Childhood Development: Piaget and Beyond

*An online course I presented Oct 2016

Piaget’s theory of how our cognitive intelligence develops

Freud’s theory of how our emotional life develops

Solan’s theory of how our recognition of who are we,

of our Self (healthy narcissism) develops

presented by Dr. Ronnie Solan

I studied psychology in Switzerland and I had the privilege to be a student of the famous psychologist Prof Jean Piaget. Today we shall discuss the development of the cognitive intelligence of the infant, according to Piaget’s theory.

I’ll start by telling you a little bit about Piaget the man. Piaget lived from 1896 – 1980. When I was his student, he was already about 65 years old. While most of his students traveled by car to his lectures, he rode his bicycle. He lectured in an amphitheater full of students, but I never saw him speaking to a single one of us. I always had the impression that he came in like a prophet, or better like a bottle full of knowledge. He would take out the bottle’s cup, discharge his genius ideas, declare it over, and leave. He generally didn’t express any emotions. Piaget had an assistant called Prof Inhelder, who served as the emotional intermediary between Piaget and his students.

It is really the Enigma of Childhood how our cognitive intelligence, as well as our emotional life and the ability for each person to recognize his own self, develop. If you think about how little the newborn begins with, his progress seems like miracle. He comes out of his mother’s womb, which he knew for 9 months, and suddenly emerges to an unknown world. How can he find the tools to adapt to this new world?

Did you ever think how reasoning and thinking are developed?  With these fascinating questions, Piaget created his theory, in 1936, of the development of cognitive intelligence. Piaget’s novelty was to make a systematic study of cognitive development. He was the first psychologist whose contributions, valid up-to-day, included a systematic study of the theory of a child’s cognitive stages of development. He provided detailed observational studies of several children, most of whom were his own. He also supplied inventive tests to determine the different cognitive abilities. We may say that Piaget concentrated on two developmental channels: the process of acknowledging and the stages we move through as we gradually acquire this ability.

Piaget was a biologist. He was interested in how an organism adapts to its environment and he find a correlation of adaptation between the organism and the mind. He defined this processes of adaptation as cognitive intelligence. Actually, Piaget describes the adaptation to the environment as the child    Behavior  which is regulated through mental organizations.

This point is very important. Try to imagine how mental organization can provide adaptation to the environment?  Piaget stressed that our experiences are juxtapose  on what he named schema (sometimes called schemata or schemes) an innate baseline that the individual uses (of course unconsciously) as foundations for his learning from experiences.

Piaget stressed that our mental life needs a schema, a baseline onto which all the accumulated data will be juxtaposed and organized. Throughout development this schema may be divided into different perceptions and representations that enable us to know how to behave or emotionally react during different experiences or toward incoming stimuli or any data.

For Piaget the reflexes: like the sucking reflex, grasping reflex etc., represent the innate archaic schema.

They are survival reflexes, a primitive adaptation to the environment. On these physiological survival schema the infant creates a psychological cognitive constructions in order to adapt to the environment like perceiving and then after representing the mother’s breast, or the milk bottle, as the source of feeding.  Gradually, a series of representations will enable him to represent the world in which he lives and designate his behavior. Piaget shows that this adaptation is correlated by a biological drive to move the body fast to grasp the source of food.   

I want to mention now, that I found a fascinating correlation between Piaget’s theory of cognitive developmental stages with Freud’s developmental stages of emotional developmental stages. Furthermore,  in my book The Enigma of Childhood I define the concept of the Healthy Narcissism as an Emotional Immune System. We shall speak about it in another course. But here I wish to stress another correlation between Piaget’s Theory concerning the necessity of Schema for the cognitive development and my theory concerning the familiar sense of the Self (from birth) which serves as Schema for the Narcissistic immune processing of this familiar Self.  Upon the schema (the familiar sense of the Self) in my new theory, will be organized the developmental stages of Healthy Narcissism.

In my view this correlation between cognitive, emotional and biological processing is crucial to understand the whole development of the mental life. Otherwise it is like looking at the hand without considering the whole body. It seems to me essential to understand that we have a common baseline for all our developmental areas, body and mind.

