Mental Development of a Child | Psychology (2023)


In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Meaning and Nature of Mental Development 2. Stages of Mental Development 3. The Various Aspects of Mental Development.

Meaning and Nature of Mental Development:

Mental development is an important aspect of growth, embracing the various mental abilities. It begins right from birth, and as the child develops with the passage of time his mental reactions also change. These reactions are very simple to start with, but in due course, they lead to complex mental activities.

Mental development includes such abilities as attending, perceiving, observing, remembering, imagining, thinking, solving problems and growth of intelligence as well as of language. These abilities change, grow and mature with age and decline in old age. The rates of change vary with age and special experiences. In spite of a general pattern of mental development, each individual grows and develops in his down unique manner.


The various mental abilities or activities mentioned above are inter-related and they develop as a whole. They are inter-dependent and do not develop in isolation. Besides this ‘inter-dependence, another typical feature of mental development is its continuity.

Mental development is another name for extending the intellectual horizon of the child. To begin with, the world is one large, “booming, buzzing confusion” to the child. Gradually, details are perceived and understood, differences are realised and experiences and knowledge are organised into new relations. This is made possible through processes of differentiation and organisation or integration.

The factors that affect mental development include maturation, learning and education. The kind of nervous system the human child inherits is an important factor. It helps him to co-ordinate various activities and responses. It regulates the activity of all the organs. The brain, an important part of the nervous system, plays a more significant role in the mental development of the individual than any other part. It helps in the perception of the surrounding world and perception is the basis of the mental activity – all thought and consciousness.

Stages of Mental Development:

(a) From Birth to Three Years:


The child is born with all the sensory equipment that are needed for mental activity. By the age of three, he shows the ability to fulfill his needs in a selective manner. Therein lies his mental development. This is evident from other types of behaviour as well. He secures or tries to secure approval from his parents and others for the things he likes or does. The child’s curiosity is another characteristic of mental development at this stage.

He is curious to know about his immediate environment including the people. Another evidence is the child’s tendency to make believe. He lives in a world of fantasy and personifies the objects that are around him. He develops the ability to differentiate between himself and others as well as a tendency to be negativistic.

(b) From Three to Six Years:

This period of the child’s life is characterised by his ability to use symbols and words. He acquires a variety of sensory and perceptual experiences and these experiences contribute a lot towards his mental development.

(c) Later Childhood:

This period is marked by the ability to acquire keen and accurate perception. With keen and accurate perception grows the process of conceptualization. Mental development is also indicated in his growing interests. He begins to admire things and peoples around him. He begins to imitate the manners and behaviour of those people whom he admires.

(d) Adolescence:

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Adolescence is the period when the mental development reaches its climax. The various intellectual development activities such as observation, perception, attention, memory, thinking and reasoning and intelligence reach their maturity.

The Various Aspects of Mental Development:

(i) Sensation and Perception:


Sensation and perception form an important aspect of mental development. Sensation is the first step to knowledge but it assumes the form of knowledge only when it is attended to and a meaning is attached to it. In other words, sensations are objectified and become meaningful. Objectified sensations are called perceptions. To begin with, environment of the child is a vague, undifferentiated mass on account of the lack of previous experience and the undeveloped conditions of the sense organs.

Gaining experience, the child’s sensations of taste, colour, sound, touch or pressure get associated with certain concrete objects. Gradually, the child begins to see distinctions. He discriminates between things and understands meanings. On the one hand, he observes minute differences in quantities and relations, on the other he organises his knowledge into new relations and “gestalts,” according to the Gestalt School of Psychology.

Even a baby perceives an unfamiliar object as a form or as figure. He has an innate tendency to organise his sense-field and to perceive objects as a whole. It may be noted in the beginning, children’s perception lacks richness, definiteness and details. Thus perception involves direct experience with objects, persons or events through a group of sensations.

But it also involves memory images of the past experience of the same object or a similar object. Our past experiences which are responsible for the development of personal interests and mental sets are important factors in perception.

The child perceives those things quickly and clearly which are concerned with his interests and mental sets. The child’s perceptions are also determined by his needs and desires. In an experiment, two groups of children – one, a poor group and the other a rich group were asked to perceive clearly and judge the size of the various coins shown to them. The poor group overestimated the size of the coins considerably more than did the rich group because to the poor group, the coins were of great value and use.

As the human individual grows older and enters adolescence or adulthood, other factors that affect his perceptions are his beliefs, opinions and cultural ideals.

