Physical, Cognitive, and Socioemotional development in early childhood

By Dennis Florio

Jan 1, 2010


The early childhood stage is the time from the end of infancy to around age 5 or 6, during this stage children learn to become more self-sufficient and to develop the basic skills needed to care for themselves, they also develop reading skills and spend much time playing with other children and learning social skills. Typically, after entering first grade the early childhood stage ends (Santrock, 2009). Early childhood is an exciting time for both the child and caregivers. During this stage, a child goes through many physical, cognitive and socioemotional changes and developments, all of which will be covered, in brief, within this paper.

Physical development

When talking about contributions to the physical development of children in the early childhood stage physical growth is one of the first indicators of development. Growth is the most dramatic and obvious indicator of physical development in early childhood. Changes in the brain and nervous system, at this stage, are just as significant to healthy cognitive development as is healthy diet and nutrition to physical development (Goldstein, 2003).

Ethnic and genetic factors dictate physical growth and development, however nutrition plays just as an important role (Santrock, 2009), that is why children can at times grow to be taller and healthier than both of their parents are.

The Brain

The brain is possibly the most important factor in the physical development of children during the early childhood stage. The brain and head grow more rapidly than other parts of the body in early childhood, although at a slower rate than during infancy (Argosy University, 2009). However, the brain is not fully developed until about age 20.

A child’s brain undergoes many dramatic anatomical changes between the ages of 3 and 15. One important change that takes place is myelination, the process where nerve cells are covered with the substance myelin (Santrock, 2009). However, the most significant changes to the brain in early childhood happen between the ages of 3 and 6 when the frontal lobe areas of the brain develop dramatically. The frontal lobe areas are thought to be responsible for planning, organization, new actions and in maintaining prolonged attention to specific task.

Motor Skills

Motor skills are a learned series of physical actions that come together to produce  smooth, well-organized, seamless movements. There are two primary types of motor skills, gross motor skill, which are the larger and more cumbersome movements, and fine motor skills, which are the smaller more delicate movements. Examples of Gross motor skills include moving, rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, and running. Generally large muscles develop before smaller ones, therefore, gross motor skill development is the foundation for developing fine motor skills. All physical development generally begins in the upper parts of the body and moves to the bottom. For example, the first motor skill a baby usually learns to master is the eyes.

Fine motor skills include the ability to manipulate tiny objects, move objects from one hand to the other, and hand-eye coordination. Fine motor skills may involve the use of very precise motor movement in order to achieve a delicate task, such as watchmaking. Some other examples of fine motor skills are drawing, coloring, writing, or threading beads. Fine motor development refers to the development of skills involving the smaller muscle groups (Joanne Hui-Tzu Wang, 2004).


The Recommendations to maximize healthy physical development in early childhood would be to encourage physical activity, such as sports and provide a healthy diet with proper nutrition in balanced appropriate portions. Overweight and obesity related diseases are the number 2 preventable cause of death in the United States, smoking is still number one. What children eat affects their skeletal growth, body shape, and susceptibility to disease (Santrock, 2009), not to mention overall health.

Prevention of overweight/obesity and other preventable diseases will guarantee a superior quality of life especially as children grow and get older. After a long healthy life, death is not something that should be feared. What really should scare people is the idea of a slow prolonged death, bed ridden in a nursing home, after a lifetime of self-inflicted illness (I know, because my mother was a hospice nurse). For this reason I am fully convinced that a healthy diet, proper nutrition and physical activity in early physical development is essential above all else.

Cognitive development

Basic cognitive skills allow children to process sensory information they collect from the world. Including the ability to evaluate, calculate, retain information, recall experiences, make comparisons, and determine action. While cognitive skills do have an inherent component, most cognitive skills must be learned.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s Theory is the most cited theory in cognitive development and states that children go through successive stages.  According to Piaget, these stages are completed in a set order in all children. The age range however can vary from child to child. This paper will discuss the stages that relate to early childhood development, the first stage in that regard is the preoperational stage.

Piaget’s second stage, the Preoperational Stage last from approximately age 2 to age 7. During this stage, the development of language occurs. Children learn how to interact with their environment through the use of words and images. This stage is earmarked by egocentrism, the belief that everyone sees the world in the same way, and magical thinking and beliefs. As the name of this stage suggests, the child cannot yet perform “operations” or reversible mental actions that allow them to do mentally what they formally did physically, as stated in Santrock, (2009). For example, the ability to imagine things that have been established in actual Behavior. Furthermore, this stage can be divided into two sub-stages, “the symbolic function” and “the intuitive thought stage” (p. 217).

The Symbolic Function sub-stage (ages 2-4), is marked by the ability to mentally represent an object that is not present, the ability to think symbolically, scribbled drawings to represent people, and imagination or pretend play.

The Intuitive Thought Sub-stage (4-7 years), is marked by the use of primitive reasoning, asking questions, centration (the tendency to focus on one aspect of a situation and neglect others), and the lack of conservation (Goldstein, 2003).


Language development is perhaps one of the most important stages of childhood growth and development because it serves as a vehicle of future literacy and education. People who are successful in life are usually articulate and have good interpersonal communication skills, these skills originate in early childhood development (Fujise, 2008).


