Piaget Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Although the distinction among Piaget’s stages epitomizes discontinuity, the processes of assimilation and accommodation are more continuous. There is a constant adjustment in emphasis between them. Furthermore, over time the balance between them changes. Accord- ing to Piaget, when children are able to incorporate new information about the world into existing schemas, they are in a state of cognitive equilibrium. That is, when assimilation is the primary mode of understanding new information, there is a certain congruency between the mind and the environment. This process of being able to maintain a stable understanding of the world is called equilibration.

Inconsistencies arise when children cannot assimilate incoming information into exist- ing schemas. In these cases, disequilibrium exists and there is a shift in the balance toward accommodation. When this situation occurs, children are said to be in a state of disequilibra- tion. They become aware of a sense of inadequacy, which becomes a natural motivation for learning. For instance, when people cannot figure out how to get to the next level in a video game because behaviors (i.e., game movements) do not fit into existing schemas, they are in a state of disequilibrium, which drives learning. The cognitive discomfort motivates change and a search for equilibrium.

In sum, children are naturally interested in the world and have much to learn, requiring enor- mous cognitive resources. Not everything they know at any given point fits perfectly with the world. New experiences introduce information that challenges what children know, which motivates discovery and cognitive advancement. Piaget would say that existing schemas are either organized in a way that promotes understanding or they are not. If they are, then there is equilibration and new information is understood conceptually within an existing cognitive framework. Disequilibration occurs when experiences do not fit into existing schemas. In this case, accommodation will trump assimilation until equilibration occurs once again.

Section Review Describe the processes of assimilation and accommodation and their association with equilibration.

7.2 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development Piaget noticed a great deal of consistency in the timing of cognitive changes among children. There are specific times when there is relative equilibrium and other times when there is more disequilibrium. The similarity across children led Piaget to develop the stage theory of cognitive development. As summarized in Table 7.1, four stages represent discontinu- ous aspects of cognitive growth. Piaget emphasized the qualitative differences between each stage, which occur after only brief transitional periods. Although distinct changes in thinking exist between stages, as children continue to grow through assimilation and accommodation, growth during each stage remains more fluid and continuous.

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Section 7.2 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Table 7.1: Key features of Piagetian stages

Stage Theory Application

Sensorimotor Ages 0–24 months

• Thought develops using sensory and motor activities

• Development of object permanence

• Symbolic thought at the end of this period

Children repeat behaviors to discover patterns. They look for objects that “disappear,” includ- ing parents.

Preoperational Ages 2–7

• Egocentrism • Judgment based on

appearance • Difficulty with classification • Inability to conserve

Children play make-believe. They engage in games with rules.

Concrete Ages 7–12

• Conservation • Logical thought • Transitivity • Seriation • Multilevel classification

Children are interested in (concrete) rules. They can find solutions to complex problems, if they can be found in a step-by- step fashion. They can use mul- tiple systems of classification.

Formal Ages 12 and older

• Abstract reasoning • Deductive reasoning • Hypothetical thinking

Adolescents hypothesize about different outcomes, including short-term and long-term plan- ning. They can make abstract arguments, taking into account multiple perspectives.

Source: Based on Piaget, J. (2006). The origin of intelligence in the child. New York: Routledge. (Originally published 1953.)

In the same way that children cannot be forced to walk before they are physically ready, they cannot perform certain intellectual tasks, either. Cognitive stages will emerge in the same way that walking, running, hopping, and skipping will spring forth from normal physical oppor- tunities. Piaget would say that intellectual tasks need prerequisite abilities, just like walking precedes skipping, but with ordinary stimulation intermediate tasks will eventually be mas- tered anyway. At the same time, though, if early skills are not promoted, later skills may be relatively inferior. Cognitively, children need varied intellectual experiences in order to later master more sophisticated thinking abilities.

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages 0–2) The first of Piaget’s stages is the sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth to about age 2. Infants gain cognitive understanding primarily through their senses and movements, which are coordinated through reflexes. That is, initial voluntary behaviors arise from innate, invol- untary reflexes. For instance, newborns will reflexively close their hands when objects are placed in them, but during the first 6 weeks of life they learn to grasp voluntarily. During the next few months, children gradually learn to integrate behaviors. They may combine grasping and sucking reflexes into a coordinated activity whereby they grasp an object and then suck on it. Children continue to use their sensory and motor (movement) abilities to fulfill goals. This behavior is demonstrated by repeating actions and forming habits, like preferring one toy to another.

