PreK–2 Child Development Research Paper

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In this research paper we survey theories and research related to children’s development from the preschool years through age 7. We focus particularly on young children as learners and consider both what they bring to learning in various domains as well as what kinds of environments and experiences can support their learning, development, and successful transition to formal schooling. Research in recent decades has revealed significant areas of competence in preschoolers. Despite fragile performance in some respects, their learning accomplishments are quite remarkable, though not completely understood. Traditional, broad stage theories of development, which emphasized deficits in preschool thinking and characterized it as concrete and limited, have given way to new theories that propose a rich variety of learning mechanisms implicating innate learning endowments as well as subtle and intricate interactions with the social and physical world. Although debate continues as to whether early learning mechanisms are specific to particular domains or more general, recent progress in the field has come from detailed studies of learning in particular areas rather than attempts to pursue grand integrative theories. These studies attempt to understand and specify (1) starting points in learning and development, (2) what in the environment does (or does not) support learning, (3) mechanisms by which what the child brings to learning interacts with what is available in the environment, and (4) how to characterize in precise ways the learning that is being accomplished. Child development researchers now span disciplines (e.g., psychology, anthropology, linguistics, education, neuroscience, and even computer science) and employ multiple methods. Educators are increasingly approaching preschool as the foundation of formal education rather than a form of day care, and policy makers and legislators are investing more in early education, often with the goal of improving equity and long-term outcomes for vulnerable populations.

Major Theoretical Approaches

Questions about the sources of development are often framed as nature versus nurture. Theorists debate the role of innate predispositions (nature) in developmental change. They also question the ways that the environment in which children develop influences how they develop (nurture). Psychologists also debate the shape of change. Is development best described as continuous or discontinuous? Those who favor continuity argue that basic thinking and reasoning skills do not change dramatically over the life span. Development is described as adding capacities and knowledge, not as replacing old modes of thought with new ones. Other theorists describe development as discontinuous and stage-like, with radically different modes of thinking emerging at various points in development. The ways these questions are answered influence debate about the purpose and form of educational experiences that young children should encounter. (For a detailed overview of major developmental theories and further references, see Miller, 2002.)

Piagetian theory

Jean Piaget’s developmental theory is one of the most influential in psychology. In contrast to behaviorism, which describes the learner as passive and developmental change as a response to environmental change, Piaget described an active learner who constructs knowledge. Like behaviorists, Piaget did not grant babies many innate abilities, but he did describe simple mental structures with which infants act on the environment and begin to build knowledge. For him, development results from an inter-action between the cognitive structures of the child’s current maturational level and the environment as the child attempts to adapt to the environment. Adaptation occurs as the learner assimilates new information into existing knowledge structures and when mental structures change to accommodate new information that does not fit into them. Through adaptation, the learner attempts to maintain equilibrium or a balance between current cognitive structures and input from the environment. Development generally proceeds through small, local changes; however, Piaget posits that at certain points in human development, imbalance throughout the learning system becomes too great, requiring a radical restructuring of knowledge to a more adapted form. These across-the-board changes result in a new developmental stage, characterized by a new mode of thought. Piaget’s description of discontinuous development includes four universal, invariant stages. The second of these, the preoperational stage, occurs from about age 2 until 6 or 7, making it most relevant to our discussion.

For Piaget, preoperational thought is symbolic but not yet abstract. The preoperational thinker uses words to describe the world and to communicate, but is unable to reason in complex ways. One hallmark of the preschool mind is the inability to hold multiple ideas about the same object or event. A famous example of this deficit involves the conservation of volume across a physical change. When water is poured from a short, wide container into a tall, thin one, preschoolers state that there is now more water. Piaget interpreted this result as evidence that children can only think about one aspect of the situation—the height of the container—and cannot coordinate this information with the corresponding change in the container’s width. A related phenomenon is egocentrism, in which the young child does not separate his or her own perspective or knowledge from that of others. Other proposed deficits include separating causes from effects, confusing characteristics of animate and inanimate objects, misunderstanding class inclusion (e.g., that an object is both a rose and a flower), and failing to reason arithmetically.