When cognitive development does not occur naturally, in a healthy environment, cognitive shortfalls are the result. These shortfalls lessen a child’s capacity to learn and are difficult to correct later in life, therefore specific and appropriate involvement to maximizing cognitive development in early childhood should be recommended to all caregivers. Like language and motor skills, cognitive skills can be practiced and improved with the right training. Early education is key, such as a pre-school and then a child-centered kindergarten that Emphasizes physical, cognitive, and social development, and focus on experimenting, exploring, discovering, speaking, and listening skills.

Socioemotional development in early childhood

Early childhood presents a unique one-time opportunity for caregivers to promote healthy socioemotional development. Research has proven the importance of the first 5 years of life in shaping a child’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development. This one time opportunity for caregivers is priceless and should not be neglected or wasted at any cost. Because Research on early childhood has underscored the impact of the first five years of a child’s life on his/her social-emotional development. Negative early experiences can impair children’s mental health and effect their cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional development (Shonkoff, 2000). Flexible minds and social experiences in the environment produce remarkable circumstances that affect the development of the self, emotional maturity, and gender awareness.

Environment and family

To analyze some of the influences that affect socioemotional development, examining the effects of family and environment would be the first step. Environmental factors, even when children understand that their environment is less than desirable, has a tremendous impact on development, possibly more than what anyone will ever fully understand in each individual. Even when memories and experiences are forgotten, those experiences have a lifelong effect on personality, emotions, and socioemotional health, for good or bad, for the rest of a person’s life.

The developmental consequences of child abuse are clear and proven. One effect is poor emotional intelligence, problems in the relationships with friends and siblings, attachment problems, school attendance problems, along with other psychological problems such as depression and antisocial behavior (Toth & Cicchetti, 2009 as cited in Santrock, (2009)).

It is uncertain whether there is a need for any more studies relating to the effects of abuse in children, but what about spoiled children? There are just as many adults in prison today that were spoiled as children as there are adults who were abused as children (personal expereance with inmates 1985-1991). Although it is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Spoiled child syndrome has been identified and described (McIntosh, 1989). The “syndrome ischaracterized by excessive self-centered and immature behavior,resulting from the failure of parents to enforce consistent,age-appropriate limits” (p. 108-115). It can also include lack of consideration for other people, recurrent temper tantrums, an inability to handle the delay of gratification, demands for having one’s own way, obstructiveness, and manipulation (Gupta, 1999). These behaviors are some of the characteristic earmarks of Antisocial Personality Disorder, therefore I contend that extreme behavior by caregivers such as physical abuse at one end of the spectrum, and spoiling at the other, should both be considered maltreatment, with possible devastating long-term effects.

A recent study of 2,600 people conducted by psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe (Dec 30, 2009, not yet published), of Calvin College, Michigan, found that people who were spanked as young children are happier, more likely to volunteer, do well in school, and go to university more often than those who were spoiled or physically abused. Critics of the study have claimed that spanking is “smacking” and “beating,” and is therefore abuse. Other groups have tried to criminalize spanking due to alleged long-term harm. Gunnoe did find however, that behavioral problems only seem to develop if spanking continues into adolescence. It would appear that behavior that goes to one extreme or the other, such as physical and mental abuse or spoiling (an absolute lack of discipline) has long term damaging effects, therefore there a moderate balance must be maintained.

Recommendations and conclusion

Other factors that affect the socioemotional development of children include morality, gender identity, peer influences, divorce, socioeconomic status, and of course play. These influences must be considered when raising a child, building good decision-making skills, and parenting education and research should be considered. Protecting children from unhealthy influences, environments and situations is important but at the same time allowing a child to learn and grow is important as well. Remember, no matter what occurs, individual children will always interpret or “assimilate” events and circumstances in different ways, into the schemas that they have built. For example, a child who is picked on by his peers can either become socially isolated for life, or develop into a gifted comedian (there are dozens of examples of this).



Argosy University. (2009). Developmental Psychology PSY300: Module (2) lectures. Retrieved Jan 2009.


Fujise, K., & Deacon, S. (2008). Blackwell Handbook of Language Development.  Canadian Psychology, 49(3).  Retrieved January 19, 2010, from ProQuest Psychology Journals.


Goldstein, A. (2003). Handbook of Psychology (Vol. 11). (1. st, Ed.) New York: Wiley.


Gunnoe, M., (Dec 30, 2009, not yet published)


Joanne Hui-Tzu Wang.  (2004). A Study on Gross Motor Skills of Preschool Children. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 19(1), 32-43.  Retrieved January 19, 2010, from ProQuest Psychology Journals.


McIntosh, B. J., (January 1989). “Spoiled Child Syndrome”. Pediatrics Vol. 83: pp. 108–115.


Santrock, J. W. (2009). Life-Span Development (12th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.


Shonkoff, J.; Phillips, D. A.; Council, N. R. (Eds.). (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


Gupta, V., B. (1999). “Spoiled Child Syndrome”. Manual of Developmental and Behavioral Problems in Children. Informa Health Care. pp. 198–199.




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