Theories of Cognitive Development


What is Cognition?

Cognition refers to the inner process & products of the mind that lead to ‘Knowing’. It includes all mental activities such as,

  • Attending
  • Learning 
  • Remembering,
  • Memory
  • Symbolling,
  • Categorizing,
  • Planning,
  • Thinking 
  • Reasoning,
  • Problem Solving,
  • Creating,
  • Fantasying

What is Cognitive Development ?

According to American Psychological Association (APA), Cognitive development is the growth and maturation of thinking processes of all kinds, including perceiving, remembering, concept formation, problem solving, imagining, and reasoning.

Various cognitive developmental theories explanations may be in terms of stages of development in which the changes in thinking are relatively abrupt and discontinuous, or the changes may be viewed as occurring gradually and continuously over time.

There are various theories of Cognitive development.

  1. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
  2. Information Processing Approaches to Cognitive Development

1. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s a Swiss Developmental Psychologist gave a stage approach to development. He believed, infants do not acquire knowledge from- facts communicated by others, or through sensation and perception but direct action leads to the knowledge.

Piaget’s Assumptions-

  • All children pass through a series of 4 universal stages.
  • All children pass trough in a fixed order from birth through adolescence.
  • Movement from one stage to the next occurs when a child reaches an appropriate level of physical maturation and is exposed to relevant experiences.

Jean Piaget gave few processes of cognitive development

  • Schemas- Basic building blocks of thinking, They are specific psychological structures helping a child to organize the sense of experience.
  • Equilibrium- -Disequilibrium-  Cognitive equilibrium is a comfortable state of child in learning things. And cognitive conflict or discomfort experienced while constructing schema is called disequilibrium
  • Adaptation- Adjustment to new information about the environment through complimentary processes of assimilation and accommodation.  Assimilation refers to the process of adding new concept to the already learned concepts. Accommodation refers to a process of revision the learnt concept to fit the new information received.
  • Organization- A process that occurs internally, apart from direct contact with the environment.

Characteristics Of Piaget’s Stages of Infant’s Cognitive Development.

  1. Each stage is structured Whole- qualitative within schema & quantitative between schemas.
  2. Each stage is a continuation of previous stage
  3. The stages follow an invariant sequence
  4. The Stages are universal
  5. Cognitive Changes progress gradually from one stage to the others.

Piaget’s stages of Cognitive Development.

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years)
  2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)
  3. Concrete operational Stage (7-12 years)
  4. Formal operational Stage (12-16 years)

1. Sensorimotor Stage of Cognitive Development-  

Cognitive development begins in the sensorimotor stage with the baby’s use of the senses and movements to explore the world.

There are 6 substages in sensorimotor stage.-

    • Substage 1: Simple reflexes, encompassing the first month of life.
    • Substage 2: First habits and primary circular reactions, the second substage of the sensorimotor period,
      occurs from one to four months of age.
    • Substage 3: Secondary circular reactions, the infant’s actions are more purposeful.
    • Substage 4: Coordination of secondary circular reactions, which lasts from around 8 months to 12 months.
    • Substage 5: Tertiary circular reactions is reached at around the age of 12 months and extends to 18 months.
    • Substage 6: The final stage of the sensorimotor period, Beginnings of thought, which lasts from around 18 months to two years.

2. Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development  

According to Piaget, the stage from approximately age two to age seven in which children’s use of symbolic thinking grows, mental reasoning emerges, and the use of concepts increases.

Characterized by the child’s ecocentricism i.e. other also see the world the as they see. Representation skills like language, drawing and symbolic play develop but the thinking is still illogical. Children also learn the concept of conservation (with the change in physical appearance of an object it quantity doesn’t change) and classification (ability to sort object into groups and arrange in order)

3. Concrete Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

The period of cognitive development between 7 and 12 years of age, which is characterized by the active, and appropriate, use of logic.

Characterized by development of logical thinking although thinking is still dependent on the concrete material.

4. Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

The formal operational stage is the period of cognitive development between 12 to 16 years of age at which people develop the ability to think abstractly.

When faced with a problem, to start with a hypothesis, deduce testable inferences, and isolate. And combine variables to see which inferences are confirmed. Adolescents can also evaluate the logic of verbal statements without referring to real-world circumstances.

2. Information Processing Approaches to Cognitive Development

How kids remember their parents, siblings? to get the answer for that Information Processing model used seek to identify the way that individuals take in, use, and store information.

According to this approach, the quantitative changes in infants’ abilities to organize and manipulate information represent the hallmarks of cognitive development. Cognitive growth is characterized by increasing sophistication, speed, and capacity in processing information.

Information processing has three basic aspects:

  1. Encoding
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval 

1. Encoding

Encoding is the process by which information is initially recorded in a form usable to memory.

Infants, children & all people are exposed to a massive amount of information; if they tried to process it all, they would be overwhelmed. Consequently, they encode selectively, picking and choosing the information to which they will pay attention.

Even if someone has been exposed to the information initially and has encoded it in an appropriate way, there is still no guarantee that he or she will be able to use it in the future. Information must also have been stored in memory adequately.

2. Storage

Storage refers to the placement of material into memory.

3. Retrieval  

Retrieval is the process by which material in memory storage is located, brought into awareness, and used.

Finally, success in using the material in the future depends on retrieval processes.

Automatization is the degree to which an activity requires attention. Processes that require relatively little attention are automatic. processes that require relatively large amounts of attention are controlled.

For example, some activities such as walking, eating with a fork, or reading may be automatic for you, but at first they required your full attention.

Memory capabilities of Infants.

Memory is the process by which information is initially encode, stored, and retrieved.

Infants’ memory capabilities increase as they get older. It took only a few days for two-month-old infants to forget
their training, but six-month-old infants still remembered for as long as three weeks (Rovee-Collier, 1999).

According to memory expert Carolyn Rovee-Collier, people, regardless of their age, gradually lose memories, although, just like babies, they may regain them if reminders are provided.

Duration of Infant Memory

Older infants can retrieve information more rapidly, and they can remember it longer.

Infantile Amnesia—the lack of memory for experiences occurring prior to three years of age But few researches shown that there is presence of memories from six moth to three years.

Individual differences in Infants Intelligence 

Developmental psychologist Arnold Gesell formulated the earliest measure of infant development, which was designed to distinguish between normally developing and atypically developing babies (Gesell, 1946). Gesell based his scale on examinations of hundreds of babies.

So he gave The Developmental Quotient (DQ), to read more click here.

Bayley Scales of Infant Development  Developed by Nancy Bayley, it evaluate an infant’s development from 2 to 42 months. The Bayley Scales focus on two areas: mental (senses, perception, memory, learning, problem solving,
and language) and motor abilities (fine and gross motor skills).

Assessing Information Processing Approach 

The information processing perspective on cognitive development during infancy is very different from Piaget’s. Rather than focusing on broad explanations of the qualitative changes that occur in infants’ capabilities, as Piaget does, information processing looks at quantitative change.

Piaget sees cognitive growth occurring in fairly sudden spurts; information processing sees more gradual, step-by-step growth. Information Processing approach focus more on the individual pieces  of cognitive development, while Piagetian approaches focus more on the whole development.

Also, to learn about developmental issues, click here.


  1. Robert. S. Feldman. (2017). Development Across the Lifespan. (8th ed.). Pearson Education.
  2. Laura. E. Berk. (2018). Development Through the Lifespan (7th ed.). Pearson Education.

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