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Cognitive Development: An Introduction

Understanding how children and youth learn is essential to your efforts to implement a high-quality learning system for your program. As the manager, you are accountable for ensuring program policies are followed so all children and youth in your program achieve positive outcomes.

  • Describe the importance of the early years to staff and families.
  • Identify management practices that support cognitive development.
  • Apply current theory and research on child and youth development to ensure that positive outcomes for children and youth are achieved.


As an adult, you have already developed many of the thinking skills that help you navigate the world around you. Think about the skills and strategies that have helped you succeed at daily tasks like:

  • Reading and following the recipe for a new meal
  • Finding a different way home when traffic is heavy
  • Estimating the amount of material you'll need for a home improvement project
  • Finishing a book and discussing it with friends
  • Filling out a job application
  • Fixing a leaking faucet or pipe
  • Budgeting for groceries and other essentials

What thinking skills helped with these kinds of tasks? Reading, writing, measuring, calculating, problem-solving, hypothesis testing, comprehending, and recalling facts are essential for many of the tasks you accomplish every day. You started developing those skills as a child, and they continue to develop as you encounter new situations as an adult.

As a program manager, you lay the foundation for staff to support children and youth develop the thinking skills they need to be successful in school and life. This course will help you understand how your management practices contribute to the development of thinking skills in the children and youth served in your program.

What is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development is all about learning and reasoning. When a child imitates an adult, that's cognitive development; when a child makes a "ruff" sound when they see a dog, that's cognitive development; and when a child smiles upon hearing a familiar voice, that's cognitive development. Cognitive development happens all the time and is influenced by both our genes and our experiences.

According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2016), "Cognitive development refers to the mind and how it works. It involves how children think, how they see their world, and how they use what they learn." Who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives. Brains are built over time, and each experience affects growth and development. While genetics are important, the interplay between genes and experiences is the focus of research today. While the brain can be influenced at any age, it is the most pliable in the early years.

Scientists no longer debate which is most important, genetics or experience. The brain is built over time and it is a combination of genes and experience that shape the quality of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, health, and behavior. The same is true for which developmental domain is most important. All of the domains of development are important, and they are inextricably linked. Carol Dweck of Stanford University says, “We can’t carve people up—there isn’t the cognitive person, the emotional person, the motivational person, the social person. All of these co-occur in the brain” (Galinsky, 2010).

As a manager, you have the opportunity to help staff members understand the critical difference they make in the lives of children and youth. Early childhood researchers at Harvard University have created videos that can help you understand and talk about the importance of early experiences. Follow the link below to watch Harvard University's "Experiences Build Brain Architecture" video on how experiences influence the developing brain.

Experiences Build Brain Architecture The Center of the Developing Child
at Harvard University

Early experiences, both positive and negative, affect the development of brain architecture. Adverse experiences early in life can impair brain development, leading to problems in learning, behavior, physical health and mental health that last well into adulthood. Follow the link below to watch Harvard University's "Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development" video on the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain.

Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development The Center of the Developing Child
at Harvard University

High-Quality Learning Programs Make a Lasting Difference

Multiple studies have identified factors that improve educational outcomes for children. The factors identified include: skilled personnel, small group sizes, appropriate staff-to-child ratios, warm and responsive interactions, and a developmentally appropriate curriculum. It is critical that you are able to talk to staff about how to effectively care for and teach of children and youth, create environments that support learning, and provide staff training and ongoing supports, like coaching, that help staff members improve their teaching practices.

You help create a climate that promotes positive development and learning of children and youth. You also create an environment where adult development and learning is valued when you support ongoing professional development. When you create a culture where lifelong learning is valued, you help staff members develop the skills necessary to offer the experiences, environments and interactions that prepare children to learn.

Management Practices That Support Cognitive Development

As a program manager, you support the cognitive development of children and youth when you demonstrate the following management practices:

  • Create a community of learners who are committed to deepening their understanding about how children and youth develop and learn. This can be done by taking time at staff meetings or through written communications to discuss research and best practice.
  • Employ diverse staff members who motivate children and youth to learn and enjoy working with children, youth, and families.
  • Address negative interactions by staff immediately. Have a conversation and spend time modeling appropriate interactions. Observe and provide feedback frequently to ensure positive interactions.
  • Model warm and responsive relationships with families, children and staff.
  • Show appreciation for what children are learning and what teachers are doing by talking about what you observe every chance you get. Be a cheerleader in the community for your program and the important work it does.
  • Nurture a culture of ongoing learning and continuous improvement by acknowledging the time and effort staff take to learn and try new things.
  • Model and show appreciation to staff for their efforts on behalf of children and families.

Watch the following video that summarizes the key concepts presented in this lesson.

Early Experiences Matter

You support cognitive development every day.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Management Cognitive Development Course Guide

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


How do you define cognitive development in your program? What experiences have helped you develop as a learner? Take a few minutes to read and respond to the questions in the Exploring Cognitive Development activity. Then, think about how you can use what you know about your own learning to help staff members, children, and families. Talk with other program leaders about ways your program can improve its approach to supporting cognitive development.


We know more now than we ever have about how best to promote cognitive growth and development in children and youth. Yet an alarming number of children and youth aren’t reaching their full potential.

Read “The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do,” a publication from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

The Science of Early Childhood Development:
Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

After reading the article, download and print the Understanding Cognitive Development: Reflective Exercise and answer the questions based on your reading. Training & Curriculum Specialists have access to the same article within their track so that you can have a dialogue about what it means for your program.


Cognitive Development:
The process of acquiring intelligence and increasingly advanced thought and problem-solving ability from infancy to adulthood
Developmental Domains:
There are five domains of development. They are: cognitive, social/emotional, language/linguistic, fine motor, and gross motor


True or false? Cognitive development is primarily influenced by our experiences.
Which of the following management practices support children’s cognitive development?
Finish this statement: Factors that improve educational outcomes for children include...
References & Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). CDC’s developmental milestones.

Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about One's Thinking. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Accessed from

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, Third Edition. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind In The Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2020) Cognition.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.) All Cognitive Content.

The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: