Physical and Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

By Santrock, J.W.

Edited by Paul Ducham


The average child grows 2½ inches in height and gains between 5 and 7 pounds a year during early childhood. As the preschool child grows older, the percentage of increase in height and weight decreases with each additional year (Wilson & Hockenberry, 2012). Girls are only slightly smaller and lighter than boys during these years, a difference that continues until puberty. During the preschool years, both boys and girls slim down as the trunks of their bodies lengthen. Although their heads are still somewhat large for their bodies, by the end of the preschool years most children have lost their top-heavy look. Body fat also shows a slow, steady decline during the preschool years. The chubby baby often looks much leaner by the end of early childhood. Girls have more fatty tissue than boys; boys have more muscle tissue.
     Growth patterns vary individually (Burns & others, 2013). Think back to your preschool years. This was probably the first time you noticed that some children were taller than you, some shorter; some were fatter, some thinner; some were stronger, some weaker. Much of the variation was due to heredity, but environmental experiences were also involved. A review of the height and weight of children around the world concluded that the two most important contributors to height differences are ethnic origin and nutrition (Meredith, 1978). Urban, middle-socioeconomic-status, and firstborn children were taller than rural, lower-socioeconomicstatus, and later-born children. In the United States, African American children are taller than non-Latino White children.
     Why are some children unusually short? The primary contributing influences are congenital factors (genetic or prenatal problems), growth hormone deficiency, a physical problem that develops in childhood, maternal smoking during pregnancy, or an emotional difficulty (Wit, Kiess, & Mullis, 2011). Growth hormone deficiency is the absence or deficiency of growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland to stimulate the body to grow.
     Growth hormone deficiency may occur during infancy or later in childhood (Savendahl & others, 2012). As many as 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. children may have growth hormone deficiency (Stanford University Medical Center, 2012). Without treatment, most children with growth hormone deficiency will not reach a height of five feet. Twice as many boys as girls are treated with growth hormone, likely because there is a greater stigma attached to boys being short. A recent research review concluded that growth hormone therapy with children of short stature was partially effective in reducing the deficit in height as adults (Deodati & Cianfarani, 2011). A recent study also revealed that growth hormone treatment of children very short in stature was linked to an increase in height as well as improvements in self-esteem and mood (Chaplin & others, 2012).


One of the most important physical developments during early childhood is the continuing development of the brain and nervous system (Diamond, 2013; Nelson, 2012). Although the brain continues to grow in early childhood, it does not grow as rapidly as it did in infancy. By the time children reach 3 years of age, the brain is three-quarters of its adult size. By age 6, the brain has reached about 95 percent of its adult size (Lenroot & Giedd, 2006). Thus, the brain of a 5-year-old is nearly the size it will be when the child reaches adulthood, but the development that occurs inside the brain continues through the remaining years of childhood and adolescence.
      Some of the brain’s interior changes involve increases in dendritic connections as well as myelination, in which nerve cells are covered and insulated with a layer of fat cells (see Figure 7.1). Myelination has the effect of increasing the speed and efficiency of information traveling through the nervous system. Myelination is important in the development of a number of abilities during childhood (Diamond, 2013; Lebel & others, 2012). For example, myelination in the areas of the brain related to hand-eye coordination is not complete until about 4 years of age.
      Researchers also have discovered that children’s brains undergo dramatic anatomical changes between the ages of 3 and 15 (Gogtay & Thompson, 2010; Posner, 2011; Steinberg, 2012). By repeatedly obtaining brain scans of the same children for up to four years, they have found that children’s brains experience rapid, distinct spurts of growth. The amount of brain material in some areas can nearly double within as little as a year, followed by a drastic loss of tissue as unneeded cells are purged and the brain continues to reorganize itself. The scientists have revealed that the overall size of the brain does not show dramatic growth in the 3- to 15-year age range. However, what does dramatically change are local patterns within the brain. Researchers have found that in children from 3 to 6 years of age the most rapid growth takes place in the frontal lobe areas involved in planning and organizing new actions, and in maintaining attention to tasks (Diamond, Casey, & Munakata, 2011; Gogtay & Thompson, 2010).

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The preschool child no longer has to make an effort simply to stay upright and to move around. As children move their legs with more confidence and carry themselves more purposefully, moving around in the environment becomes more automatic (Burns & others, 2013). However, there are large individual differences in young children’s gross motor skills (Legear & others, 2012).
      At 3 years of age, children enjoy simple movements, such as hopping, jumping, and running back and forth, just for the sheer delight of performing these activities. They take considerable pride in showing how they can run across a room and jump all of 6 inches. The run-and-jump will win no Olympic gold medals, but for the 3-year-old the activity is a source of considerable pride and accomplishment.
      At 4 years of age, children are still enjoying the same kind of activities, but they have become more adventurous. They scramble over low jungle gyms as they display their athletic prowess. At 5 years of age, children are even more adventuresome than when they were 4. It is not unusual for self-assured 5-year-olds to perform hair-raising stunts on practically any climbing object. Fiveyear-olds run hard and enjoy races with each other and their parents.


At 3 years of age, although children have had the ability to pick up the tiniest objects between their thumb and forefinger for some time, they are still somewhat clumsy at it. Three-year-olds can build surprisingly high block towers, placing each block with intense concentration but oft en not in a completely straight line. When 3-year-olds play with a simple jigsaw puzzle, they are rather rough in placing the pieces. Even when they recognize the hole a piece fits into, they are not very precise in positioning the piece. They often try to force the piece into the hole or pat it vigorously.
     By 4 years of age, children’s fine motor coordination has improved substantially and become much more precise. Sometimes 4-year-old children have trouble building high towers with blocks because, in their desire to place each of the blocks perfectly, they may upset those already stacked. By age 5, children’s fine motor coordination has improved further. Hand, arm, and body all move together under better command of the eye.


Experts recommend that young children get 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night (National Sleep Foundation, 2012). Most young children sleep through the night and have one daytime nap. Not only is the amount of sleep children get important, but so is uninterrupted sleep (Owens & Mindell, 2011). However, it sometimes is difficult to get young children to go to sleep as they drag out their bedtime routine. Studies oft en report that young children don’t get adequate sleep (Aishworiya & others, 2012).
     Children can experience a number of sleep problems, including narcolepsy (extreme daytime sleepiness), insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep), and nightmares (Moore, 2012). One estimate indicates that more than 40 percent of children experience a sleep problem at some point in their development (Boyle & Cropley, 2004). The following research studies indicate links between children’s sleep problems and negative developmental outcomes:
     • Children who had trouble sleeping in childhood were more likely to have alcohol use problems in adolescence and early adulthood (Wong & others, 2010).
     • Sleep problems in early childhood were a subsequent indicator of attention problems that in some cases persisted into early adolescence (O’Callaghan & others, 2010).
     • A recent analysis concluded that chronic sleep disorders that deprive children of adequate sleep may result in impaired brain development (Jan & others, 2010).
     • A recent research review concluded that short sleep duration in children is linked with being overweight (Hart, Cairns, & Jelalian, 2011).


