Cognitive development is an ability to reflect the world around us more accurately and perform logical operations on the images of concepts that arise in the process of interaction with the surrounding world. Cognitive development includes all types of mental processes such as perception, memory, concept formation, problem solving, imagination and logic. Different approaches to child’s cognitive development consider mental structures responsible for these activities. One of the founders of this direction, Jean Piaget, researched the emergence and construction of cognitive schemes in the process of socialization. Other approaches are represented by Erik Erikson, Burrhus Skinner, and Lev Vygotsky. The paper analyses different theories of cognitive development of a preschool child. Contrasting theories are used to give practical advice concerning cognitive development of a child.
Piaget’s theory focuses on the positioning of a child in the world and society. In the initial period of his research activity, Piaget described the features of children’s representations of the world (Charlesworth, 2014). The features included indivisibility of the world and self, animism (belief in soul and spirits together with the whole animacy of nature) and artificalism (perception of the world as created by humans). To explain these features Piaget used the concept of egocentrism, which refers to a special position of a child in relation to the surrounding world. Egocentrism means child’s perception of his or her point of view as the only existing one, which influences the child’s logical constructions, such as syncretism (linking everything to everything), non-perception of contradictions, disregard to general categories during the analysis of individual facts and events, and misunderstanding of some concepts relative nature. All these phenomena found their vivid expression in egocentric speech and can be overcome in the process of socialization.
Piaget characterized the child’s thinking as qualitatively different from the adult’s one. Development of intelligence is determined by the child’s adaptation to the changing environment. Motivation for cognitive activities is restoration and maintenance of homeostasis as a balance between influence of the person on the environment and vice versa. These reverse processes known as assimilation and accommodation are a basis for the child’s cognitive development (Valsiner, 2005). Thus, biological maturation is not a decisive factor for the development of individual; it only creates preconditions for it.
The child’s mentality development includes three stages: autistic, egocentric, and socialized (Charlesworth, 2014). Autistic thinking is the child’s fantasy, dreams and images; its characteristic features are innateness, subordination to the pleasure principle, unconsciousness, directivity to the inner world of the child, and absence of adaptation to external conditions. This stage is characterized by sensorimotor intelligence. During it children discover the connection between actions and their consequences. With the help of senses and motor skills the child explores the surrounding world, every day his or her ideas about objects expand. The child begins to use simple actions, gradually moving to more complex ones. By countless “experiments” the child starts forming a concept of himself or herself as something separate from the outside world. At this stage only manipulation of direct things is possible, but not actions with symbols and internal representations.
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The transition from autistic thinking to egocentric one is related to the relationship of coercion – the child begins to correlate the principles of pleasure and reality. Piaget describes egocentrism as a cognitive stance of the child, when he or she considers the outside world phenomena and objects only with regard to himself or herself (Charlesworth, 2014). The child at the egocentric stage is not able to coordinate various points of view on the subject. Egocentric thinking is similar to autistic one, but in this case the child’s interests are not directed solely to the satisfaction of biological or playing needs as it occurs in case of autistic thinking, but is also aimed at mental adaptation similar to adult’s consciousness. Intelligence formation at this stage focuses on the preparation and organization of specific operations passing from sensorimotor functions to internal symbolic schemes. Such transition means operating images instead of material objects: for example, while playing a child can use a box as a table and pieces of paper can be plates. This period prepares the child for the socialized stage of formal operations, which starts at the age of about 12, and thus its analysis is beyond the current paper.
Unlike Piaget, Erik Erikson focuses on psychoanalysis. He divides human life into eight stages, accompanied by crises during transition between them. The preschool age, which is the subject of studying, includes three stages with their conflicts and strengths: 0-1 years (conflict: trust-mistrust, strength: hope), 2-3 years (conflict: independence – shame, strength: willpower), 4-5 years (conflict: initiative – guilt, strength: purpose) (Charlesworth, 2014). At the first stage, the child treats the social world as a safe, stable place and people as caring and reliable beings. Erikson relates the crisis between the first and second stages to the reduction of mother’s care. It results in the appearance of psycho-social setting of fear, suspicion and anxiety for the well-being. This setting is aimed at both the world in general and people in it, preparing the child for the second stage associated with independence and self-control. According to Erikson, the child interacting with parents finds out that parental controls are different. On the one hand, it is a form of care; on the other hand, it is a destructive form of restraint. Finally, the conflict between initiative and guilt is the last one in the preschool period, which Erikson calls “playing” stage. At this time, the social world of the child requires a lot of activities, new skills and provides new challenges, when the praise is a reward for success. Erikson’s system addresses existential categories rather than direct mental properties analyzed by Piaget.
