Cognitive Development

Not much is said about cognitive development in little children because it is such a tricky subject. Certainly there are things you can measure and test, but these sorts of objective benchmarks are usually not representative of a toddler’s ability. Because the ability to comprehend language comes before the ability to express it, babies and toddlers usually understand much more than they can say, and much more than we think. As research comes in today, we are continually startled at how much even little infants know.

So I personally expect my children to know more than I think. Sometimes I find out I am wrong… like recently I figured out that my almost five year old still didn’t really understand the concept of “light” and “dark” unless it specifically had to do with the light on or the light off in a room. But normally, they more than confirm my expectations. My nine-month old, for example, recognizes the signs that I am getting ready to leave the house and freaks out. As soon as I get my shoes on and start looking as if I’m looking for my purse, she’s crying and carrying on and trying to grab my legs or crawl after me. She doesn’t need language, she just knows it. A six or sevent-month old baby shows you the same thing when they anticipate your face peeking out from behind a doorway and laugh in anticipation of it.

These are the types of things that typify cognitive development. Cognition is definitely connected to verbal skills, but babies clearly think without having language. They would be hindered if they didn’t learn language because the two go together, but interdependence is not the same as complete dependence. Don’t believe anyone who says babies can’t think without words. They memorize and comprehend much first, and then learn to put words to it, which accelerates their ability to reason and extrapolate to new situations.

I wish I could give you standards for how little children develop cognitively, but it differs so much. The best you can do is look for the standard icons that researchers evaluate at various age levels. But be aware that evaluating milestones is not the same as getting at when your child understands them because the ability to express understanding comes so much later. You find that children are able to put a spoon to their mouths between 6 and 9 months, but who knows if they didn’t learn it goes there as early as 2 or 3 months? They learn to put a “phone” to their ear by 9-15 months, but who knows when they start imagining a real conversation until much later when they can talk about it? Getting at cognition is a lot of guesswork when children are young.

I have other posts on knowledge and intelligence elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that if you are concerned about your child’s cognitive development, don’t stress so much about concrete knowledge (do they know their animals, vehicles, tools) as much as you examine if/how they think. Do they try and get help when they have a problem? Or do they just sit there? Do they try something else when they’re bored, or do they just cry? Do they imagine with their toys, or do they just spin wheels? Do they know how to protect themselves or fix what’s wrong? Or do they have trouble problem-solving and just wait for you to do it? Try to factor in your child’s personality as you ask these types of questions, because agency and character can play a part in assessing the answers, but looking more structurally at how your child interacts with his or her environment can tell you much more about their cognition than at what age they knew all their letters or were able to put two words together.

Here are some things I have notice about the different levels of cognition in our house:

Four to Five Years Old

  • Is able to answer more complex “why” questions like “why do we go to the doctor?” or “why don’t you want to go to Matthew’s house?”
  • Is able to answer “what do we do when” questions
  • Is able to follow “If/then” scenarios with two possible courses of action
  • Understands future tense and that we make plans for future events
  • Understands distance, how different things are farther away or closer; that you need a car or a plane (or a map!) for different trips
  • Knows what you do in different situations (when you’re hot, when it’s wintertime…)
  • Remembers basic safety scenarios (stop, drop, and roll)
  • Can draw scenes/situations (not well, but with intent!); uses more realistic colors
  • More accurately gauges whether or not he can do something
  • Understands ages, the significance of birthdays, older, younger
  • Understands he has two granddaddies, and that one is my dad and the other is Daddy’s dad
  • Precipitates whether he will like a food or not with more reason
  • Knows which foods are breakfast versus not
  • Can recognize more reliably when someone is doing something wrong, or when they need special help or correction
  • Gets excited about more abstract things like having his own room, getting a special toy just for him, Daddy having a day off, taking a special vacation
  • Has some evaluative ability of peers (i.e. that someone is nice or mean, and why)
  • Understands the difference between telling the truth and lying
  • Understands that some behavior is annoying, and responds to some childish behaviors more like an adult (like telling a brother to stop repeating something over and over)
  • Can make up songs to rhyme or be silly, new verses

