2.6 Social Interaction in Early Childhood: Can you describe children’s social interaction patterns from the cognitive approach?

2.6 Describe children’s social interaction patterns from the cognitive approach

The Cognitive Theory

Generally, interaction patterns depend on participants’ level of thinking. This means that children’s interaction patterns depend on the level of cognitive development. Jean Piaget, a Swiss Psychologist (1896-1980) purports that people are born with tools of development namely reflexes and some intelligence. According to the approach, reflexes together with experience help the formation of mental structures (schema). The schema develops as an individual interacts with the environment.


Piaget further says that mental functions in an individual are through two processes that he refers to organization and adaptation. Organization refers to the integration of self and the world in meaningful patterns. It is through organization that an individual learns her or his individuality. That is one becomes able to conceptualize her or himself as separate and different from others. Adaptation is the process through which an individual balances himself. Adaptation involves reducing disequilibrium or imbalance. In so doing, a kind of “homeostasis” state of mind is created.  This is achieved through two processes that Piaget calls assimilation and accommodation.


Assimilation is the integration of new experience in the already existing schemes. For example a child who is familiar with a house-help who commonly referred to as “aunt” but not with another unknown woman tries to understand the latter by using the schema for the aunt. Accommodation is adjustment or formation of cognitive structures as one adapts into a new environment. For example, when a child realizes that unlike known aunt the unknown woman does not attend to her or his needs, the existing schema has to changed to include aunties who do not attend to one’s needs.   The processes help alleviate disequilibrium.


Real life experience

Until Arphy was about two years, his mother had not worn trousers. One day, the mother put on a pair of trousers and Arphy cried uncontrollably. He went to his aunt, next door, and amidst sobs, he told her that in his home there was no mother. The aunt accompanied him to his home, just to find the mother in a pair of trousers. Arphy did not have a schema of a mother in trousers and was crying due to disequilibrium. He had to change his mental structure to understand that the mother could also wear trousers. This was accommodation. When he met other women in trousers he would understand that they were women through assimilation.


According to Piaget, cognitive development occurs in stages.  He believed that stages of development were pre-determined. He came up with four stages of cognitive develop. While interacting with children, caregivers should be conversant with the way they perceive meaning of their actions and utterances, in order to adopt the most appropriate interaction practices at each stage.


i) Sensorimotor Period (0-2 years)

At this stage, the child interacts with the environment through reflexes. At this stage children’s world revolves them. Their interaction is through the use of senses that involve touching, hearing, seeing, smelling and, tasting.

Sense of touch: This is well developed at birth and triggers flexes such as sucking, grasping. A touch soothes the baby in time of discomfort. A caring touch conveys messages of love and comfort to the baby.

Sense of hearing: Ability to hear develops before a baby is born. Young children are sensitive to sound and the nature of the verbal interaction a child is exposed to influences language acquisition.

Sense of sight: The baby makes a kind of eye contact from a very early age. This eventually leads to recognition of familiar persons, thus lays the base for stronger interaction and relationships.

Sense of smell: From infancy, a baby can discriminate between nice and nasty smells. The baby acquires ability to identify the caregivers smell within a very short time.

Sense of taste: Babies usually prefer sweet flavours. However, parents must consider the nutritional value of whatever they give the baby.

Note: Although the senses of smell and taste are developed, the baby does not have ability to avoid eating poisonous substances. Such stuff should be kept away from children. All the above  perceptual abilities are critical to a child’s social development.


ii)  Pre-operational thought period (2-5 yrs)

This stage is ushered in by the emergence of the representational thought. This is the ability to let one thing represent another, For example, the child can ask for milk instead of pointing at the feeding bottle.  Although the child has ability to verbally interact with others, the stage is characterized by the following thought limitations