So, I propose you divide your page into three columns: Cognitive, Emotional and Healthy Narcissism. I propose you to write in them whenever I mention one or the other by this correlation. 

Why are these three theories linked to each other?

They are linked because they are each a part of our Self. In my view, the Healthy Narcissism processes as an Emotional Immune system that preserves the familiar sense of the Self from external threats. Did you think about how each of us recognize himself without confounding with others around us. When you see and hear me now, you do not think that I am you, or you are me. You represent each his own Self and you begins to represent me as another person than you. You might say she is “not me” but I begin to know her.

It means that the schema of familiar Self serves as schema for the Piaget’s cognitive theory to develop perceptions and representations of each one of us and of the others around us. Representations will be organized as many objects’ permanency

according to Piaget.

The  processing of Healthy Narcissism enables us to recognize emotionally our Self as familiar right from birth. Moreover, from birth, Healthy Narcissism enables us to differentiate emotionally the familiar sense of our Self from all that arouse a sense of “not-me”, or “non-Self” of strangeness and evoke alertness toward this stranger.

The new born is also able to differentiate his sense of familiarity from some of the non-self around him (like the mother. He senses from just minutes after birth that the mother is a “not-me”, but is also familiar to him by her heart beat, smell etc.,). Others, may be totally new and stranger non-Self, like the nurse in the maternity ward.

So, I repeat, Piaget’s basic assumption was that children are born with this schema representing a basic cognitive resources, defined by him as mental structures. Most of them are genetically inherited while others develop over time. We may describe  it as a basic network into which all ensuing experiencing, learning and knowledge is accumulated, juxtaposed and organized.

It is the same with the emotional life. In my view, we also need a basic schema for the emotional life: we can’t long for something that we didn’t experience in the past. For example we can’t long to be hugged if we had not experienced it in the first years of life. We need to retain our basic emotional and cognitive perceptions, a schema of it. It is like a puzzle, in that you have to find pieces that are interconnected and correspond to the basic image by a core meaning, a sort of a code, like the DNA.

According to my new understanding of the healthy narcissism, it’s development is also based on the same schema-code just like Piaget’s cognitive development. This is the code according to which healthy narcissistic emotional immune system is able to protect the familiar sense-schema of our Self. Each one of us recognizes his familiar Self through this schema, this unique code. Progress from one stage to another enables us to recognize more of our familiar self or of our surrounding as well as to have cognitive representational world.

Moreover, Piaget, like Freud, insisted on similarities between biological systems, and psychological systems and was striving towards a synthesis of biological and psychological theory. Piaget stressed, for example, that all organisms function according to equilibration, assimilation and accommodation

In my book, I showed another similarity between the Healthy Narcissism that works as an Emotional Immune System and the body’s immune system. The biological immune system has codes (or schema) of our tissues so that only recognizable tissues can be assimilated while strangers are rejected.

We may say that bodily immune schema, narcissistic immune schema, cognitive and emotional schema – all of them are divided according to each organ, differentiated feelings, knowledge, representations etc. but they can always be combined together and interconnected by a code, and by equilibration, assimilation and accommodation to the whole body-mind.

It is a very important point: Schema in the body and the mind can be separated and re-integrated – what Piaget defined as reversibility – reforming a balance between all the parts and further assimilated new data – and then accommodated into the whole and create equilibration between them. This basic assumption is also valid to emotional development according to Freud as well as to my own theory of the progress of Healthy Narcissism. Furthermore Piaget found a correlation between this adaptation (creating perceptions and representations on the basis of reflexes) and a biological drive to obtain balance between schemes and the environment. He stressed that this balance which he named – equilibration – is crucial for the cognitive development.

Let us take an example of schema which is common to body, cognitive, emotional and narcissism development:

The fetus in the womb feels the vibration of his mother’s heart beating. From 4 months of pregnancy onwards, he hears this incessantly rhythmic music of the heart. The fetus emerges from his familiar womb into a strange world. His narcissistic immune system triggers his resistance or rejection of this strangeness while trying to restore the familiar sense of the newborn’s Self.

What would you do if you landed on a planet which you knew nothing about? If you would know where you are landing you will probably look for a book describing this place or a map. The use of these tools is by cognitive adaptations processes. But the newborn couldn’t know where he is landing. In this case you would probably search for something similar to what you normally eat.

