Cognitive Development

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development refers to the development of the ability to think and reason. Children (6 to 12 years old) develop the ability to think in concrete ways (concrete operations), such as how to combine (addition), separate (subtract or divide), order (alphabetize and sort), and transform (change things such as 5 pennies=1 nickel) objects and actions. They are called concrete because they are performed in the presence of the objects and events being thought about.

Adolescence marks the beginning development of more complex thinking processes (also called formal logical operations) including abstract thinking (thinking about possibilities), the ability to reason from known principles (form own new ideas or questions), the ability to consider many points of view according to varying criteria (compare or debate ideas or opinions), and the ability to think about the process of thinking.

What cognitive developmental changes occur during adolescence?

During adolescence (between 12 and 18 years of age), the developing teenager acquires the ability to think systematically about all logical relationships within a problem. The transition from concrete thinking to formal logical operations occurs over time. Each adolescent progresses at varying rates in developing his or her ability to think in more complex ways. Each adolescent develops his or her own view of the world. Some adolescents may be able to apply logical operations to school work long before they are able to apply them to personal dilemmas. When emotional issues arise, they often interfere with an adolescent's ability to think in more complex ways. The ability to consider possibilities, as well as facts, may influence decision-making, in either positive or negative ways.

Some common indicators indicating a progression from more simple to more complex cognitive development include the following:

  • Early adolescence. During early adolescence, the use of more complex thinking is focused on personal decision making in school and home environments, including the following:

    • The early adolescent begins to demonstrate use of formal logical operations in schoolwork.

    • The early adolescent begins to question authority and society standards.

    • The early adolescent begins to form and verbalize his or her own thoughts and views on a variety of topics, usually more related to his or her own life, such as:

      • Which sports are better to play

      • Which groups are better to be included in

      • What personal appearances are desirable or attractive

      • What parental rules should be changed

  • Middle adolescence. With some experience in using more complex thinking processes, the focus of middle adolescence often expands to include more philosophical and futuristic concerns, including the following:

    • The middle adolescent often questions more extensively.

    • The middle adolescent often analyzes more extensively.

    • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to form his or her own code of ethics (for example, What do I think is right?).

    • The middle adolescent thinks about different possibilities and begins to develop own identity (for example, Who am I?).

    • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to systematically consider possible future goals (for example, What do I want?).

    • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to make his or her own plans.

    • The middle adolescent begins to think long-term.

    • The middle adolescent's use of systematic thinking begins to influence relationships with others.

  • Late adolescence. During late adolescence, complex thinking processes are used to focus on less self-centered concepts as well as personal decision-making, including the following:

    • The late adolescent has increased thoughts about more global concepts such as justice, history, politics, and patriotism.

    • The late adolescent often develops idealistic views on specific topics or concerns.

    • The late adolescent may debate and develop intolerance of opposing views.

    • The late adolescent begins to focus thinking on making career decisions.

    • The late adolescent begins to focus thinking on emerging role in adult society.

What encourages healthy cognitive development during adolescence?

The following suggestions will help to encourage positive and healthy cognitive development in the adolescent:

  • Include adolescents in discussions about a variety of topics, issues, and current events.

  • Encourage adolescents to share ideas and thoughts with you.

  • Encourage adolescents to think independently and develop their own ideas.

  • Assist adolescents in setting their own goals.

  • Stimulate adolescents to think about possibilities for the future.

  • Compliment and praise adolescents for well-thought-out decisions.

  • Assist adolescents in re-evaluating poorly made decisions for themselves.


Next Steps