Cognitive Development

Cognitive development refers to the development of the ability to think and reason.

Children (typically 6 to 12 years old) develop the ability to think in concrete ways (concrete operations), such as how to combine (addition), separate (subtract or divide), order (alphabetize and sort), and transform (5 pennies = 1 nickel) objects and actions. These processes are called concrete because they are performed in the presence of the objects and events being thought about.

Adolescence marks the beginning development of more complex thinking processes (also called formal logical operations) including abstract thinking (thinking about possibilities), the ability to reason from known principles (form own new ideas or questions), the ability to consider many points of view according to varying criteria (compare or debate ideas or opinions), and the ability to consider the process of thinking.

During adolescence (between 12 and 18 years of age), the developing teenager acquires the ability to think systematically about all logical relationships within a problem. The transition from concrete thinking to formal logical operations occurs over time.

Every adolescent progresses at varying rates in developing his / her ability to think in more complex ways. Each adolescent develops his / her own view of the world. Some adolescents may be able to apply logical operations to school work long before they are able to apply them to personal dilemmas.

When emotional issues arise, they often interfere with an adolescent's ability to think in more complex ways. The ability to consider possibilities, as well as facts, may influence decision making, in either positive or negative ways.

Some common features indicating a progression from more simple to more complex cognitive development include the following:

Early Adolescence

During early adolescence, the use of more complex thinking is focused on personal decision making in school and home environments, including the following:

  • Begins to demonstrate use of formal logical operations in schoolwork
  • Begins to question authority and society standards
  • Begins to form and verbalize his / her own thoughts and views on a variety of topics, usually more related to his / her own life, such as:
      • Which sports are better to play
      • Which groups are better to be included in
      • What personal appearances are desirable or attractive
      • What parental rules should be changed 

Middle Adolescence

With some experience in using more complex thinking processes, the focus of middle adolescence often expands to include more philosophical and futuristic concerns, including the following:

  • Often questions and analyzes more extensively
  • Often analyzes more extensively
  • Thinks about and begins to form his / her own code of ethics (i.e., What do I think is right?)
  • Thinks about different possibilities and begins to develop own identity (i.e., Who am I?)
  • Thinks about and begins to systematically consider possible future goals (i.e., What do I want?)
  • Thinks about and begins to make his / her own plans
  • Begins to think long term
  • Use of systematic thinking to influence relationships with others 

Late Adolescence

During late adolescence, complex thinking processes are used to focus on less self-centered concepts as well as personal decision making, including the following:

  • Increased thoughts about more global concepts such as justice, history and politics
  • Develops idealistic views on specific topics or concerns; debates and develops intolerance of opposing views
  • Begins to focus thinking on making career decisions
  • Begins to focus thinking on emerging role in adult society

The following suggestions will help to encourage positive and healthy cognitive development in the adolescent:

  • Assist adolescents in obtaining adequate sleep, hydration, and nutrition.
  • Include adolescents in discussions about a variety of topics, issues, and current events.
  • Encourage adolescents to share ideas and thoughts with adults.
  • Encourage adolescents to think independently and develop their own ideas.
  • Assist adolescents in setting their own goals.
  • Stimulate adolescents to think about possibilities of the future.
  • Compliment and praise adolescents for well-thought-out decisions.
  • Assist adolescents in re-evaluating poorly made decisions for themselves.

Last Updated 03/2014