Chapter 5


Cognitive Development

in Infancy



Chapter Outline



I.        Piaget's (1896 - 1980) Approach to Cognitive Development

A.     Knowledge is the product of direct motor behavior in infants.

B.     All children pass through a series of universal stages in a fixed order.

1.      sensorimotor

2.      preoperational

3.      concrete operations

4.      formal operations

C.     Both content and quality of knowledge increase.

D.     Focus is on change in understanding that occurs as a child moves through stages.

E.      Movement through stages occurs with physical maturation and experience with environment.

F.      Piaget believed that infants have mental structures called SCHEMES, organized patterns of sensorimotor functioning.

G.     Two principles underlie the growth in children's schemes:

1.      ASSIMILATION is when people understand an experience in terms of their current stage of cognitive development and way of thinking.

2.      ACCOMMODATION is change in existing ways of thinking that occur in response to encounters with new stimuli or events.

H.     The SENSORIMOTOR STAGE OF COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT (birth until age 2), Piagets initial major stage of cognitive development, can be broken down into six substages.

1.      Substage 1:  simple reflexes

a)      first month

b)      various reflexes determine the infant's interaction with world.

2.      Substage 2:  first habits and primary circular reactions

a)      A CIRCULAR REACTION is an activity that permits the construction of cognitive schemes through repetition of a chance motor event.

b)      1 - 4 months

c)      coordination of actions

d)      primary circular reactions are the infant’s repeating of interesting or enjoyable actions on  his or her own body.

3.      Substage 3:  secondary circular reactions

a)      4 - 8 months

b)      begins to act on world (e.g., rattles rattle)

c)      secondary circular reactions are repeated actions meant to bring about a desirable consequence on the outside world.

d)      vocalization increases and imitation begins.

4.      Substage 4:  coordination of secondary circular reactions

a)      8 - 12 months

b)      employ GOAL-DIRECTED BEHAVIOR, where several schemes are combined and coordinated to generate a single act to solve a problem.

c)      development of OBJECT PERMANENCE, the realization that people and objects exist even when they cannot be seen.

5.      Substage 5:  tertiary circular reactions

a)      12 - 18 months

b)      tertiary circular reactions are the deliberate variation of actions to bring desirable consequences.

6.      Substage 6:  beginning of thought

a)      18 - 24 months

b)      capacity for MENTAL REPRESENTATION, an internal image of a past event or object.

(1)   permits child to understand causality

(2)   child gains ability to pretend and DEFERRED IMITATION, in which a person who is no longer present is imitated by children who have witnessed a similar act.

I.        Appraising Piaget:  Support and Challenges

1.      Most developmentalists agree that Piaget's descriptions of how cognitive development proceeds during infancy are accurate.

a)      Piaget was a master observer.

b)      Studies show that children do learn about the world by acting on objects in their environment.

2.      However, specific aspects of Piaget's theory have been criticized.

a)      Some developmentalists question the stage concept, thinking development is more continuous.

b)      Piaget's notion that development is grounded in motor activity ignores the importance of infant's sensory and perceptual abilities.

c)      Recent work shows object permanence may occur as early as 3 1/2 months.

d)      Imitation may occur earlier than Piaget suggested.

e)      Some development is universal, and some appears to be subject to cultural variations.

II.                 INFORMATION-PROCESSING APPROACHES seek to identify the way that individuals take in, use, and store information.

A.     Encoding, Storage, and Retrieval:  The Foundations of Information Processing

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

2.      Storage refers to the maintenance of material saved in memory.

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

4.      Automatization is the degree to which an activity requires attention.

a)      Processes that require little attention are automatic.

b)      Processes that require large amounts of attention are controlled.

c)      Automatization processes help children in their initial encounters with the world by “automatically” priming them to process information in particular ways.

B.     MEMORY is the process by which information is initially recorded, stored, and retrieved.

1.      The ability to habituate implies some memory.

2.      Infant's memories improve with age.

3.      Research suggests that memory during infancy is dependent upon the hippocampus and that at a later age involves additional structures of the brain.

4.      Research supports the notion of INFANTILE AMNESIA, the lack of memory for experiences that occurred prior to three years of age.

a)      Although memories are stored from early infancy, they cannot be easily retrieved.

b)      Early memories are susceptible to interference from later events.

c)      Memories are sensitive to environmental context.

C.     Individual Differences in Intelligence:  Is One Infant Smarter Than Another?

1.      Infant intelligence, like adult intelligence, is difficult to define.

2.      Arnold Gesell formulated the DEVELOPMENTAL QUOTIENT, an overall developmental score that relates to performance in four domains:  motor skills, language use, adaptive behavior, and personal-social.

a)      He compared babies’ performance at different ages to learn what behaviors were most common at a particular age.

3.      BAYLEY SCALES OF INFANT DEVELOPMENT are a measure that evaluates an infant's development from 2 to 30 months.

a)      Mental Scale

(1)   senses

(2)   perception

(3)   memory

(4)   learning

(5)   problem solving

(6)   language

b)      Motor Scale

(1)   gross motor skills

(2)   fine motor skills

c)      Like Gesell, Bayley’s yields a developmental quotient (DQ).