Being overweight has become a serious health problem in early childhood (Thompson & Manore, 2013). A national study revealed that 45 percent of children’s meals exceed recommendations for saturated and trans fats, which can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2008). The same study found that one-third of children’s daily caloric intake comes from restaurants—twice the percentage consumed away from home in the 1980s. Further, 93 percent of almost 1,500 possible choices at 13 major fast-food chains exceeded 430 calories—one-third of what the National Institute of Medicine recommends that 4- to 8-year-old children consume in a day. Nearly all of the children’s meal options at KFC, Taco Bell, Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Chickfil-A were too high in calories. One study of U.S. 2- and 3-yearolds found that French fries and other fried potatoes were the vegetable they were most likely to consume (Fox & others, 2010).
      Young children’s eating behavior is strongly influenced by their caregivers’ behavior (Black & Hurley, 2007; Farrow, 2012; Gibson & others, 2012). Young children’s eating behavior improves when caregivers eat with children on a predictable schedule, model eating healthy food, make mealtimes pleasant occasions, and engage in certain feeding styles. Distractions from television, family arguments, and competing activities should be minimized so that children can focus on eating. A sensitive/responsive caregiver feeding style, in which the caregiver is nurturant, provides clear information about what is expected, and appropriately responds to children’s cues, is recommended (Black & Lozoff, 2008). Forceful and restrictive caregiver behaviors are not recommended (Riesch & others, 2012).
     The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) has categories for obesity, overweight, and at risk for being overweight. These categories are determined by body mass index (BMI), which is computed using a formula that takes into account height and weight. Only children and adolescents at or above the 97th percentile are classified as obese; those at the 95th or 96th percentile as overweight; and those from the 85th to the 94th percentile as at risk of being overweight.
     The percentages of young children who are overweight or at risk of being overweight in the United States have increased dramatically in recent decades, and these percentages are likely to climb further unless changes occur in children’s lifestyles (Summerbell & others, 2012). In 2009–2010, 12.1 percent of U.S. 2- to 5-year-olds were classified as obese, compared with 5 percent in 1976–1980 and 10.4 percent in 2007–2008 (Ogden & others, 2012).
      The risk that overweight children will continue to be overweight when they are older was documented in a study in which 80 percent of the children who were at risk for being overweight at age 3 were also at risk for being overweight or were overweight at age 12 (Nader & others, 2006). A recent study likewise revealed that preschool children who were overweight were at significant risk for being overweight or obese in adolescence (Shankaran & others, 2011).
      One comparison of 34 countries revealed that the United States had the second highest rate of child obesity (Janssen & others, 2005). Childhood obesity contributes to a number of health problems in young children (Anspaugh & Ezell, 2013). For example, physicians are now seeing type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes (a condition directly linked with obesity and a low level of fitness) and hypertension in children as young as 5 years of age (Riley & Bluhm, 2012; Trasande & Elbel, 2012).


Routine physical activity should be a daily occurrence for young children (Wuest & Fisette, 2012). Guidelines recommend that preschool children engage in two hours of physical activity per day, divided into one hour of structured activity and one hour of unstructured free play (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2002). The child’s life should be centered around activities, not meals (Graber & Woods, 2013; Willis & others, 2012). Following are some recent research studies that examine young children’s exercise and activities:
      • Observations of 3- to 5-year-old children during outdoor play at preschools revealed that the preschool children were mainly sedentary even when participating in outdoor play (Brown & others, 2009). In this study, throughout the day the preschoolers were sedentary 89 percent of the time, engaged in light activity 8 percent of the time, and participated in moderate to vigorous physical activity only 3 percent of the time.
     • Preschool children’s physical activity was enhanced by family members engaging in sports together and by parents’ perception that it was safe for their children to play outside (Beets & Foley, 2008).
     • Incorporation of a “move and learn” physical activity curriculum increased the activity level of 3- to 5-year-old children in a half-day preschool program (Trost, Fees, & Dzewaltowski, 2008).


Malnutrition is a problem for many U.S. children, with approximately 11 million preschool children experiencing malnutrition that places their health at risk. One of the most common nutritional problems in early childhood is iron deficiency anemia, which results in chronic fatigue. This problem results from the failure to eat adequate amounts of quality meats and dark green vegetables. Young children from low-income families are the most likely to develop iron deficiency anemia (Shamah & Villalpando, 2006).


Young children’s active and exploratory nature, coupled with their unawareness of danger in many instances, often puts them in situations in which they are at risk for injuries (Durbin, 2011). In the United States, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in young children, followed by cancer and cardiovascular disease (National Vital Statistics Report, 2004) (see Figure 7.2). In addition to motor vehicle accidents, other accidental deaths in children involve drowning, falls, burns, and poisoning (Duke & others, 2011; Zielinski, Rochette, & Smith, 2012).
Children’s Safety   Children’s safety is influenced not only by their own skills and safety behaviors but also by characteristics of their family and home, school and peers, and the community’s actions (Lindqvist & Dalal, 2012). Figure 7.3 describes steps that can be taken in each of these contexts to enhance children’s safety and prevent injury (Sleet & Mercy, 2003). Children in poverty have higher rates of accidents, death, and asthma than children from higherincome families (Green, Muir, & Maher, 2011).
Environmental Tobacco Smoke Estimates indicate that approximately 22 percent of children and adolescents in the United States are exposed to tobacco smoke in the home. An increasing number of studies reach the conclusion that children are at risk for health problems when they live in homes in which a parent smokes (Hwang & others, 2012). Children exposed to tobacco smoke in the home are more likely to develop wheezing symptoms and asthma than children in nonsmoking homes (Yi & others, 2012). A recent study found that parental smoking was a risk factor for higher blood pressure in children (Simonetti & others, 2011). And another recent study revealed that exposure to secondhand smoke was related to young children’s sleep problems, including sleep-disordered breathing (Yolton & others, 2010).

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Devastating effects on the health of young children occur in countries where poverty rates are high (UNICEF, 2013). The poor are the majority in nearly one of every five nations in the world. They often experience lives of hunger, malnutrition, illness, inadequate access to health care, unsafe water, and a lack of protection from harm (Gaiha & others, 2012).
     In the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young children who have died because of HIV/AIDS transmitted to them by their parents (UNICEF, 2013). Deaths in young children due to HIV/AIDS especially occur in countries with high rates of poverty and low levels of education (Toure & others, 2012).
     Many of the deaths of young children around the world could be prevented by a reduction in poverty and improvements in nutrition, sanitation, education, and health services (UNICEF, 2013).