The newborn will do the same. When he is placed on his mother’s not-me bosom, he suddenly hears this almost familiar heart beating that he heard in the womb and he can recognize himself and his surrounding and relax in her arms. The rhythmic beating serves his narcissistic emotional system as a schema for his familiar sense of Self, as if he recognizes that he is alive. On top of which he will create more and more sensations and feelings concerning his body, his emotions and his parents. For example recognizing our familiar Self through our own heart beat faster, stronger or the inverse.

Piaget may also relate to the heart beating as the schema for the development of the cognitive intelligence. On the basis of the beating heart, for example, the baby’s representation of rhythm will develop; on top of which it will develop the suckling reflex every three hours in a stable rhythm; on top of which will gradually develop the cyclicality representation like morning, noon and night, morning etc. Representations, which are cognitive structures,  will be created, one after the other. Then, each are divided into different representations and can be combined again. For example, the child’s representation of the body image is created in developmental stages.  The whole body image can also be divided into representations, including the heart as one part of the body. The representation of the heart beating rhythmically, that he recognizes already from when he was in the womb, is another element of the body.  Cognitive representation of the body-image as smaller or taller than others ;  and sensations relate to the body image as an omnipotent and perfect narcissistic body; and emotional relatedness as mastery of the body’s activities.

And finally, the gynecologist will also try to hear the fetus’s heart beating in his mother’s womb – according to this same schema – as signs of his being alive!

Freud would take the same schema to define object relations. When the newborn recognizes the heart beating of his mother, while he is placed on her chest, he is attracted to attach to her and he starts suckling. A unique intimacy is thus created between the newborn and his mother, which develops into dynamic object relations. This psychological aspect of object relations represents the combination of biological, cognitive, emotional and narcissistic  processing .

Finally, the representational world is created through the incessant separation and integration, assimilation, accommodation and equilibration of the data into different schema-representations.

Piaget was also especially interested how the infant acquires fundamental concepts like numbers, time, quantity, causalityjustice and so on. Moreover, Piaget claimed that during cognitive intelligence development, children may have as much information about their surroundings as do adults – but the way they manipulate the information changes along life.

Now we will return to the beginning of the newborn life:

With this described innate narcissistic-emotional immune system (that functions similarly to the body’s immune system) that help us to recognize our Self, the newborn comes to his new world. This innate narcissistic processing is not enough for the baby to adapt to the world. But the human brain is brilliant and will always find a way for our cognitive and emotional intelligence to develop in order to adapt to our life. 

With the help of cognitive intelligence, according to Piaget,  the baby continually learns, till adulthood, more and more about his body and about his surroundings, and adapt himself to reality by equilibration, assimilation and accommodation. 

Babies assimilate an enormous amount of data. Thereafter the input is reorganized by accommodation and equilibration into a whole.

By Assimilation Piaget meant – The capacity to use an existing schema in order to inter-connect it with a new object or situation. We may say that by assimilation the individual, child and adult, transforms the input data of the environment for example, in a way that it can match the basic schema cognitive structures.

By Accommodation he meant – The capacity to adapt between an existing schema and a new one, even though they don’t match exactly. We may also say that accommodation represents: An ego adaptation mechanism enabling the infant to reorganize cognitive (Piaget, 1936) or emotional structures, making room for new information, so it can be processed and adjusted accordingly (assimilated) within the old elements. It involves structural changes” (Enigma p.333).

By Equilibration he meant – The capacity to find a balance between schema-representations that do not fit exactly. The equilibration enables progress from stage to stage. It enables the passage from dis-balance to a better balance. For example, when the infant experiences, through his healthy narcissism, an unfriendly or otherness state – it might arouse resistance feelings which discomfort him. His familiar sense of stable balance of well-being is  shaky and needs to be restored.  The same might occur when the infant encounters new information which does not match his existing schemas – it produces disequilibrium which creates the need to re-balance the data, to restore the capacity to master the assimilation and accommodation in a higher level of working through the data.

All these three processes are used simultaneously and alternately throughout life.

