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    • Articulate 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 all 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.

    What is Cognitive Development?

    Cognitive development is all about learning. 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 (2002), "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 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

    Follow the link below to watch Harvard University's "Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development" video on the impact negative experiences can have 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 are: 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 articulate what it means to teach children and youth effectively, create environments that are conducive to learning, and implement the staff training and support systems that help staff members achieve important goals.

    You help create a climate that promotes the optimal development and learning of children and youth. Fostering a spirit that encourages new ideas and allows for mistakes is the underpinning of a culture that supports ongoing professional development. That, in turn, supports cognitive development in children and youth. You help staff members offer the experiences, environments, and interactions that prepare children to learn. In other words, you are a difference maker.

    Management Practices That Support Cognitive Development

    As a manager, you are accountable for supporting the cognitive development of children and youth. You also are accountable for the professional performance of the adults who care for those children and youth. To do this important work, you should:

    • Create a community of learners who are committed to deepening their understanding about how children and youth develop and learn by taking time at staff meetings or through written communications to discuss research and best practice.
    • Employ diverse workers who ignite children's desire to learn and have the temperament for working with children and youth.
    • Address negative interactions by staff immediately. Have a conversation and spend time modeling appropriate interactions. Observe and provide feedback frequently to ensure interactions become and remain positive.
    • Model warm 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 professional development and continuous improvement by acknowledging the time and effort staff are committing to learning more and doing more.
    • 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 these questions. 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 positive growth and development in children and youth. Yet an alarming number of children and youth aren’t realizing their full potential.

    Here we provide a resource for you: “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 Reflective Exercise and answer the questions based on your reading. Training and Curriculum Specialists have read the same article in their courses, so you can have a discussion about what it means for your program.


    Classroom Assessment Scoring SystemThe CLASS is an observational instrument developed to assess classroom quality in preschool through third-grade classrooms
    cognitive developmentThe process of acquiring intelligence and increasingly advanced thought and problem-solving ability from infancy to adulthood
    developmental domainsThere are five domains of development. They are: cognitive, social/emotional, language/linguistic, fine motor, and gross motor
    Devereux Early Childhood Assessment for Infants and ToddlersThe (DECA-I/T) is a tool for assessing protective factors and screening for potential risks in the social and emotional developmental domains




    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

    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.

    The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: