Understanding Cognitive and Social Development in a Newborn

Theories of Cognitive Development

The biggest factor in a child's development is, of course, the parents.
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There is no single set of parenting instructions that if faithfully followed assures you of perfect results. Too much human variation and experience not embodied in any particular theory must go into parenting, making it impossible as well as unwise to try to follow just one method of child-rearing. This does not mean parents should not be interested in the findings of child-development researchers. The better informed parents are, the better able they are to choose from among the many expert attitudes and viewpoints those they believe will work for them and be compatible with their temperaments and lifestyles. On this page, we provide a general outline of the theories of cognitive development as taught by four experts in the field.

The Experts on Cognition

A single article such as this cannot possibly cover all the work that has been done on cognition. The following sampler attempts to put into perspective the basic premises of four of the major theorists: Piaget, Gesell, Erikson, and Spock. All believe there are stages or periods of development, but each emphasizes a different approach to the study of a child's thinking and learning patterns. Remember, these discussions are very general.


Piaget and Gesell.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who may be called an interactionist -- that is, his theory is that intellectual development results from an active, dynamic interplay between a child and her environment. Arnold Gesell, an American pediatrician who did his research at the Yale Child Study Center, may be called a maturationist. His theory is that heredity promotes unfolding of development in a preordained sequence -- on a timetable, so to speak, with few individual differences. Both men have contributed a tremendous amount of knowledge about the growing infant and child. Although they stand at opposite poles, both have recorded facts useful to parents and professionals alike in making meaningful observations of child behavior. Piaget's contributions to learning theory have helped shape many educational programs in our schools, while Gesell's schedules of behavior development are still used as clinical and diagnostic tools by pediatric developmentalists.

Erikson and Spock. Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst of children at the Institute of Child Welfare in California, and Benjamin Spock, the dean of American pediatricians, may be discussed together. While Piaget and Gesell emphasize motor and intellectual development, Erikson and Spock are most interested in the emotional development of children. Although they, too, think of development in terms of stages or periods, they differ from Piaget and Gesell in their stress on the importance of individual differences among children.

Piaget's four theoretical stages of development. Piaget describes four theoretical periods, or stages, of child development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Consideration of these periods has spurred a great deal of research, most of which has tended to support Piaget's conclusions about children's cognitive development.

The four stages are very different from one another; each reveals a different way in which an individual reacts to his environment. As an interactionist, Piaget believes each stage in development occurs as a result of interaction between maturation and environment. He also believes intelligence or intelligent behavior is the ability to adapt. Even nonverbal behavior, to the extent that it is adaptive, is intelligent.

  1. Sensorimotor. In the sensorimotor stage (birth to two years), the infant is transformed from a creature who responds mostly with reflexes to one who can organize sensorimotor activity in response to the environment -- to reach for a toy, for example, or to pull back from a frightening stranger. A baby gradually becomes more organized, and his activities become less random. Through each encounter with the environment, he progresses from a reflex stage to trial-and-error learning and simple problem solving.
  2. Preoperational. In the preoperational stage (two to seven years), a child's thinking, by adult standards, is illogical and focused entirely on himself. He begins to use symbols to represent objects, places, and people. Symbols -- images that represent some object or person -- are sight, sound, or touch sensations evoked internally. In play, a child acts out his views of the world, using a system of symbols to represent what he sees in his environment.
  3. Concrete operational. By the concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years), a child begins to gain the ability to think logically and to understand concepts he uses in dealing with the immediate environment.
  4. Formal operational. He has arrived at the formal operational stage (12 years and older) when he starts thinking in abstract terms as well as concrete ones. Adolescents, for example, can discuss theoretical issues as well as real ones.

In Piaget's view, then, the development of knowledge is an active process and depends upon interaction between the child and the environment. The child is neither the possessor of a preformed set of mental abilities nor a passive recipient of stimulation from the environment. From infancy onward, movement increasingly gives way to thought, and learning continues to be an interactive process.