Three to Four Years Old

  • Has an active imagination: is able to carry on two-part dialogue with toys, fulfill grander schemes with blocks or pretend play
  • Remembers where he left off in the play script if interrupted or put to bed
  • Understands toileting (even if he can’t do it perfectly)
  • Follows directions well and doesn’t forget the purpose of a “mission”
  • Is able to explain what went wrong, what happened, why someone is upset
  • Understands the past and memories
  • Understands morals, what you should do
  • Can mediate turn-taking
  • Has easier time sharing
  • Can complete pattern sequences
  • Can do dominoes, more complex matching
  • Can copy a mosaic, Tangram, or block tower from a model
  • Can tell whose items things are, where things belong
  • Can draw easy objects
  • Understands boys/girls
  • Understands that babies come from mommies, that mommies carry them in their tummies and sometimes feed them special milk
  • Can answer easy “why” questions about self (“Why did you turn off the TV?” “Because it’s over.”)
  • Can use some pieces of equipment reliably/purposefully, like the stereo
  • Reliably reports current situations (“It’s raining.”, “Daddy is outside.”)
  • Understands that some things are dangerous and other people shouldn’t do them either (stove, street, etc); could warn or correct somebody
  • Appreciates someone doing a big job (painting a room, doing a puzzle, DIY jobs)
  • Understands basic jobs and plot sequences involving them (firemen, policemen, doctors, teachers…)
  • Has real favorites that persist by this point
  • Understands not to do bad things in secret, that people still can find out later

Two Years Old

  • Has basic imagination skills: can carry on a monologue with a toy or “phone”
  • Can ask for help or tell me what he needs/what’s wrong
  • Understands looking for something tall to stand on and reach
  • Can look for a missing parent in the house more complexly (come to the shower if he hears it on)
  • Is able to say what someone’s emotion is (happy, sad, mad)
  • Is able to make a choice between two options
  • Can answer “yes” or “no” questions accurately about what happened
  • Can match, tell which two are the same
  • Draw lines, shapes (not well)
  • Recognizes when someone needs help, whether or not he can help or whether they need Mommy
  • Understands the difference between Mommy going out for a little bit and going out for a long time
  • Understands the difference between Mommy and Daddy’s car, when we’re going on a long trip or a short drive
  • Understands staying in our yard (versus the neighbors, which conjoins ours)
  • Can answer who is missing, who didn’t get their hug yet, or if his siblings are at home or somewhere else
  • Knows what is obedient and what is disobedient for him to do; will act guilty if caught, understands he will get correction
  • Appreciates someone finishing something (a pile of laundry) or a new possession (new rug in the living room)
  • Realizes when something is misplaced
  • Recognizes when something is done or said to be funny

Baby (9mo)

  • Can crawl to locate parent in other rooms
  • Recognizes bedtime ritual, mealtime lingo (gets excited or sad)
  • Will look for an object that is hidden, dropped, or one she left somewhere earlier
  • Understands crawling or climbing up to get something higher
  • Responds to “No”
  • Knows crayons are for scribbling, spoons are for eating, cups are for drinking, etc
  • Still puts everything in her mouth but distinguishes food from non-food (chews on stuff but goes for and tries to actually eat crumbs on the floor)
  • Distinguishes toys from non-toys (goes for her rattle rather than a piece of paper)
  • Wrinkles her nose if I hold up a food she doesn’t want
  • “Helps” me dress her or put on a diaper (holds out arms, feet; more patient)
  • Responds to “all done”
  • Laughs to funny faces, noises, or movements
  • waves hello and goodbye
  • comes over to say “hi” when she wants attention
  • crawls over when she’s hurt or needs something

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