Given Piaget’s commitment to invariant, maturation-based stages of development, education is not viewed as a means to accelerate movement through the stages nor to ameliorate cognitive immaturities. Instead, the goal of education is to support the learner’s intellectual independence and autonomy. Teachers of young children can support this aim by providing an environment in which children are given concrete materials to explore, are encouraged to be curious and ask questions, and are instilled with confidence in themselves as capable learners.

Vygotskian theory

Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky viewed the child as an active participant in knowledge construction. Vygotsky, however, described development as a necessarily social phenomenon. Learning is critically dependent on interactions with thinkers who are more cognitively advanced than the child. Knowledge construction depends on teachers, parents, and peers who scaffold a child’s thinking and introduce socio-cultural tools such as language, systems of literacy, procedures, and supporting technologies. Scaffolding is a process by which the mature thinker, through discussion, supports and guides the learner’s attempts to move forward on a developmental pathway. Vygotsky described a zone of proximal development, which is the distance between the child’s independent level of thinking and the level he or she can achieve when supported by a sensitive partner. The mature thinker provides input and support early in an interaction. As the child internalizes a skill, the partner withdraws the scaffold. The notion of a learner’s developmental level is somewhat elastic in Vygotsky’s view and depends on the supports available. Language is central to Vygotskian theory. The talk between learners and learning partners becomes self-speech as the child internalizes advanced forms of thinking.

Vygotskian theory has different implications for early education than Piagetian theory. Although both describe the learner as perception-bound and incapable of abstract thinking, for Piaget these cognitive immaturities will be resolved by the maturing child acting on the environment. For Vygotsky, movement to mature levels of thought requires that the child interact with the environment and, critically, the people in it. Teaching, then, involves assessing each learner’s zone of proximal development and providing experiences that are a bit more advanced than the child can handle independently. Development occurs as cognitive challenges are met and new ones are presented.

Reconsideration of Stage Theories of Development

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of psychologists challenged traditional views of young learners. These researchers believed that if children were actively constructing knowledge as Piaget suggested, then it was unlikely that drastic and sweeping cognitive changes occurred. Instead, they believed that simpler but authentic forms of abstract thought could be found early in development. They suspected that Piaget’s methodology masked competence that could be revealed using different research procedures (e.g., Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983). By and large, research has borne out this prediction. Although Piaget’s findings almost always replicate when his procedures are used, the developmental literature now includes many reports of preschoolers’ competence in understanding causality, animacy, simple arithmetic, conservation, perspective-taking, and so forth, when these are probed using different methodology.

Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s description of a learner who constructs knowledge through interaction with the environment is still generally held to be true; however, current research does not support a description of cognitive development as a series of general restructurings. In what follows, we describe approaches to cognitive development that, while theoretical in nature, more precisely describe mechanisms of learning, supporting environments for learning, and what is actually being learned. The goal for many researchers has become to not just assess cognitive capabilities of the average learner at a given age but to study the processes of knowledge acquisition as they occur.

Information Processing Approaches

Information processing theorists describe human thought by comparing it to computing. Development involves changes in hardware (brain maturation) and software (thinking strategies or cognitive processes). The young learner is granted basic thinking skills that become more elaborate, flexible, and faster with age and experience. Microgenetic methods, in which problem-solving strategy use is observed over repeated trials during a period of rapid change, have proven useful for illuminating cognitive change in individual learners of different ages across a variety of problem types, including scientific reasoning, arithmetic computation, social problem solving, and others (Chen & Siegler, 2000). By focusing on learning as it occurs, rather than just assessing the knowledge that results from learning, microgenetic methods reveal that learning paths are not characterized by abrupt change from less mature strategies to more mature ones. Instead, change is gradual. Robert Siegler (1996) likens the process to “overlapping waves” in which multiple strategies that are applicable to a problem coexist and compete with one another. How often a learner uses any one strategy will rise as others fall, creating something like overlapping waves. As the brain matures and problem-solving experience accrues, new strategies develop and the learner becomes better able to map strategies onto relevant problems. Development also involves increasing the speed, accuracy, and flexibility with which appropriate strategies are employed. Environmental influences are explored by varying the input learners receive as they solve problems (e.g., different verbal prompts from a teacher or different formats for math problems). Microgenetic work illustrates that for an individual learner knowledge acquisition is gradual and somewhat bumpy, and illuminates the variability in learning paths of different children.