Gesell's maturation theory. Like Piaget, Gesell deemphasizes individual differences among children and stresses the importance of maturation. Unlike the Swiss psychologist, however, Gesell sees maturation following an inherited timetable; abilities and skills emerge in a preordained sequence. Gesell believes because the infant and the child are subject to predictable growth forces, the behavior patterns that result are not whimsical or accidental by-products. Those patterns are, in his view, predictable end-products of a total developmental process that works within an orderly sequence. He describes four fields of behavior: motor, adaptive, language, and personal-social. In his view, the organization of behavior begins well before birth and proceeds from head to foot. In a summary of behavior development, Gesell describes the following landmarks:

  • In the first quarter of the first year of life (birth to 16 weeks), the newborn gains control of muscles and nerves in the face (those involved in sight, hearing, taste, sucking, swallowing, and smell).
  • In the second quarter (16 to 28 weeks), the infant starts to develop command of muscles of the neck and head and moves her arms purposefully. The baby reaches out for objects.
  • In the third quarter (28 to 40 weeks), the baby gains control of her trunk and her hands -- grasping objects, transferring them from hand to hand, and fondling them.
  • In the fourth quarter (40 to 52 weeks), control extends to the baby's legs and feet, and also to the index fingers and thumbs, to allow plucking of a tiny object. The baby begins to talk.
  • In the second year, the toddler walks and runs, speaks some words and phrases clearly, acquires bladder and bowel control, and begins to develop a sense of personal identity and of personal possessions.
  • In the third year, the child speaks in clear sentences, using words as tools of thinking. No longer an infant, she tries to manipulate the environment. She displays tantrums.
  • In the fourth year, the child asks many questions and begins to form concepts and to generalize. She is nearly self-dependent in home routines.
  • By age five years, the child is very mature in motor control over large muscles; she actively skips, hops, and jumps. She talks without any infantile sounds and can tell a long story and a few simple jokes. She feels pride in accomplishment and is quite self-assured in the small world of home.

Erikson and Spock.While Piaget and Gesell emphasize motor and intellectual development, Erikson and Spock are most interested in the emotional development of children. Although they, too, think of development in terms of stages or periods, Erikson and Spock differ from Piaget and Gesell in their stress on the importance of individual differences among children. The classifications that follow are Erikson's; Spock's findings appear also.

  1. The period of trust covers the early months in an infant's life and is so called because babies need to establish confidence in their parents and in their environment. This period of trust provides a solid foundation for further development. Spock calls infants at this stage "physically helpless and emotionally agreeable." Some babies, however, are more difficult to understand and their cries for help are not clear. Their parents can't separate the cry of hunger, fatigue, or the discomfort of wet diapers from the cry for attention. Problems frequently occur because of parental inexperience or because there are marked differences in temperament between parent and infant.
  2. The period of autonomy is one in which a toddler strives for independence; it represents the development of self-control and self-reliance. Spock speaks of the child at this stage as having a "sense of his own individuality and will power" and as vacillating between dependence and independence. Parents of such a child must learn to accept some loss of control while maintaining necessary limits.
  3. The period of initiative covers the preschool years, during which a child gains considerable freedom. Spock calls what the child does during this period "imitation through admiration." Fears are a common problem, and the child has an active fantasy life. Preschoolers frequently have difficulty separating from their parents, often caused or reinforced by the parents' own problems in separating from their offspring.
  4. The period of industry. In the period of industry or work completion, the school-age child learns to win praise by performing and producing results. Spock describes this period as one in which the school-age child tries to fit into an outside group of friends and to move away from his parents. Parents react to this declaration of independence in several ways, frequently feeling hurt or disappointed. School-age children still need plenty of parental support despite their surface attempts at self-assurance. Parents should give support in a way that shows respect for the child's feelings and pride.
  5. Adolescence is Erikson's fifth and final stage of development. He describes the teenager's task as one of establishing identity, finding out who he is and what he wants to make of his life. Teenage experiments with relationships and development of a view of reality by means of constant testing may be very hard on parents. Spock describes adolescents as very peer-oriented. He stresses the need for parents to continue to set appropriate limits, instill worthwhile values, and provide positive role models.

Although Piaget, Gesell, Erikson and Spock approach the subject of child development from differing viewpoints, there is helpful information to be gleaned from each. You may find it useful to think of your child's development in terms of her interaction with her environment when she's newborn, but later gain more insight from the emotional approach. What you've learned above are only the basic theories of each expert, but hopefully it provided you with a good base of knowledge on what to expect cognitively from your developing child. On the following page, you can find out about the progression of your child's speaking skills.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.