Variable Progression in Early Childhood Development

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do children develop in early childhood, and when should parents and teachers be concerned about a student? In this lesson, we'll look at variable progression in early childhood development.

Early Childhood Development

Manny is worried about his 3-year-old daughter, Sofia. It seems like she isn't as smart as the other kids in her preschool class, and she doesn't talk very well at all. Manny wonders if there's a problem with her.

Manny is thinking about early childhood development, which is the way a child grows from ages 2 to 5. There are many types of development. Cognitive development involves thinking skills, social-emotional development involves growth in the areas of dealing with one's emotions and interactions with others, physical development focuses on growth and control of one's body, and language development is about how people learn language.

Because Manny is worried about Sofia's thinking skills and linguistic abilities, he's worried about her cognitive and language development. But should he be?

To answer that question, let's look at variable progression in early childhood development, including what it is and when parents and teachers should be worried.

Variable Progression

Development is usually thought of in terms of milestones. These milestones are often expressed in sentences like, ''By such-and-such age, children should be able to do such-and-such skill.'' For example, most publications will tell you that by age 2, most children are able to speak in simple two- and three-word sentences. This is a developmental milestone.

However, development is highly variable. Students may develop early in some areas but late in others. It's not uncommon for children who are only 18 months old to be able to speak in two- and three-word sentences, and it's not uncommon for children to develop that skill as late as three years into their lives. This is called variable progression: the variety in the timing of development. Development occurs at different rates for different people.

Because of variable progression, it's important for teachers and parents not to panic if a child is slightly behind his or her peers in one or two areas. Manny is worried that something's wrong with Sofia's cognitive and language development, but the differences he's seeing may just be part of variable progression.

When should parents like Manny be concerned? There are two major warning signs people should look for. If a child has severe deficiencies (that is, they are far behind their peers) or if a child has multiple deficiencies (such as being behind their peers in most areas), it could be a sign that the child should be evaluated. That doesn't mean that parents or teachers should panic, but they should see a professional about evaluating the child.


Manny gets that he should be concerned if Sofia is severely behind her peers, but he's not sure exactly what that means. What do severe and multiple deficiencies look like in development?

In cognitive development, most preschool children can sort objects by size, color, shape, and other features. They can respond to simple directions and often have an attention span of five to 15 minutes. These are all examples of cognitive development milestones. But some students may have shorter attention spans, ignore directions, or struggle with some types of sorting tasks. Parents and teachers should worry if a student is deficient in more than two or three areas of cognitive development and/or if they seem unable to understand simple directions.

In social-emotional development, most preschoolers are developing executive functions (such as controlling their behavior) and beginning to understand others' feelings. Students might vary widely, however, in their application of these abilities. Parents and teachers should worry if a student does not seem at all aware that others feel and think and/or if the child shows no control or emotion at all.

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