Domain Specific Approaches

The retreat from the hypothesis that development proceeds through a series of universal, general stages has prompted researchers to investigate young children’s learning and development in particular knowledge domains. This research reveals considerable variety both in the kinds of learning that young children are capable of and in the theoretical explanations for how they do it. The following sections survey areas of theory and research in early childhood by considering patterns of learning and development in four domains: spoken (or signed) language, literacy, number concepts, and “theory of mind.”

Language Acquisition

Researchers who study the acquisition of spoken or signed language portray children’s learning in a remarkably different light from the concrete, perception-bound thinker of Piaget or Vygotsky. Both theorists characterized young children’s language and concepts as fundamentally different from, and less sophisticated and abstract than, those of adolescents and adults. Contemporary researchers, however, emphasize how quickly and accurately children acquire their native language. (See Fisher & Gleitman, 2002, for an overview and for specific references.) Indeed, children outstrip adult learners with respect to certain aspects of language, such as phonology (the spoken sounds of a language) and subtle points of grammar (also known as syntax). This is evident in immigrant families, in which children and adults begin second language learning simultaneously. As Johnson and Newport have shown, the adult learners—even after many years of using the new language daily—will almost certainly speak with accents and make subtle grammar and usage errors. The younger the children were when they started learning the new language, the better their language will be. Indeed, children who are younger than about 7 years old when they start second language learning usually become indistinguishable from native speakers. Young children’s superiority as language learners has been interpreted as evidence for a critical period for achieving native levels of language competence.

How do children accomplish this learning? Clearly, languages must be learned—children learn the language, accent, and local usage features of the surrounding linguistic community. Yet, it is also the case that children (at least those without particular impairments) do not require deliberate tutoring or instruction to acquire spoken language. Though it is common in many cultures (and especially middle-class American homes) to make intentional efforts to cultivate children’s language, young children in a broad range of social and cultural environments, including ones in which relatively little language is addressed directly to them, will nevertheless become competent speakers in relatively few years. That is, children are good at learning language without being taught it.

In fact, adults’ language knowledge is often not consciously available to them and so cannot be used to teach. Studies of children’s acquisition of various aspects of grammar in different languages indicate that learning does not seem to rely heavily on being corrected for grammatical errors. Indeed, children either make surprisingly few mistakes—that is, when a new construction comes into their spoken language, it is often correct—or they persist in making errors for a time despite adult corrections (as when preschoolers systematically overgeneralize regular verb patterns to irregular verbs, producing such constructions as “bringed” or “goed”).

Theorists posit a variety of learning mechanisms for human children’s unique language learning abilities. An important area of debate concerns whether language learning depends on innate knowledge or learning mechanisms specific to language or whether it involves more general mechanisms. Following the influential work of Noam Chomsky, many theorists have pursued the idea that children possess some innate knowledge of grammatical structures that are universal to all human languages. In this view, although languages vary in many ways, they also share common organizational principles and structures. Because the child is born with knowledge of these universal aspects of grammar, the learning task is more like selecting which particular variations from a highly constrained set are present in their community’s language than constructing a grammatical system from scratch.

Recently, researchers have emphasized another ability that children bring to language learning: the ability to interpret the referential and communicative intentions of speakers, using such cues as eye gaze and emotional expression. Whereas older, associative accounts of word learning claimed that a child learned words by hearing an adult utter the word while the child contemplated the named object, recent theories suggest that children are likely to shift attention to what they think the adult is focusing on or intending when they hear the new word spoken. For example, 2-year-old children distinguish between a speaker’s intentional and accidental actions, using the former but not the latter to interpret what the speaker is referring to. Young children are also good at eliciting joint attention from adults and prompting linguistic input, such as when a toddler points at an airplane and says something like, “Dat?”

