Cognitive development means how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, understanding concepts, and problem solving amongst other abilities, which help children to think about and understand the world around them.
Children and young people are on a learning journey or ‘trajectory’ which will change over time depending on a lot of different aspects of their lived experience as well as their biological and genetic make-up. Each child’s cognitive ability journey will change over time.
Many factors affect both children’s development of cognitive skills but also their use of these skills in day-to-day life. See the ‘Understanding your child’s journey’ section for more detail.
When there are disruptions in cognitive development, additional support and/or different ways of teaching may be needed. There are usually reasons behind the issues causing a child to learn or develop differently or slower than is typical for their age. It could be genetic, or it could be environmental, or event based. The problem may not be permanent, and even if it is, intervention can really help children and young people.
What skills make up ‘cognitive ability’?
Cognitive ability is the skill of being able to remember and process information, manipulate it, and reason with it to solve a problem. “Cognitive ability” can be broken down into many more specific skills. Some of the key skills are:
- Language and Verbal Reasoning – the ability to understand and process words, verbal information and concepts in order to understand the world.
- Visual and Spatial Processing – The ability to tell where objects are in the space that surrounds you. For example, knowing what is in the foreground and what is in the background, being able to picture objects in your mind and picture how they would look from different angles or if they were rotated.
- Memory – The ability to maintain, store and retrieve information. Think of this as a filing cabinet, you want to be able to store a document in the right area and be able to find it later when you need it. Memory can be broken down further:
- Long Term Memory – Memories about events from the past like weddings, memories about facts that you have learnt over the years and memories of how to ride a bike.
- Short Term or ‘Working’ Memory – Memories which last only a few seconds ready for active use as soon as possible, this can include working memory. Think about reciting back a phone number you have just been told, or writing down a word you’ve just looked up how to spell.
Executive Functioning – The ability to control behaviours towards a set goal. You can think of this as the “boss” part of your brain that controls other parts of your brain towards a set goal, a bit like an air traffic controller making sure all the planes take off and land in the right place at the right time. Executive Functioning tasks include:
- Theory of mind: insight into other people’s thoughts, their plans, their likes and dislikes. E.g. you understand that your friend has their own goals, their own likes and dislikes, and doesn’t think the same things you do.
- Decision Making: the ability to come to a decision about a problem or situation. E.g. deciding what you are going to cook based on the ingredients you have left over in your kitchen.
- Shifting, sustaining, dividing attention: being able to decide what, when and where to focus your attention depending on what is most important at that moment.
- Problem solving: the ability to use information to come up with solutions to a problem or issue, consider the pros and cons of each option and decide which one to go for.
- Planning and organising: the ability to think about the future and make a plan for future action towards a set goal.
- Sequencing: the ability to do things in the right order or sequence to achieve your goal.
Adaptive living skills
Adaptive living skills are everyday skills that allow people to live independently and care for themselves. These skills include things like dressing, eating, and washing. They also include more complex skills like budgeting, booking appointments and attending on time, interacting with others and keeping safe socially. These skills develop through childhood, but each child may develop skills at a different rate depending on things such as if they have a learning disability, emotional difficulties, sensory impairment, or a physical disability. All these things can make it harder to learn and practice new skills. Children need opportunities to learn, practice and become competent in adaptive living skills.
Adaptive living skills are often assessed as part of a formal assessment, which might be completed by a Clinical or Educational Psychologist. Two examples of assessments that might be used are the Adaptive Behaviour Assessment System, Third Edition (ABAS-3) or the Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scales, Third Edition (Vineland-3). These are norm-referenced assessments, which means the child’s scores can be compared to a sample of other children of the same age.
The assessment is usually completed with a parent/carer and/or a key adult from school. It asks questions about skills typically developed early in childhood to more complex skills. The areas assessed include communication skills, self-care skills, social interaction and skills around the home.
What support can children get in school for their learning needs?
SEND Support- Graduated Response – Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
If the school has noticed that your child needs some extra help, they may have put things in place like an IEP (individual education plan) or APDR (assess, plan, do, review) cycles. This is known as the Graduated Response at SEN Support level. You should be invited to talk about these plans and what’s in them, and to be part of the review process. If you feel your child has needs that the school hasn’t noticed, or if you’re not happy about or not sure about the support your child is receiving in school, ask to talk to your child’s class teacher or form tutor and/or the school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator).
