Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Written by DanielleBosely MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

cognitive1. Provide an introduction (Please answer the following questions in your answer: State the relevance to social work and how social work as a profession is uniquely qualified to address the issue, not the functions of the job but values and purposes of the profession)

“Jean Piaget (1952) proposed that people go through various stages in learning how to think as they develop from infancy into adulthood (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2010, p.111).  Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is made up of different stages that people must develop in order to for their cognitive and thinking abilities to develop. He proposes that all individuals learn how to think the same way by going through the different stages. The theory is relevant to social work because it concerns human development and it explains the process in which can help social workers help understand their clients.

2. Provide a problem statement (Please answer the following questions in your answer: What is a problem? Why is it a problem? How big is the problem?)

One of the major problems with Piaget’s theory is that it doesn’t cover individual differences. His theory proposes that everyone develops at the same rate during that age. It doesn’t take children with special needs into consideration, or the fact that each person does develop at an individual rate. Taking that statement into consideration, Albert Einstein did not speak until age four. According to Feldman (2004), one of Piaget's central purposes was to construct a theoretical framework that captured the common qualities of thought and its development that occur regardless of the particular circumstances (p.180). Another problem that Fortosis and Garland (1990) stated:

The next caution about Piaget's studies concerns the area of human judgment. While adolescents may well be functioning cognitively at the level of formal operations, their ability to form judgments and make decisions may not be at the same adult level of operation. This thought is most important in working with adolescents in any kind of social environment. The adolescent logical skills are now moving toward the capacity of adult thinking (formal operations), but the adolescents themselves still lack adult   perspectives in judgment (p.631).

The article by Fortosis and Garland is over ten years old, however, it has extremely valuable information in it describing each stage and the problems that we could potentially face if we solely base human development on Piaget’s charts. According to Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman (2010), one general criticism is that the vast of his suppositions are based on his observations of his own children rather than on scientific studies conducted under laboratory conditions (pg.119).

3. Described a theoretical framework you could use to understand the problem statement you have identified above. Please select one of the theories discussed in the textbook. (Please answer the following questions in your answer: What is the theory that you are using? Why are you using this theory with your targeted population? How effective is this theory with your targeted population and why?)

The theory that I am discussing is Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. The population that I am targeting is infancy through adolescents. Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman (2010) state that cognition involves the ability to take in information, process it, store it, and finally retrieve and use it (pg. 111). Cognition is the basic ability to learn and to think. Piaget proposed the theory that people go through various stages in development of how to think from infancy through adulthood. His proposal states that each individual must progress in sequential order to develop his or her thinking ability.  The four general stages are: The Sensorimotor Period, the Preoperational Thought Period, Concrete Operations and Formal Operations.  The sensorimotor period is from birth to approximately two years old. During this time, children start at a thoughtless reflex and develop a basic understanding of the environment. Two major accomplishes during this period are goal-directed behavior and object permanence. According to Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman (2010), goal directed behavior is when a child will purposefully put together several behaviors in order to accomplish a simple goal, and object permanence is the idea that objects continue to exist even when out of sight (pg.116).  The preoperational thought period is from two to seven years. During this stage, children start to use symbolic representations in their environment. Their capability of memory and problem solving continues to grow. The concrete operation period is from ages seven to 11. The child has completed the major impediments to logical thinking. Also, the child develops the ability to see things from others points of view. Empathy is also developed during this period. The formal operation period is from age 11 or 12 to 16, which concerns cognitive development during adolescence. During this stage, abstract thinking is fully developed, and children are able of to create abstract hypothesis about how and why things are the way they are. According to Feldman (2004),

The age ranges of each of the stages were always intended to be approximate, and we know that Piaget never intended them to be interpreted as strictly normative. The ages encompassed by each of the stages appear to be about right. In the presentation of the revised stages, the age of onset and age of transition to each succeeding stage will remain as Piaget proposed. Piaget never saw it as desirable to speed up the process of stage to stage progression, nor to compress the time in which a stage tends to organize the acquisition of new knowledge (pg.183).