The symbolic function substage is the first substage of preoperational thought, occurring roughly between the ages of 2 and 4. In this substage, the young child gains the ability to mentally represent an object that is not present. This ability vastly expands the child’s mental world (Callaghan, 2013; DeLoache, 2011; Mandler & DeLoache, 2012). Young children use scribble designs to represent people, houses, cars, clouds, and so on; they begin to use language and engage in pretend play. However, although young children make distinct progress during this substage, their thought still has important limitations, two of which are egocentrism and animism.
     Egocentrism is the inability to distinguish between one’s own perspective and someone else’s perspective. Piaget and Barbel Inhelder (1969) initially studied young children’s egocentrism by devising the three mountains task (see Figure 7.4). The child walks around the model of the mountains and becomes familiar with what the mountains look like from different perspectives, and she can see that there are different objects on the mountains. The child is then seated on one side of the table on which the mountains are placed. The experimenter moves a doll to different locations around the table, at each location asking the child to select from a series of photos the one photo that most accurately reflects the view that the doll is seeing. Children in the preoperational stage oft en pick their own view rather than the doll’s view. Preschool children frequently show the ability to take another’s perspective on some tasks but not others.
     Animism, another limitation of preoperational thought, is the belief that inanimate objects have lifelike qualities and are capable of action. A young child might show animism by saying, “That tree pushed the leaf off, and it fell down,” or “The sidewalk made me mad; it made me fall down.” A young child who uses animism fails to distinguish the appropriate occasions for using human and nonhuman perspectives (Opfer & Gelman, 2011).
      Possibly because young children are not very concerned about reality, their drawings are fanciful and inventive. Suns are blue, skies are yellow, and cars float on clouds in their symbolic, imaginative world. One 3½-year-old looked at a scribble he had just drawn and described it as a pelican kissing a seal (see Figure 7.5a). The symbolism is simple but strong, like abstractions found in some modern art. Twentieth-century Spanish artist Pablo Picasso commented, “I used to draw like Raphael but it has taken me a lifetime to draw like young children.” During the elementary school years, a child’s drawings become more realistic, neat, and precise (see Figure 7.5b) (Winner, 1986).

fig 7.4

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The intuitive thought substage is the second substage of preoperational thought, occurring between approximately 4 and 7 years of age. In this substage, children begin to use primitive reasoning and want to know the answers to all sorts of questions. Consider 4-year-old Tommy, who is at the beginning of the intuitive thought substage. Although he is starting to develop his own ideas about the world he lives in, his ideas are still simple, and he is not very good at thinking things out. He has difficulty understanding events that he knows are taking place but that he cannot see. His fantasized thoughts bear little resemblance to reality. He cannot yet answer the question “What if?” in any reliable way. For example, he has only a vague idea of what would happen if a car were to hit him. He also has difficulty negotiating traffic because he cannot do the mental calculations necessary to estimate whether an approaching car will hit him when he crosses the road.
      By the age of 5, children have just about exhausted the adults around them with “why” questions. The child’s questions signal the emergence of interest in reasoning and in figuring out why things are the way they are. Following are some samples of the questions children ask during the questioning period of 4 to 6 years of age (Elkind, 1976): “What makes you grow up?” “Who was the mother when everybody was a baby?” “Why do leaves fall?” “Why does the sun shine?” Piaget called this substage intuitive because young children seem so sure about their knowledge and understanding yet are unaware of how they know what they know. That is, they know something but know it without the use of rational thinking.


One limitation of preoperational thought is centration, a centering of attention on one characteristic to the exclusion of all others. Centration is most clearly evidenced in young children’s lack of conservation, the awareness that altering an object’s or a substance’s appearance does not change its basic properties. For example, to adults, it is obvious that a certain amount of liquid stays the same, regardless of a container’s shape. But this is not at all obvious to young children. Instead, they are struck by the height of the liquid in the container; they focus on that characteristic to the exclusion of others.
      The situation that Piaget devised to study conservation is his most famous task. In the conservation task, children are presented with two identical beakers, each filled to the same level with liquid (see Figure 7.6). They are asked if these beakers have the same amount of liquid, and they usually say yes. Then the liquid from one beaker is poured into a third beaker, which is taller and thinner than the first two. The children are then asked if the amount of liquid in the tall, thin beaker is equal to that which remains in one of the original beakers. Children who are less than 7 or 8 years old usually say no and justify their answers in terms of the differing height or width of the beakers. Older children usually answer yes and justify their answers appropriately (“If you poured the water back, the amount would still be the same”).
     In Piaget’s theory, failing the conservation-of-liquid task is a sign that children are at the preoperational stage of cognitive development. The failure demonstrates not only centration but also an inability to mentally reverse actions. For example, in the conservation of matter example shown in Figure 7.7, preoperational children say that the longer shape has more clay because they assume that “longer is more.” Preoperational children cannot mentally reverse the clay-rolling process to see that the amount of clay is the same in both the shorter ball shape and the longer stick shape.
     In addition to failing to conserve volume, preoperational children also fail to conserve number, matter, length, and area. However, children often vary in their performance on different conservation tasks. Thus, a child might be able to conserve volume but not number. A recent fMRI brain imaging study of conservation of number revealed that advances in a network in the parietal and frontal lobes were linked to 9- and 10-year-olds’ conservation success when compared to non-conserving 5- and 6-year-olds (Houde & others, 2011).
      Some developmentalists disagree with Piaget’s estimate of when children’s conservation skills emerge. For example, Rochel Gelman (1969) showed that when the child’s attention to relevant aspects of the conservation task is improved, the child is more likely to conserve. Gelman has also demonstrated that attentional training on one dimension, such as number, improves the preschool child’s performance on another dimension, such as mass. Thus, Gelman argues that conservation appears earlier than Piaget thought and that attention is especially important in explaining conservation.

fig 7.6

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Vygotsky’s belief in the importance of social influences, especially instruction, on children’s cognitive development is reflected in his concept of the zone of proximal development. Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is Vygotsky’s term for the range of tasks that are too difficult for the child to master alone but can be learned with guidance and assistance from adults or more-skilled children. Thus, the lower limit of the ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently. The upper limit is the level of additional responsibility the child can accept with the assistance of an able instructor (see Figure 7.8). The ZPD captures the child’s cognitive skills that are in the process of maturing and can be accomplished only with the assistance of a more-skilled person (Petrick-Steward, 2012). Vygotsky (1962) called these the “buds” or “flowers” of development, to distinguish them from the “fruits” of development, which the child already can accomplish independently.

 fig 7.8


Closely linked to the idea of the ZPD is the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding means changing the level of support. Over the course of a teaching session, a moreskilled person (a teacher or advanced peer) adjusts the amount of guidance to fit the child’s current performance (Daniels, 2011). When the student is learning a new task, the skilled person may use direct instruction. As the student’s competence increases, less guidance is given.


The use of dialogue as a tool for scaffolding is only one example of the important role of language in a child’s development. According to Vygotsky, children use speech not only to communicate socially but also to help them solve tasks. Vygotsky (1962) further believed that young children use language to plan, guide, and monitor their behavior. This use of language for self-regulation is called private speech. For Piaget, private speech is egocentric and immature, but for Vygotsky it is an important tool of thought during the early childhood years (John-Steiner, 2007).
      Vygotsky said that language and thought initially develop independently of each other and then merge. He emphasized that all mental functions have external, or social, origins. Children must use language to communicate with others before they can focus inward on their own thoughts. Children also must communicate externally and use language for a long period of time before they can make the transition from external to internal speech. This transition period occurs between 3 and 7 years of age and involves talking to oneself. After a while, the self-talk becomes second nature to children, and they can act without verbalizing. When they gain this skill, children have internalized their egocentric speech in the form of inner speech, which becomes their thoughts.
      Vygotsky reasoned that children who use a lot of private speech are more socially competent than those who don’t. He argued that private speech represents an early transition in becoming more socially communicative. For Vygotsky, when young children talk to themselves, they are using language to govern their behavior and guide themselves. For example, a child working on a puzzle might say to herself, “Which pieces should I put together first? I’ll try those green ones first. Now I need some blue ones. No, that blue one doesn’t fit there. I’ll try it over here.”
      Piaget maintained that self-talk is egocentric and reflects immaturity. However, researchers have found support for Vygotsky’s view that private speech plays a positive role in children’s development (Winsler, Carlton, & Barry, 2000). Researchers have found that children use private speech more oft en when tasks are difficult, after they have made errors, and when they are not sure how to proceed (Berk, 1994). They also have revealed that children who use private speech are more attentive and improve their performance more than children who do not use private speech (Berk & Spuhl, 1995).