Gleitman and her colleagues Landau and Naigles have proposed another information source used by children to map meanings to the utterances they hear. They argue that once a child acquires some basic knowledge of language, he or she can use it to “bootstrap” new understandings using structural cues in the sentences themselves. For example, consider the sentences “Big Bird is daxing Cookie Monster” versus “Big Bird and Cookie Monster are daxing.” In the first sentence, Big Bird is the subject of the verb and Cookie Monster is the object, indicating that Big Bird is doing something to Cookie Monster (e.g., feeding). In the second sentence, Big Bird and Cookie Monster are both subjects of the verb, indicating that they are engaging in the same action together or equally (e.g., dancing). Children as young as 2 years old use these kinds of grammatical cues to infer new word meanings. As children’s command of language grows, they potentially make increasing use of this kind of syntactic bootstrapping.

Of course, no one expects that young children have explicit knowledge of subjects and objects or transitive and intransitive verbs—though their ability to produce and comprehend various utterances indicates that they are processing these elements. Both the learning processes and the child’s resulting knowledge of language are assumed to be implicit. In general, as successful as their language learning is, children’s metalinguistic abilities—that is, their abilities to reflect on and articulate their knowledge of language—tend to be weak. As with adults, the rapid processing children do as they engage in speech dialogue is largely unconscious and possibly inaccessible (a point which pertains to the next topic: learning to read).

Learning to Read

In contrast to children’s natural, universal, and robust facility in learning to produce and comprehend spoken language, learning to read fluently generally requires deliberate teaching and sustained practice. Children who are not taught to read typically will not learn on their own. Many children who are deliberately taught nevertheless do not achieve fluency.

While fluent reading involves orchestrating many skills, the foundation of reading is the insight that written symbols represent sounds in speech. Written English, like most writing systems, is based on an alphabetic principle by which symbols stand for phonemes (the individual sounds that make up words). Other written systems may be ideographic (such as traditional Chinese characters that directly represent meanings) or syllabic (in which written symbols correspond to syllables composed of several phonemes). Alphabetic systems are efficient, in that many fewer symbols are needed to represent the spoken language. But the cognitive mapping between symbol and speech sound is also more abstract, which poses problems for some learners.

Although children in the late preschool and early school years have generally mastered phonology for the purposes of speaking and listening, it may be hard for them to access phonemes directly and consciously. Phonemes are abstract entities, embedded in the speech stream. In natural speech, breaks between the phonemes in a word are not discernible—they blend into each other. It is impossible to pronounce most phonemes individually—you must combine them with other sounds to articulate them—but the same individual phoneme is pronounced slightly differently in different contexts. In English the mapping between phonemes and letters is particularly messy—the same letter can map to several phonemes and the same sound can map to multiple letters. Although babies are excellent at extracting the phonemes of new languages that they hear (an ability that seems to peak by 8 months of age!), isolating phonemes in a consciously accessible form, as one must learn to read with an alphabetic system, is a very different matter. There are significant individual differences in children’s ability to do this.

Becoming a competent reader requires quite a bit more than understanding the basic principle of symbol-sound mapping. One set of skills involves learning to recognize and discriminate the written symbols (letters), understanding the conventions of print (e.g., spaces between words, periods at the end of sentences), and mapping the actual correspondences between individual letters, or clusters, and sounds (e.g., “th”). These skills allow the reader to decode text—literally, to go from printed symbols to the corresponding spoken words—in what is sometimes described as a bottom-up process. But reading texts with good comprehension also involves top-down processes, such as inferring the author’s intentions, filling in information that is assumed but not stated, and recognizing the conventions of different genres (e.g., newspaper, package label, various styles of fiction, etc.). With sufficient practice, many readers automatize the decoding processes, allowing them to execute them quickly and with relatively little load on working memory. This frees memory and attention for processing the text’s meaning. In contrast, readers for whom decoding individual words remains laborious may have a difficult time extracting meaning from text. By the time they finish decoding one word, they have forgotten what came before, making it difficult to connect words into phrases and sentences. For students who struggle to decode text, reading becomes a difficult and even embarrassing chore, and it can be challenging to maintain their investment and motivation in the learning process.

Though the research literature on reading makes clear that expert readers fluently deploy and coordinate both bottom-up and top-down processes, questions about how to teach these component skills and their coordination, while preserving reading as a meaningful and enjoyable experience, have been controversial in reading education. Indeed, polarized forms of phonics approaches (emphasizing decoding skills as the entry point into reading) versus whole language approaches (embedding reading and writing for meaning in ongoing classroom activities) led to a particularly contentious period known as the Reading Wars in curricular and pedagogical debates about teaching reading. Recently, many schools have adopted balanced literacy programs, recognizing that learning to read involves gaining a comprehensive suite of skills.

