Cognitive Skills for Each Age: Important Milestones

Cognitive Skills for Each Age: Important Milestones

As young children grow, they will develop various cognitive skills for each age that push them into further stages of progress. Cognitive skills align with periods of mental growth leading up to adulthood, involving thought patterns, learning progress, and problem-solving abilities. 


These individual skills appear during different stages of a child’s life, from infancy up to adolescence. Each period of mental progression is unique, and each has a valuable purpose in the child's journey to the final stage of adulthood.


What are Cognitive Skills? 

Cognitive skills are the new abilities  a child’s mind evolves as they develop a new awareness of their environment. With each new stage of development, the brain becomes increasingly capable of complex thought and objective reasoning. Eventually, the child will be able to harness metacognitive skills (utilizing previous knowledge to construct an adaptive strategy) and noncognitive skills (communication or interpersonal abilities). 


Cognitive skills for each age should be measured at specific milestones in a child’s growth, which act as a kind of guideline for expected behavior. These milestones help caregivers identify and act upon specific patterns to further encourage healthy development. 


Time of Birth to 3 Months of Age

The period directly following infancy is one of perpetual wonder. Here, the child experiences an initial exploration of their surroundings, with the five human senses first beginning to appear. As the infant reaches the first few months of age, they will begin to observe the full-color spectrum, use basic facial expressions to communicate, and note differences in sound. 


The child will also start to follow moving objects or people with their eyes from a range of about 12 inches away.


3 Months to 6 Months of Age  

At this stage in infancy, a child will still be developing their perceptual ability. They are now capable of actively recognizing and reacting to individual faces, as well as sounds. To better explore their environment, the infant will reach out for objects of interest, commonly placing them in the mouth. 


6 Months to 9 Months of Age

By six months, the child can start to differentiate animate objects from inanimate objects, relying on size to determine distance. Exploration is still done through the use of their hands, with the child starting to transfer objects back and forth. When an object is moved out of the child’s line of sight, they will develop a curiosity to search for it.


9 Months to 1 Year of Age  

At around a year old, children develop better motor skills, plus a stronger motivation to explore through the actions of sitting, crawling, and walking. With this physical milestone comes an expanded view of the world and its properties.  


The child will now comprehend the concept of object permanence, or the understanding that an object still exists when out of our visual line of sight. Additionally, they will show greater interest in things like picture books and react with more specific gestures. 


1 to 2 Years of Age 

This milestone represents an enormous cognitive leap for a developing child, with rapidly increasing attention spans and focused attention on the actions of adults; as such, caregivers must act with caution by setting positive examples of behavior.  


The child will start to have a better grasp on words, and they will learn to sort similar objects in a category. The concept of “me” versus “you”  becomes clear, as well. In most cases, a child will resound to simple instructions consisting of around two steps. 


2 to 3 Years of Age 

By age 2, a child becomes more independent, with most of their learning resulting from direct experience. They will understand the various uses for different objects and imitate other adult actions (i.e. cooking or doing laundry). 


Simple puzzles can now be completed by the child, and they may point out the names of objects represented in images or picture books. The child will also demonstrate an interest in interacting with buttons, switches, lids, and handles.


3 to 4 Years of Age

At this stage in cognitive development, children start to observe the world using heavier analysis. As they take in more information than ever before, they will compartmentalize what they discover into schemas (or knowledge bases used by humans to better interpret the external world).


Interestingly, this is the age where children begin to focus on the “why?” of life’s occurrences and attempt to secure answers. They now possess a greater understanding of the relationship between the past and the present, with longer attention spans to process new information. 


4 to 5 Years of Age 

By now, young children are close to the age where they will enroll in school. They will continue to mimic adults and everyday repeated actions. The child can now create and explain images’ meaning, count, and learn basic forms of rhyme. They will additionally become familiar with the concept of time.


6 to 12 Years (Logical Thought)

Children in this age range will develop the cognitive skill to think concretely, commonly referred to as concrete operations. Mainly concerned with objects and events, this cognitive function allows for the development of addition, subtraction, and division, as well as the conversion of values (i.e. four quarters amounting to one dollar).


12 to 18 Years (Adolescence) 

These are the final milestones leading to adulthood. They involve a complex and logical chain of mental operations, such as abstract thought, reasoning with known principles, and understanding multiple points of view. 


This is also a vital time for developing a sense of identity, one that will carry the child well into adulthood. 


Assisting the Development of Cognitive Skills 

Caregivers play a large role in both the emergence and development of cognitive skills for each age. To promote the healthy growth of a child’s intellectual abilities, a caregiver can create an environment conducive to cognitive advancement. 


For children below the threshold of logical thought (ages six to twelve), a caregiver may encourage an environment of learning and promote interest in the world. This can be done by: 


  • Providing a space that is safe for a child’s movement and discovery 
  • Offering materials that promote cognitive development, such as books, blocks, or simple instruments)
  • Explaining simple concepts to assist a child with basic comprehension 

As the child reaches the adolescent stage, caregivers can take actions that promote abstract thinking and reasoning, such as:  


  • Include them in discussions about any number of topics or current world events
  • Allowing the child to share ideas openly 
  • Assisting the child in setting a reasonable goal 
  • Promoting mental challenges, such as asking questions about the future or difficult scenarios 


It is important to note that while these milestones may represent an accelerated rate of development, each child moves at their own pace. Some skills may appear sooner (or later) than others in the developmental process — and this is perfectly okay. 


However, there are also some signs to watch out for when a young child moves through these stages. These warnings can indicate an intellectual disability capable of stunting cognitive growth. For instance, young infants that do not watch moving objects, demonstrate recognition of other people, or show interest in locating objects may require early intervention for developmental delays


Signs for older toddlers include refraining from copying the actions of other people, not engaging in make-believe play, or suffering a loss of previously acquired skills.


Help Your Child Grow with ECCM 

We understand that a child’s first years are also the most crucial. Contact us to learn more about our early intervention services.  


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