Vygotsky’s theory has been embraced by many teachers and has been successfully applied to education (Costley, 2012). Here are some ways Vygotsky’s theory can be incorporated in classrooms:
1. Assess the child’s ZPD. Like Piaget, Vygotsky did not recommend formal, standardized tests as the best way to assess children’s learning. Rather, Vygotsky argued that assessment should focus on determining the child’s zone of proximal development. The skilled helper presents the child with tasks of varying difficulty to determine the best level at which to begin instruction.
2. Use the child’s ZPD in teaching. Teaching should begin toward the zone’s upper limit, so that the child can reach the goal with help and move to a higher level of skill and knowledge. Offer just enough assistance. You might ask, “What can I do to help you?” Or simply observe the child’s intentions and attempts and provide support when it is needed. When the child hesitates, off er encouragement. And encourage the child to practice the skill. You may watch and appreciate the child’s practice or offer support when the child forgets what to do.
3. Use more-skilled peers as teachers. Remember that it is not just adults who are important in helping children learn. Children also benefit from the support and guidance of more-skilled children.
4. Place instruction in a meaningful context. Educators today are moving away from abstract presentations of material; instead, they provide students with opportunities to experience learning in real-world settings. For example, rather than just memorizing math formulas, students work on math problems with real-world implications.
5. Transform the classroom with Vygotskian ideas. What does a Vygotskian classroom look like? The Kamehameha Elementary Education Program (KEEP) in Hawaii is based on Vygotsky’s theory (Tharp, 1994). The ZPD is the key element of instruction in this program. Children might read a story and then interpret its meaning. Many of the learning activities take place in small groups. All children spend at least 20 minutes each morning in a setting called “Center One.” In this context, scaffolding is used to improve children’s literary skills. The instructor asks questions, responds to students’ queries, and builds on the ideas that students generate.
     Connecting Development to Life further explores the implications of Vygotsky’s theory for children’s education.


Even though their theories were proposed at about the same time, most of the world learned about Vygotsky’s theory later than they learned about Piaget’s theory. Thus, Vygotsky’s theory has not yet been evaluated as thoroughly. However, Vygotsky’s view of the importance of sociocultural influences on children’s development fits with the current belief that it is important to evaluate the contextual factors in learning (Gredler, 2012).
      We already have compared several aspects of Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories, such as Vygotsky’s emphasis on the importance of inner speech in development and Piaget’s view that such speech is immature. Although both theories are constructivist, Vygotsky’s takes a social constructivist approach, which emphasizes the social contexts of learning and the construction of knowledge through social interaction (O’Donnell, 2011).
      In moving from Piaget to Vygotsky, the conceptual shift is one from the individual to collaboration, social interaction, and sociocultural activity (Gauvain, 2013). The endpoint of cognitive development for Piaget is formal operational thought. For Vygotsky, the endpoint can differ depending on which skills are considered to be the most important in a particular culture. In Piaget’s, children construct knowledge by transforming, organizing, and reorganizing previous knowledge. From Vygotsky’s perspective, children construct knowledge through social interaction (Costley, 2012; Gauvain, 2013; Goncu & Gauvain, 2011). The implication of Piaget’s theory for teaching is that children need support to explore their world and discover knowledge. The main implication of Vygotsky’s theory for teaching is that students need many opportunities to learn with the teacher and more-skilled peers. In both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories, teachers serve as facilitators and guides, rather than as directors and molders of learning. Figure 7.10 compares Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories.
      Criticisms of Vygotsky’s theory also have surfaced. Some critics point out that Vygotsky was not specific enough about age-related changes (Goncu & Gauvain, 2011). Another criticism is that Vygotsky did not adequately describe how changes in socioemotional capabilities contribute to cognitive development (Gauvain, 2008). Yet another criticism is that he overemphasized the role of language in thinking. Also, his emphasis on collaboration and guidance has potential pitfalls. Might facilitators be too helpful in some cases, as when a parent becomes too overbearing and controlling? Further, some children might become lazy and expect help when they might have done something on their own.

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“Cognitive Development in Infancy,” that attention was defined as the focusing of mental resources on select information. The child’s ability to pay attention improves significantly during the preschool years (Bell & Cuevas, 2013; Rothbart, 2011). Toddlers wander around, shift attention from one activity to another, and seem to spend little time focused on any one object or event. By comparison, the preschool child might be observed watching television for a half hour or longer. A recent research study revealed that watching television and playing video games were both linked to attention problems in children (Swing & others, 2010).
     Young children especially make advances in two aspects of attention—executive attention and sustained attention (Bell & Cuevas, 2013; Rothbart, 2011). Executive attention involves action planning, allocating attention to goals, error detection and compensation, monitoring progress on tasks, and dealing with novel or difficult circumstances. Sustained attention is focused and extended engagement with an object, task, event, or other aspect of the environment.
      Mary Rothbart and Maria Gartstein recently described why advances in executive and sustained attention are so important in early childhood:
      The development of the . . . executive attention system supports the rapid increases in effortful control in the toddler and preschool years. Increases in attention are due, in part, to advances in comprehension and language development. As children are better able to understand their environment, this increased appreciation of their surroundings helps them to sustain attention for longer periods of time.
     In at least two ways, however, the preschool child’s control of attention is still deficient:
     • Salient versus relevant dimensions. Preschool children are likely to pay attention to stimuli that stand out, or are salient, even when those stimuli are not relevant to solving a problem or performing a task. For example, if a flashy, attractive clown presents the directions for solving a problem, preschool children are likely to pay more attention to the clown than to the directions. Aft er the age of 6 or 7, children attend more efficiently to the dimensions of the task that are relevant, such as the directions for solving a problem. This change reflects a shift to cognitive control of attention, so that children act less impulsively and reflect more.
     • Planfulness. When experimenters ask children to judge whether two complex pictures are the same, preschool children tend to use a haphazard comparison strategy, not examining all of the details before making a judgment. By comparison, elementary school age children are more likely to systematically compare the details across the pictures, one detail at a time (Vurpillot, 1968) (see Figure 7.11).
     In Central European countries, such as Hungary, kindergarten children participate in exercises designed to improve their attention (Mills & Mills, 2000; Posner & Rothbart, 2007). For example, in one eye-contact exercise, the teacher sits in the center of a circle of children and each child is required to catch the teacher’s eye before being permitted to leave the group. In other exercises created to improve attention, teachers have children participate in stop-go activities during which they have to listen for a specific signal, such as a drumbeat or an exact number of rhythmic beats, before stopping the activity.
      Computer exercises recently have been developed to improve children’s attention (Jaeggi, Berman, & Jonides, 2009; Tang & Posner, 2009). For example, one study revealed that five days of computer exercises that involved learning how to use a joystick, working memory, and the resolution of conflict improved the attention of 4- to 6-year-old children (Rueda & others, 2005). Although not commercially available, further information about computer exercises for improving children’s attention is available at
      The ability of preschool children to control and sustain their attention is related to school readiness (Posner & Rothbart, 2007). For example, a study of more than 1,000 children revealed that their ability to sustain their attention at 54 months of age was linked to their school readiness (which included achievement and language skills) (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). And in another study children whose parents and teachers rated them higher on a scale of having attention problems at 54 months of age had a lower level of social skills in peer relations in the first and third grades than their counterparts who were rated lower on the attention problems scale at 54 months of age (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2009).

