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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 3, Lesson 5

Cognitive Skills

Strategies for Assessing Cognitive Skills

Cognition is difficult to define. We use many synonyms to define cognition such as intelligence, thinking, problem solving, mental processes, and concept development. As educators we rely on indirect measures to estimate cognition (Cohen & Spenciner, 1998). Often the term intelligence is used synonymously for cognition.

Salvia and Ysseldyke (2001) describe several processes and behaviors that are sampled by intelligence tests. Those behaviors include:

  • Discrimination - When given a shape, can the child find another shape similar or one that is different.
  • Generalization - When given a stimulus, can the child find another item that goes with it such as when shown a cup, the child identifies a saucer.
  • Classification - The child can group similar items together based on a common trait.
  • Sequencing - The child put things in the correct order for a series of items such as organize blocks from biggest to smallest.
  • Detail recognition - The child determines the missing item. For example, if shown a face without a mouth, the child recognizes the missing mouth.
  • Vocabulary - For infants and toddlers, vocabulary development is often measured by naming or pointing to pictures of familiar objects.
  • Comprehension - The child is asked to demonstrate understanding of directions or certain situations such as what is something with wheels that you ride in.
  • Memory - These items typically ask a child to repeat a phrase, several words or numbers. A child may also be shown a series of objects which are then hidden. The child would be asked to recall the items.

Below are some of the items measuring cognition from the Hawaii Early Learning Profile for Infants and Toddlers (HELP). These items are fairly similar to other assessments of cognitive abilities. Note that the items measure the processes listed earlier.

Children playing with blocks
  • Guides action of toy manually (9-12 mo.)
  • Uses locomotion to regain object and resumes play (9-12 mo.)
  • Unwraps a toy (10 ½ -12 mo.)
  • Imitates several new gestures ( 11-14 mo.)
  • Nests two then three cans (12-19 mo.)
  • Pulls string horizontally to obtain toy (12-13 mo.)
  • Makes detours to retrieve objects (12-18 mo.)
  • Looks at place where ball rolls out of sight (12-13 mo.)
  • Recognizes several people in addition to immediate family (12-18 mo.)
  • Recognizes and points to four animal pictures (16-21 mo.)
  • Solves simple problems using tools (17-24 mo.)
  • Matches sounds to animals (18-22 mo.)
  • Rights familiar picture (18-24 mo.)
  • Remembers where objects belong (21-24 mo.)
  • Demonstrates use of objects (24-28 mo.)
  • Identifies clothing items for different occasions (24-28 mo.)
  • Engages in simple make-believe activities (24-30 mo.)
  • Selects picture involving action words (24-30 mo.)
  • Obeys two part commands (24-29 mo.)
  • Matches shapes-circle, triangle, square (toys) (26-30 mo.)
  • Matches colors (26-29 mo.)
  • Matches identical simple pictures of objects (27-30 mo.)

Assessment of cognitive abilities is very complex in young children due to the fact that the developmental areas overlap. In surveying the items it appears that some of the items are motor and some are language.

An excellent way of assessing cognitive skills is in the context of play. Some of the cognitive skills which can be assessed are early object use; symbolic and representational skills, imitation skills, problem solving skills, and discrimination and classification skills (Linder, 1990).


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