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Early Childhood Cognitive Development: Information Processing

Angela Oswalt, MSW

The Information Processing model is another way of examining and understanding how children develop cognitively. This model, developed in the 1960's and 1970's, conceptualizes children's mental processes through the metaphor of a computer processing, encoding, storing, and decoding data.

By ages 2 to 5 years, most children have developed the skills to focus attention for extended periods, recognize previously encountered information, recall old information, and reconstruct it in the present. For example, a 4-year-old can remember what she did at Christmas and tell her friend about it when she returns to preschool after the holiday. Between the ages of 2 and 5, long-term memory also begins to form, which is why most people cannot remember anything in their childhood prior to age 2 or 3.

Part of long-term memory involves storing information about the sequence of events during familiar situations as "scripts". Scripts help children understand, interpret, and predict what will happen in future scenarios. For example, children understand that a visit to the grocery store involves a specific sequences of steps: Dad walks into the store, gets a grocery cart, selects items from the shelves, waits in the check-out line, pays for the groceries, and then loads them into the car. Children ages 2 through 5 also start to recognize that are often multiple ways to solve a problem and can brainstorm different (though sometimes primitive) solutions.

Between the ages of 5 and 7, children learn how to focus and use their cognitive abilities for specific purposes. For example, children can learn to pay attention to and memorize lists of words or facts. This skill is obviously crucial for children starting school who need to learn new information, retain it and produce it for tests and other academic activities. Children this age have also developed a larger overall capacity to process information. This expanding information processing capacity allows young children to make connections between old and new information. For example, children can use their knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds (phonics) to start sounding out and reading words. During this age, children's knowledge base also continues to grow and become better organized.

Metacognition, "the ability to think about thinking", is another important cognitive skill that develops during early childhood. Between ages 2 and 5 years, young children realize that they use their brains to think. However, their understanding of how a brain works is rather simplistic; a brain is a simply a container (much like a toy box) where thoughts and memories are stored. By ages 5 to 7 years, children realize they can actively control their brains, and influence their ability to process and to accomplish mental tasks. As a result, school-age children start to develop and choose specific strategies for approaching a given learning task, monitor their comprehension of information, and evaluate their progress toward completing a learning task. For example, first graders learn to use a number line (or counting on their fingers) when they realize that they forgot the answer to an addition or subtraction problem. Similarly, children who are learning to read can start to identify words (i.e., "sight words") that cannot be sounded out using phonics (e.g, connecting sounds with letters), and must be memorized.

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