4. Describe the human behavior (Please answer the following questions in your answer: What are the ABC’s of human behavior? How are they defined by the authors? Please describe the ABC’s of behavior as they relate specifically to your targeted population. What are the observable and measurable actions that are taking place?)

The ABC’s of human behavior are antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman (2010) define the ABC’s as; antecedents are the events occurring immediately before the behavior itself, behavior is any observable and measurable response or act, and consequence may be either something that is given or something that is withdrawn or delayed (p. 168-169). The ABC’s affect the population of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development of infancy through adulthood because it all correlates with one another. For example, if there is a problem in the behavior part of the ABC’s, it can affect one of the steps that must be followed in order according to Piaget’s theory in order for proper cognitive development to take place. Verbal and physical behavior can be observed and measured.

5.  Describe the social environment (Please answer the following questions in your answer: What social forces are influencing behaviors? Please discuss media, government, economics, geography and healthcare issues in your answer)

A child’s social environment can also influence cognitive development whether it may be positive or negative.  If a child is in a low economic household, he or she may be deprived from stimulations and support necessary to enhance higher levels of cognition. Government can also influence behaviors depending on the school systems the government provides. Where the child is located could potentially be an influence on development. If the child is located in a poor country, the child has a greater possibility of not developing fully cognitively due to limited resources. Gary W. Evans, Henry N. Riccitui, Steven Hope, Ingrid Schoon, Robert H. Bradley, Robert F. Corwyn, and Cindy Hazan (2009) conducted a study that focused on children’s cognitive development in an overcrowded household.  Evans et al., (2009) stated:

Our data also reveal, for the first time, that the well-documented link- ages between higher residential crowding and poorer cognitive development are largely mediated by diminished maternal responsiveness. Herein we show that greater crowding, at ages 9, 15, and 36 months of age, is related to less maternal responsiveness at 36 months of age.   Meditational analyses suggest that this relation explains some of the association between crowding and cognitive development (pg.148).

According to Isabelle Muratore (2003) Socialization, taken as the process of learning, through formal and non-formal operations, favours the child’s acquisition of normative consumption behavior (pg. 252).

6. Discuss the diversity issues involved (Please answer the following questions in your answer: Please discuss gender, ethnicity, age, social economical status, spiritually, and sexual orientation issues in your answer)

Given that Piaget’s theory focuses on the average child, the theory does not take ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and cultural differences into consideration. A study was conducted by Margaret R. Burchinal, Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, Donna M. Bryant & Richard Clifford that compared the gender, economical status, ethnicity, and quality of child care programs how it effected the children’s cognitive development and behavior. Burchinal et al, (200) found:

These comparisons indicated that although all children except White girls tended to show higher mean scores if they were attending medium- or high-quality child care than if they attended poor-quality care, this trend was especially pronounced among girls from minority ethnic back- grounds and families not in poverty and among boys from minority ethnic backgrounds and families living in poverty (pg. 158-159).

However when referring to gender and Piaget’s theory, according to Fortosis and Garland (1990):

Piaget is criticized by Carol Gilligan, who maintains that much (if not most) of the developmental research done is skewed in favor of male participants. She talks of the bias that leads Piaget to equate male development with child development. Gilligan insists that the studies done by Piaget simply do not apply to female students, because no female students were included in the study group with which Piaget worked (pg. 632).

Every child can differ from age to age, so Piaget’s theory can be erred with the underestimating that some children may be advanced, gender biased, and economic advantages and disadvantages for some.

7. Identify how the theoretical framework impacts the behavior on a micro systems level (Please answer the following questions: How does the theoretical framework you are using impact behavior on a micro systems level? Please discuss biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual issues in your answer)

Piaget’s theory impacts the behavior on the micro level system because micro refers to an individual. Piaget’s theory is based on individuals and their development. In his theory, biological, psychological, social cultural, and spiritual issues all correlate with each other and have influences on this. For example, children who are abused do not develop psychologically at the same rate as children who were not abused do.  A child who is abused or neglected develops a lack of social responsiveness, object relations, and separation anxiety.  Children from inadequate parenting families may also fail to develop separation anxiety and later stranger anxiety.