Let us use an example to better understand: A child plays with Lego parts. Suddenly he sees a cube which is not Lego. He feels uneasiness, looks at it as something strange, as if his play is shaky, dis-equilibrated. Then he finds an adaptive way to put this cube on top of his Lego building. He thus assimilated this cube to his Lego cubes. He has adjusted or accommodated the balance/equilibration between the cubes so that it would not fall down, and he calls happily to his parents to look at his whole creation.

Piaget considered this processing to be adaptation mechanisms that enable progression from one stage to another. Also, with regards to emotions we define these processes as the Ego’s adaptation mechanisms.

Piaget stressed that when a schema represents an assimilation or agglomerates of many representations that are well accommodated and equilibrated and becomes gradually more complex or in Piaget words more centered they are defined as structures. Gradually the infants learn to organize and create an hierarchy of items (i.e., from general to specific).

By observation of his own children, Piaget defined 4 cognitive stages of development. Each stage is determined according to changes in the infant’s understanding of his interaction with the world around him. Piaget considered that children are like “little scientists” and that they actively try to explore and make sense of the world around them.:

1. Sensorimotor,

2. Preoperational,

3. Concrete operational,

4. Formal operational.

The same applies to emotional development throughout the stages that Freud conceptualized as the pre-genital stages and genital ones.

1. Oral stage

2. Anal stage

3. Oedipal stage

4. Latency stage

Sensorimotor Stage (from birth until two years) corresponds to the Oral stage

This stage characterizes the child’s exploration through sensory experiences and manipulating objects. Piaget stressed that the essential cognitive acquisition in this stage is object permanence. In the oral stage, the baby acquires object constancy. This means that the baby may recognize different objects and conceive the presence of the object, toy or a persona, even when it is not present or can’t be seen.

Object constancy requires the ability to form a mental representation of the object and to acknowledge that objects are separate and distinct entities. Gradually the infant will be able to recognize  that objects have an existence of their own outside of individual perception, children are then able to begin to attach names and words to objects.

Thus, in this stage the baby learns about the world that surrounds him through his sensory experiences, motor movements and sense exploration, as well as by manipulating objects. His/her thinking is mainly egocentric, in Piagetian theory, which leads to lack of differentiation. Only gradually, along this stage, the child will discover that objects are separate units that have an existence out of his control, and only then the child is able to give different names to his objects.

Let us consider the game of peek-a-boo. In order to play this game, the infant has to perceive already that objects that he doesn’t see still actually exist and are hiding somewhere. At the beginning of this stage, the child is incapable of perceiving the un-seen object. When he sees his mother for example, he knows she is there, but the moment he doesn’t see her it is as if she doesn’t exist, as if she vanished. He doesn’t search for her. Gradually, the baby learns to experience the presence of his objects as constant, even when they disappear from view. Knowing that she exist even if he can’t see her provokes him to search for her!

He becomes better able to perceive the constant objects he has, rather than what he feels he is missing or is lost.

In a parrallel process the newborn just from birth, as I mentioned before, is able to recognize himself through his senses and recognize his “not-me” as well. His healthy narcissism is activated to preserve his familiar sense of his self and those of his parents and objects around him. Moreover, while creating the object constancy, the baby begins to search for his mother and to find ways to attach to her emotionally. His self-immunisation and his emotional security thus improve in the face of separation, frustration and strangeness, and his cognitive intelligence linked to object permanency allow him to better represent his world around.

Preoperational stage (from about 2 up to 7 years)

This second stage is characterized through the use of symbols, language, memory and imagination. Yet his thinking is processing in a non-logical,

non-reversible manner. Piaget noticed a predominance of Egocentric thinking.

When the child is able to give names to objects, he gradually develops his symbolic thinking, with imaginary games. That one thing – like a toy – may symbolize something else like his father. The symbolic or imaginary game, combined with egocentrism, leads the toddler to the conviction that inanimate objects (such as teddy bears) have feelings, as well as human wishes and intentions.

Piaget attributed the term animism (1929) to the egocentric need of the child to see the world as alive, conscious and as having a purpose just like him. Only later does he come to believe that only objects that move have desires.

From the emotional point of view, the child projects his feelings onto his toys.