fig 7.11


Memory —the retention of information over time—is a central process in children’s cognitive development. Most of a young infant’s memories are fragile and, for the most part, short-lived—except for the memory of perceptual-motor actions, which can be substantial (Bauer, 2013; Bauer & Fivush, 2013). Thus, we saw that to understand the infant’s capacity to remember we need to distinguish implicit memory from explicit memory. Explicit memory itself, however, comes in many forms. One distinction occurs between relatively permanent or long-term memory and short-term memory.
Short-Term Memory    In short-term memory, individuals retain information for up to 30 seconds if there is no rehearsal of the information. Using rehearsal (repeating information after it has been presented), we can keep information in short-term memory for a much longer period. One method of assessing short-term memory is the memory-span task. You hear a short list of stimuli—usually digits—presented at a rapid pace (one per second, for example). Then you are asked to repeat the digits.
      Research with the memory-span task suggests that short-term memory increases during early childhood. For example, in one investigation memory span increased from about 2 digits in 2- to 3-year-old children to about 5 digits in 7-year-old children, yet between 7 and 13 years of age memory span increased only by 2 more digits (Dempster, 1981) (see Figure 7.12). Keep in mind, though, that memory span varies from one individual to another.
      Why does memory span change with age? Rehearsal of information is important; older children rehearse the digits more than younger children do. Speed—especially the speed with which memory items can be identified—and efficiency of processing information are important, too (Schneider, 2011). The speed-of-processing explanation highlights a key point in the information-processing perspective:
      The speed with which a child processes information is an important aspect of the child’s cognitive abilities, and there is abundant evidence that the speed with which many cognitive tasks are completed improves dramatically across the childhood years (Kail, 2007).
How Accurate Are Young Children’s Long-Term Memories?    While toddlers’ shortterm memory span increases during the early childhood years, their memory also becomes more accurate. Young children can remember a great deal of information if they are given appropriate cues and prompts (Ghetti & Bauer, 2012; Riggins, 2012). Increasingly, young children are even being allowed to testify in court, especially if they are the sole witnesses to abuse, a crime, and so forth (Bruck & Ceci, 2012). Several factors can influence the accuracy of a young child’s memory (Bruck & Ceci, 1999):
     • There are age differences in children’s susceptibility to suggestion. Preschoolers are the most suggestible age group in comparison with older children and adults (Lehman & others, 2010). For example, preschool children are more susceptible to believing misleading or incorrect information given aft er an event (Ghetti & Alexander, 2004). Despite these age differences, there is still concern about the reaction of older children when they are subjected to suggestive interviews (Bruck & Ceci, 2012).
     • There are individual differences in susceptibility. Some preschoolers are highly resistant to interviewers’ suggestions, whereas others immediately succumb to the slightest suggestion (Ceci & Klemfuss, 2010). One study revealed that preschool children’s ability to produce a high-quality narrative was linked to their resistance to suggestion (Kulkofsky & Klemfuss, 2008).
      • Interviewing techniques can produce substantial distortions in children’s reports about highly salient events. Children are suggestible not just about peripheral details but also about the central aspects of an event (Bruck & Ceci, 2012; Malloy & others, 2012). In some cases, children’s false reports can be tinged with sexual connotations. In laboratory studies, young children have made false claims about “silly events” that involved body contact (such as “Did the nurse lick your knee?” or “Did she blow in your ear?”). A significant number of preschool children have falsely reported that someone touched their private parts, kissed them, and hugged them, when these events clearly did not happen in the research. Nonetheless, young children are capable of recalling much that is relevant about an event (Fivush, 1993). When young children do accurately recall information about an event, the interviewer oft en has a neutral tone, there is limited use of misleading questions, and there is an absence of any motivation for the child to make a false report (Bruck & Ceci, 2012).
      In sum, whether a young child’s eyewitness testimony is accurate or not may depend on a number of factors such as the type, number, and intensity of the suggestive techniques the child has experienced (Lamb & Malloy, 2013; La Rooy, Malloy, & Lamb, 2012; Orbach & others, 2012). It appears that the reliability of young children’s reports has as much to do with the skills and motivation of the interviewer as with any natural limitations on young children’s memory (Bruck & Ceci, 2012).

fig 7.12


Recently, increasing attention has been given to the development of children’s executive functioning, an umbrella-like concept that consists of a number of higher-level cognitive processes linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Executive functioning involves managing one’s thoughts to engage in goal-directed behavior and self control.

In early childhood, executive functioning especially involves developmental advances in cognitive inhibition (such as inhibiting a strong tendency that is incorrect), cognitive flexibility (such as shifting attention to another item or topic), goal-setting (such as sharing a toy or mastering a skill like catching a ball), and delay of gratifiation (waiting longer to get a more attractive reward, for example) (Beck & others, 2011; Carlson, 2010, 2011; Carlson & White, 2013; Carlson, Zelazo, & Faja, 2013; Conway & Stifter, 2012; Zelazo & Muller, 2011). During early childhood, the relatively stimulus-driven toddler is transformed into a child capable of flexible, goal-directed problem solving that characterizes executive functioning (Zelazo & Muller, 2011).
       Stephanie Carlson (2010, 2011) has conducted a number of research studies on young children’s executive functioning. In one study, Carlson and her colleagues (2005) gave young children a task called Less Is More, in which they are shown two trays of candy—one with five pieces, the other with two—and they are told that the tray they pick will be given to a stuffed animal seated at the table (see Figure 7.13). Three-year-olds consistently selected the tray with five pieces of candy, thus giving away more candy than they kept for themselves. However, 4-year-olds were far more likely to give away the tray with only two pieces of candy, keeping five pieces for themselves, and thus inhibiting their impulsiveness far better than the 3-year-olds. In another study, young children were read either Planet Opposite —a fantasy book in which everything is turned upside down—or Fun Town—a reality-oriented fiction book (Carlson & White, 2011). After being read one of the books, the young children completed the Less Is More Task. Sixty percent of the 3-year-olds who heard the Planet Opposite story gave away the five pieces of candy compared with only 20 percent of their counterparts who heard the more straightforward story. The results indicated that learning about a topsy-turvy imaginary world likely helped the young children become more flexible in their thinking.
      Researchers have found that advances in executive functioning during the preschool years are linked with school readiness (Bierman & others, 2008). Significant advances in the development of executive functioning occur in middle and late childhood (Diamond, 2013). Adult-level executive functioning emerges in early adolescence on many tasks, but on some tasks executive functioning continues to improve during the adult years (Zelazo & Muller, 2011).
     Some developmental psychologists use their training in areas such as cognitive development to pursue careers in applied areas. fig 7.13


