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Cognitive Development: Helping Staff Members Understand Child Development

Children and youth usually follow predictable patterns in how they grow and learn, and your role is to ensure staff members recognize and use their knowledge of child development. This lesson will review typical cognitive development from birth to age 12. You will learn about developmental milestones and how to ensure staff members understand cognitive development.

  • Describe the cognitive developmental milestones for children and youth in a way that supports staff members’ knowledge of child development.
  • Identify ways to support staff when they have concerns about a child’s development.


Ages and Stages of Cognitive Development

It is your role to help staff members understand the critical elements of child development. This lesson provides a brief overview of how cognition (thinking skills) develops from birth through age 12. Staff members have read similar information in their own lessons, so this is intended to provide you with consistent information and terminology. The information and resources are intended as a reference for you or as something you can provide to staff members as a refresher.

Infant and Toddler Milestones

Infants’ and toddlers’ thinking skills grow as they interact with the world and people around them. As you learned in the first lesson, early experiences matter. Consistent, nurturing, and responsive interactions and experiences help infants and toddlers make sense of the world. Those repeated experiences build the architecture of the brain. As infants and toddlers develop, they begin to understand and predict how things work: they open and close a cabinet door over and over, they fill and dump a cup of water in the water table, they bang a spoon on a high chair to hear the sound.

You will help staff members understand these milestones. Direct care staff received a chart about infant and toddler development in their own lessons. It’s important that you help them remember individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which infants and toddlers achieve milestones. As highlighted in the Communication & Language Development and Physical Development courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. The information in the table below is a comprehensive list of cognitive developmental milestones. A brief version of this information aimed at parents can also be found in an easy-to-use checklist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Cognitive Developmental Milestones

2 months

  • Pays attention to faces
  • Follows objects with eyes and recognizes people at a distance
  • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn’t change
  • Looks at an object for several seconds
  • Waves arms toward objects dangled in front of them

4 months

  • Looks at hands with interest
  • Opens mouth when sees breast or bottle
  • Looks at objects placed in hand or in front of them

6 months

  • Looks around at things nearby
  • Brings things to mouth to explore them
  • Reaches to grab toys
  • Begins to pass things from one hand to another
  • Closes lips to show they don’t want more food
  • Looks for objects they have dropped

9 months

  • Looks for objects when placed out of sight
  • Bangs two objects together
  • Passes toys back and forth between hands
  • Picks up toys, one in each hand

12 months

  • Explores things in different ways like shaking, banging, throwing
  • Looks for objects they see you hide
  • Copies gestures
  • Bangs two things together
  • Lets things go without help
  • Pokes with index (pointer) finger

15 months

  • Starts to use things correctly (like drinks from a cup, brushes hair)
  • Stacks at least two small objects
  • Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container
  • Scribbles back and forth on paper

18 months

  • Knows what ordinary things are; for example telephone, brush, spoon
  • Points to get the attention of others
  • Plays with toys in simple ways
  • Points to one body part
  • Scribbles on their own
  • Can follow 1-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say “sit down”
  • Imitates chores like sweeping the floor

24 months

  • Holds something in one hand while using the other hand
  • Begins to sort shapes and colors
  • Plays simple make-believe games
  • Builds towers of 4 or more blocks
  • Might use one hand more than the other
  • Names items in a picture book such as a cat, bird, or dog
  • Attempts to use switches, knobs, or buttons on a toy
  • Plays with more than one toy at the same time

30 months

  • Points to their image in a mirror
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Shows simple problem solving skills like standing on a small stool to reach something
  • Knows at least one color
  • Tells you what they drew after drawing a picture or scribbling
  • Follows two-step directions like, “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet.”

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). CDC's Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from:

Preschool Milestones

During the preschool years, amazing changes happen in children's thinking skills. Their memories are becoming stronger-they often remember surprising details. They can share their ideas in new and interesting ways. Their imaginations are becoming a primary vehicle for play and learning. They begin to compare, contrast, organize, analyze, and come up with more and more complex ways to solve problems. Math and scientific thinking become more sophisticated.