  1. Animism: They think that everything that exists has life. A child may therefore beat a chair that obstructs or accidentally hits her or him. Some adults who interact with children encourage them to “beat” such an object. This is punitive. Since the children think that they can inflict pain on the chair, the same reaction could be repeated when dealing with other children. This implies that, encouraging the child to beat the chair promotes aggressive behaviour.
  2. Egocentrism: Children are self-centred and they look at the world from their individual’s point of view. A child who is asked a question by a person in another room may simply nod oblivious of the fact that the other person is not seeing him. When given materials to share, children at this stage may not consider others. To save them from frustration and disputes, those interacting with them should give them enough materials and assist in the sharing process.
  3. Artificialism: Children believe that everything has psychological reason for its existence. For example, if it rains when they want to play, they complain that the rain is jealous. Whatever happens, children try to find a psychological reason. As adults interact with them, they have a duty to help them outgrow the limitation.
  4. Realism: They cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality. Everything they see or hear is real. Children who watch fantsised movies or cartoons think that the activities are real. After watching characters “flying,” a child may try to jump out of a storeyed building to fly.  In addition stories about abstract concepts like heaven are taken literally.


Real life experience

Joy’s mother could not believe her ears when her 4-year old daughter told her that she just wanted to go to heaven. Fearing that Joy was getting premonitions, the mother tried to put her off. Nevertheless, the young girl kept on insisting that she wanted to go to heaven. The mother tried to scare her by explaining that going to heaven would involve death but the girl was not deterred. To make the matter worse Joy told the mother that she would not mind getting hit by a car if she was going to heaven. The worried mother asked her why she wanted to leave her and go to heaven. Joy who loved passion fruits that were out of season answered, “ The church school teacher told us that in heaven, passion fruits never run out of season, and I am going for them.”


The mother was relieved as she explained to her daughter that it was not very clear whether people would need to eat in heaven. She managed to convince Joy that if she really wanted passion fruits she should wait for their season instead of missing them forever.


This is an indication that children are not capable of dealing with abstract ideas. While interacting with them, the caregiver must be very careful not introduce concepts like in the case of Joy, that require abstract thinking.

  1. Centration: They focus on one aspect at a time. If two children are given an orange each and one is cut into two halves, the child who gets a whole one is likely to complain that the one with two halves has got more. This is because the child focuses one aspect, in this case, the number. As they play they may not be able to keep off accidents since they habitually focus on one aspect, which is often, what they are doing.
  2. Trasductive Thought: This is reasoning by linking disconnected facts. For example, when asked why it rains, the child may answer, “Because we have an umbrella.”  Children lack logical thought.


iii) Concrete Operational Stage: during this stage, the child can deal with classification. Quantities and conservations start to emerge. Thinking in purely concrete and the child cannot deal with abstract ideas.


iv) Formal Operation Stage

At this stage, an individual can think abstractly. Concepts that could not be understood earlier,  are now appreciated. According to the theory, individuals interact in relation to their intellectual development.


For not less than two months interact with three children at the ages of 3, 4 & 5

Ask them questions that can help you understand their level of thinking and make a record


Berns, R.M. (1997). Child, Family, School, Community: Socialisation and Support.        USA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Davis,S. & Palladino, J.(2005). Psychology. USA: Pearson Education,Inc.

Kate, Robinson  & Pullan, (2003). Early years care and Education. UK: Heinemann

Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren and Soderman(1993). Guiding Children’s Social Development. USA: South-Western Publishing Company

Santrock W. J., (1992). Life -span Development. USA: Wm. C. Brown.


Testing Exercise 2

  1. Define personality
  2. Define temperament
  3. Describe 6 temperamental traits that may be observed in infants
  4. Briefly describe the idea of psychoanalysis
  5. Define epigenesis
  6. Discuss the idea of fixation in the first three psychosexual stages
  7. Describe the first five of Erikson’s psychosocial stages
  8. Compare and contrast the first four psychosexual and psychosocial stages
  9. Describe behaviourism in general
  10. Give an example of conditioning in social interaction
  11. What is vicarious learning?
  12. Citing a relevant example for each, distinguish between punishment and negative reinforcement
  13. Describe a situation that may require positive reinforcement in social interaction
  14. Describe accommodation and assimilation in relation to social interaction in early childhood
  15. Describe four limitations of children during the preoperational thought period



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