There is more information about the Graduated Response and Assess, Plan, Do, Review cycles in this document: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/media/ag2jvk1v/graduated-response.pdf
Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans
If your child’s school feels your child needs extra help or support and they can’t provide all of this help through their school resources and the Graduated Response, they might suggest applying for an EHC (Education, Health and Care) needs assessment. This is a detailed assessment to find out what a child or young person’s special educational needs are. It will explain the support they may need to learn, progress and achieve. This assessment might lead to an EHC (Education, Health and Care) Plan being put in place. This is a legal document that tells schools what they need to do to support your child, and it often brings the school some extra funding so they can provide that support.
EHC plans are not only for children with a confirmed diagnosis or a particular level of cognitive ability. They are based on a child’s needs (which may or may not be linked to a diagnosed condition or neurotype).
More information available here:
Specific Learning Difficulties, learning difficulties and Learning Disability – what is the difference?
There are many different terms used to describe children and young people’s learning needs, including global developmental delay, specific learning difficulties and Learning Disability or intellectual disability amongst others. So, starting with when these terms might start to be used in a child’s life journey:
Global developmental delay: ‘The term ‘developmental delay’ or ‘global developmental delay’ is used when a child takes longer to reach certain developmental milestones than other children their age. This might include learning to walk or talk, movement skills, learning new things and interacting with others socially and emotionally (MENCAP, 2023; mencap.org.uk). This term might be used early in a child’s life before their learning journey is clear and before there’s an understanding of whether the child’s learning will continue to be delayed into middle childhood, teenage years and/or adulthood.
Specific learning difficulties: “Specific Learning Difficulties affect the way information is learned and processed. They are neurological (rather than psychological), usually run in families and occur independently of intelligence. They can have significant impact on education and learning and on the acquisition of literacy skills.
Specific Learning Difficulties is an umbrella term used to cover a range of frequently co-occurring difficulties, most commonly known as:
- Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)
- Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or AD(H)D)
As with any disability, no two individuals experience the same combination of difficulties and some people may exhibit signs of more than one SpLD.”
Dyslexia Association: https://www.dyslexia.uk.net/specific-learning-difficulties/
Learning Disability or Intellectual Disability: Learning disability is a term used in the UK which is internationally now recognised as ‘Intellectual Disability’. These terms mean the same thing and refer to children and young people (or adults) who have significant difficulties in two main areas of their learning:
- Their intellectual or cognitive ability and functioning
- Their use of everyday adaptive living skills, e.g. self-care, dressing, toileting, social skills, using transport, etc.
What does mild, moderate, severe and profound Learning Disability mean?
Learning disability or intellectual disability is described within 4 categories, mild (an IQ of 50– 69), moderate (an IQ of 35–49), severe (an IQ of 20–34) and profound (an IQ of less than 20). These categories have been criticised because they don’t include any measure of social or adaptive functioning. In addition, it has been argued that in practice IQ scores are often uncertain in people with more severe learning disabilities. It is also widely recognised that IQ scores are not fixed throughout life, so provide only an approximate guide to intellectual ability.
Please see this link and video below from the Challenging Behaviour Foundation:
Someone is defined as having ‘complex needs’ if they need a high level of support with many aspects of their daily life and rely on a range of health and social care services. This may be because of illness, disability, broader life circumstances or a combination of these. (NICE guideline: Adults with complex needs: social work interventions including assessment, care management and support final scope).
Cognitive assessments- what does it all mean?
A cognitive assessment is a kind of test which a child or young person can complete to help us understand their skills, strengths and needs in different areas of learning.
These are some of the assessments or tests which are used to assess children’s cognitive abilities with their acronyms:
- Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fifth Edition (WISC–5)
- British Ability Scales – Third Edition (BAS-3)
- Wechsler Pre-school and Primary Scale of Intelligence – Fourth Edition (WPPSI-4)
- Wechsler Individual Achievement Test – Third Edition (WIAT-3)
- Behavioural Assessment of Dysexecutive Syndrome – Childrens version (BADS-C)
- Behaviour Rating Inventory of Executive Function – Second Edition (BRIEF-2)
You may receive a report after your child or young person has completed a cognitive assessment. These are some terms you might read in the report:
What is an IQ score?
An IQ score (intelligence quotient) is a number which is a summary of a child or young person’s overall cognitive ability or learning level. It is found by combining all the scores from a range of different learning tasks and exercises and comparing the scores with those of other young people the same age. IQ scores have an average of 100.
What is a percentile rank?
A percentile rank is a score which is relative to 100 other children of the same age. For example, if the percentile rank for a child’s score is 88, this means that the child performed as well as or better than approximately 88% of children their age.
What is a confidence interval?
The scores obtained on any cognitive assessment will have some degree of measurement error. The confidence interval (CI) is a range of scores within which a true score is likely to fall. Scores are often reported with 95% confidence intervals to ensure greater accuracy when interpreting test scores.