There is also greater recognition of the considerable variation among children in where the learning difficulties lie and what approaches are most helpful. Emphasizing one aspect of reading to the exclusion of others tends to leave educators with a limited and less flexible tool kit for helping all children learn to read.

Recent research also identifies better ways to assess and address reading differences and disabilities among learners. Numerous studies provide evidence that reading disability is associated with impairments in phonological processing, including the ability to access individual speech sounds and to work with them in flexible ways, such as creating words that rhyme (McCandliss & Wol-metz, 2004). Some impairments may appear very early in development; recent work suggests that differences in how infants process speech sounds can predict differences in reading abilities years later. Carefully designed and controlled intervention studies provide encouraging evidence about teaching materials and strategies that can lead to significant improvements for children who struggle to learn to read. In particular, interventions that focus on explicit training in phonological awareness and alphabetic decoding skills can lead to major improvements for children with mild to severe reading impairments.

Number, Counting, and Arithmetic

Representing and reasoning with numerical quantities is not just a school subject—it’s a basic capacity of human thought. Human infants in the first 6 months of life show some ability to process precise quantities and to compare events involving adding or subtracting items for very small set sizes (up to three). Infants also show an increasing ability to discriminate among larger sets of different sizes, but seem not to do so in precise ways. For example, 6-month-olds discriminate between sets of 8 versus 16 dots but not 8 versus 12 dots. Interestingly, it seems to take several years before children can make precise discriminations among sets larger than a few items (e.g., four versus five). This suggests that the mechanism infants use to track the numerosity of small set sizes could differ from those used by older children.

During the preschool years, children represent and act on quantities in ways that are clearly mathematical. Preschoolers almost universally count. Most 3-year-olds, for instance, can count sets of objects up to about ten, and their behavior, tested in a variety of experiments, indicates that they are not simply engaging in rote recitations of the count list or blind imitations of counting behavior. Rochel Gelman and C. R. Gallistel (1978) have identified five counting principles that characterize preschool children’s counting abilities:

  1. One-one correspondence: Counting involves pairing the objects to be counted with numerical tags (usually count words) so that each object receives one and only one tag.
  2. Stable order. The tags used for counting should always be used in the same order.
  3. Cardinality. The last number tag used in the count corresponds to the total number of objects in the set.
  4. Order irrelevance: Although the tags must have a stable order, it doesn’t matter in what order you count the objects, as long as each one is counted once and only once.
  5. Abstraction: Counting can be applied to any set of discrete objects or events—people, hand claps, jumps, telephone rings, and so forth.

Evidence that preschoolers’ counting follows these principles comes from experiments in which children are asked to judge a puppet’s counting. Preschoolers will, for instance, declare that the puppet is wrong if he counts the same item twice or skips an item. But they will accept a correct count from the puppet, even if it differs from the way they would do it themselves—for example, by skipping around rather than counting down the row in order—as long as the other counting principles are not violated. Despite these skills, children’s own counting performances show a lot of situational and individual variability. Performance demands in counting are fairly high. The child must keep track of which items have been counted and which have not, where he or she is in the tag list, and so forth.

There is some controversy as to whether (1) counting principles are innate or available very early in development and provide the structure that facilitates children’s learning (“principles first” view); (2) experience watching and imitating conventional counting leads to the abstraction of some or all of the principles; or (3) the developmental process involves an interweaving among some form of early or innate knowledge, experience, and the progressive abstraction of counting principles. Regardless of one’s position on the sources of competence, however, number knowledge is a particularly clear example of an area in which new (post-Piagetian) methods have led to a reassessment of young children’s capabilities. Most children arrive at school with an understanding of counting and using counting to solve simple mathematical problems, as well as magnitudes and ordering for small numbers (National Research Council [NRC], 2001a); however, there are also systematic differences in young children’s mathematical abilities that arise from variations in their early experiences.

