How would you apply Piaget's stages of cognitive development to children with disabilities?

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According to Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. It is important to note that a child progresses through these stages in order and that no stages are skipped. A child's interaction with his or her environment can play a role in...

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According to Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. It is important to note that a child progresses through these stages in order and that no stages are skipped. A child's interaction with his or her environment can play a role in the progression through any particular stage.

When considering children with learning disabilities, one must understand that the age approximations given by Piaget are merely that—approximations. A diagnosis of a learning disability means that a child has knowledge and skills below the level of their typically developing peers. Therefore, when applying Piaget's theory, one must consider the opportunities for learning presented to a child with a learning disability. For example, a child with a learning disability may not be ready to apply abstract thinking when their peers are capable of doing this task. Instead of considering the child's grade level and age, application of Piaget's theory would encourage learning opportunities that are based on the child's developmental stage.

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To appropriately respond to this question, you would first need to have a strong understanding of Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. The sensorimotor stage is typically from birth to around two years of age. In this stage, children use their senses and motor skills to interact with and learn from their environment. Children begin to develop language skills at the end of this stage. From toddler age until around seven years old, children are considered in the pre-operational stage. This stage allows children to think symbolically and to begin to use their imagination. The next stage, the concrete operational stage, occurs between seven and eleven years old: children begin to think in concrete terms and are able to think outside of themselves and empathize with others. The final stage is the formal operational stage, which occurs in adolescents. Children in this stage should be able to use abstract thinking and solve problems systematically.

When considering children with disabilities and Piaget’s stages of development, you need to take into account the type of disability the child displays. For example, a child with cognitive delays may develop in the same order but may not meet the age benchmarks that are considered typical for the stage. Or a child with a language disorder might meet all of the typical characteristics of the sensorimotor stage but may display delayed development in the language area.

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Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development essentially establishes the development of certain schemas over time to illustrate cognitive growth. A schema is an idea or thought process about what things are and how an individual deals with them. For each stage, Piaget lists specific schemas that are either first developed or have been expanded upon. For example, the sensorimotor stage begins with the schema of movement, meaning the child’s behaviors are entirely reflexive and in response to stimuli. Later, action schemas develop in which the child has learned to use some muscles and limbs for movement, with more conscious intention. Arguably, applying these stages to children with disabilities involves the same process as evaluating any child. The focus of this theory is on the development of an individual’s thought process over time. Evaluating a child, including one with a disability, involves identifying which schemas they currently utilize and if/how those ideas have evolved. While the tests themselves might be different depending on the ability of the child in question, all results could then be compared to the respective schemas for each stage to identify which stage best corresponds to the individual’s current thought processes. The importance is on which schemas an individual possess, not on when they have developed. The age ranges included with the stages are merely averages, and are objects of criticism in themselves. Piaget even notes that there will be individual differences in the rates of progress through the steps. While this theory posits that individuals cannot skip steps, not every individual will progress to the later steps.

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