Chapter 6: Cognitive Development in Infancy

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Chapter 6: Cognitive Development in Infancy

Learning Goals
Learning Goal 1: Summarize the cognitive processes in Piaget’s theory and the stage of sensorimotor development.
A. Define behavioral and mental schemes.

B. Define and discuss assimilation, accommodation, and organization.

C. Discuss equilibrium and equilibration and how they relate to children’s thought processes.

D. Describe and discuss the six substages of Piaget’s sensorimotor stage.

E. Define and discuss object permanence and causality.

F. Evaluate Piaget’s sensorimotor stage.

Learning Goal 2: Describe how infants learn and remember.
A. Discuss conditioning’s role in learning and remembering.

B. Describe infant attention.

C. Explain how imitation assists in infant learning.

D. Define implicit and explicit memory

E. Discuss infantile amnesia.

Learning Goal 3: Discuss the assessment of intelligence in infancy.
A. Describe the history of infant testing.

B. Describe and discuss the Bayley Scales of Infant Development.

C. Discuss the Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence.

Learning Goal 4: Explain language development in infancy.

A. Define language.

B. Define and discuss the rules of language.

C. Describe the sequence of language development in the first year of life.

D. Describe the recognition of language.

E. Discuss first words in infancy.

F. Compare and contrast two-word utterances and telegraphic speech.

G. Discuss the biological and environmental influences on language development.

H. Distinguish between Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas and describe their role in language development.

I. Define language acquisition device.

J. Discuss the behavioral view of language acquisition.

K. Discuss the effects of poverty on language development.

L. Define child-directed speech and discuss its role in language development.

Overview of Resources

Chapter Outline

Resources You Can Use

Piaget’s Theory of Infant Development

Learning Goal 1: Summarize the cognitive processes in Piaget’s theory and the stage of sensorimotor development.

Cognitive Processes
The Sensorimotor Stage of Development

Personal Application 1: Something Old, Something New

Research Project 1: Object Permanence

Video: Brain and Infant Cognition

Learning and Remembering

Learning Goal 2: Describe how infants learn and remember.


Lecture Suggestion 1: Why Can’t We Remember Events from Our Early Childhood?

Lecture Suggestion 2: Is It Possible to Accelerate Infant Cognitive Development?

Classroom Activity 1: Toy Story: How Cognitively Stimulating Are Children's Toys?

Classroom Activity 2: Infant Attention and Habituation

Personal Application 2: Oh, That Again?!

Individual Differences in Intelligence

Learning Goal 3: Discuss the assessment of intelligence in infancy.

Lecture Suggestion 3: To Test or Not to Test

Language Development

Learning Goal 4: Explain language development in infancy.

What is Language?
Language’s Rule Systems
How Language Develops
Biological and Environmental Influences

Lecture Suggestion 4: Infant Speech Perception: Use It or Lose It?

Classroom Activity 3: Do Animals Have the Ability to Communicate?

Classroom Activity 4: Supporting Arguments for Three Views of Language Development

Research Project 2: Caregiver–Infant Language

Video: Language Ability at 2 Years


Classroom Activity 5: Critical-Thinking Multiple-Choice Questions and Suggested Answers

Classroom Activity 6: Critical-Thinking Essay Questions and Suggestions for Helping Students


Lecture Suggestions
Lecture Suggestion 1: Why Can’t We Remember Events from Our Early Childhood?

Learning Goal 2: Describe how infants learn and remember.
The purpose of this lecture is to delve into the issue of childhood amnesia. The following questions should be addressed: What is the earliest age at which people can remember specific events? Why can’t people remember events from early childhood? What are some problems with retrospective research on early childhood memories?
Infantile or childhood amnesia refers to the inability to remember events from infancy and early childhood. Freud first described this phenomenon based largely on anecdotal evidence. Early research asked people to report their earliest memories. Most could only remember a scarcity of events from before the age of 8, with the average age being 3 ½ years for the earliest memory. The scarcity of early memories could not be explained by the idea that greater forgetting is due to the increased time since the event. Childhood amnesia does not expand with increasing age and has been found as early as age 18 and as late as age 70. Memories of childhood events are conspicuous in their absence. People typically are unable to remember events that occurred before the age of 3 (Eacott & Crawley, 1998). There appears to be a qualitative difference between early and later memories, as childhood memories are often fragmentary and lacking in social and temporal context and narrative structure (“I remember sitting by the window”).

