrenner, 1974).

Bronfenbrenner’s five structures are the micro-system, mesosystem, ecosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. These concern the surrounding environment, family, school, values, customs, and cultures. They are interrelated, with each system influencing others to impact the child’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1977).

Bronfenbrenner (1974) considered the micro-system as the most influential. This system contains the developing child, family, and educational environment, and impacts a child’s cognitive development the most.


Piaget’s theory of cognitive development – Sprouts

A Look at Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Adolescence is a period of transition between late childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

Based on Inhelder and Piaget’s (1958) stage theory of cognitive growth, adolescence is when children become self-conscious and concerned with other people’s opinions as they go through puberty (Steinberg, 2005). The psychosocial context of adolescents is considerably different from that of children and adults.

The brain goes through a dramatic remodeling process in adolescence. Neural plasticity facilitates the development of social cognitive skills (Huttenlocher, 1979). Structural development of cortical regions of the brain may significantly influence cognitive functioning during adolescence (Huttenlocher, De Courten, Garey, & Van der Loos, 1983).

Recognition of facial expressions and emotion is one area of social cognition that has been investigated in adolescence (Herba & Phillips, 2004). The amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotion processing, was found to be significantly activated in response to fearful facial expressions in a study of adolescents (Baird et al., 1999). This highlights that the development of emotional cognition is prominent in this age group.

3 Fascinating Research Studies

Cognitive Development ResearchThere are numerous examples of case studies involving cognitive development.

Here are three we find most interesting.

1. A cognitive habilitation program for children

Millians and Coles (2014) studied five children who had experienced learning and academic deficits because of prenatal alcohol exposure. Before and after an intervention, researchers gave standardized tests of nonverbal reasoning and academic achievement to the children.

Four of the five children showed increases to the average range of scores on measures of nonverbal, reasoning, reading, and mathematics. This study highlighted the benefit of interventions to address children’s cognitive difficulties and learning problems, even when the cognitive difficulties are apparent from birth.

2. Bilingual babies and enhanced learning

Introducing babies to two languages has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, especially problem solving (Ramírez-Esparza, García-Sierra, & Kuhl, 2017).

Spanish babies between 7 and 33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions for 18 weeks. By the end of the 18 weeks, the children produced an average of 74 English words and phrases. This study showed that the age between 0 and 3 years is the best time to learn a second language and gain excellent proficiency. However, languages can be learned at any time in life.

3. Unusual autobiographical memory

In an unusual case study, a woman described as ‘AJ’ was found to have highly superior autobiographical memory, a condition that dominated her life (Parker, Cahill, & McGaugh, 2006).

Her memory was described as ‘nonstop, uncontrollable and automatic.’ AJ did not use any mnemonic devices to recall. She could tell you what she was doing on any day of her life.

AJ could also recall her past with a high level of accuracy. This study provided some insightful details of the neurobiology of autobiographical memory and changes in the prefrontal cortex that cause these superior cognitive abilities.

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A Take-Home Message

The first few years of a child’s life show rapid changes in brain development. This is part of the child’s cognitive development. There are a number of different theories of how and when this occurs. These are not set in stone, but are a guide to the cognitive development of children.

If children are not achieving their milestones at the approximate times they should, extra support can help make a difference. Even children with fetal alcohol syndrome can achieve considerably improved cognition with specialized support.

Remember, cognitive development does not end in childhood, as Piaget’s schema theory first suggested. It continues through adolescence and beyond. Cognitive development changes carry on through much of a teenager’s life as the brain is developing.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


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