The sensations and perceptions are of eight types. These are tactual, gustatory, olfactory, organic, kinesthetic, bodily equilibrium, auditory and visual, called so because of the sense organ involved – the skin, the tongue, the nose, stomach, muscles, semi-circular canals, the ear and the eye.

(ii) Concept Formation:

A concept is the generalised meaning that is attached to an object. It is the result of our perceptual experiences. For example, ‘horse’ or ‘house’ or ‘table’ or ‘honesty’ or ‘man’ are concepts. We see a number of horses, houses or tables, see their common qualities and characteristics and relations and finally arrive at a generalised notion. When we say horse, it means not this horse, it stands for all types of horse.

We thus arrive at concepts of things, persons and qualities, as a result of our perceptual experience, our ability to compare the common qualities, to relate them to each other, to abstract and generalise. ‘House’, ‘table’, ‘cap’ are concepts of things; ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘teacher’ are concepts of persons, and ‘honesty’, ‘truthfulness’ are concepts of qualities and ideas.

The formation and acquisition of concepts is a great step forward in the mental development of children. It involves both discrimination and generalisation,. The child’s concepts of the world increase with experience and with his ability to perceive relationships between new and old situations.

Not only do the concepts increase in number, with increased rich and varied experience, these concepts become richer and fuller. The concepts of December will have a different implication if the child has experienced it in Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

It is for this reason that modern teaching secures the help of trips, excursion and visits to places of interest, for making their experiences richer and fuller. Such experiences and contacts will surely give more meaningfulness and breadth to the concepts formed.

Experience is not the only factor which contributes to comprehensiveness formed. As the children grow older, they are in a position to read extra books, magazines, ask questions from knowing people: in this way, they enrich concepts of people, things and ideas.

The concepts formed by the children in the early stages, are difficult to study for three reasons:

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(a) Many of the child’s concepts have meanings which are different from those of adults thus the adult may overlook them completely. For a child, ‘doggie’ may mean all small animals whereas to the adult, the concept of ‘dog’ is specific. The child’s concepts are board and more general rather than specific.

(b) The child’s concepts are not formulated well enough for the child to be able to express them in words understandable to an adult.

(c) Many of children’s concepts cannot be ‘verbalised’ by them on account of limited vocabulary.

Children’s concepts of spatial relations, of distance and depth are vague and inadequate in the beginning. This is responsible for much of the awkwardness in young children, evident in their miscalculations of height and distance Language development leading to the understanding of the words like on, in, below, above, up and down, helps them to understand spatial relations.

The development of time concept takes place, in the beginning in connection with need gratifications and routine. They understand what morning, evening and night mean in terms of feeding, eating and sleeping. By the age of five, they are able to distinguish between the present, past and future. How we measure time, they can understand only by ten or so. Teachers of mathematics need to know these facts which are the results of investigations.

The concepts of number and quantity are first brought home to the minds of children by experiences in the home which convey to them the ideas of ‘less’ or ‘more’ or ‘being heavy’ or ‘light’. According to Piaget children acquire concepts of number even before they are not able to count. They come earlier than those of weight. If home and school can provide concrete experiences with a variety of materials, these concepts are learned easily and in a natural manner.

Scientific concepts with concern causal relations develop when children are presented a variety of problems and they explain or answer questions. These concepts leading to ability in deductive and inductive reasoning grow with advancing age.

Concepts of the self and social concepts of inter personal relations greatly influence the child’s thinking and behaviour – a very important step in the mental development of children. To start with the concept of self means only physical identity of self. Gradually, the child differentiates himself from others. The child’s social concepts are influenced by the nature of inter personal relationship at home, by his experiences of others in the neighbourhood, in the play-ground and by other social activities.

Similarly, the child develops concepts of beauty or aesthetic concepts, through his contacts, his readings, associations, cultural values, his experiences of colour, sound and form, i.e., environmental influences. If the child lives in dirty, drab and colourless environment there is a likelihood that he develops wrong concepts of beauty of colour, form or sound. Training and education and models in the home play an important role in determination of the nature of such concepts.

The development of all types of concepts, therefore takes place slowly but steadily.

The conceptual development takes place in well-marked stages, as shown below:

(iii) Development of Language:

The process of concept formation as already pointed out, is helped by the development of language. Language is a tool of both thinking and communication. It is a tool which has to be effectively used in acquiring knowledge and mastering facts in education. We satisfy our interests, acquire experience, and develop power to think and reason on a higher plan through language. It is the basic tool for social communication, for better understanding among individuals and groups.

