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Cognitive Needs

Cognitive Needs

Human beings are, by nature, endlessly curious about the world around them. We are simply designed to think. In fact, human brains are so conditioned to remain active that, even in times of deep sleep, our brains register significant levels of electrical energy. The brain’s capacity for self-stimulation demonstrates that, even when our bodies need rest, our brains crave action.  Regardless of how natural this impulse is, it is secondary to other, more primitive needs. This explains why cognitive needs are represented by the upper levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

Educators expend significant energy designing lessons that will captivate their students’  interests and meet the human need to know and understand. It is important,  however, that teachers insure that the basic needs are met before expecting students to devote themselves to learning. If a child is hungry, overtired,  uncomfortable, anxious, or otherwise stressed, he is simply unable to learn to potential.

Cognitive needs for very young children are quite simple. They need to figure out the basic concepts and processes that form their routines. Language is a key element in meeting this need. As children age, they begin to perceive exceptions to their former understandings and expand the ways in which they think. This cognitive flexibility is characterized by selective attention, memory strategies, and application of logic. Older students extend flexible thought into wondering about possibilities. They become adept at functioning on a level of abstraction and enjoy probing hypothetical situations and global issues. Teachers who understand and respect the progression of cognitive development are likely to be more helpful in meeting their students’ need to know.

Factors that Contribute to Healthy Development

Parents and teachers often lament the fact that children “don’t come with instructions.” While this is said in jest, it does speak to the notion that children can be difficult to understand and manage. Fortunately, over 100 years of research in the field of child development has yielded useful information related to the factors that contribute to healthy development. Most of these factors can be summarized in three general areas:

Nurturing Caregivers

All children, but particularly young children, benefit from consistently nurturing caregivers. As psychologist Erik Erikson (1950) explained, warm, consistent caregiving allows the young child to gain a sense of trust in her/his environment and, ultimately, herself/himself.  Such warmth and consistency may be more difficult to achieve in large group settings such as day care. This is compounded by the high turnover rate characteristic of day care workers.

Such care is also important for adolescents who benefit from warm and caring relationships with parents. Adolescents who experience such bonds are less likely to fail academically, display antisocial behavior, and engage in risky behaviors (Moore &  Zaff, 2002). 

Stimulating Environments

Ideally, children should live in environments that are safe and offer many opportunities to learn and explore. Such engagement does not necessarily require trips to museums or extensive travel.  Instead, healthy environments are naturally stimulating. Taking a young child on regular walks in the park or visiting the library with a school-aged child are examples of appropriate stimulation. Conversation between children and adults is another hallmark of advantageous stimulation. In fact, classic research by Risley and Hart (1995) concluded that a consistent characteristic of academically successful students featured experiences of quality parent-child interaction, involving language, beginning in the early years.

Appropriate Expectations

Parents and teachers who understand developmental patterns tend to hold realistic expectations of their children.  This is important because it protects the child from feelings of failure when expectations are too high and feelings of incompetence when expectations are too low. Parents often express expectations involving academic performance and contributions to the home and family life. Teachers should be aware of the stages of typical development related to the age of their students so that instruction and assignments are reasonably challenging and achievable.

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