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Section 7.2 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

During the second year, infants move from habit-like activities to more experimental ones. They enjoy touching new objects, throwing toys repeatedly to see how they might land differ- ently, repeating movements that result in unique sounds (like banging two objects together), and experimenting with vocal sounds. Infants demonstrate little more than reflexes at the beginning of the sensorimotor stage, but by the end, they show vast cognitive changes. To differentiate further among the complex developmental advances of the sensorimotor stage, Piaget divided it into six substages.

Substage 1: Reflexes (Birth–1 month) Newborns exhibit involuntary responses to stimuli and begin the assimilation process to sources of stimulation. For instance, infants assimilate visual and auditory stimuli by visually tracking where the stimulation originated. Orally, neonates will at first reflexively suck just about any object. Soon thereafter, they will adapt their responses in order to differentiate and understand when specific nipple-like stimuli are present. This is the process of accom- modation. Depending on the characteristics of the nipple, including its shape and the stream of milk that is expressed, the sucking reflex is later modified as infants begin to assimilate to their feeding environment. That is, the range of sucking and feeding behaviors is expanded. Because this stage focuses on reflexes, infants do not yet coordinate different activities. For instance, they will not track a finger in order to grasp it. During this substage, infants build on innate reflexive processes. Gradually, those reflexes become voluntary behaviors that chil- dren use to interact with the world.

Substage 2: Primary Circular Reactions (1–4 months) Infants in this stage do not yet have extensive capability to actively explore the environment, so the focus is on their own bodies, what Piaget called primary behaviors. They develop repet- itive behaviors, or habits, based on actions that they find pleasurable. For instance, when infants accidentally suck on a finger, it brings pleasure. They will be motivated to re-create that behavior. Piaget (2006 [1953], p. 97) described his 12-week-old son Laurent becoming aware of his own spontaneous finger and arm movements. On subsequent days, Laurent pur- posely brought his arm into view and derived joy when he saw it. The actions became both coordinated and repetitive. Infants are not just “looking for the sake of looking.” Instead they are actively “looking in order to see” (p. 70). Similarly, the innate grasping reflex is gradu- ally replaced by voluntarily extending the arm to purposefully clutch objects. Because these actions become repetitive, they are referred to as circular.

Substage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions (4–8 months) Infants now have the motor capability to create experiences that are outside their bodies. Individual behaviors are secondary because babies experience the effects of their actions on external objects, not just themselves. For example, babies will become fascinated if an acci- dental movement of a rattle causes a new sound. They will then want to reproduce the sound. These accidental occurrences lead to new schemas. By chance, babies may sweep food off of a tray. In doing so, they may become interested in seeing the way it flies or feels when squished, which leads to actions that will re-create the prior outcome. Infants in this stage also begin to imitate behaviors, but only if they have already produced the behavior. That is, they will show interest in novel actions like clapping, but they do not have the cognitive flexibility (cannot

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Section 7.2 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

adapt) to imitate the clapping behavior unless they have already discovered clapping on their own (Kaye & Marcus, 1981).

Substage 4: Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions (8–12 months) Next, infants learn to coordinate multiple circular reactions. In substage 4, infants now have intentional (goal-directed) behavior. That is, they know their actions will bring about certain effects. For instance, an infant might knock over a basket of toys specifically to obtain one that was hard to reach. Piaget famously demonstrated the coordination of schemas by hiding an appealing toy behind a cover. To recover the toy, infants had to successfully coordinate visual and motor schemas (“tracking,” “pushing aside,” and “grasping”).

Searching for a hidden object reveals that infants begin to understand that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen. According to Piaget, this mastery of object permanence is one of the most important accomplishments of infant cognitive development. Infants also use their understanding of object permanence to engage in intentional behavior. For instance, when a primary caregiver begins to leave, a 1-year-old child may begin to cry with the inten- tion of not being left alone (see also separation anxiety in section 10.5). Children may lift their arms in hopes of being held or attempt to run away when it is time to nap. Also in this substage, infants will imitate behaviors initiated by others, like making faces, stacking particular kinds of items, or playing pat-a-cake. Whereas substage 3 infants need to discover behaviors (like clapping) on their own before they are capable of imitating the behavior, now they can gener- ate what they see (e.g., stacking blocks) without first discovering the behavior on their own.

