Childrens cognitive development: social emotional newborn to preschool

Each year myriads of children enter kindergarten or preschool unprepared cognitively. Lack of cognitive development and school readiness is a start on the wrong foot. The fact remains, today’s children will be tomorrow’s leader, parents, workers, and citizens. It is for this reason we should encourage their cognitive development. The issue of child development has raised an assortment of theories over time and cultures to aid the process of child care and parenting. Western cultural views on this subject have been influenced by the ideas of several theorists. Child development is a complex topic as it an intricate mixture of entwined systems and mechanisms occurring in the external environment.

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This theoretical paper explores key aspects and issues of children’s development in a socio- emotional framework. It will focus on social and emotional development in individuals from birth to school age. Furthermore, it will analyse current research challenges in the area of cognitive development in this group and seek to address the primary criteria is for children to develop successfully.

It would be apt to discuss the views of theorists in social and emotional development and additionally include the effect of nature and nurture on the children’s development. This paper will show every theory gives differing developmental views. However, one thing is certain – the agreement, of all, that the external, societal environment has a key effect on child development. In conclusion, it will offer recommendations in implementing policies and initiatives to social/emotional development.

What is Child Development?

Child development is “the biological and psychological changes that occur in human beings between birth and the end of adolescence (Oates 1994). Mishra (2009) adds that “it is multi-faceted, integral and continual process…in which children become able to handle ever more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling and relating to others”. All forms of a child’s development occur when it interacts with its environment, family and society as a whole.

Child development can therefore be described as the study dedicated to understanding every facet of human progression from birth to adolescence. These views show child development is a multi- disciplinary field.

Kail (2006) describes the developmental stages of children as newborn (birth – 1month), infant (1month-1yr), toddler (1-3yrs), pre-schooler (4-6yrs), school-aged child (6-13years), and adolescents (13yrs – 20yrs). He further asserts that child development is essential to society thus importance was to be given to their social, cognitive, emotional and educational development.

Core aspects of Child Development

Child development occurs differently from one child to the other this is because developmental milestones are not the same for the various aspects development. (Waller 2009) acknowledged the uniqueness in each child and that there was no “such thing as ‘normal development’. In the main, aside from physical development, Woodhead and Montgomery (2003) the core aspects of development as cognitive, speech and language, social and emotional, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. In reality the core aspects overlap so all areas of development are strengthened and enhanced by growth in others.

Cognitive Development and Theories

Cognitive (Intellectual) development is the acquisition of skills in childhood to adapt with the world around them. It plays a major role in a child’s ability to think critically. These processes comprise of understanding reasoning, thinking, problem solving, learning, conceptualizing, classifying and remembering (Schaffer 2006). This assignment cannot conceivably cover all the work done on cognition in children. Dozens of child development theories exist but four exponents have contributed valued insights in this field. Each takes their cognitive development theories from a different angle.

Jean Piaget expounds knowledge acquisition is an interplay between children and their environment. He gives four stages for cognitive evolution. Piaget noted that each stage of cognitive development was qualitatively different from the previous and the next. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development were; Sensorimotor (birth – 2yrs), Preoperational (2 – 7yrs), Concrete operations (7 – 11yrs) and Formal operations (11 years on). Periods were based on approximation.

Initially, Children were seen as “little adults” but Jean Piaget showed that children’s thinking capacities did not gradually improve with maturity but rather went through transformations in logical competency, passing through a sequence of stages in development. This explains why a four month old baby learning to explore his environment kicks his feet to move a mobile suspended above his crib.

Other theorists, like Vygotsky, Erikson, and Gesell contend that Piaget’s early theories are flawed or incomplete. Vygotsky’s underlying theoretical framework argued that social interaction played key part in cognition development. He states “every function in the child cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later on the individual….. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and the formation of ideas (Vygotsky 1978).

Gesell argued that cognitive development has a timetable which is decided by genetics. He, like Piaget, deemphasizes the individual differences in children and he stresses the significance of maturation. He believed that skills and abilities appeared in a predictable order and that because children were subject to preordained developmental forces their behaviours were not accidental. He offered four areas of behavioural development; motor, language, adaptive and personal-social.

Erikson like Gesell was more interested in the emotional aspect of child development. He thought of development in terms of stages as well but his theory differs from Piaget’s in that the accent was on the individual differences in children.

Social and Emotional Development

Sroufe (1996) gave a definition of emotion as “a subjective reaction to a salient event, characterised by physiological experiential and overt behavioural change”. Emotions are an innate part our nature gain as a hereditary trait.

Cognitive and emotional development are usually seen as disconnect processes. Bell & Wolfe (2004) showed both behaviours and developments to be link; acting on each other to process ideas, information and action.

Erikson’s theory on Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s psychosocial development is possibly the best known theory in psychology. Like Freud, Erikson believed that personality developed in a succession of stages. But his theory differed from Freud’s on two counts. Firstly Erikson stated that children were active and enquiring explorers who sought to adapt to their environment, other than a reactive or passive slave to the genetics of their parents. Erikson held that in every stage of life individuals must negotiate social realities to adapt effectively and show a normal development pattern. With social interaction our Ego Identity develops. According to Erikson the ego identity regularly changes as a result of new information gained daily by our day to day interaction with others.

