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Cognitive Development in Children

Learn about Cognitive Developmental Psychology in Childhood

cognitive development childhood

University of Wyoming Professor Karen Bartsch has a theory about who succeeds in the field of Developmental Psychology, and not coincidentally, it involves psychological theories.

It's not enough to just find people interesting, notes Bartsch, a psychologist who specializes in cognitive development, an area that studies the development of intelligence, learning, memory, and language skills.

"You have to be curious on a deeper level; curious enough that you're looking for the good theories that explain how people work - what's beneath the surface behaviors," she said.

Exploring the developmental process

Developmentalists establish theories and use the scientific method to test them, focusing specifically on the theories of how and why people change as they age. Formulating theories involves organizing and connecting principles and generalizations gathered from behavioral observations into a coherent framework, and extracting questions from that framework to test.

industrial organizational psychology career profile
Dr. Karen Bartsch, Ph.D.
Psychology Professor
University of Wyoming

Bartsch's research focuses on the cognitive development of children, ages three-to-seven. Developmental psychologists sometimes research and study cognitive development in a specific age category, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Alternatively, they can focus on cognitive development issues for the developmentally disabled.

Bartsch focuses mainly on one aspect of cognitive development called conceptual development, which centers specifically on how children develop concepts that they use to think with, and how those concepts change over time.

Child Developmental Psychology

For example, she typically studies how children develop an understanding that they and other people have beliefs, and that these beliefs may differ from their own. The ability for children to grasp the concept of beliefs occurs around age 4, according to Bartsch, whose research was inspired by groundbreaking research done in the early 1980s at the University of Salzburg.

Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner claimed to extrapolate evidence of a stage where children begin to understand that other people have their own unique worlds of thoughts and beliefs. Psychologists label the ability to distinguish between one's own thoughts and those of others the "theory of mind."

To demonstrate the theory that the mind develops at about age four, Wimmer and Perner created a puppet show around a character named Maxi, who watches his mother put some chocolate into a blue cupboard. Maxi goes out to play, and his mother moves the chocolate to a green cupboard. When Maxi comes back in hungry for his chocolate, the researchers didn't ask the children which cupboard the chocolate was in, but rather which cupboard Maxi would look in for the chocolate.

Most 4-year-olds reported that Maxi would look in the green cupboard. They didn't seem to understand that Maxi couldn't have known that his mother moved the chocolate; in other words, they didn't grasp that Maxi could believe something different from themselves. The researchers stated that these children couldn't yet construct a mental model different from their own - in other words, they didn't yet have a theory of mind.

Children aged 5 and above, however, aptly predicted that Maxi would look in the original, blue cupboard. In other words, children who have developed a theory of mind are able to grasp the concept that others have beliefs different from theirs, and ones that are possibly incorrect or false. It's at this point that children begin to understand that others can lie to them, and that they can lie to others.

Since that pivotal study by Wimmer and Perner in 1983, this experiment has been replicated by many researchers with children from many different countries and cultures, and most studies report similar results.

Advancing the field in the modern age

Bartsch also has developed several studies based on Wimmer's and Perner's original research. In one study, Bartsch told children a story about Jane, who was looking for her kitten. Children were told that Jane was looking under the piano, although the kitten was really under a chair. She asked children to explain why Jane was looking under the piano.

"Even many 3-year-olds said that Jane looked in the wrong place because that's where she must have thought the kitten was," Bartsch said. Therefore even 3-year-olds, who presumably can't predict that Jane will look in the wrong location can verbalize a false belief. This suggested to Bartsch that children develop the ability to verbalize how others might have false beliefs or representations sooner than they themselves can predict actions based on false beliefs. This led her to conduct more experiments.

Promoting healthy development

As developmental psychologists have explored how children grow cognitively, findings have led to breakthroughs in how to promote healthy development.

According to Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence by authors David Shaffer and Katherine Kipp, research in the field has led to an understanding of ways to:

  • Create strong ties between fussy, unresponsive infants and frustrated parents
  • Assist children with learning difficulties in school
  • Help socially unskilled children and adolescents prevent emotional difficulties that result from rejection
  • Uncover emotional and developmental problems
  • Recognize cognitive deficits

Source: Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence

"So now I know that kids can give explanations before they can make predictions, but I still don't know exactly how they do it," she said. This is typical of setting up and conducting research in an area like developmental psychology - one question ultimately leads to another, Bartsch said.

"Regarding the really big questions in this field, there's some sense that the questions themselves, if they're truly the profound questions that are at the heart of the field, uncover more questions."

Her research recently has focused on the premise that emotions could provide the key to helping children begin to understand that they have internal representations, i.e., beliefs. For example, a child might watch her mother open a refrigerator and become happy, or open a refrigerator and become sad. The child notices the mother react emotionally to each event and starts to form ideas about what is occurring or taking place to cause the mother to react this way. Eventually, children may realize that the sad reaction, for instance, results from dashed expectations—maybe the mother believed she would find a cake in the refrigerator, and then discovered the cake was gone.

The implications of research on when children form beliefs, or theory of mind, is crucial for understanding and helping children develop the skills needed for life. It's important, for example, for children to be able to simulate what others are thinking in order to function socially.

"In any kind of nuanced social situation, you must be able to take the other person's perspective," Bartsch said. That's why this stage of conceptual development is so important. It lays the foundation for how children, who eventually turn into adults, interact in the real world. Additionally, it's important for children to understand that others might have false beliefs, and that others might try to mislead them.

Applying cognitive understanding in the field

Perhaps one of the most important applications of theory of mind centers on autism. Many psychological researchers now believe that failure to develop a theory of mind is a central characteristic of autism.

Bartsch said that even older, autistic people who are tested often can't predict that Maxi will look in the original, blue cabinet. That suggests both children and adults with autism may have a foundational inability to understand that others have their own internal representations of the world.

Practical applications of this type of research apply directly to those who specialize in another major area of developmental psychology, that of developmental disabilities.

The field of Developmental Psychology is actually quite broad and includes many areas for specialization. Besides cognitive development, these professionals also research and study how humans change emotionally and socially, and they study and work with those who are developmentally disabled. They also study contextual influences on change, such as socioeconomic, cultural, and genetic influences. Virtually any topic related to human beings and change can be explored and studied.

If you are curious about and desire to understand how people grow and change, you should consider a career in developmental psychology. For those wanting to conduct research and teach, a PhD is required. However, if you want to apply the principles of developmental psychology in a practical setting, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and social service agencies often hire professionals with a master's degree in psychology.

Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

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