Burrhus Skinner considers cognitive development from the positions of behaviorism – a psychological school that treats human behavior as a result of prior influence of the environment. Skinner rejects the notion of hidden mental processes, stating that cognitive development is totally objectively determined. Thus, by manipulating the variables of the environment (i.e. independent variables), we can predict and control the behavioral responses of the child (dependent variables). This tendency includes negative responses as well. For instance, many families stimulate children’s crying. Screaming and crying as an unconditioned response of the child to physical discomfort causes parents’ desire to come to the child, soothe him or her, to help and pay attention in general. Such care is powerful positive support to the child’s crying; crying becomes a means of controlling parents’ behavior. So, cognitive development of any person can be regulated through creating certain external conditions without paying attention to individual mental structures of the child.
The works by Lev Vygotsky examine higher mental functions of the child as a basis for cognitive development. The main source of this development is the changing social environment. Vygotsky describes it using the term “social situation of development” (SSD) defined as a specific to this age group, exclusive, unique and unrepeatable relationship between the child and the surrounding reality (Charlesworth, 2014). This relationship determines mental development of the child at a certain age level. Vygotsky also analyzes a perspective part of the SSD, which he mentions as a “zone of proximal development”. The zone of proximal development is an area of coming processes and perspective challenges that the child at this stage of development cannot solve alone, but which can be solved with the help of adults; it is a level achieved by the child only in the process of joint activity with an adult.
Depending on the theoretical perspective, Keith’s advice to Jasmine’s parents may vary. From Piaget’s point of view the parents must take into account egocentric positioning of the child and focus on inclusion of the coming information into the existing cognitive structure of Jasmine’s thinking. It can be done through games and ordinary daily actions where the child will play a leading role and the parents should not emphasize their a priori dominating position. Jasmine must be sure that she does everything she wants, but not what the parents require.
Erikson’s psychoanalytic approach would consider Jasmine’s existential conflicts. To promote her cognitive development Jasmine’s parents must minimize certain negative factors such as shame and guilt. They must not punish the child for mistakes, but encourage her further attempts in case of failures, explaining that a failure is only a new step to success. The parents should make a stress on Jasmine’s achievements and praise rather than criticize her for mistakes.
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Regarding Skinner’s behaviorist position, Jasmine’s parents should provide objective stimuli, motivating her for new cognitive attainments. These stimuli may be both positive (praising, sweets or any other kind of reward) and negative (punishment, deprivation of rewards, etc.). Skinner’s theory assumes universal, standard means of cognitive development promotion. This universality has some pros and cons. Its main plus is time-tested methodology, carefully analyzed and balanced by many people who solved similar problems previously and supplied their experience to the common human scientific sphere. The basic disadvantage of standardization is that it does not take into account the child’s personality. Each person is unique, and methods tested many times on other children may be ineffective concerning Jasmine.
Finally, Vygotsky’s theory analyses the child’s cognitive development through the social environment. Using this perspective, Jasmine’s parents must pay maximum attention to the people and media space around their daughter. First of all, they must become positive role models for her. If they want her to speak correctly, they should watch their own speech; if they want her to spend less time watching TV, they must limit themselves in this aspect, etc. Besides, the parents should pay attention to Jasmine’s circle of communication, i.e. her friends and other people around her. Her friends’ achievements may be used as an example for her. The parents should emphasize their features that they want Jasmine to develop. Also, they can purposefully make Jasmine acquainted to needed people. For example, if they want her to play the piano, it would be useful to meet some known musician or just to read or watch something about such person.
Under different approaches the society and family will play different roles in Jasmine’s cognitive development. Piaget considered the social surrounding as a means of overcoming the child’s egocentrism. Piaget’s position is close to Skinner’s one in assuming active influence of the environment; furthermore, Skinner makes a stress on the social background rather than on child’s individuality. Conversely, Erikson regards child’s personality and existential conflicts as primary ones; in this case, the society plays a secondary role of a tool for the conflicts solution.
In conclusion, the child’s cognitive development may be analyzed and promoted using different scientific approaches. Piaget, Erikson, Skinner and Vygotsky focused on different aspects of child’s mentality and their chronological change. However, the best way of the cognitive development promotion is a combination of these methods. External and internal stimuli, subconscious and conscious motivation, social environment and other aspects must be carefully balanced. Of course, stress can be made on a certain sphere depending on the personal properties of the child, but none of the theories includes all the features of cognitive development. Thus, the best solution in this case is their synthesis.