It is with and through language that we can pinpoint our problems and difficulties, and express them clearly. This makes for successful adjustments to situations and individuals. It is an important means of influencing personality and modifying the thoughts and feelings of others as well as our own.

The language development starts with mere names and involves the use of other types of words gradually. For a long time, the child uses more ‘nouns’ than other forms of language. Descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs appear at later stages than the names. The child by 1½ years, has learned the use of 10 or 12 simple words. But the range may be much higher than this. By 2½ years the child’s vocabulary is of about 300 words. It may be more in exceptional cases. In sentences also, there is a pattern. The child starts with enumerative sentences and proceeds to descriptive and inter-pretative sentence structures.

One of the important aspects of language development is the growth of speech. It starts with vocalisation in the form of cries or explosive sounds. It is followed by mere ‘parrot talk’. These are the pre-speech forms. Four needs of the child act as incentives to his learning to speak.

These are:

(i) The desire to secure information regarding his environment and later about himself and his friends,

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(ii) To give commands or express his wants,

(iii) To come into social relationship with others, and

(iv) To express his thoughts and ideas.

The child learns to speak as a result to ‘conditioning’. Certain words or combinations get associated with certain objects which he wants or sees or gets. There are periods or ‘spurts’ and rest in the speech-development. After ‘walking’ has been established as a motor skill, the amount of vocalisation is said to increase. Much of the speech, particularly its quality that the child learn is the result of imitation of others in the environment.

The child has to master four major tasks in the process of learning to speak properly.

These are:

(a) Comprehension of the speech of others,

(b) Building a vocabulary,

(c) Combining words into sentences, and

(d) Pronunciation.

By the age of 6, the child can speak every form of sentence structure fluently, with goods pronunciation.

When the child is learning to speak, speech disorders are most apt to develop. Very few speech disorders are hereditary. Occasionally, speech defects may be traced to a tongue-tied condition, to deformed teeth, palate, lips or gins. But the majority of speech disorders are due to faulty learning, imperfect hearing, muscular weakness of the tongue and lips and emotional factors.

Among the speech errors and defects, a mention may be made of omissions, interchanges and substitutions, lisping, slurring or indistinctness of speech, stuttering and stammering.

The content of speech or what children talk about at different ages, gives evidence as to the size of the child’s vocabulary, of their personality and their dominant interests. In the early years, the speech of the child is egocentric. It becomes gradually socialised. Home interests, questions and commands form an important constituent. In adolescence, sex, relationships, in the home and the school, social problems of a personal nature, political interests etc. determine the content of speech.

The type of vocabulary developed by children depends on home training, socio-economic status, parents education and work. The child must be able to speak by 2 years. If he does not, speech may be called “delayed”. The most common cause of delayed speech are low intelligence, poor social environment, severe or prolonged illnesses, inadequate or defective models, negativism, deafness, and bilingualism.

Another aspect of language development is reading. In ability to read properly cause a lot of frustration and children become backward on account of that. Before the child is able to read he should be able to speak clearly and should have adequate vocabulary. This is called “reading readiness”. To start with, the child masters the fundamental skills in reading followed by “intermediate reading stage” in the 4th, 5th and 6th classes. Finally, the child reaches the mature reading stage.

(iv) Growth in Thinking and Problem Solving:

Growth in thinking and problem-solving which follows or is made possible by the formation of concepts with the help of language, is an important aspect of mental development. Thinking is a process of dealing with ideas, thoughts or concepts. It essentially consists in the manipulation of symbols instead of the manipulation of objects and situations in an environment.

It is assumed that thinking and problem-solving are activities which occur at the later stages of human development. The child, according to this assumption, cannot think or reason in a logical manner. Piaget maintains that there are stages in children’s thinking. In his earlier experiments he found that upto the age of seven or eight a child tends to reason only in terms of isolated or specific cases, he is incapable of genuine argument and feels no need for verification or logical justification; he has difficulty in making generalizations or deductions and in reasoning from the point of view of another person or from the point of view of a general proposition.

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Other studies show that children earlier than seven or eight also could reason about cause-and-effect relationships. But most of the thinkers are of view that highest types of thinking were not always possible earlier than 10 or 11. It is a fact that children show an improvement in most areas of thinking as they become older. Development moves in general from the more simple to the more complex, from the concrete to the abstract.

The younger the child, the more his thoughts tend to center on immediate events and problems as different from more remote concerns or matters. He deals more easily with the concrete than with the abstract. He, however, shows an increase in his knowledge of and ability to deal with the abstract, as he grows in age.