Recent years have brought growing concern in U.S. education about persistent achievement differences among socioeconomic groups. Identifying and closing these achievement gaps has become an urgent priority at national, state, and local levels. In mathematics, students from lower socioeconomic groups and from families with lower levels of parental education show significant gaps in their mathematical skills when they enter kindergarten. Griffin, Case, and Siegler (1994), for example, found delays in poor inner-city children’s ability to identify which of two single-digit numbers was larger, to judge which of two single-digit numbers is closer to a third single-digit number, and to solve simple addition problems if they were presented ver-bally rather than with physical objects. They hypothesized that these children might lack a conceptual structure, which they termed the “mental number line,” and they developed a curriculum for kindergarteners that involves games and number-line activities that target the development of various components of this conceptual structure. An intervention study demonstrated learning improvements that were maintained through the end of first grade.

Preschool children can participate in and learn from a variety of number-based activities and experiences. Indeed, traditional advice to delay mathematical activities until children reach a more advanced developmental stage (particularly Piaget’s concrete operations) has basically been turned on its head. Findings such as Griffin, Case, and Siegler’s indicate that an enriched mathematical environment is advantageous to young children and may help address persistent equity issues in mathematics education. But it is equally important to base decisions about number activities in preschool on what is known about the development of number concepts and skills in young children, rather than indiscriminately pushing down an academic curriculum from grade school. (See Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2001, for additional discussion and references related to young children’s number knowledge as well as the following section on “theory of mind.”)

Theory of Mind

Number research provides compelling examples that preschoolers are more competent than traditionally thought. Similar evidence comes from research into children’s “theory of mind.” Researchers who study theory of mind, or naive psychology, investigate understanding that people, unlike other physical objects in the world, have mental states such as beliefs and desires and that these have causal power. That is, people’s beliefs and desires cause them to act in certain ways. Further, people can have false beliefs that lead them to behave in ways that do not accord with objective reality. (For example, if I believe that it is raining I will carry an umbrella regardless of whether it really is raining outside.) Recall Piaget’s description of the young child as able to reason only about concrete objects and as unable to hold contradictory representations in mind simultaneously. Clearly, that sort of thinker would be unlikely to reason about and reflect on ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, let alone to separate his or her own knowledge and beliefs from those of others. Reflecting on others’ desires and beliefs would be especially difficult when these conflict with the mental states of the child himself or herself.

Evidence for very early attention to the knowledge states of self and others was described in the language development section. A toddler who elicits a parent’s attention while pointing at an object or who shifts attention to the object being regarded by the speaking adult could be showing at least implicit awareness that he or she does not know some piece of information and that another person could know. Empathy researchers find that toddlers will comfort others in distress by patting them or bringing a favorite toy. One could interpret this behavior as evidence of awareness, on some level, of others’ feelings and as an effort to change them. Very young children also seem to act on the perceived desires of others. Eighteen-month-olds will offer food to another person based on the person’s earlier display of joy over that food (and disgust with another). More importantly, they do so even when the person’s preferences differ from their own.

By age 3, children’s language includes mental terms such as think and know, and children begin to talk explicitly about various aspects of mental life. Children this age distinguish objectively real objects from imagined ones, for example, being able to tell which dog (real or imagined) could be petted and seen by others. They are able to explicitly describe their own and others’ knowledge state under certain circumstances. Most 3-year-olds who were asked whether they knew what was shown on a hidden picture accurately said yes if they had seen the picture and no if they had not. By age 4, children can go a step further to describe the causes of that knowledge or lack thereof. That is, they can say that they know what’s on the picture because they saw it or that they do not know because they did not see the picture. Although some 3-year-olds (on some tasks) can reason about beliefs and their implications for behavior, fuller understanding is found among 4-year-olds.

Researchers use false belief tasks to explore understanding of the links between informational access, belief, and behavior. Although details vary across studies, one popular version is as follows: An experimenter shows a 3-or 4-year-old a familiar crayon box and asks what’s inside. The child reasonably answers, “Crayons.” When the box is opened, though, it has pennies inside. The experimenter closes the box and asks the child the key false belief question—what will another person (who hasn’t seen inside) say is in the box? Results show that most 4-year-olds can overcome their own knowledge of reality (pennies) to accurately predict the false beliefs (crayons) of others.