Read the table below that lists some cognitive developmental milestones in preschool.

Cognitive Developmental Milestones

Age 3

  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts 
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Does puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
  • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
  • Turns book pages one at a time
  • Builds towers of more than 6 blocks
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handle
  • Avoids touching hot objects, like a stove, when warned

Age 4

  • Names some numbers
  • Understands the idea of counting
  • Remembers parts of a story
  • Understands the idea of “same” and “different”
  • Draws a person with 3 or more body parts
  • Names a few colors
  • Understands some direction words like “under” “on top”, “middle”
  • Plays dress up and pretends to be someone or something else
  • Tells you what comes next in a story

Age 5

  • Counts to 10
  • Names some numbers between 1 and 5 when you point to them
  • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
  • Can write some letters of their name
  • Names some letters when you point to them
  • Pays attention for 5-10 minutes during activities
  • Uses words about time like yesterday, tomorrow, morning, or night

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). CDC's Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from:

School-Age Milestones

School-age children's thinking skills become increasingly sophisticated as they encounter new people, places, and ideas. They develop the ability to learn in abstract ways from books, art, movies, and experiences. The chart below highlights cognitive development during the school-age years.

Cognitive Developmental Milestones

Middle childhood (ages 5-7)

  • They begin to see things from other school-age children’s perspectives and begin to understand how their behavior affects others
  • They enjoy planning and building
  • They understand concepts of space, time, and dimension. They understand concepts like yesterday, today, and tomorrow
  • They know left and right
  • They begin to develop a sense of self-confidence and mastery of their learning
  • They begin to reason and argue
  • They can perform simple addition and subtraction

Early adolescence (ages 8-12)

  • Most early adolescents are fully capable of perspective taking and understand and consider other’s perspectives
  • They begin to think hypothetically, considering a number of possibilities, and are able to think logically
  • They become more goal oriented
  • They may develop special interests that are a source of motivation
  • Cognitive development may be impacted by their emotional state
  • They begin to understand facets of the adult world like money and telling time
  • They appreciate humor and word games

Helping Staff Members Use their Knowledge of Cognitive Development

Staff members must use their knowledge of child development to support the learning of children and youth in their care. As a manager, you should be prepared to support staff by providing strategies for developing children’s cognitive skills. When working with staff members in the classroom, observe as they engage with children to ensure they do the following:

Infants and Toddlers

  • Give infants and toddlers the safe space they need for movement and discovery (areas for climbing, crawling, pulling up, etc.).
  • Provide a consistent, nurturing, and responsive relationship with each infant and toddler.
  • Create an environment that is culturally sensitive and that there are not negative portrayals of different genders, races, or ethnicities.
  • Recognize that children need different things as they move through the developmental stages.
  • Observe children on a regular basis to determine where they are developmentally so staff can both support and challenge their emerging skills.
  • Remember that children are unique and progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas.


  • Provide interesting materials that spark preschoolers’ interests and allow for hands-on exploration.
  • Provide a range of developmentally appropriate, culturally, and liguistically diverse books.
  • Create an environment that is culturally sensitive and that there are not negative portrayals of different genders, races, or ethnicities.
  • Find teachable moments to encourage learning and development.
  • Observe children on a regular basis to determine where they are developmentally so staff can both support and challenge their emerging skills.
  • Ensure the environment reflects the needs and interests of the children.
  • Provide spaces where children can cool down, calm down, or de-stress.
  • Remember that children progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas.


  • Provide thought-provoking materials and challenging games for children and youth to complete if or when they have some downtime.
  • Provide a variety of developmentally appropriate, culturally, and liguistically diverse books for children and youth to read.
  • Model the values of caring, respect, honesty, and responsibility.
  • Create an environment that is culturally sensitive and that there are no negative portrayals of different genders, races, or ethnicities.
  • Ensure the environment reflects the needs and interests of children and youth.
  • Provide spaces where children can cool down, calm down, or de-stress.
  • Allow children and youth to design or personalize part of the space.
  • Implement activities where children and youth can use their strengths and abilities.