To explain the phenomenon of childhood amnesia, a theory would have to explain adults’ failure to recall their earliest childhood memory and the gradual increase in memories from the age of 3. Given the age range of 2 to 8 years for one’s earliest recalled memories, individual differences would have to be explained as well. Nelson (1992) states that children need conventionalized narrative structures in order to build and interpret their personal past. Organized memories last longer and are easier to recall than unorganized memories. Thus, early memories that are unorganized due to young children’s inability to structure the episodic memories are prone to forgetting. As language skills develop in early childhood, language-based narrative skills can aid in the formation of organized narrative autobiographical memories. Caregivers can aid in the development of narrative structure by asking questions such as, “What happened next?” Social interaction may be key in the initial development of these skills, and later these types of questions become internalized.

  • What are some of the problems with asking people to recall their earliest memories?

Tough to accurately date memories.

Reporting of false memories.

Confusion between memories of events and what people have told them about the event.

Imagining the event.

Cannot validate the memories.

  • Have students discuss how to best study aspects related to childhood amnesia.

Probe for memories of notable events on specific dates (e.g., sitting in basement during tornado on July 24, 1975).

Events that can be validated by people who were actually there.

Events that are not likely to have been videotaped or photographed.

Eacott, M. J. (1999). Memory for the events of early childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 46–49.

Eacott, M. J., & Crawley, R. A. (1998). The offset of childhood amnesia: Memory for events that occurred before age 3. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 127, 22–33.

Nelson, K. (1992). Emergence of autobiographical memory at age 4. Human Development, 35, 172–177.

Lecture Suggestion 2: Is It Possible to Accelerate Infant Cognitive Development?

Learning Goal 2: Describe how infants learn and remember.

If you visit the parenting section of your local bookstore, you will come across works by numerous psychologists and other experts that proclaim that “Yes, you can create a Super Baby.” Programs and books attest to their methods to create a high-IQ, superior child. Some of the titles of such books are Give Your Child a Superior Mind, How to Give Your Baby Encyclopedic Knowledge, and Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius. Present the ideas in one of these books to your class. In your lecture, delineate the issues and problems surrounding these programs. Obtain a more detailed description of the typical practices of better-baby institutes. What evidence do they describe to support their claims of success. If possible, find parents who have actually enrolled their babies in such schools or who have been inspired to employ their practices in raising their children. Next, present more formal evidence on the question of whether environment influences intellectual development in young children. Review some of the classic studies of institutionalized infants (Hunt, 1961; Thompson & Grusec, 1970); the influence of early home environments on later intelligence (Bradley & Caldwell, 1984; Campbell & Ramey, 1994; Olson, Bates, & Kaskie, 1992); and the interesting animal studies that have been conducted, such as those done with rats raised in impoverished versus enriched environments (Greenough, 1992). Speculate on the relevance of recent work that demonstrates a connection between brain development and stimulation. Consider having your students read the Newsweek article “Your Child’s Brain” (Feb. 19, 1996). Finally, discuss whether and how the techniques of the Doman Institute and its competitors seem to apply what is known about the correlates of individual differences in intellectual performance among infants and young children. You can relate this discussion to the issue discussed in the third Lecture Suggestion regarding the measurement of infant intelligence. A goal of this lecture is to illustrate how to think critically about the information that is provided by the Superbaby Institutes and how it relates to the scientific data.


Bradley, R. H., & Caldwell, B. M. (1984). The relation of infants’ home environments to achievement test performance in first grade: A follow-up study. Child Development, 55, 803–809.

