What Are Cognitive Skills in Children? - Development, Definition & Training

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  • 0:01 What Are Cognitive Skills?
  • 0:28 Attention
  • 1:28 Memory
  • 2:24 Thinking
  • 3:20 Cognitive Milestones
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

Children develop cognitive skills rapidly in the first few years of life and build on them progressively throughout grade school. In this lesson, you'll learn about three essential cognitive skills, as well as explore cognitive milestones from two to 12 years of age.

What Are Cognitive Skills?

Cognitive skill development in children involves the progressive building of learning skills, such as attention, memory and thinking. These crucial skills enable children to process sensory information and eventually learn to evaluate, analyze, remember, make comparisons and understand cause and effect. Although some cognitive skill development is related to a child's genetic makeup, most cognitive skills are learned. That means thinking and learning skills can be improved with practice and the right training.


When a child learns to pay attention, it enables him to concentrate on one task or conversation for an extended period of time. Learning to focus attention is an important cognitive skill that the child will use in virtually all future learning. Children younger than five years of age tend to have short attention spans that typically last 15 minutes or less. By the time a child reaches eight years of age, he should have an increased ability to focus on one thing for longer periods and complete tasks. He also should be more adept at ignoring distractions.

Parents and teachers can help a child develop his ability to focus by pointing out things that seem important or interesting and then asking the child to comment on his observations. For example, a trip to the zoo might result in some specific questions, like ''What animal was your favorite?'' and ''What did you like best about this animal?'' Questions like these help the child pay closer attention to what he is exposed to and also challenge his ability to choose specific words to describe his thoughts.


Memory is an important cognitive skill that equips a child to retain what he has learned and experienced and therefore build a future base of knowledge. Children younger than five years of age have difficulty with short- and long-term memory retention. But, as a child progresses into the school years, his long-term memory increases and allows the child to progressively build on the previous knowledge.

A useful technique for facilitating memory in children, especially when there is a lot of information, is teaching content with rhymes or catchy sayings or putting content to music. For example, a common way to teach children the months of the year is through this rhyme:

'Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
And that has twenty-eight days clear,
And twenty-nine in each leap year.'

A memory aid like rhyme enables a child's brain to better organize and retain the content.


The ability to think includes being able to reason out tasks and find solutions. This cognitive skill helps a child to know whether he's accomplishing what he set out to do or whether he needs to ask for help. For example, when a child reads a story, thinking skills allow him to determine for himself whether he understands what he's reading or whether he needs to go over the passage again, look for additional clues, study available pictures or ask for help in order to better grasp the intended meaning.

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