Even young children are curious about the nature of the human mind (Apperly, 2012; Astington & Hughes, 2013; Wellman, 2011). They have a theory of mind, which refers to awareness of one’s own mental processes and the mental processes of others. Studies of theory of mind view the child as “a thinker who is trying to explain, predict, and understand people’s thoughts, feelings, and utterances” (Harris, 2006, p. 847).
Developmental Changes    Children’s theory of mind changes as they develop through childhood (Gelman, 2013; Miller, 2012; Wellman, 2011). Although whether infants have a theory of mind continues to be questioned by some (Rakoczy, 2012), the consensus is that some changes occur quite early in development, as we see next.
     From 18 months to 3 years of age, children begin to understand three mental states:
     • Perceptions. By 2 years of age, a child recognizes that another person will see what’s in front of her own eyes instead of what’s in front of the child’s eyes (Lempers, Flavell, & Flavell, 1977), and by 3 years of age, the child realizes that looking leads to knowing what’s inside a container (Pratt & Bryant, 1990).
     • Emotions. The child can distinguish between positive (for example, happy) and negative (sad, for example) emotions. A child might say, “Tommy feels bad.”
     • Desires. All humans have some sort of desires. But when do children begin to recognize that someone else’s desires may differ from their own? Toddlers recognize that if people want something, they will try to get it. For instance, a child might say, “I want my mommy.”
      Two- to three-year-olds understand the way that desires are related to actions and to simple emotions. For example, they understand that people will search for what they want and that if they obtain it, they are likely to feel happy, but if they don’t, they will keep searching for it and are likely to feel sad or angry (Wellman & Woolley, 1990). Children also refer to desires earlier and more frequently than they refer to cognitive states such as thinking and knowing (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995).
     One of the landmark developments in understanding others’ desires is recognizing that someone else may have different desires from one’s own (Doherty, 2008). Eighteen-month-olds understand that their own food preferences may not match the preferences of others—they will give an adult the food to which she says “Yummy!” even if the food is something that the infants detest (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). As they get older, they can verbalize that they themselves do not like something but an adult might (Flavell & others, 1992).
      Between the ages of 3 and 5, children come to understand that the mind can represent objects and events accurately or inaccurately (Low & Simpson, 2012). The realization that people can have false beliefs —beliefs that are not true—develops in a majority of children by the time they are 5 years old (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001) (see Figure 7.14). This point is often described as a pivotal one in understanding the mind—recognizing that beliefs are not just mapped directly into the mind from the surrounding world, but that different people can also have different, and sometimes incorrect, beliefs (Gelman, 2009). In a classic false-belief task, young children were shown a Band-Aids box and asked what was inside (Jenkins & Astington, 1996). To the children’s surprise, the box actually contained pencils. When asked what a child who had never seen the box would think was inside, 3-year-olds typically responded, “Pencils.” However, the 4- and 5-year-olds, grinning at the anticipation of the false beliefs of other children who had not seen what was inside the box, were more likely to say “Band-Aids.”
     In a similar task, children are told a story about Sally and Anne: Sally places a toy in a basket and then leaves the room (see Figure 7.15). In her absence, Anne takes the toy from the basket and places it in a box. Children are asked where Sally will look for the toy when she returns. The major finding is that 3-year-olds tend to fail false-belief tasks, saying that Sally will look in the box (even though Sally could not have known that the toy has moved to this new location). Four-year-olds and older children tend to perform the task correctly, saying that Sally will have a “false belief ”—she will think the object is in the basket, even though that belief is now false. The conclusion from these studies is that children younger than 4 years old do not understand that it is possible to have a false belief.
      However, there are many reasons to question the focus on this one supposedly pivotal moment in the development of a theory of mind. For example, the false-belief task is a complicated one that involves a number of factors such as the characters in the story and all of their individual actions (Bloom & German, 2000).
      It is only beyond the preschool years—at approximately 5 to 7 years of age—that children have a deepening appreciation of the mind itself rather than just an understanding of mental states. For example, they begin to recognize that people’s behaviors do not necessarily reflect their thoughts and feelings (Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1993). Not until middle and late childhood do children see the mind as an active constructor of knowledge or processing center (Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1998) and move from understanding that beliefs can be false to realizing that the same event can be open to multiple interpretations (Carpendale & Chandler, 1996). For example, in one study, children saw an ambiguous line drawing (for example, a drawing that could be seen as either a duck or a rabbit); one puppet told the child she believed the drawing was a duck while another puppet told the child he believed the drawing was a rabbit (see Figure 7.16). Before the age of 7, children said that there was one right answer, and it was not okay for both puppets to have different opinions.
      Although most research on children’s theory of mind focuses on children around or before their preschool years, at 7 years of age and beyond there are important developments in the ability to understand the beliefs and thoughts of others (Apperly, 2012; Miller, 2012). While understanding that people may have different interpretations is important, it is also necessary to recognize that some interpretations and beliefs may still be evaluated on the basis of the merits of arguments and evidence (Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000). In early adolescence, children begin to understand that people can have ambivalent feelings (Flavell & Miller, 1998). They start to recognize that the same person can feel both happy and sad about the same event. They also engage in more recursive thinking: thinking about what other people are thinking about.
Individual Differences   As in other developmental research, there are individual differences in the ages when children reach certain milestones in their theory of mind (Pellicano, 2010). For example, children who talk with their parents about feelings frequently as 2-year-olds show better performance on theory of mind tasks (Ruffman, Slade, & Crowe, 2002), as do children who frequently engage in pretend play (Harris, 2000).
    Executive function, which describes several functions (such as inhibition and planning) that are important for flexible, future-oriented behavior, also may be connected to theory of mind development (Carroll & others, 2012; Ford & others, 2012; Muller & others, 2012). For example, in one executive function task, children are asked to say the word “night” when they see a picture of a sun, and the word “day” when they see a picture of a moon and stars. Children who perform better at executive function tasks seem also to have a better understanding of theory of mind (Sabbagh & others, 2006).
      Another individual difference in understanding the mind involves autism. To learn how theory of mind differs in children with autism, see Connecting Through Research.

fig 7.14

fig 7.15

fig 7.16


During the preschool years, most children gradually become more sensitive to the sounds of spoken words and become increasingly capable of producing all the sounds of their language (Zhou & others, 2012). By the time children are 3 years of age, they can produce all the vowel sounds and most of the consonant sounds (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2009).
      As children move beyond two-word utterances, they demonstrate a knowledge of morphology rules (Park & others, 2012). Children begin using the plural and possessive forms of nouns (such as dogs and dog’s). They put appropriate endings on verbs (such as -s when the subject is third-person singular and -ed for the past tense). They use prepositions (such as in and on), articles (such as a and the), and various forms of the verb to be (such as “I was going to the store”). Some of the best evidence for changes in children’s use of morphological rules occurs in their overgeneralization of the rules, as when a preschool child says “foots” instead of “feet,” or “goed” instead of “went.”
      In a classic experiment that was designed to study children’s knowledge of morphological rules, such as how to make a plural, Jean Berko (1958) presented preschool children and firstgrade children with cards such as the one shown in Figure 7.17. Children were asked to look at the card while the experimenter read aloud the words on the card. Then the children were asked to supply the missing word. This might sound easy, but Berko was interested in the children’s ability to apply the appropriate morphological rule, in this case to say “wugs” with the z sound that indicates the plural.
      Although the children’s answers were not perfect, they were much better than chance. What makes Berko’s study impressive is that most of the words were made up for the experiment. Thus, the children could not base their responses on remembering past instances of hearing the words. That they could make the plurals or past tenses of words they had never heard before was proof that they knew the morphological rules.

