Development is a complex process that involves multiple interactions between many different areas of development. The table below describes what to look for in cognitive development and the developmental continuum, which is a predictable, but not rigid, sequence of developmental accomplishments. Typical ages are given for the first and last accomplishments as a general guide for assessment.

Examples of Things to Look For Developmental Continuum


Watch for: ability to point to or identify differences between two pictures; confusion between letters (b and d); sense used to take in information (looking or listening); signs of attending; ability to block out distractions; ability to attend when asked; different levels of attention (concentrates more on certain tasks or at certain points in a task—is there a pattern?); ability to vary attention based on the material to be learned (focus more on items that are not known or that were missed); response to teacher cues to attend (verbal cues such as “Look up here,” “Pay attention,” or nonverbal cues such as pointing at something); the cues child notices (confusing “this” and “that” when reading).

Be aware of cultural differences in the way children signal they are paying attention.

Most children:

  • Can concentrate and attend when interested; scan something visually to search, but not systematically; discriminate letters with vertical and horizontal lines (E vs. M) and right side up versus upside down (M vs. W).
  • Have trouble attending when asked (if task is not of inherent interest); recognizing and responding appropriately to the teacher’s cues to attend, ignoring distractions (color, movement, loudness); discriminating letters that are mirror images (d and b, p and q); shifting attention from one task to another or concentrating more on certain tasks or aspects of a task. (4–6 yrs.)
  • Can control attention; scan systematically; vary attention (although not as well as 12-year-olds); discriminate between letters; recognize and respond to most teacher cues to attend. Beginning of cognitive self-regulation. Uses self-talk (private speech) to maintain attention.
  • May need significant teacher help to maintain and focus attention or need coaching on interpreting subtle teacher signals for attention. (6 yrs. and older)

Memory Strategies:

Watch for: amount of information remembered; number of spontaneous strategies used; response to suggested strategies; description of strategies. Strategies are: Rehearsal—repeats information over and over, copies it (older children only). Organization—sorts or groups items (rearrange the spelling list so that similar words are together). Organizing objects in semantic categories (using words) rather than associations (what goes with this) is more mature. Elaboration—makes connections and relationships between new information and prior knowledge and experience (“I saw a frog just like that one at the zoo”; “That word looks kind of like ‘thin’ except it has a k at the end”).

Most children:

  • Have a memory span of two items, use naming and looking as early strategies. (2–3 yrs.)
  • Show recognition for fifty-plus items; know scripts of familiar routines; begin to use some rehearsal; memory span of three to four items.
  • Can use rehearsal strategies; use simple organization; state when task is easy or hard to remember. Beginning of cognitive self-regulation. Is aware of own thinking.
  • Can use rehearsal strategies; use organization. A few children can use elaboration spontaneously. (7–8 yrs.)

Note: Training in rehearsal, organization, and elaboration will improve ability to remember, even for 2-year-olds. The use of new strategies requires constant adult coaching (telling child which strategy to use).

Adapted from: Beihler & Snowman, 2004; Berk, 2006; Blair, 2002; Berliner & Rosenshine, 1987; Bjorklund, 2004; Brown, 1991; Clark & Clark, 1977; Cole, Cole, & Lightfoot, 2004; Corno, 1987; Feldman, 2001; Gage & Berliner, 1998; Grabe, 1986; Oates & Grayson, 2004; Ormrod, 2002; Phye & Andre, 1986; Resnick & Resnick, 1992; Slavin, 2005; Sternberg & Williams, 2001; Winne & Marx, 1987; Woolfolk, 2003.