Health Library
Cognitive Development

What is Cognitive Development?

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

Children ages 6 to 12, usually think in concrete ways (concrete operations). This can include things like how to combine, separate, order, and transform objects and actions.

Adolescence marks the beginning development of more complex thinking processes (also called formal logical operations). This time can include abstract thinking and the ability to form their own new ideas or questions. It can also include the ability to consider many points of view, compare or debate ideas or opinions, as well as consider the process of thinking.

Typical Cognitive Changes During Adolescence

During adolescence (between 12 and 18 years of age), the developing teenager gains the ability to think systematically about all logical relationships within a problem. The transition from concrete thinking to formal logical operations happens over time. Every adolescent progresses at their own rate in developing their ability to think in more complex ways. Each adolescent develops their own view of the world. Some adolescents may be able to apply logical operations to school work before they are able to apply them to personal problems. When emotional issues come up, they can add an additional level of complexity for an adolescent's cognitive reasoning. The ability to consider possibilities, emotions, and facts may impact decision-making in positive or negative ways.

Some common features indicating growth from more simple to more complex cognitive development include:

Early Adolescence

During early adolescence, the use of more complex thinking is focused on personal decision-making in school and home environments. This can include:

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

Middle Adolescence

The focus of middle adolescence often includes more philosophical and futuristic concerns. Examples may include:

  • Often questions and analyzes more extensively
  • Thinks about and begins to form their own code of ethics (what do I think is right?)
  • Thinks about different possibilities and begins to develop own identity (who am I?)
  • Thinks about and begins to consider possible future goals (what do I want?)
  • Thinks about and begins to make their own plans
  • Begins to think long term
  • Begins to consider how to influence relationships with others

Late Adolescence

During late adolescence, complex thinking processes are used to focus on less self-centered concepts and personal decision-making. Examples may include:

  • 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

Fostering Healthy Adolescent Cognitive Development

To help encourage positive and healthy cognitive development in the adolescent:

  • Help adolescents in getting 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.
  • Help adolescents in setting their own goals.
  • Encourage adolescents to think about possibilities of the future.
  • Compliment and praise adolescents for well-thought-out decisions.
  • Help adolescents in reviewing any poorly made decisions.

Last Updated 04/2023

Reviewed By Katie Nees, Child Life Specialist

Visiting Cincinnati Childrens.

Cincinnati Children’s has primary care services at locations throughout Greater Cincinnati.