Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

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Over the years, social scientists, psychologists, and education researchers have developed several theories to enhance the understanding of how people develop their skills and capabilities, interact with others, and behave within society. Understanding these theories is especially important when working with children because their development happens in stages, and the experiences and knowledge they receive affect their future. Social workers’ understanding of the theory can help address problems that troubled adolescents face by assisting them in filling the gaps in their cognitive development. This idea is based on the Theory of Cognitive Development by Jean Piaget. This theory paper will examine Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory, provide historical details, significant statements, and social work applicability.

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History of Development of Theory

Jean Piaget introduced the Theory of Cognitive Development as an attempt to explain how children’s cognitive capabilities progress over the years. He was a Swiss scientist majoring in genetic epistemology and psychology (Smith, 2017). He began his career by studying the biology of mollusks. By the age of 30, he was a well-renounced scientist, famous for his cognitive development theory (Smith, 2017). Piaget worked on standardizing Burt’s test for intelligence. Next, after his wife and Piaget had children, he studied their cognitive development (Smith, 2017). During this time, he occupied several positions as a researcher or chair of a science institution. According to Smith (2017), Piaget’s ultimate goal was to answer the following question: “how does knowledge grow?” (para. 10). Through his research, Piaget concluded that knowledge is a result of the progressive development of logical structures. By the time a person reaches adulthood, the lower-level logical structures should be replaced with high-level powerful logical means (Smith, 2017). Thus, Piaget’s ideas are based on the scientists’ interest in the process of cognitive development.

The importance of this theory is in the understanding of how children were viewed before their development. According to Cherry (2020), before Piaget and others began to study the development of children, they were considered as small adults with similar capabilities in terms of cognition and skills. Based on this approach, the development of children was not a concern. Piaget’s theory established the fields of developmental psychology and constructivist theory, the latter suggesting that people built their knowledge based on ideas and their experiences (Cherry, 2020). The development of Piaget’s theory helped advance the understanding of human development and marked the establishment of several branches of knowledge related to people’s behavior and cognition.

Statements of the Theory

The Theory of Cognitive Development explains the stages in which different cognitive capabilities develop. One assumption is that when children receive knowledge, they sort it into schemas (Cherry, 2020). Thus, Piaget’s theory suggests that there is a fixed sequence of cognitive abilities development, not dependant on environmental factors. Hence, the central assumptions of this theory are that each child undergoes distinct development stages, during which they integrate new knowledge into their existing schemas or create new schemas.


According to the Theory of Cognitive Development, each child goes through several stages when developing its cognitive capabilities. There are four stages or periods where the logical thinking and mental structures of a child differ (Sanghvi, 2020). The progression from one stage to another is maturation, which is achieved if a child faces relevant experiences. Although each child goes through the four stages, the rate of progression may differ, which is why there is a difference in children’s cognitive capabilities. The following is the outline of these four stages: ” (1) sensorimotor stage, (2) preoperational stage, (3) concrete operational stage and (4) formal operational stage” (Sanghvi, 2020, p. 92). At the first stage, a child gains knowledge through their motor movements and senses. This stage lasts until the child is two years old, followed by the development of symbolic thinking, and this stage ends at the age of 7.

Next, until the age of 12, a child begins to depend less on their perception and use more logical thinking (Sanghvi, 2020). Finally, during the formal operational stage, adolescents learn abstract thinking. Deductive and indicative reasoning become a part of a child’s way of thinking. Notably, each of the stages has distinct substages, where for example, at substage 6 of the first stage, a toddler begins to show signs of insight and creativity (Goswami, 2020; Sanghvi, 2020). Thus, Piaget made clear distinctions between the different development stages of children and adolescents and the types of cognitive capabilities they acquire at each stage.

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Major Concepts and Related Terminology Defined

One of the central ideas proposed by Piaget is that knowledge is sorted into schemas. A schema is “a concept or framework that organizes and interprets information” (Sanghvi, 2020, p. 90). Hence, all information a child receives, either as a theory or as experience, is sorted into different schemas, which form their understanding of the world. Next, adaptation occurs when a child tests their schemas and try to adapt the knowledge they have to their environment. Assimilation occurs when a child “fits” the new information into the existing schemas (Sanghvi, 2020, p. 91). Finally, through accommodation, one restructures their pre-existing schemas based on new information. For instance, if a child acquires new information that does not fit into their existing schemas, they create a new one. However, if it in some way fits the old schemas, the pattern can be modified to account for the new knowledge or experience.

Application of Theory to Social Work Practice

Social workers mainly encounter children or adolescents with behavioral problems. According to Thornberry (2017), Piaget’s theory can explain the criminal behavior of some troubled adults. Mostly, the transition to adulthood implies the change of roles and the assumption of new responsibilities that the cognitive capabilities of an adolescent cannot yet address. This issue arises because “new role demands cannot be addressed fully by the cognitive structures that exist in adolescents” (Thornberry, 2017, p. 78). At the final stages of cognitive development, a person develops the ability to think hypothetically, in a “what if” manner. This “what if” approach allows predicting the potential consequences of actions, for example, how stealing or using drugs will affect the future of a person, their prospects to go to college or find a steady job. If an adolescent fails to develop hypothetical thinking capability, then they do not have the cognitive structures that would allow them to think through the consequences of their actions, increasing the possibility of criminal acts (Thornberry, 2017). Thus, Piaget’s theory provides an explanation of why some adolescents engage in criminal behavior, while others don’t, regardless of the environment they are in, and based solely on the cognitive development of these individuals.