Secondly, Erikson placed lesser accent on sexual tendencies than Freud psychosexual theory. He places more accents on cultural influences and explains the impact of social experiences over an individual’s lifetime.

Erikson held the view that a sense of competency motivated actions and behaviours but managing a crisis inadequately made the individual feel a failure. For Erikson development was a life-long process and his “eight stages of man” theory confirms this – proposing that development of man began at birth and ended with old age and death. Greene (2008) adds that each developmental stage was a new plateau for developing… mastery within the context of social factors. As mentioned earlier the socialization process had eight psychosocial stages (crises) during an individual’s lifetime. All crises need to be resolved successfully to work towards an acceptable resolve in the next crises. Erikson viewed these conflicts as areas of developing or failing in psychological quality.

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In all crises there is an equal potential for success or failure in personal growth. His eight stages of psychosocial development are, in order, Trust verses Mistrust, Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt, Initiative versus Guilt, Industry versus Inferiority, Identity versus Confusion, Intimacy versus Isolation, Generativity versus Stagnation, and finally Integrity versus Despair. This final crisis appears in the aged and focuses on reflection of life. In who are unsuccessful at this stage will feel that life has been wasted and experience pain and regret leading to bitterness and despair. On the other hand, individuals who are proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity. A successful completion means satisfaction with few regrets, if any. Such individuals, Erikson claims, will achieve wisdom even on confrontation with death.

Challenges to Erikson’s theory on Development

Erikson’s psychosocial theory is still held in high regard widely but there are critics, as with all concepts and models that challenge his ideas. His model is made up of stages. This brings in the idea of discontinuity which stresses that development happens in a succession of sudden changes that develop into changes. Continuity theorists disagree, arguing that individuals developed in smaller stages with no sudden change. For example language development and physical growth are a gradual, smooth continuous growth. Erikson didn’t accept defeat in this argument. He suggested that early stage experiences had a bearing with later stage experiences subsequently they were connected in a manner to show continuity.

For some his theory is seen as too generalised. Stevens (1983) suggests his theory lacks rigour. In his theory behaviours and mechanisms cannot be easily identified as the often appear unclear. Also being challenged are the overlapping stages. Yet, it may have been a true reflection of its nature as opposed to being inadequate.

Erikson, himself, affirms that his theory was based on clinical studies and that all walks of people gave him access to their life experiences. He does accept that due to this his theory could be culture or class driven. He sought to rectify his assertion through his study of anthropology where he compared and debated the life cycles of different societies.

Erikson conceptualization of identity was based on the modern western society only. This paved the way for the possible criticism of cultural bias.

Nature versus Nurture Influence

The nature verses nurture debate is a controversial issue that surrounds cognition. The question arises as to which influences development and whether the influence of genetics and the environment can be separated. Not easily. It may be safe to assume that genetic and the environment balance an individual’s trait and behavior. Neither one influences on its own as without one the other is not triggered. Genes have an effect on personality and behavior nonetheless the environment transforms and shapes the reaction of people. This debate will stay ongoing as accurately pinpointing where either gene or environment step in is nigh on impossible.

John Locke (1693) disagreed with the view that infants were miniature adults who were born fully equipped with abilities and knowledge. He further introduced the concept of tabula rasa (blank slate) as a description of a newborn baby’s mind. Children to him were born neither good nor sinful but ready to be formed by their education and experiences. The arrival of the 20th century brought in new ideas from behaviourists who asserted that early training of children turned them into any type of adult irrespective of genes. It is apt to then to look at other features like the cultural background of the child, timing of experiences and ecological factors. They saw the time of an experience occurred would have a significant influence on a child’s development.


Erikson’s model recognises the massive role the social environment plays in shaping a child’s sense of self. His theory, as we have seen, was based on the premise that individual’s interact with countless people, starting with mother and ending with society as a whole. His life cycle stages offers a glimpse into the various stages of babies infants, pre-schoolers etc. It can be seen that successful socio-emotional and cognitive development can bring about behaviours that assist in cognitive development in children. The environment has to be physically and cognitively stimulating to offer fresh concepts while the familiarity is maintained. Such environments should let the child see and be a part of society so that societal norms can be experienced. We have seen that the great theorists are all in agreement that society plays a major part in children’s development. It is becomes apparent as we see that if children are to develop successfully they must confidently understand the mechanisms and works of their own society. This is so that they can adjust or adapt their behaviour to fit in the society.

The paper shows that all developmental aspects are closely interrelated. So, the criterion required for successful cognitive and emotional development resides in an environment which lets the child develop and achieve their needs whilst allowing them to learn about their society. We found that emotional development requires thinking to interpret the various situations, understand people’s reactions, so that behaviours and responses are moulded accordingly.

The pressures of present society, family and relationships plus the zest for personal development and fulfilment make Erikson’s theory very pertinent. His theory is amongst other reasons useful for self-awareness, teaching, coaching managing, applying to conflict resolution and perhaps most important of all parenting.


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