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    • 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 experiences help infants and toddlers make sense of the world. Those experiences literally build brain architecture. 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. Staff received a chart about infant and toddler development in their own lessons. It's important that you help them keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which infants and toddlers meet milestones; each child is unique. As highlighted in the Communication and Physical courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Here is a reminder about general cognitive developmental milestones:

    Cognitive Developmental Milestones

    2 months

    • Pays attention to faces
    • Begins to follow things with eyes and recognize people at a distance
    • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn’t change

    6 months

    • Looks around at things nearby
    • Brings things to mouth
    • Shows curiosity about things and tries to get things that are out of reach
    • Begins to pass things from one hand to another

    12 months

    • Explores things in different ways like shaking, banging, throwing
    • Finds hidden things easily
    • Looks at the right picture or thing when it’s named
    • Copies gestures
    • Starts to use things correctly (like drinks from a cup, brushes hair)
    • Bangs two things together
    • Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container
    • Lets things go without help
    • Pokes with index (pointer) finger
    • Follows simple directions like “pick up the toy”

    18 months

    • Knows what ordinary things are; for example telephone, brush, spoon
    • Points to get the attention of others
    • Shows interest in a doll or stuffed animal by pretending to feed
    • Points to one body part
    • Scribbles on his own
    • Can follow 1-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say “sit down”

    24 months

    • Finds things even when hidden under two or three covers
    • Begins to sort shapes and colors
    • Completes sentences and rhymes in familiar books
    • Plays simple make-believe games
    • Builds towers of 4 or more blocks
    • Might use one hand more than the other
    • Follows two-step directions like, “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet.”

    36 months

    • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Does puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
    • Understands what “two” means
    • Copies a circle with a 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 handles

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). 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

    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Does puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
    • Understands what “two”means
    • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
    • Turns book pages one at a time

    Age 4

    • Understands the idea of counting
    • Starts to understand time
    • Remembers parts of a story
    • Understands the idea of “same” and “different”
    • Draws a person with 2 to 4 body parts

    Age 5

    • Counts 10 or more things
    • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
    • Can print some letters or numbers
    • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
    • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). 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 are developing their oral language skills, acquiring new vocabulary, and sentence structures.
    • 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 are learning to read and write and can sound out simple words.
    • 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 school-age children’s emotional state.
    • They begin to understand facets of the adult world like money and telling time.
    • They may enjoy reading a book. They can interpret the context of a paragraph and writes stories.
    • 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 work appropriately with the children in their care. Be prepared to teach staff effective strategies for facilitating cognitive development. 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 relationship with each infant and toddler.
    • 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 and culturally diverse books.
    • 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.
    • Remember that children are unique and progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas.


    • Provide thought-provoking materials and challenging games for school-age children to complete if or when they have some downtime.
    • Provide a variety of developmentally appropriate and culturally diverse books for school-age children to read.
    • Model the values of caring, respect, honesty, and responsibility.
    • Make sure that the space is culturally sensitive and that there are no negative portrayals of different genders, races, or ethnicities.
    • Ensure the space reflects the needs and interests of the school-age children.
    • Provide spaces where school-age children can cool down or de-stress.
    • Allow the school-age children 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 Special Needs

    Teach staff members about your program's commitment to serving all children and youth. In their own courses, staff members have learned strategies for meeting the needs of individual learners. There are also additional inclusion modules that staff members may complete (i.e., KIT). Staff members will need your support to know how and when to use the strategies they have learned. Teach staff members to recognize the range of abilities in their classrooms or programs. It is critical to understand the needs of children with individualized education programs (IEPs), but it is equally important to understand that all children and youth need individualization. Help them 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 training and curriculum specialist to identify training needs for the staff in your programs and 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 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. Advocate for maximum participation. Recognize when a child is capable of more than is being offered. Make sure all children have the opportunity to challenge themselves and participate to the maximum extent possible.
    • Provide community-based resources such as guest speakers; support attendance to workshops and conferences for teachers.
    • Use multiple data sources such as classroom observations 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 teachers who demonstrate an understanding of child development and have them mentor less-experienced teachers. Arrange for the staff member to observe others who have strong or creative 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 intervene in the developmental lives of children and youth. As a result, it's imperative 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 as a result 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 trainers 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.



    Much of what we know about child development comes from theory and research, but it has important implications for your work everyday. Take some time to think about how knowledge of cognitive development gets put into practice in your program. Download and complete the Turning Theory Into Practice Exercise. Apply theory and research about child development to everyday practices that support cognitive development.



    You may be part of conversations with staff members about child development. Download the Discussing Cognitive Development guide. Use this tool to have conversations with staff members about child development. You can also use the tool to prepare for meetings with families about their child’s cognitive development.




    True or False? Only children with individualized education programs (IEPs) 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

    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. Retrieved from

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

    National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from

    Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. (2008). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

    National Center for Research In Early Childhood Education:

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