Meeting the Cognitive Development Needs of All Learners Including those with Disabilities

Teach staff members about your program’s commitment to serving all children and youth, including children with disabilities. In their own courses, staff members have learned strategies for meeting the needs of individual learners. Staff members may need your support to know how and when to use the strategies they have learned. Collaborate with the Training & Curriculum Specialist to teach staff members to recognize the range of abilities in their classrooms or programs. All children and youth need individualization, but it is critical to understand the needs of children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs). Help staff consider and plan for the preschooler who needs an extra challenge, the toddler who is learning more than one language, or the pre-teen who sits quietly by herself. Work with the T&CS to identify training needs for the staff in your programs to make sure that all children are getting the support they need.

Management Practices that Support Understanding of Cognitive Development

As a program manager, you are accountable for supporting the development of all children and youth. You can use the following strategies to help staff members understand the development of children and youth with a range of needs and abilities:

  • Hold high expectations for all staff members when it comes to children and youth outcomes by setting learning goals for all age groups. Have a strengths-based approach. Begin conversations by discussing what the child, youth, or family brings to the program and what they can do.
  • Focus on outcomes. Discuss with staff members the development and learning goals that are appropriate for each individual child. Then help plan experiences to meet those goals.
  • Seek out knowledge of the cultures, values, and preferences of the families served and ensure those preferences are integrated throughout the program. Ensure that you know how culture may influence development and interactions.
  • Support staff in the development of knowledge and skills needed to understand child development by seeking out resources and providing encouragement. Recognize when a child is able to do more than is being offered. Make sure all children have the opportunity to challenge themselves and participate as much as possible.
  • Provide community-based resources such as guest speakers; support attendance at workshops and conferences for staff.
  • Use multiple data sources such as classroom observations and lesson plans to evaluate and provide feedback on how effectively teachers are implementing the curriculum cycle
  • Ensure professional development plans have identified goals for effectively implementing the curriculum cycle based on classroom observations
  • Recognize skilled staff who demonstrate an understanding of child development and have them mentor other staff. Arrange for staff members to observe others who have effective methods for observing and documenting children’s development.
  • Interact. Talk to every child. Communicate that every child has a place in your program. Jump in and help when needed.

Every day, you and your staff influence the development of children and youth. As a result, it’s important that you and your staff are intentional about the decisions you make. Intentional means that you and your staff know why you do what you do and are purposeful in everything you do. In other words, intentionality doesn’t leave anything to chance. You support intentionality by scheduling time for staff and coaches to meet and discuss the goals they have for children and youth based on their observations. When staff members have time for meaningful conversations, it leads to the planning of meaningful experiences, which in turn leads to positive outcomes for children and youth.

Watch this video that summarizes the main ideas of this lesson and affirms your role in supporting cognitive development.

The Manager's Role in Understanding Cognitive Development

You play a role in ensuring children develop the cognitive skills they need.


Theory and research on child development have important implications for your day-to-day work. Take some time to think about how cognitive development theory and research get put into practice in your program and complete the following exercise.


You may engage in conversations with staff members about child development. Use the Discussing Cognitive Development guide to have conversations with staff members about child development. You can also use this conversation guide to prepare for meetings with families about their child’s cognitive development.


True or false? Only children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) need individualization.
Finish this statement: It’s important to help staff keep in mind that…
Which of the following management practices support staff members’ understanding of cognitive development?
References & Resources

Center for Applied Special Technology. (2022).

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

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended Practices for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

Head Start Center for Inclusion.

Milbourne, S., & Campbell, P. (2007). Cara's Kit (consultant's version): Creating adaptive routines and activities. Missoula, MT: Division for Early Childhood.

National Center for Research In Early Childhood Education. (2022).

Sandall, S., Schwartz, I., Joseph, G., and Gauvreau, A. (2019). Building blocks for teaching preschoolers with special needs (3rd ed.). Brookes Publishing.

West Ed (n.d.). Handout 11: The Responsiveness Process. In The Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers: PITC Trainers' Manual Module 1.