The older the child, the more del’ berate he is in procedure when confronted with a problem. The younger children are more likely to forge ahead in over trial and error. Again, adults are likely to reach a conclusion or correct answer more quickly and to see point more readily.

Problem-solving is an important constituent of mental development. The preceding paragraph indicates that simple problem-solving is not beyond the mental ability of young children. Even a young child at the age of two or three, makes an effort to solve a problem or a difficult situation. It is true that the problem or the situation often is personal and concrete and his effort is generally marked by trail-and-error. The use of insight, however, is not entirely ruled out even in the pre-school years, as shown in a study made by Dentsche.

In order to appreciate the problem-solving powers of young children, adults need to consider both the problem and the solution from the child’s point of view. If they examine it only in terms of the logic of an educated adult, they will get a distorted view of a child’s thinking and problem-solving. Jersild observes, “Children may have a good practical grasp of the idea of cause- and-effect in their own sphere of activities even though they cannot phrase the idea in logical terms.”

(v) The Growth of Intelligence or Intellectual Development:

Intellectual development or the growth of intelligence is the most important aspect of mental development. Here, we will only delineate it from the development or growth point of view.

The growth of intelligence does not take place independently of the rest of the child’s personality. Language development, emotional and social development as well as the physical growth are related to the intellectual development or the growth of intelligence.

During the last fifty years many attempts have been made to measure intelligence and its growth from birth to maturity with the help of developmental schools designed by Gesell, infant tests designed by Cattell, Stanford, Binet Scale, Army Alpha, Otis’ Scale and Wechster’s tests for children and adults, and many others in foreign countries and our own. With the help of these tests and schedules, we are in a position to produce test nouns for all ages and can represent them on a curve.

These test scores have enabled psychologists to screen out children with different intelligence levels, to separate the dull form the borderline cases, the superior from the average group. A study of the typical mental growth curve or the curve of intelligence will show that infancy is marked by rapid intellectual growth; growth is moderate in childhood and it slows down in adolescence and later youth.

Some research studies reveal that scores remain steady or increase slowly in adult life but tend to decline in old age. But this is true only of some aspects of intelligence or certain specific abilities. Different workers have given different types of curves, but all agree that intelligence increases with age with a normal population.

Of course, there are individual variations. Some individuals show a rapid increase in certain areas of intelligence, whereas others indicate a rapid increase in other areas or abilities. These curves also point out to periods when there seems to be no increase or rise i.e., periods of no progress, technically known as plateaus.

Intelligence testing of an individual over a number of years, indicates the course or pattern of his intellectual growth. It also shows how constant is his I.Q. The I.Q. or the rate or ratio of mental growth is not constant in any rigid sense, but what the repeated annual testing shows is that superior children continue to be superior and inferior children continue to be inferior.

After 6 years, there is more constancy of I.Q. than in earlier years. If there are any wide fluctuations in the test scores over the years, these may be ascribed to such disturbing factors as health, interest or motivation, fatigue or, the sudden environmental changes or defects in the methods of testing.

Intelligence seems to grow on to a certain age which is its limit. Teman set the age of 16 as the period at which mental growth reaches its limit, while Kuhlman and Wechlen observe that those who are superior in intelligence continue to grow even in 20’s. These tests have shown that growth continues in certain areas more than in others.

For example, growth is maintained in vocabulary and information up to advanced age, but stops in general reasoning ability, discrimination of spatial relations and arithmetical computations after 16 or 20.

The various conditions or factors which affect intellectual development or the growth of intelligence include are the intra-uterine conditions of the mother, her nutritional status during pregnancy, the intellectual status of the home, the occupational status of parents, the emotional atmosphere in the home arising out of various interpersonal relationships, the nature and kind of education process available in schools and socio-cultural factors both in the family and in the community. It may be noted that the environmental factors do not determine the potential intelligence, they do affect favourably or otherwise the rate of its growth and dimensions.

Other aspects of mental growth are attention in children, memory and imagination. We can, however, briefly, refer to the growth of memory as a part of mental growth, in this paragraph. The developmental schedules of memory as discussed by Hurlock and Schwartz, indicate that the child, in the first half of the year, has memory of an impressionistic kind.

True remembrance appears by the end of the first year. Memory is aroused by sensory stimuli to start with but by end of the second year the child is able to remember ideationally with the help of words or symbols. During the first and second years, child’s memory is stronger for persons and objects than for situations. Situations become significant in the child’s memory from three to six years. The child’s memory is influenced favourably or adversely by the emotional quality of his experiences. Pleasant situations are more likely to be recalled than those which are unpleasant.

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