A potential way of helping troubled children is by developing their abstract and hypothetical thinking capabilities. Thornberry (2017) states that although there are not many studies that link Piaget’s theory with delinquency, the existing ones show that there is a difference in cognitive skills between delinquent and non-delinquent adolescents. Ego deficits, the difference in IQ scores, suggest that these adolescents failed to develop essential cognitive skills at some stages. Thornberry (2017) also states that in Piaget’s view, adult role expectations and social experiences shape one’s cognitive abilities. However, some limitations of the applicability of Piaget’s theory should be considered as well. For example, the majority of cognitive development assessments are based on testing skills that one develops in school. Troubled adults may fail these tests because they did not go to school or did not practice these types of tasks before. This example is one way of using Piaget’s theory of social work. However, one can apply it to children of different ages to assess their development.

Application of Theory to Diverse Individuals and Groups

The limitation of this theory is that Piaget’s original work did not focus on diverse groups of individuals. For example, Sanghvi (2020) critiques this theory because Piaget “devoted little attention to social and cultural influences” (p. 95). Hence, this theory fails to account for potential differences between different cultural and social groups, which may be an issue. Hence, this theory fails to address the aspect of diversity because not enough research has been done by Piaget and others, which would provide evidence that children from diverse backgrounds develop in the same stages. Hence, it is unclear if different cultural background influences the child’s cognitive development.

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Example of Theory Applied in “Real Life”

In real life, one can apply this theory when working with children of different ages to understand if their cognitive capabilities have developed appropriately for their age. For example, a social worker may need to assess a toddler’s cognitive abilities to determine if their caregivers dedicate enough attention to the child’s learning. In this case, using Piaget’s stages, a 12 child should be able to able to think logically and apply skills of inductive and deductive reasoning (Sanghvi, 2020). Upon evaluating whether an adolescent is capable of reasoning, one can create tasks and learning opportunities for this individual to help them emerge in experiences that form this type of thinking. According to Oogarah-Pratap et al. (2020), this theory can be used to design educational interventions for children, for example, by adjusting their physical education curriculum to ensure that they reach sufficient development of their sensorimotor skills. In this way, educators and social workers can ensure that a child develops their cognitive capabilities properly, which is essential for their life in adulthood. Other examples include working with troubled adults, where failure to sufficiently establish hypothetical thinking may be linked to criminal behavior.

Critique of Theory


One major strength of Piaget’s theory is that it established the difference in the way children and adults perceive and use information. According to this theory, educators and social workers can assess children’s development, compare it to what is considered a norm under Piaget’s theory, and offer interventions that will allow the development of the necessary capabilities. Next, although contemporary researchers and practitioners criticized Piaget’s work, it helped establish the study of cognitive development and advance modern child psychology (Marti, 2020). Hence, although more research should be done to promote Piaget’s work and account for the different social and cultural contexts, this theory provides the basis for understanding how children’s cognition develops.


One issue with Piaget’s theory is the assessment practices the scholar used to determine a child’s cognitive abilities. According to Sanghvi (2020), many researchers criticize Pigalet’s approach of equating one’s ability to complete a task with their cognitive abilities. Alahmad (2020) argues that this theory is abstract, meaning that its applicability in real life is uncertain. Moreover, the theory relates to the process of thinking, which is difficult to test and evaluate as it is abstract as well. The process of cognition cannot be observed and measured directly. Instead, tests for indirect measurement and assumptions are used by researchers. This suggests that there may be inconsistencies between the theory and practice. Regardless, Piaget’s work provides an outline or a model of how a child should develop and allows one to understand how children and adolescents process information. It helps social workers assess a child’s development and integrate strategies that would help them develop the cognitive capabilities they will need in the future.


In summary, this paper reviews the history and details of the Cognitive Development Theory. Piaget’s work resulted in defining four distinct stages that each child goes through when developing their cognitive structure. For example, adolescents are signified by their ability to think hypothetically, unlike toddlers or young children. In social work, this theory helps understand the different cognitive capabilities of children during various stages of life. Despite the popularity of this theory, contemporary researchers and practitioners criticize it, pointing out the weaknesses such as the inability to observe and accurately assess cognition.


Alahmad, M. (2020). Strengths and weaknesses of cognitive theory. Budapest International Research and Critics Institute-Journal (BIRCI-Journal), 3(3), 1584-1593.

Cherry, K. (2020). Jean Piaget biography (1896-1980). Very Well Mind. Web.

Goswami, U. (2020). Cognitive development and cognitive neuroscience: The learning brain. Routledge.

Martí, E. (2020). Post-Piagetian perspectives of cognitive development. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, 1-2. Web.

Oogarah-Pratap B., Bholoa A., & Ramma Y. (2020). Stage theory of cognitive development—Jean Piaget. In B. Akpan & T. J. Kennedy (Eds), Science education in theory and practice (pp. 133-148). Springer.

Sanghvi, P. (2020). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: A review. Indian Journal of Mental Health, 7(2), 90-97.

Smith, L. (2017). A brief biography of Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget Society. Web.

Thornberry, T. (Ed.). (2017). Developmental theories of crime and delinquency. Routledge.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Jean Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory'. 15 February.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Jean Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory." February 15, 2022.

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PsychologyWriting. "Jean Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory." February 15, 2022.