fig 7.17


Preschool children also learn and apply rules of syntax (de Villiers & de Villiers, 2013; Gertner & Fisher, 2012; Kidd, 2012). They show a growing mastery of complex rules for how words should be ordered. Consider wh- questions, such as “Where is Daddy going?” or “What is that boy doing?” To ask these questions properly, the child must know two important differences between wh- questions and affirmative statements (for instance, “Daddy is going to work” and “That boy is waiting on the school bus”). First, a wh- word must be added at the beginning of the sentence. Second, the auxiliary verb must be inverted—that is, exchanged with the subject of the sentence. Young children learn quite early where to put the wh- word, but they take much longer to learn the auxiliary-inversion rule. Thus, preschool children might ask, “Where Daddy is going?” and “What that boy is doing?”
     Gains in semantics also characterize early childhood. Vocabulary development is dramatic (Pan & Uccelli, 2009). Some experts have concluded that between 18 months and 6 years of age, young children learn about one new word every waking hour (Gelman & Kalish, 2006). By the time they enter first grade, it is estimated that children know about 14,000 words (Clark, 1993).
     What are some important aspects of how word learning optimally occurs? Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Robert Golinkoff, and Justin Harris (Harris, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2011; Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2013) emphasize six key principles in young children’s vocabulary development:
1. Children learn the words they hear most often. They learn the words that they encounter when interacting with parents, teachers, siblings, peers, as well as words that they hear when books are read aloud to them. They especially benefit from encountering words that they do not know.
2. Children learn words for things and events that interest them. Parents and teachers can direct young children to experience words in contexts that interest the children; playful peer interactions are especially helpful in this regard.
3. Children learn words better in responsive and interactive contexts than in passive contexts. Children who experience turn-taking opportunities, joint focusing experiences, and positive, sensitive socializing contexts with adults encounter the scaffolding necessary for optimal word learning. They learn words less effectively when they are passive learners.
4. Children learn words best in contexts that are meaningful. Young children learn new words more effectively when new words are encountered in integrated contexts rather than as isolated facts.
5. Children learn words best when they access clear information about word meaning. Children whose parents and teachers are sensitive to words the children might not understand and provide support and elaboration with hints about word meaning learn words better than those whose parents and teachers quickly state a new word and don’t monitor whether children understand its meaning.
6. Children learn words best when grammar and vocabulary are considered. Children who experience a large number of words and diversity in verbal stimulation develop a richer vocabulary and better understanding of grammar. In many cases, vocabulary and grammar development are connected.


Changes in pragmatics also characterize young children’s language development (Crain & Zhou, 2012). A 6-year-old is simply a much better conversationalist than a 2-year-old is. What are some of the improvements in pragmatics during the preschool years?
     Young children begin to engage in extended discourse. For example, they learn culturally specific rules of conversation and politeness and become sensitive to the need to adapt their speech in different settings. Their developing linguistic skills and increasing ability to take the perspective of others contribute to their generation of more competent narratives.
      As children get older, they become increasingly able to talk about things that are not here (grandma’s house, for example) and not now (what happened to them yesterday or might happen tomorrow, for example). A preschool child can tell you what she wants for lunch tomorrow, something that would not have been possible at the two-word stage of language development.
      Around 4 to 5 years of age, children learn to change their speech style to suit the situation. For example, even 4-year-old children speak to a 2-year-old differently from the way they speak to a same-aged peer; they use shorter sentences with the 2-year-old. They also speak differently to an adult and to a same-aged peer, using more polite and formal language with the adult (Shatz & Gelman, 1973).


The concern about the ability of U.S. children to read and write has led to a careful examination of preschool and kindergarten children’s experiences, with the hope that a positive orientation toward reading and writing can be developed early in life (Giorgis & Glazer, 2013). Parents and teachers need to provide young children with a supportive environment for developing literacy skills (Morrow, 2012; Tamis-LeMonda & Song, 2013). Children should be active participants and be immersed in a wide range of interesting listening, talking, writing, and reading experiences (Gunning, 2013). One study revealed that children whose mothers had more education had more advanced emergent literacy levels than children whose mothers had less education (Korat, 2009). Another study found that literacy experiences (such as how often the child was read to), the quality of the mother’s engagement with her child (such as attempts to cognitively stimulate the child), and provision of learning materials (such as ageappropriate books) were important home literacy experiences in lowincome families that were linked to the children’s language development in positive ways (Rodriguez & others, 2009). Instruction should be built on what children already know about oral language, reading, and writing. Further, early precursors of literacy and academic success include language skills, phonological and syntactic knowledge, letter identification, and conceptual knowledge about print and its conventions and functions (Gunning, 2013; McGee & Richgels, 2012).
   The following three longitudinal studies indicate the importance of early language skills and children’s school readiness:
• Phonological awareness, letter name and sound knowledge, and naming speed in kindergarten were linked to reading success in the first and second grade (Schattschneider & others, 2004).
• Children’s early home environment influenced their early language skills, which in turn predicted their readiness for school (Forget-Dubois & others, 2009).
• The number of letters children knew in kindergarten was highly correlated (.52) with their reading achievement in high school (Stevenson & Newman, 1986).
     So far, our discussion of early literacy has focused on U.S. children. These findings may not apply to children in other countries. For example, the extent to which phonological awareness is linked to learning to read effectively varies across language to some degree (McBride-Chang, 2004). Rates of dyslexia (severe reading disability) differ across countries and are linked with the spelling and phonetic rules that characterize the language (McCardle, Lee, & Tzeng, 2011). English is one of the more difficult languages to learn because of its irregular spellings and pronunciations. In countries where English is spoken, the rate of dyslexia is higher than in countries where the alphabet script is more phonetically pronounced.
     Books can be valuable in enhancing children’s communication skills (Vukelich, Christie, & Enz, 2012). What are some strategies for using books effectively with preschool children? Ellen Galinsky (2010) recently emphasized these strategies:
    • Use books to initiate conversation with young children. Ask them to put themselves in the book characters’ places and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling.
    • Use what and why questions. Ask young children what they think is going to happen next in a story and then see if it occurs.
    • Encourage children to ask questions about stories.
    • Choose some books that play with language. Creative books on the alphabet, including those with rhymes, often interest young children. The advances in language that take place in early childhood lay the foundation for later development in the elementary school years.


Nurturing is a key aspect of the child-centered kindergarten, which emphasizes the education of the whole child and concern for his or her physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2012). Instruction is organized around the child’s needs, interests, and learning styles. Emphasis is on the process of learning, rather than what is learned (Moravcik, Nolte, & Feeney, 2012). The childcentered kindergarten honors three principles: Each child follows a unique developmental pattern; young children learn best through firsthand experiences with people and materials; and play is extremely important in the child’s total development. Experimenting, exploring, discovering, trying out, restructuring, speaking, and listening are frequent activities in excellent kindergarten programs. Such programs are closely attuned to the developmental status of 4- and 5-year-old children.


