Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Online Micro-Course, Area 2: Supporting Cognitive Development

Supporting infant and toddler cognitive development requires educators to have a solid understanding of the infant-toddler developmental continuum, individual children’s interests and temperament, and the way in which cognitive learning is scaffolded—coached or supported by a more experienced peer or a caregiver—through responsive facilitation of play and exploration. “When adults understand how the mind develops, what progress children make in their cognitive abilities, and how active inquiry and learning are children’s natural inclination, they can foster cognitive growth by supporting children’s active engagement with new experiences” (IOM & NRC, 2015, p. 101). When this knowledge is coupled with responsive and nurturing facilitation by a trusted teacher, infants and toddlers are able to focus their energy on exploration, creativity, and growth; a safe and secure relationship helps infant-toddler learning and development be maximized. Infant and toddler educators who support cognitive development are helping to lay the foundation for more discrete numeracy and science concepts learned in the preschool years. Infant and toddler cognition includes understanding basic foundational scientific and mathematic concepts such as discovering how a pop-up toy works or listening and observing to see and hear what happens when they move a rattle. As young infants mature they can rely upon their developing memory to help them make sense of the world. Infant-toddler teachers encourage, facilitate, and comment upon these early experiences to help young children begin to understand basic mathematical, spatial, and causal relationships. 

The core knowledge and attitudes previously summarized from the ZERO TO THREE Competencies for Prenatal to Age 5 Professionals™ (see Core Knowledge and Attitudes Summary) are the foundation for the following specific competencies that can help infant-toddler educators ensure that children’s social-emotional development is optimized.

  • Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Online Module C-1: Facilitating Exploration and Concept Development

    Contains 2 Component(s), Includes Credits

    ​Infant-toddler educators have a critical role to play in supporting infant and toddler exploration of objects and experiences that promote an understanding of the way the world works.

    Infant-toddler educators have a critical role to play in supporting infant and toddler exploration of objects and experiences that promote an understanding of the way the world works. As a trusted and consistent adult in a young child’s life, an infant-toddler educator provides a secure relationship. Within this secure relationship infants and toddlers may test assumptions about the way things work and experiment with using familiar items for new purposes. Infants’ and toddlers’ understandings about basic concepts like shapes and sizes, feelings, and body movement in space can also be enhanced. It is through the skillful facilitation of play and exploration that an infant-toddler educator both extends children’s interest in objects and activities and sets the stage for children to develop more complex understandings of concepts in line with their developmental stage. Infant-toddler educators participate in the child’s play, ask thought-provoking questions, set up challenging scenarios, and act intentionally to enhance children’s understanding of concepts. This is not a simple task. Knowing when and how to extend a child’s engagement toward the development of a more complex understanding requires educators to respond to a child’s growing interest and skill, while also remaining mindful of overtaxing or frustrating that same child. Infant-toddler educators need to draw upon their knowledge of individual children’s interests, temperaments, culture and language, and physical needs to ensure that they are providing access to objects and experiences that challenge children’s skills and understanding, while allowing for success that will reinforce children’s desire to repeat such exploration in the future.

  • Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Online Module C-2: Building Meaningful Curriculum

    Contains 2 Component(s), Includes Credits

    Infant-toddler educators often wonder about how much, if any, teacher-directed or planned activity is developmentally appropriate when working with infants and toddlers. Concepts such as explicit teaching or instructional support seem out of place in a program designed to be flexible and responsive to individual needs and preferences; yet, there is a role for the infant-toddler educator in making sure that young children have experiences that teach them about the world around them and introduce them to basic foundational concepts in a meaningful, developmentally appropriate way.

    Infant-toddler educators often wonder about how much, if any, teacher-directed or planned activity is developmentally appropriate when working with infants and toddlers. Concepts such as explicit teaching or instructional support seem out of place in a program designed to be flexible and responsive to individual needs and preferences; yet, there is a role for the infant-toddler educator in making sure that young children have experiences that teach them about the world around them and introduce them to basic foundational concepts in a meaningful, developmentally appropriate way. Sometimes these experiences happen naturally within a group setting environment, emerging from children’s own interests and real-life experiences, but other times teachers need to carefully plan for and provide such experiences in the group setting in a purposeful, teacher-guided way. Providing these experiences helps infants and toddlers build background knowledge about things in their environment, community, and daily lives that provide a foundational knowledge base upon which more discrete concepts can be understood and assimilated later. For instance, noticing and commenting on seasonal changes in nature while on stroller rides or short walks in the community is a great time for caregivers to comment, “Do you see how the leaves on that tree are falling onto the ground? That means winter is coming soon!” or noting the change in temperature, “Today we don’t need to wear jackets because it is getting warmer out. It gets warmer in the spring time.” Infants and toddlers can begin to notice these changes in the world around them as teachers set the stage for a more complex understanding of seasonal cycles and environmental changes during the later early childhood years. An important factor during the infant-toddler years is exposing children to a variety of experiences and activities that increase their familiarity with these and other basic concepts.

  • Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Online Module C-3: Promoting Imitation, Symbolic Representation, and Play

    Contains 2 Component(s), Includes Credits

    ​Infant-toddler educators can promote children’s imitation, symbolic representation, and play skills by playing games like peek-a-boo with young infants and later by promoting imaginary play with toddlers in their group care settings. Early games with infants, such as peek-a-boo or hiding an object briefly while an infant is engaged, work to promote object permanence, or the understanding that an object exists even when it is out of sight.

    Infant-toddler educators can promote children’s imitation, symbolic representation, and play skills by playing games like peek-a-boo with young infants and later by promoting imaginary play with toddlers in their group care settings. Early games with infants, such as peek-a-boo or hiding an object briefly while an infant is engaged, work to promote object permanence, or the understanding that an object exists even when it is out of sight. Later, as toddlers engage in symbolic or imaginary play, teachers can support toddlers as they act out familiar scenarios and take on pretend roles—parenting a baby doll for instance. As toddlers’ development of symbolic representation deepens, teachers can also encourage the use of one object to stand for another (e.g., using a small block as a telephone). Emerging imaginary play skills can be supported by infant-toddler educators who join in pretend play scenarios when invited, and participate in back-and-forth exchanges (verbal and nonverbal) to extend the imaginary play. As children develop these skills, educators can add to imaginary scenarios by introducing new props, asking open-ended questions about what will happen next in the play, inviting peers into the play, and promoting the exchange of language during play scenarios.

  • Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Online Module C-4: Supporting Reasoning and Problem Solving

    Contains 2 Component(s), Includes Credits

    ​Reasoning and problem solving are learned skills whose roots begin in infancy as babies learn how and why their own actions cause a response in the environment around them. As development proceeds, older infants can begin to solve simple problems such as fitting a shape into a sorter toy with the help of a trusted adult who provides assistance and models effective strategies to get the right shape into the right hole.

    Reasoning and problem solving are learned skills whose roots begin in infancy as babies learn how and why their own actions cause a response in the environment around them. As development proceeds, older infants can begin to solve simple problems such as fitting a shape into a sorter toy with the help of a trusted adult who provides assistance and models effective strategies to get the right shape into the right hole. As toddlers’ emerging language skills begin to blossom, promoting the use of words to resolve problems and helping toddlers reflect on how and why these solutions were effective become important teaching skills. Sometimes this means modeling words for toddlers while also providing some physical and emotional supports in the heat of the moment. Problem solving is also supported when caregivers scaffold children through challenging tasks with encouragement and assistance that elevates children’s abilities to a new level as they successfully solve the problem—first with a caregiver’s assistance and then independently as children develop these skills through practice, support, and modeling provided by the caregiver and more mature peers.