Campbell, F. A., & Ramey, C. T. (1994). Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: A follow-up study of children from low-income families. Child Development, 65, 684–698. Greenough, W. T. (1992). Determinants of brain readiness for action: Experience shapes more than neuronal form. Brain Dysfunction, 5, 129–149.

Hunt, J. McV. (1961). Intelligence and experience. New York: Ronald Press.

Olson, S. L., Bates, J. E., & Kaskie, B. (1992). Caregiver-infant interaction antecedents of children’s school-age cognitive ability. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 38, 309–330.

Thompson, W. R., & Grusec, J. E. (1970). Studies of early experience. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (3rd ed., Vol. 1). New York: Wiley.

Your child’s brain. (1996, Feb. 19). Newsweek.

Lecture Suggestion 3: To Test or Not to Test, That Is the Question

Learning Goal 3: Discuss the assessment of intelligence in infancy.

A problem of long-standing interest is the question of whether individual differences in infant intelligence can be measured and whether they have predictive value. A lecture on this topic is an opportunity to explore how basic values influence what researchers consider to be important questions, a chance to illustrate and elaborate on the stability/change issue, and a further vehicle to discuss how modern methodological advances have contributed to both our scientific and, potentially, our applied knowledge of infants.

First, explore the reasons it is valuable to identify individual differences in infants. In doing this you may wish to review the reasons Binet developed the intelligence test. Point out that Binet was optimistic that if he were able to identify intellectual deficits early in the life of a child, he would be able to develop intervention techniques to enhance the child’s intelligence.

Students should address the following questions:

  • Do you think that it is important to know the intelligence of infants? Why or why not?

  • Do intelligence tests predict later intellectual abilities?

  • If intelligence testing in infancy can validly predict later intellectual abilities, do you think all infants should be tested? Why or why not?

  • Discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of knowing an infant’s intellectual abilities.

  • Finally, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a system that would allow intellectual potential to be measured in a 3-month fetus.

Second, briefly trace the history of attempts to develop developmental scales for infants, expanding on the coverage in the textbook. Note that these early tests never yielded impressive correlations with later intelligence. This acknowledgment presents an opportunity to review the meaning and uses of correlational findings. More recent work has highlighted the continuous nature of cognitive abilities. Recent fine-grained analyses of performance on Bayley scales have shown that some subscales on this test predict later language ability (Seigel, 1989). Also, McCall and Carriger (1993) have noted that the rate of habituation in very young infants correlates with later measured intelligence.

Finally, speculate about the meaning of this correlation. Does it mean that intelligence is basically a biological trait? Or, does it suggest that differences in information-processing capacity lead to differential rates of learning and remembering? Is rate of habituation a cause of intellectual development, or is it related to something else?


McCall, R. B., & Carriger, M. S. (1993). A meta-analysis of infant habituation and recognition memory performance as predictors of later IQ. Child Development, 64, 57–79.

Seigel, L. S. (1989). Perceptual-motor, cognitive, and language skills as predictors of cognitive abilities at school age. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Kansas City.

Simons, J. A., Irwin, D. B., & Drinnin, B. A. (1987). Instructor’s manual to accompany psychology, the search for understanding. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Lecture Suggestion 4: Infant Speech Perception: Use It or Lose It?

Learning Goal 4: Explain language development in infancy.

Create a lecture on the speech perception abilities in young infants and the contribution of biology and experience to this ability. Discuss research evidence of categorical perception (the ability to discriminate when two sounds represent two different phonemes and when they lie within the same phonemic category). According to Linda Polka, a professor at the McGill University School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, very young infants have the ability to discriminate speech contrasts that are found in languages they have not heard, suggesting that categorical perception is an innate ability and universal among infants (Bennet, 2003). The biological component of speech perception is complemented by the experiential component. Experience plays an important role in the development of speech perception and language. The lack of exposure to various sounds thwarts speech perception abilities. The Japanese language does not have a phonemic distinction between r and l sounds. Your students may well have noticed that native Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing and discriminating between r and l sounds. Polka points out that Japanese infants have no trouble discriminating between these sounds. Research suggests that infants gradually lose their ability to discriminate sound contrast that they are not exposed to (Werker & Lalonde, 1988). Consider showing the Development video from The Mind series as it demonstrates Werker’s research.