Montessori schools are patterned after the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori (1870–1952), an Italian physician-turned-educator who at the beginning of the twentieth century crafted a revolutionary approach to young children’s education. The Montessori approach is a philosophy of education in which children are given considerable freedom and spontaneity in choosing activities. They are allowed to move from one activity to another as they desire. The teacher acts as a facilitator rather than a director. The teacher shows the child how to perform intellectual activities, demonstrates interesting ways to explore curriculum materials, and offers help when the child requests it (Isaacs, 2012; Murray, 2011). “By encouraging children to make decisions from an early age, Montessori programs seek to develop self-regulated problem solvers who can make choices and manage their time effectively”. The number of Montessori schools in the United States has expanded dramatically in recent years, from 1 school in 1959 to 355 schools in 1970 to more than 4,000 today.
      Some developmentalists favor the Montessori approach, but others believe that it neglects children’s socioemotional development. For example, although Montessori fosters independence and the development of cognitive skills, it deemphasizes verbal interaction between the teacher and child and between peers. Montessori’s critics also argue that it restricts imaginative play and that its heavy reliance on self-corrective materials may not adequately allow for creativity and for a variety of learning styles.


Many educators and psychologists conclude that preschool and young elementary school children learn best through active, hands-on teaching methods such as games and dramatic play. They know that children develop at varying rates and that schools need to allow for these individual differences. They also argue that schools should focus on supporting children’s socioemotional development as well as their cognitive development. Educators refer to this type of schooling as developmentally appropriate practice (DAP), which is based on knowledge of the typical development of children within an age span (age-appropriateness), as well as the uniqueness of the child (individual-appropriateness). DAP emphasizes the importance of creating settings that encourage active learning and reflect children’s interests and capabilities (Bredekamp, 2011; Morrison, 2012). Desired outcomes for DAP include thinking critically, working cooperatively, solving problems, developing self-regulatory skills, and enjoying learning. The emphasis in DAP is on the process of learning rather than its content (Bredekamp, 2011). The most recent developmentally appropriate guidelines provided by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2009) are summarized in Figure 7.18 . Do developmentally appropriate educational practices improve young children’s development? Some researchers have found that young children in developmentally appropriate classrooms are likely to have less stress, be more motivated, be more skilled socially, have better work habits, be more creative, have better language skills, and demonstrate better math skills than children in developmentally inappropriate classrooms (Hart & others, 2003). However, not all studies show significant positive benefits for developmentally appropriate education (Hyson, Copple, & Jones, 2006). Among the reasons it is difficult to generalize about research on developmentally appropriate education is that individual programs often vary, and developmentally appropriate education is an evolving concept. Recent changes in the concept have given more attention to sociocultural factors, to the teacher’s active involvement and implementation of systematic intentions, and to how strong academic skills should be emphasized and how they should be taught.

 fig 7.18


For many years, U.S. children from low-income families did not receive any education before they entered the first grade. Often, they began first grade already several steps behind their classmates in their readiness to learn. In the summer of 1965, the federal government began an effort to break the cycle of poverty and poor education for young children in the United States through Project Head Start. It is a compensatory program designed to provide children from low-income families the opportunity to acquire the skills and experiences important for success in school (Hustedt, Friedman, & Barnett, 2012; Zigler & Styfco, 2010). After almost half a century, Head Start continues to be the largest federally funded program for U.S. children with almost 1 million U.S. children enrolled annually (Hagen & Lamb-Parker, 2008). In 2007, 3 percent of Head Start children were 5 years old, 51 percent were 4 years old, 36 percent were 3 years old, and 10 percent were under 3 years of age (Administration for Children & Families, 2008 ).
     Early Head Start was established in 1995 to serve children from birth to 3 years of age. In 2007, half of all new funds appropriated for Head Start programs were used for the expansion of Early Head Start. Researchers have found positive effects for Early Head Start (Hoffman & Ewen, 2007). A recent study revealed that Early Head Start had a protective effect on risks young children might experience in parenting stress, language development, and self-control (Ayoub, Vallotton, & Mastergeorge, 2011).
     Head Start programs are not all created equal. One estimate is that 40 percent of the 1,400 Head Start programs are of questionable quality (Zigler & Styfco, 1994). More attention needs to be given to developing consistently high-quality Head Start programs (Hillemeier & others, 2012). One individual who is strongly motivated to make Head Start a valuable learning experience for young children from disadvantaged backgrounds is Yolanda Garcia.

Evaluations support the positive influence of quality early childhood programs on both the cognitive and social worlds of disadvantaged young children (Lamy, 2012; Ryan, Fauth, & Brooks-Gunn, 2006). A recent national evaluation of Head Start revealed that the program had a positive influence on language and cognitive development (Puma & others, 2010). By the end of the first grade there were some lasting outcomes—better vocabulary for those who went to Head Start as 4-year-olds, and better oral comprehension for those who went to Head Start as 3-year-olds. Another recent study found that when young children initially began Head Start, they were well below their more academically advantaged peers in literacy and math (Hindman & others, 2010). However, by the end of first grade the Head Start children were on par with national averages in literacy and math.
     One high-quality early childhood education program (although not a Head Start program) is the Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a two-year preschool program that includes weekly home visits from program personnel. In analyses of the long-term effects of the program, adults who had been in the Perry Preschool program were compared with a control group of adults from the same background who had not received the enriched early childhood education (Schweinhart & others, 2005; Weikert, 1993). Those who had been in the Perry Preschool program had fewer teen pregnancies and higher high school graduation rates, and at age 40 more were in the workforce, owned their own homes, had a savings account, and had fewer arrests than adults in the control group.


A current controversy in early childhood education involves what the curriculum for early childhood education should be (Moravcik, Nolte, & Feeney, 2012). On one side are those who advocate a child-centered, constructivist approach much like that emphasized by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), along the lines of developmentally appropriate practice. On the other side are those who advocate an academic, direct-instruction approach.
      In reality, many high-quality early childhood education programs include both academic and constructivist approaches. Many education experts like Lilian Katz (1999), though, worry about academic approaches that place too much pressure on young children to achieve and don’t provide any opportunities to actively construct knowledge. Competent early childhood programs also should focus on cognitive development and socioemotional development, not exclusively on cognitive development (NAEYC, 2009).

Universal Preschool Education

Another early childhood education controversy focuses on whether preschool education should be instituted for all U.S. 4-year-old children. Edward Zigler and his colleagues (2011) recently have argued that the United States should have universal preschool education. They emphasize that quality preschools prepare children for school readiness and academic success. Zigler and his colleagues (2006) cite research that shows quality preschool programs decrease the likelihood that once children go to elementary and secondary school they will be retained in a grade or drop out of school. They also point to analyses indicating that universal preschool would bring cost savings on the order of billions of dollars because of a diminished need for remedial and justice services (Karoly & Bigelow, 2005).
     Critics of universal preschool education argue that the gains attributed to preschool and kindergarten education are often overstated. They especially stress that research has not proven that nondisadvantaged children benefit from attending a preschool. Thus, the critics say it is more important to improve preschool education for young children who are disadvantaged rather than funding preschool education for all 4-year-old children. Some critics, especially homeschooling advocates, emphasize that young children should be educated by their parents, not by schools. Thus, controversy continues to surround questions about whether universal preschool education should be implemented.