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Physical and Cognitive Development in Early Childhood



Guidepost 1: How do children's bodies change between ages 3 and 6, and what are their nutritional and dental needs?

  • Physical growth increases during the years from 3 to 6, but more slowly than during infancy and toddlerhood. Boys are on average slightly taller, heavier, and more muscular than girls. Internal body systems are maturing, and all primary teeth are present.
  • Preschool children generally eat less for their weight than before--and need less--but the prevalence of obesity has increased.
  • Tooth decay has decreased since the 1970s but remains a problem among disadvantaged children.

Guidepost 2: What sleep patterns and problems tend to develop during early childhood?

  • Sleep patterns change during early childhood and are affected by cultural expectations.
  • It is normal for preschool children to develop bedtime rituals that delay going to sleep. Prolonged bedtime struggles or persistent sleep terrors or nightmares may indicate emotional disturbances that need attention.
  • Bed-wetting is common and is usually outgrown without special help.

Guidepost 3: What are the main motor achievements of early childhood?

  • Children progress rapidly in gross and fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination, developing more complex systems of action.
  • Stages of art production, which appear to reflect brain development and fine motor coordination, are the scribbling stage, shape stage, design stage, and pictorial stage.
  • Handedness is usually evident by age 3, reflecting dominance by one hemisphere of the brain.

Guidepost 4: What are the major health and safety risks for young children?

  • Although major contagious illnesses are rare today in industrialized countries due to widespread immunization, preventable disease continues to be a major problem in the developing world.
  • Minor illnesses, such as colds and other respiratory illnesses, are common during early childhood and help build immunity to disease.
  • Accidents, most commonly motor vehicle injuries, are the leading cause of death in childhood in the United States. Most fatal nonvehicular accidents occur at home.
  • Environmental factors such as exposure to smoking, poverty, and homelessness increase the risks of illness or injury. Lead poisoning can have serious physical, cognitive, and behavioral effects.



Guidepost 5: What are typical cognitive advances and immature aspects of preschool children's thinking?

  • Children in the preoperational stage show several important advances, as well as some immature aspects of thought.
  • The symbolic function enables children to reflect upon people, objects, and events that are not physically present. It is shown in deferred imitation, pretend play, and language.
  • Early symbolic development helps preoperational children make more accurate judgments of spatial relationships. They can understand the concept of identity, link cause and effect, categorize living and nonliving things, and understand principles of counting.
  • Centration keeps preoperational children from understanding principles of conservation. Their logic also is limited by irreversibility and a focus on states rather than transformations.
  • Preoperational children appear to be less egocentric than Piaget thought.
  • The theory of mind, which develops markedly between the ages of 3 and 5, includes awareness of a child's own thought processes, social cognition, understanding that people can hold false beliefs, ability to deceive, ability to distinguish appearance from reality, and ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Hereditary and environmental influences affect individual differences in theory-of-mind development.

Guidepost 6: How does language improve, and what happens when its development is delayed?

  • During early childhood, vocabulary increases greatly, and grammar and syntax become fairly sophisticated. Children become more competent in pragmatics.
  • Private speech is normal and common; it may aid in the shift to self-regulation and usually disappears by age 10.
  • Causes of delayed language development are unclear. Although many children who speak late catch up, treatment may be needed to avoid serious cognitive, social, and emotional consequences.
  • Interaction with adults can promote emergent literacy.

Guidepost 7: What memory abilities expand in early childhood?

  • Information-processing models describe three steps in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
  • At all ages, recognition is better than recall, but both increase during early childhood.
  • Early episodic memory is only temporary; it fades or is transferred to generic memory. Autobiographical memory begins at about age 3 or 4 and may be related to early self-recognition ability and language development.
  • Children are more likely to remember unusual activities that they actively participate in. The way adults talk with children about events influences memory formation.

Guidepost 8: How is preschoolers' intelligence measured, and what are some influences on it?

  • The two most commonly used psychometric intelligence tests for young children are the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Revised (WPPSI-R).
  • Intelligence test scores may be influenced by social and emotional functioning, as well as by parent-child interaction and socioeconomic factors.
  • Newer tests based on Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) indicate immediate potential for achievement. Such tests, when combined with scaffolding, can help parents and teachers guide children's progress.

Guidepost 9: What purposes does early childhood education serve, and how do children make the transition to kindergarten?

  • Goals of preschool education vary in different cultures. Since the 1970s, the academic content of early childhood education programs in the United States has increased.
  • For low-income U.S. children, academically oriented programs seem less effective than child-centered ones.
  • Compensatory preschool programs have had positive outcomes, but participants generally have not equaled the performance of middle-class children. Compensatory programs that begin early and extend into the primary grades have better long-term results.
  • Adjustment to kindergarten may depend on interaction among the child's characteristics and those of the home, school, and neighborhood environments.

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