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8: Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

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    Learning Objectives

    After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

    1. Compare and contrast Piaget and Vygotsky’s beliefs about cognitive development.
    2. Explain the role of information processing in cognitive development.
    3. Discuss how preschool-aged children understand their worlds.
    4. Put cognitive and language milestones into the order in which they appear in typically developing children.
    5. Discuss how early child education supports development and how our understanding of development influence education.
    6. Describe autism spectrum disorder, including characteristics and possible interventions.

    Early childhood is a time of pretending, blending fact and fiction, and learning to think of the world using language. As young children move away from needing to touch, feel, and hear about the world toward learning some basic principles about how the world works, they hold some pretty interesting initial ideas. For example, while adults have no concerns with taking a bath, a child of three might genuinely worry about being sucked down the drain. 1

    A child might protest if told that something will happen “tomorrow” but be willing to accept an explanation that an event will occur “today after we sleep.” Or the young child may ask, “How long are we staying? From here to here?” while pointing to two points on a table. Concepts such as tomorrow, time, size and distance are not easy to grasp at this young age. Understanding size, time, distance, fact and fiction are all tasks that are part of cognitive development in the preschool years. 3

    • 8.1: Piaget’s Preoperational Intelligence
      Piaget’s stage that coincides with early childhood is the preoperational stage. The word operational means logical, so these children were thought to be illogical. However, they were learning to use language or to think of the world symbolically. Let’s examine some of Piaget’s assertions about children’s cognitive abilities at this age.
    • 8.2: Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development
      Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who argued that culture has a major impact on a child’s cognitive development. He believed that the social interactions with adults and more knowledgeable peers can facilitate a child’s potential for learning. Without this interpersonal instruction, he believed children’s minds would not advance very far as their knowledge would be based only on their own discoveries. Let’s review some of Vygotsky’s key concepts.
    • 8.3: Information Processing
      Information processing researchers have focused on several issues in cognitive development for this age group, including improvements in attention skills, changes in the capacity, and the emergence of executive functions in working memory. Additionally, in early childhood memory strategies, memory accuracy, and autobiographical memory emerge. Early childhood is seen by many researchers as a crucial time period in memory development.
    • 8.4: Children’s Understanding of the World
      Both Piaget and Vygotsky believed that children actively try to understand the world around them. More recently developmentalists have added to this understanding by examining how children organize information and develop their own theories about the world.
    • 8.5: Milestones of Cognitive Development
      The many theories of cognitive development and the different research that has been done about how children understand the world, has allowed researchers to study the milestones that children who are typically developing experience in early childhood. Here is a table that summarizes those.
    • 8.6: Language Development
      A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of 2 to 6 from about 200 words to over 10,000 words through a process called fast-mapping. Words are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages such as Chinese and Japanese, tend to learn nouns more readily.
    • 8.7: Early Childhood Education
      Universal preschool covering all four-year-olds in the country would require significant funding. Further, how effective preschools are in preparing children for elementary school, and what constitutes high quality early childhood education have been debated. To set criteria for designation as a high quality preschool, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) identifies 10 standards (NAEYC, 2016).
    • 8.8: Applications to Early Education
      Understanding how children think and learn has proven useful for improving education. Activities like playing games that involve working with numbers and spatial relationships can give young children a developmental advantage over peers who have less exposure to the same concepts.
    • 8.9: Cognitive Differences
      Sometimes children’s brains work differently. One form of this neurodiversity is Autism spectrum disorder.
    • 8.S: Summary


    This page titled 8: Cognitive Development in Early Childhood is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson (College of the Canyons) .