The literature on theory of mind capabilities suggests that assessing another’s desires develops before the ability to identify beliefs and that, not surprisingly, children can assess true beliefs earlier than false beliefs. Further, the studies described above suggest that children act on implicit knowledge about mental states before they can explicitly describe those understandings. Preschool children are clearly coming to understand their own minds and those of other people. They can use this information to predict and make sense of the behavior of others. These skills have interesting implications for social and cognitive aspects of school learning.

Theory of mind capacities affect a child’s intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, which in turn affect school success. At the intrapersonal level, a child who can reflect on his or her own knowledge and identify gaps in it has taken the first step toward filling those gaps. This child can seek information from a teacher, a peer, or by other means. Children who cannot consistently evaluate their own knowledge are less able to take charge of their learning in this way. In the late preschool and early elementary years, children also begin to spontaneously use strategies to enhance their memories. Children who can reflect on the workings of their own minds are positioned to participate fully in learning by employing strategies to find out what is not yet known, such as asking questions when confused and using mnemonic devices to remember new information or aid recall. Although some theory of mind abilities emerge in the preschool years without direct intervention, classroom practices that explicitly encourage children to reflect on their own knowledge—what they already know, what they need to find out, how they might find out— support their development as effective learners and problem solvers (NRC, 2001b).

Theory of mind skills are also critical for participating fully in classroom discourse. Imagine how strange it could seem that a teacher, an adult authority, would ask a child, “What’s 2 + 2?” or “What day is it?” In normal discourse, one asks questions to get information one does not know, but in a school situation, adults ask questions with a different motivation. They know that 2 + 2 = 4, and they know what day it is. They ask the questions to assess the child’s knowledge. A learner who can entertain hypotheses about the different motivations of others will adapt easily to this interaction style. (Having experience at home or in preschool with this sort of interaction will also help.) Theory of mind skills also underpin modes of thought related to science and argument. A child who believes (as very young preschoolers seem to) that simply perceiving an object leads to complete knowledge of it will not understand that others could have different interpretations of the same observations or evidence. Clearly, this idea must change for learners to engage in activities such as hypothesis testing in science, debate, argumentation, and persuasive writing.

Beyond the ability to undertake styles of discourse critical to mature thinking and school learning, a child who is sensitive to the needs and desires of others is likely to engage in positive social interactions in the classroom. Theory of mind skills underlie children’s ability to understand the viewpoints of others, to cooperate with them, and to resolve emotional and intellectual arguments. These skills in turn affect the quality of interactions with the peers and adults with whom children learn. The clear message coming from the developmental literature is that cognitive, motivational, and socioemotional development are interdependent, critical contributors to readiness for learning in school.

Effective Learning Environments for Young Children

The idea that socioemotional and cognitive development are intertwined and interdependent dovetails with ideas about the best ways to care for and educate young children. Whereas child care and education were traditionally thought of as separate, current thinking holds that the two are mutually dependent. The child who feels secure, loved, and emotionally supported is in a better position to explore the world and to interact positively with teachers in learning situations. With larger numbers of young children in school and day care settings, parents, educators, and researchers alike are recognizing the need for, and beginning to demand, quality educational experiences for young children. This demand likely arises from the accruing evidence that children are more capable learners than traditional theories and educational practice reflect. Also, we now know that quality learning experiences in the PreK years can yield positive effects for later school learning.

Assessments of long-term programs designed to prepare underprivileged children for school (such as Head Start) provide information about the characteristics of quality educational settings and positive outcomes that can be achieved in such settings. Child outcome results vary according to the specifics of the program, but comprehensive reviews of the findings suggest that, while IQ gains are not maintained, positive effects include fewer special education placements, reduced grade retention, reduced criminal behavior, and long-term achievement gains on standardized tests. Programs with positive outcomes tended to share certain characteristics including coherently organized curricula that support the development of school-relevant knowledge and thinking skills; qualified teaching and supervisory staff; low staff-to-student ratios; small class sizes; and strong, supportive relationships between families and schools. Barnett, Hustedt, Hawkinson, and Robin, 2006 evaluated the new wave of publicly funded state preschool programs using benchmarks that reflect similar features.