Acts of imagination and imitation, and even the practicing of object relations in games by manipulating reality (Piaget, 1936;), contribute to the development of cognitive and emotional intelligence.

This stage is defined by Piaget as pre (before) operation. Pre-operation because the child cannot yet think by logic, or transform, connect or separate ideas. The infant tends to center his attention only on one aspect of a situation at one time. For example, he sees the height of water in the cup without regarding the width dimension of it. The child cannot consider some aspects of a situation and only processes concrete things. Piaget defined this thinking as egocentric thinking: the infant can’t decenter.

I’ll demonstrate it by an example Piaget used: When we show a child in the preoperational stage two equal transparent cups filled with water, and ask him if the amount of water is the same in the two cups, he will generally reply yes. Then, we pour the water into two other cups: one short and wide and the other narrow and tall. Now we ask again if it is the same amount of water in both cups. At this stage he will reply – no! If the child centers his/her attention on the top he will attest that the tall cup has more water. If the child centers his/her attention on the width of the cup he will attest that the wide cup has more water. The child is still incapable of considering the dimensions of height and width together. He doesn’t perceive that the amount of water that we poured from the cups before to the present ones was exactly the same.

Another famous piaget’s example is: A researcher might take a lump of clay, divide it into two equal pieces, then give a child the choice between two pieces of clay to play with. One piece of clay is rolled into a compact ball while the other is smashed into a flat pancake shape. Since the flat shape looks larger, the preoperational child will likely choose that piece.

In each stage, Piaget notes an aspect of egocentric thinking. In the

preoperational period ,egocentrism reflects the cognitive and emotional difficulties the child has in acknowledging that others have different ideas then his.  He is also not yet able to communicate with others, he doesn’t make an effort to hear others or adapt his speaking to them, and rather he speaks in monologue. In this sense, his thinking is often rigid, and he is sure that what he thinks is correct. Only through learning from experience through encounters with others, Piaget postulated that the child begins to wonder about the correctness of his ideas.  Piaget as well as Freud noted that the infant begins to acknowledge that he has to listen the others ideas in order to create relationships and adapt his communication to other listeners. In other words, he begins to create a dialogue.

Concrete Operational Stage  (ages 7 to 11 years)

In this stage, the child acknowledges the conservation of number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, and volume. It means that his Operational thinking develops, he can perceive mental actions that are reversible. His intelligence is reflected through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols although related only to concrete objects. His Egocentric thought diminishes.

For Piaget, the concrete stage represents a decisive moment in the beginning of  logical or operational thought.  Children show capabilities to think more logically, to think about other people’s thoughts or feelings, albeit that their thinking is still very rigid.

Children are now able to practice logical thought, what Piaget named operations, understanding the rules of the operation. Now, they have discovered the essence of what Piaget defined by conservation and reversibility while all this more organized logic thinking is operating on concrete objects (not abstract). Now children are reasoning by conservation, seriation, classification, reversibility, decentering and transitivity

Conservation means that the child can acknowledge that rearranging something (quantity, numbers, volume, length) does not actually affect the substance.  Piaget showed that by seven years of age children were able to conserve numbers.

Quantity: same cups      different cups

Numbers: same amount in two equal rows – same amount but dispersing differently    

*  * * * * * * * * *                 *  * * * * * * * * *

*  * * * * * * * * *         *       *      *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *                     

Length:  ____________                          ____________

                ____________                                     ____________

Classification:  means that the child is capable of recognizing common characteristics of objects and attributing them to classes or categories. Moreover, the child is now able to arrange some similar objects in groups and then arrange them in subgroups, hierarchically; he can also use the information of these categories in order to solve riddles or challenges.

For example: The infant can recognize each of his family members separately (father, mother, brother, sister) and see them all together as his family. Then he can decenter and arrange subgroups hierarchically by declaring that children are little and parents are grown up.

Seriation: means that the child is capable of arranging measurable elements, such as height or weight, in a series. Like arranging according to height or length.

Another aspect of the development of cognitive intelligence that Piaget notes is reversibility. This refers to the infant advancing reasoning and then his capacity to go back to the foundations, to the starting point.