Substage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions (12–18 months) At the tertiary (third) level, infants demonstrate versatility by purposefully creating new sche- mas. Children will be intrigued by the different reactions and devise experiments to change outcomes. They become “little scientists” as they engage in trial-and-error activities instead of giving in to frustration. For instance, if a barrier prevents access to an appealing stimulus, they may devise a way to bypass the barrier, such as dragging a bucket on which to stand in order to climb over the barrier. Trial-and-error problem solving is also demonstrated when children take toys apart and then attempt to fit them back together.

Toddlers will also devise experiments like crashing toys into several different objects to make different sounds or to observe different trajectories. Like in substage 3, children will repeat their experiments, but now they can modify their actions to create new experiences. For instance, Piaget placed a stick outside his daughter Jacqueline’s playpen, knowing that it was an attractive object. At first, Jacqueline tried to pull the stick horizontally into the playpen through the vertical bars. After failing a number of times, a bit of trial-and-error led to her tilting the stick in such a way that it fit through. After she achieved success, the next time the stick was presented she pulled it through almost at once (Piaget 2006 [1953], pp. 305–307).

Substage 6: Mental Representation (18–24 months) Toward the latter half of the second year, children begin to construct internal depictions of objects and events, called mental representation. They are then able to imitate behaviors many hours or days after they were observed initially. For instance, children remember how to throw a tantrum after observing one at a party. This emergence of deferred imitation shows that children must have some kind of internal mental representation for images and behaviors.

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Section 7.2 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget demonstrated this substage with the playpen-and-stick problem, at which Jacqueline first failed. With his two younger children, Piaget waited until 18 months before present- ing the problem so that there would not be any practice effects. In both cases, the younger children bypassed the trial-and-error that was typical of Jacqueline when she was younger. Instead, they contemplated the problem and subsequently brought the stick into the playpen without much difficulty (Piaget, 2006 [1953]). The children were able to succeed because they had mentally combined objects and made internal representations in such a way that allowed mental rotation of the shapes.

Preoperational Stage (Ages 2–7) At birth, children have no internal representation of people, objects, or events; by the end of the sensorimotor period, they can imitate actions that they were exposed to days earlier. They have transitioned from a focus on their own bodies to an orientation on the world. These cog- nitive advancements mark the transition to Piaget’s preoperational stage, which lasts from about age 2 until about age 7.

Preoperational means that children do not yet perform logical, reversible mental actions called operations. Instead, this growth period is marked by an extraordinary advancement in mental representation. Children begin to represent schemas by images or words—what Piaget called symbols, or symbolic representation. Make-believe play and language are key to children’s understanding the world through mental structures, including images and objects that are not present. For instance, they play dress-up, make cities out of blocks, and set up house using plastic toys. A wood block may serve as a make-believe telephone; leaves become pancakes in a make-believe kitchen. When children use these symbols, they are think- ing in a more sophisticated manner because the real objects are missing.

Language provides the most efficient use of symbolic representation. Words are used for thinking, as when children plan, which also demonstrates an understanding of the past, pres- ent, and future. Words are also used to combine images and actions that have not been imag- ined before, like flying over the zoo while holding on to helium balloons.

This stage is also characterized by inadequate use of logic, primarily because children view things from only one perspective. That is, they have difficulty separating their thoughts and ideas from another person’s thoughts and ideas. Children assume others have the same physi- cal perspectives and mental thoughts as they do, even though it may not be logical to adults. Piaget called this lack of dimensional thinking egocentrism. That is why children are not capable of understanding that loud noises can bother others, when banging pots and pans is so much fun. If you ask them over the telephone, “What do you see?” preschoolers will sometimes reply, “That” to indicate what only they see. They are not capable of adjusting their perceptions to incorporate the views of others.

Piaget and Inhelder (1969) devised the “Three Mountains Task” to observe egocentricity and to find out when children decenter, or become able to consider problems from multiple points of view. As shown in Figure 7.1, children were seated in front of plaster mountains. A doll was then placed on a side of the platform different from where the child was sitting. Piaget and Inhelder then asked the participants to choose the photo that showed the doll’s view. At age 4, children always pointed to photos that represented their own perspective rather than the doll’s view; at age 7, children correctly chose the doll’s view, demonstrating a

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