Bennet, H. (2003, October). Baby talk. Today’s Parent.

Werker, J. F., & Lalonde, C. E. (1988). Cross-language speech perception: Initial capabilities and developmental change. Developmental Psychology, 24, 672–683.

Classroom Activities

Classroom Activity 1: Toy Story: How Cognitively Stimulating Are Children’s Toys?

From Jarvis and Creasey, “Activities for Lifespan Developmental Psychology Courses”

Learning Goal 1: Summarize the cognitive processes in Piaget’s theory and the stage of

sensorimotor development.

Learning Goal 2: Describe how infants learn and remember.
Toys are usually designed to stimulate infants and children cognitively. This activity invites students to visit toy stores that sell toys to infants and take notes on the toys available and the manufacturer's claims about those toys (including the appropriate ages the toy is designed for). Students will then write a 5- to 7-page critique of toys for infants comparing what they found on their toy store visits with course material on infant cognitive development (especially perceptual development).

The Activity:

Course material on infant motor and perceptual abilities should be covered and reviewed by students prior to conducting this activity. Students should be encouraged to develop a checklist of information relevant to this activity (ages toy designed for, benefits of toy for development, cost, durability, etc.) prior to visiting toy stores. Such prior preparation will shorten the time needed to be in an actual store. Students should be encouraged to be unobtrusive in evaluating toys and to avoid denying access to toys by customers. It may become necessary in conducting this activity to speak with a store manager about the purpose of the activity. In some cases, such procedures may prove helpful as manager or clerks may be able to provide information to help students with this activity. However, any information obtained should be that which is readily available to parents who might be shopping for cognitively stimulating toys for their child. “Data” obtained from the toy stores can be incorporated into a short, written report (5 to 7 pages) integrating course material.


Students will need to develop a checklist of characteristics to look for in the toys they will critique. They will take the list to the toy stores with them. Students should look for toys designed for various ages such as birth to 3 months, 12 to 18 months, etc. We suggest they examine toys and packaging for some of the following characteristics:

  1. Ages toy is recommended for?

  2. Is the toy pitched to one particular gender?

  3. What does the toy cost?

  4. What might parents do with the toy when interacting with their child?

  5. What are the general developmental benefits of this toy according to the manufacturer?

  6. Does this toy seem designed to stimulate specific cognitive abilities such as perceptual abilities or tactile senses, etc.?

  7. How durable does the toy appear to be? Is it washable?

  8. Are there any other notable characteristics of this toy in terms of infant development?


  1. Before students conduct this activity, it is advisable to go over their checklists with them and suggest items to add, based on course material. Instructors might determine if more than one student wishes to do this activity and have them conduct it as a group (no more than three preferably). Instructors should emphasize that students must be sensitive to the fact that businesses want to sell toys and that they may not be happy with students criticizing toys in earshot of customers. Thus, students should conduct their review of the toys as unobtrusively and quietly as possible, being careful not to derogate a toy while in the store, or be disruptive in any way.
  2. Next, students should conduct visits and collect data. It is advisable to visit the big guns such as Toys R Us and Babies R Us as well as smaller stores that perhaps specialize in educational toys for infants and children. Students will have no difficulty visiting at least three places that sell toys for infants and children.

  3. In terms of the data, we suggest having students append completed checklists for each toy evaluated, at the end of the student report. Such data should be incorporated into the report, along with integration of course material. It is not sufficient for students to simply say all toys are good. Rather, students should evaluate the veracity and practicality of the manufacturer's claims about particular toys, in light of course material.

  4. Instructors should encourage students to discuss their experiences and suggestions with the class. They may even choose to develop a brochure of recommended toys for infants at different ages as part of the activity. The instructor must determine if this is appropriate.

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