As the research reviewed in this research-paper indicates, designing supportive learning environments for young children is not a simple, obvious matter. On the one hand, despite great variety in cultural practices in child rearing, many aspects of development seem to proceed normally and reliably in naturally occurring environments that have not been specifically designed with children’s development in mind. On the other hand, some aspects of development clearly benefit from an enriched set of learning opportunities, and potentially troublesome developmental gaps among individual children or between groups of children from different backgrounds can be ameliorated by early interventions. (See publications from the National Research Council, 2000 and 2001b, for a detailed discussion and references related to early learning environments and development.)

Translating developmental research into the design of learning environments is no easy task. Often, complex findings are oversimplified and distorted. Weak or inadequate attempts at applying research may fail to yield desired results and can cause educators and policy makers to distrust research in general. One area for caution, for example, is the recent explosion of attention to early brain development, which has led to a number of dubious attempts to exploit the public’s interest. Toy manufacturers, computer game developers, and curriculum publishers have marketed “educational” products that are purported to enhance young children’s brain development. In fact, it is premature to attempt to apply developmental neuroscience findings to designing products or experiences for young children. Most neuroscience data comes from animal studies. Although new brain imaging techniques are enabling innovative research with humans, many of these techniques are not suitable for use with young children, and there is relatively little developmental data available, especially for normally developing children. We are on more secure ground with well-established findings that children thrive in social environments in which they can interact frequently and spontaneously with adults and peers, where there are opportunities for language-rich discussions, where they are respected and encouraged as learners, and where toys and other materials allow them to explore freely.


This is an exciting time in the study of early childhood. There is an expansive and unprecedented sense of the richness and intricacy of the phenomena of learning and development during this period. The field is also witnessing a generative period theoretically, with a multiplicity of viewpoints, methodological approaches, and proposed mechanisms being actively pursued. While this multiplicity may be frustrating to someone seeking a simple, clear answer to the question of how young children develop, it is stimulating to those willing to accept the complexity of development during this amazing time of life. Particularly exciting are the prospects for collaboration among child development researchers, educators, and policy makers to create rich supporting environments and study their effects on young children’s learning and development.

See also:


  1. Barnett, W. S., Hustedt, J. T., Hawkinson, L. E., & Robin, K. B. (2006). The state of preschool 2006. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved from
  2. Chen, Z., & Siegler, R. S. (2000). Across the great divide: Bridging the gap between understanding of toddlers’ and older children’s thinking. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65, 1-96.
  3. Fisher, C., & Gleitman, L. R. (2002). Language acquisition. In H. F. Pashler (Series Ed.) & C. R. Gallistel (Volume Ed.), Stevens’ handbook of experimental psychology, vol 1: Learning and motivation, (3rd ed., pp. 445-496). New York: Wiley.
  4. Flavell, J. H., Miller, P. H., & Miller, S. A. (2001). Cognitive development (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  5. Gelman, R., & Baillargeon, R. (1983). A review of some Piagetian concepts. In J. H. Flavell & E. Markman (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (4th ed.). Vol. 3: Cognitive development (pp. 167-230). New York: Wiley.
  6. Gelman, R., & Gallistel, C. R. (1978). The child’s understanding of number. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. Griffin, S. A., Case, R., & Siegler, R. S. (1994). Rightstart: Providing the central conceptual prerequisites for first formal learning of arithmetic to students at risk for school failure. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 25-49). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  8. Johnson, J., & Newport, E. (1989). Critical period effects in second-language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology, 21, 60-99.
  9. Landau, B., & Gleitman, L. R. (1985). Language and experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  10. McCandliss, B. D., & Wolmetz, M. (2004). Developmental psychobiology of reading disability. In B. J. Casey (Ed.), Developmental Psychobiology, Vol. 23 (pp. 69-110). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  11. Miller, P. (2002). Theories of developmental psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth.
  12. Naigles, L. (1990). Children use syntax to learn verb meanings. Journal of Child Language, 17, 357-374.
  13. National Research Council. (2001a). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. J. Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, & B. Findell (Eds.), Mathematics Learning Study Committee, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  14. National Research Council. (2001b). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy. B. T. Bowman, M. S. Donovan, & M. S. Burns (Eds.). Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  15. National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. J. P. Shonkoff & D. Phillips (Eds.). Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  16. Siegler, R. S. (1996). Emerging minds: The process of change in children’s thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.

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