8. Identify how the theoretical framework impacts the behavior on a mezzo systems level (Please answer the following questions: How is mezzo system level defined? How does the theoretical framework you are using impact behavior on a mezzo systems level? Please discuss family, and group issues)

Zastro and Kirst-Ashman (2010) define mezzo system that refers to any small group, including family, work groups, and other social groups (pg.33). Piaget’s theory impacts the mezzo system due to family, work groups, and other social groups because they all influence cognitive development. Family especially influences cognitive development.

9. Identify how the theoretical framework impacts the behavior on a macro systems level (Please answer the following questions: How is the macro system level defined? How does the theoretical framework you are using impact behavior on a macro systems level? Please discuss community, institutions, and organization issues in your answer)

Zastro and Kirst-Ashman (2010) define macro system as refers to a system larger than a small group. Macro involves focusing on the social, political, and economic conditions and policies that affect peoples overall access to resources and quality of life (pg.31). If the social and economic environments that people live in are improved, it will have a positive impact on cognitive development.

10. Identify and describe at least four social work roles (as outlined in chapter 1). Describe all of the anticipated outcomes that a social worker using each social work role could expect from using the theoretical framework you have identified with your targeted population.

Four social worker’s roles are to be an enabler, educator, mediator, and advocate.  An enabler role is a worker that helps a client cope with various stresses. An educator role involves giving information and teaching skills to clients.  A mediator role involves resolving arguments. An advocate steps forward and speaks on behalf of the client. An enabler would help the parents cope if the child had a cognitive delay. An educator could inform parents on how to increase and support cognitive development. A mediator could be used for parents who are divorced and who have two different discipline and child rearing techniques that can potentially delay development. An advocate could be used to involve community awareness that social and economic factors can have the potential to delay cognitive development.

11. Service learning statement. As you are researching your topic, please volunteer 4 hours of your time getting involved with an agency or person that serves or represent the targeted population that you have selected. (Please answer the following questions in your answer: What you have learned about yourself? What have you learned about your targeted community? What values, opinions, beliefs have changed about your targeted community? What was the most important lesson learned? What should others do about this issue? What should others understand about your targeted community?)

For my volunteer hours, I worked with a child psychologist who specializes in child trauma and developmental disorders such as Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I have witnessed the effects of child abuse over several years has on cognitive development. The child does not progress in Piaget’s steps in order. Also for Autism, every step could potentially be delayed and overlapping. The child may succeed in one step, but maybe have complications in another. It also depends on the severity of the disorder too. The most important lesson learned is that the environment around the child does influence the child’s cognitive development. There should be community awareness programs or even programs hosted by the hospital or police departments for free to inform parents about the development of their child. Others need to be aware of what they do around a child does have an impact on them. Society needs to understand how fragile a child’s mind is.

Work Cited

Burchinal, Margaret R., Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen., Bryant, Donna M., & Clifford, Richard. 2000.

Children’s Social and Cognitive Development and Child-Care Quality: Testing for Differential Associations Related to Poverty, Gender, or Ethnicity. Applied Developmental Science, 4(3), 149-165. doi: 10.1207/S1532480XADS0403_4

Evans, Gary W., Ricciuti, Henry N., Hope, Steven., Schoon, Ingrid., Bradley, Robert H., Corwyn, Robert F., Hazan, Cindy. (2009). Crowding and Cognitive Development: The Mediating Role of Maternal Responsiveness Among 36-Month-Old Children. Environment and Behavior, 42(135), 135-149. doi: 10.1177/0013916509333509

Feldman, David Henry. 2004. Piaget's Stages: The Unfinished Symphony of Cognitive Development. ScienceDirect, 22(3),175-231. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2004.11.005

Fortosis, Stephen., & Garland, Ken. 1990. Adolescent cognitive development, Piaget’s idea of disequilibration, and the issue of Christian Nurture. Religious Education, 85(4), 631.

Muratore, Isabelle (2003). Involvement, cognitive development and socialization: three antecedents of the child’s cents-off sensitivity. The journal of product & brand management (1061-0421), 12 (4), p. 251.

Zastrow, Charles H., & Kirst-Ashman, Karen K. 2010. Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Environment. Belmont, CA. Brooks/Cole.



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