If we return to the example of cups of water, the child cannot yet remember, or come back, to the starting point, where two cups with the same amount of water were poured into the other different cups, and then conclude that the amount of water is also the same in the different cups

Gradually, by learning from experience, children become able to decenter, to reverse their thinking, focus on transformations, and finally become able to consider two or more ideas at a time, even if they are contradictory. When they manage this development it means that they have reached the next stage, the logical concrete operations.

Formal Operational Stage (from 11years and up)

In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought.

Children from 11 years become capable of abstract thinking. They can arrange a combination of elements with more sophisticated reasoning. Everything they could do concretely in the previous stage, they can now manipulate in their imagination. They can do mathematical calculations.

From the age of 11 years, the child begins to manipulate ideas in his head, without any dependence on concrete manipulation. He has entered the formal operational stage. He can think creatively, use abstract reasoning, and reflect on the consequences of his activities. From this age, children may think scientifically about their surroundings.

There can be scenarios in which incoming data can’t be assimilated or accommodated to the existing schema for various reasons.

In the emotional state and with healthy narcissism it can occur when the Self is flooded by anxiety or by any feeling of strangeness from outside or inside. We may feel injured in this emotional state.  Piaget described it as lack of equilibration between existing schemas.  The perception of constancy or permanency  (Piaget, 1977;) facilitates recognition of the familiar when confronting changes, otherness and cyclicality (narcissistic immune system).

“One of the important conceptions established in the preoperational stage and anal stage is the constancy of periodicity. In the oral stage, the internal rhythm, for example the rhythmic arousal of hunger, constitutes the baby’s preliminary infrastructure of periodicity and time, somewhat like a biological clock. In the anal stage, the toddler’s attunement to the sequence of transitions that are constantly repeated, such as the rituals of hunger and satiation, emptying and refilling, and joining and separating events, initiates the conception of periodicity. The toddler becomes familiar with the connection between evacuating his excretions and being refilled and full the following day and between separating from his parents on falling asleep in the dark at night and waking up in daylight and rejoining his parents. In his cognitive development he now is able to have a perception of morning and night. The whole cycle is repeated regularly with familiar rituals so that the infant feels secure about predicting what will come next, thereby avoiding the insecurity of the unknown.

Harry (at two-and-a-half) enjoys filling boxes and emptying them (symbolisation and sublimation of his evacuating his excretions and being refilled again), making sure to end the game when the box is full. Often, he finishes eating cottage cheese from a tub, closes the lid and says teasingly: “Mummy, I didn’t eat anything. Look, it’s closed.” His mother participates in the game: “Now you’ll eat all the cheese and your tummy will be full.” She then opens the tub and he reacts, in a teasing voice of mastery: “Ha, ha, ha, you don’t know, my tummy is already full.”

The toddler integrates through an adaptation mechanism four separate representations into a whole representation of emotional and cognitive time patterns: rhythm, periodicity, cyclicality, and the capacity to determine the delay of postponement of satisfaction. At this stage, however, he does not yet comprehend the significance of time patterns such as today, yesterday, or tomorrow (Piaget, 1936). A routine at home and in the kindergarten helps the toddler to predict the order and periodicity of his daily events as if he had a clock. A toddler for whom these rituals are not constant might suffer from the anxiety of emptiness and the unknown.” (223-224 Enigma)

Piaget (1936) claims that patterns of language are acquired as part of the baby’s cognitive system, and that we have to differentiate between acquisition of language until age four and any subsequent language acquisition. (272 Enigma)

To sum up, we may say that Piaget provided us tools to understand how children at different ages think and how our thinking, reasoning and language are developed. The qualitative thought of the preschooler, the more quantitative and logical thought of the elementary school child, the more abstract and metacognitive thought of the adolescent. He also helped us reveal that even our scientific research is based on the same stages, passing from constancy representations throughout concrete experiences via abstract and sophisticated reasoning and in reversibility again. 

Like the impact of Freud’s (1856 – 1939) psychoanalytic theories, the impact of Piaget’s (1896 – 1980) theory of cognitive development is immense. They are both complementary to each other. After more than 70 years, Piaget’s theory is used by different social and psychological sciences. I hope that I have managed to transmit to you, my audience, a little bit of his legacy. 

Thank you all for participating in our course

Hope to meet you soon again


Posted in Development