How does that child's brain work?


A quick review of Piaget's theories on brain development By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W. llustration by Stephanie Manner Wagner


While little Evan's mom is passing out individual pizzas for dinner, 6-year-old Evan begs her, "Can you cut mine into lots of slices, Mom? I'm really hungry!" Mom smiles and thinks, "How cute," while 11-year-old Sam rolls his eyes and thinks, "What a dummy!"

A typical scene? But even more typical is the age-appropriate behavior of the two children, which is in line with their stages of cognitive development, or how their brain is thinking at that age.

One of the reasons children have "cute" misperceptions, believe in Santa Claus and sometimes drive us crazy by acting as if the world revolves around them is because of those stages.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget offers the most well-accepted and oft-cited theory of this developmental process. His theory of cognitive development, introduced in the 1940s, maintains that all children go through four stages as their intellect matures. This means that older brother Sam, who thinks he is smarter than Evan, is at a later stage of development that allows him to understand the world in a more complex way than his brother does.

As school begins and schedules tighten, sometimes it's important for us to think about what we can really expect from our children. The cognitive growth stages that your child will experience can help you to better understand his behavior and why he may or may not be able to perform certain tasks.

Cognitive skills cannot be forced, and pushing too fast will only cause frustration and a sense of failure. (All the following ages are approximations.)

• Stage one, ages 0-2: The sensorimotor period is when a child learns about herself and her environment through the use of her senses and motor (movement) activities-watching, smelling, hearing, sucking and feeling the world around her. Until she develops language, the infant cannot think about things symbolically; she must rely completely on physical experiences for knowledge.

In the beginning of this stage, the infant functions under the idea "out of sight, out of mind." When a toy or her mother's face disappears from her sight, she does not understand that it still exists-only that it is gone. By the end of this stage, she will achieve "object permanence," knowing that Mommy or her toys are there even if she cannot see them.

During this stage, an infant's perceptions also mature enough so that she can differentiate between her mother and other people. Once content to have anyone coo to her, she may now send out a thundering wail when confronted by an unfamiliar face. This stranger anxiety is made possible due to her ability to distinguish between familiar and new objects.

• Stage two, ages 2-7: The preoperational period is a time when language development allows the child to begin thinking about an object without it being directly in front of him. The majority of his thinking, however, is self-centered. He has difficulty understanding there could be any perspective other than his own.

Because his sense of reality is still not firm, the preoperational child is able to use magical thinking, which allows him to believe in tooth fairies and other make-believe ideas. He begins to have fantasies and fears (about the vacuum cleaner, thunder, etc.) and may come up with imaginative ideas about things that he doesn't understand.

The little boy who wanted many slices of pizza is an example of a preoperational child-he is not yet able to understand certain operations in the physical world, such as the amount of something remains the same no matter what form it takes.

• Stage three, ages 7-11: This period of concrete operations is characterized by the ability to think in a more orderly manner. Children become interested in what things are and how they work. They like to play games with rules and begin to be able to follow rules of logic.

Concrete operational children are able to understand that the amount of pizza doesn't increase by cutting it into more pieces. However, they are still tied to the concrete operations of the immediate world. They can only think about actual physical objects and cannot yet handle abstract reasoning. They can solve problems only if the objects necessary for solving the problem are present in front of them.

Happily for adults, children at this stage eventually begin to think less egocentrically. They understand that another person may have a different point of view from their own. This allows parents to begin to reason with their child when the time comes for discipline.

• Stage four, age 11-adulthood: Formal operations, the final stage of cognitive development, continues through adulthood-although not all people reach this stage. Cultural and educational factors, as well as intellectual ability, will determine whether this happens.

Children who reach this stage are able to think about things and situations that they cannot or have never seen. They can think of many possibilities and consider many different perspectives about one situation.

This type of thinking allows adolescents to begin contemplating their future and considering college and career choices. They are also able to safely begin to make more decisions about their behavior. Because they can consider the consequences of their actions, they can be trusted with greater responsibility. Parents get frustrated with teens who make foolish decisions, attributing unwise actions to defiance. That may be true in many cases, but it also can be characteristic of undeveloped thinking skills.

As you progress through the school year with your child, know that the educational curriculum is designed to present materials to your child in accordance with his stage of development. If problems arise, talk with his teachers about how you can work together to encourage progress in the necessary areas.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.


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