Mental Development in the First Three Years of Life

According to Piaget, infants show no evidence of mental development during the first three months of life. After their birth, around the first stage of their development, infants show reflexive behavior (e.g. sucking, blinking). This is an inborn response to certain stimuli, not learned or conditioned behavior. The infant will suck when the nipple touches his lips; he will blink when something approaches his eyes; and he will turn his head when he hears a loud sound. During this period, the infant is also beginning to develop sensations and perceptions.

This first stage of life may last from birth to about age two. During this time it is thought that infants learn little or nothing; they simply acquire habits due to conditioning. This period of development is known as the sensorimotor stage (also called preoperational) because infants are capable of only sensorimotor responses. They cannot coordinate their perceptions with their reflexes or movements, except in very simple ways.

For example, an infant may be able to suck more strongly when her mother’s nipple is put into her mouth than when it is taken away. However, she will not be able to coordinate this response with keeping the nipple in her mouth once it is there; she does not have the mental “coordination” of these two individual reflexes yet. This coordination comes gradually as new brain centers develop which permit more complex behavior patterns. 

Stage Two of Mental Development: The Tertiary Stage (Ages 2-7)

During this second period of development, which lasts up to age seven, the child learns to coordinate his actions in relation to time, space, and other people. This coordination of several actions at once is called tertiary circular reactions.

For example, when a four-year-old girl smacks her brother while trying to hit her sister, she does not do so out of ill will or meanness; rather she is simply frustrated because she has difficulty expressing herself clearly. Unable to express what she wants adequately, the little girl lashes out physically. When this happens, her mother leaves the room telling the child that if she doesn’t want any help with her problem then no one can help her at all. The little girl cannot yet control all of her own behavior according to the rules of society; however by seven these tertiary circular reactions are well underway.

During the tertiary stage, the child becomes increasingly interested in getting along with other people in a cooperative way. Piaget calls this interpersonal relationship the game of consequences because each person will react to another’s behavior. It is in these years that children learn right from wrong and begin to develop their concepts of themselves. This is also an important time for developing language skills which require social interaction among people so that meaning can be communicated through symbols. During this second stage, children get along better if they are treated humanely and fairly; punishment at this age does not help them understand what they did wrong or how to correct it.

Stage Three: The Beginning of Concrete Operations (Ages 7-11)

By the third stage of cognitive development children can think logically and solve problems more effectively than they could in the earlier, preoperational period. This new ability to think abstractly is brought about by a change in thought processing from egocentric (focused on self) to decentered (able to focus on others), which does not occur until age seven.

In the beginning years of this stage, however, children are still limited by their inability to think in terms of abstractions rather than concrete reality when solving problems. For example, a child might try to balance three books on top of each other when two would do because he thinks in terms of complete objects rather than separating out their relevant features. nine-year-old boy may solve a problem involving his baseball team by deciding that he will play center field if the other boys agree. He does not realize that this decision will limit the number of positions available to others.

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