4.      These normative scales are useful in identifying infants who are significantly behind their peers but are not good at predicting future behavior.

5.      Contemporary approaches to infant intelligence measure how quickly infants process information.

a)      VISUAL-RECOGNITION MEMORY is a measure of memory and recognition of a stimulus that has been previously seen.

b)      CROSS-MODAL TRANSFERENCE is the ability to identify a stimulus that has previously only been experienced through one sense using another sense.

c)      These measures correlate moderately well with later measures of intelligence.

6.      Assessing Information-Processing Approaches

a)      Rather than focusing on broad explanations of the qualitative changes that occur, as Piaget’s does, information processing looks at quantitative change.

b)      Information processing approaches see cognitive growth as more gradual, step-by-step.

c)      Information processing approaches are often able to use precise measures of cognitive ability.

III.               The Roots of Language

A.     LANGUAGE is the systematic, meaningful arrangement of symbols, and provides the basis for communication.

B.     Language has several formal characteristics that must be mastered as linguistic competence is developed.

1.      Phonology refers to the basic sounds of language, called phonemes, that can be combined to produce words and sentences.

2.      Morphemes are the smallest language unit that has meaning.

3.      Semantics are the rules that govern the meaning of words and sentences.

C.     Language is closely tied to the way infants think and how they understand the world.

1.      Linguistic comprehension is the understanding of speech.

2.      Linguistic production is the use of language to communicate.

3.      Comprehension precedes production.

4.      Infants show PRELINGUISTIC COMMUNICATION through sounds, facial expressions, gestures, imitations, and other non-linguistic means.

a)      BABBLING is when infants make speechlike but meaningless sounds at about 2 - 3 months continuing to about 1 year.

b)      Babbling is a universal phenomenon.

c)      Babbling begins with easy sounds (b - p) and proceeds to more complex sounds (d - t).

d)      By age 6 months, babbling differs according to the language to which the infant is exposed.

5.      First words are generally spoken between 10 and 14 months.

a)      First words are typically HOLOPHRASES, one-word utterances that depend on the particular context in which they are used to determine meaning.

b)      By 15 months the average child has a vocabulary of 15 words.

c)      Between 16 and 24 months a child's vocabulary increases to 100 words.

6.      by 18 months, infants are linking words in sentences using TELEGRAPHIC SPEECH where words not critical to the message are left out.

a)      UNDEREXTENSION, using words too restrictively, is common.

b)      OVEREXTENSION, using words too broadly, is also common.

c)      Some infants use a REFERENTIAL STYLE of language use in which language is used primarily to label objects.

d)      Others use an EXPRESSIVE STYLE, of language use in which language is used primarily to express feelings and needs about oneself and others.

D.     The origins of language development

1.      LEARNING THEORY APPROACH posits that language acquisition follows the basic laws of reinforcement and conditioning.

a)      Through the process of shaping, language becomes more and more similar to adult speech.

b)      This theory does not explain how children learn grammar.

c)      It does not explain how children produce novel phrases, sentences, and constructions, such as nonsense words using correct grammar.

2.      An alternative theory is the NATIVIST APPROACH, which proposes that a genetically determined, innate mechanism directs language development.

a)      Proposed by Noam Chomsky.

b)      Chomsky argues that all the world’s languages share a similar underlying structure called UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR.

c)      The brain is wired with a LANGUAGE-ACQUISITION DEVICE (LAD), a neural system of the brain hypothesized to permit the understanding of language.

d)      Critics argue that since primates can be taught to talk, the uniqueness of human linguistic capacity is called into question.

e)      Other critics suggest that we must identify mechanisms other than the LAD or learning theory principles to fully understand language development.

3.      An alternative approach combines both schools of thought, the interactionist perspective, which suggests that language development is produced through a combination of genetically determined predispositions and environmental events.

E.      Speaking to Children:  The Language of Infant-Directed Speech

1.      INFANT-DIRECTED SPEECH, a type of speech directed towards infants, characterized by short, simple sentences.

a)      This type was previously called motherese.

(1)   Pitch of voice becomes higher.

(2)   Intonation may be singsong.

(3)   Typically only used during first year.

b)      Infants seem more receptive to this type of speech.

c)      Use of this type of speech is related to the early appearance of words.

2.      Research shows that parents use different language for boys than for girls.

a)      They use diminutives more with girls, warmer phrases and more emotional referents and tend to make refusals less direct.

b)      Boys tend to hear firmer, clearer language.



Key Terms and Concepts






Sensorimotor stage (of cognitive development)

Circular reaction

Goal-directed behavior

Object permanence

Mental representation

Deferred imitation

Information-processing approaches


Infantile amnesia

Developmental quotient

Bayley scales of Infant Development

Visual-recognition memory

Cross-modal transference


Prelinguistic communication



Telegraphic speech



Referential style

Expressive style

Learning theory approach

Nativist approach

Universal grammar

Language-acquisition device (LAD)

Infant-directed speech