Does Constructivism have limits?


The Development of Social Cognition and Parental Influence

Elizabeth Blair

In terms of sociability, there is a debate on how involved caretakers and educators should be to help children become thoughtful, respectful, and considerate of family members, classmates, and friends. The most well-known debate that goes along with this is “free-range” or “helicopter parenting” parenting styles. Parents and educators tend to firmly take a side in this debate. One side argues that children need the opportunity to experience both social and interpersonal frustration to effectively learn how to work through problems and improve for the future. If the children struggle, eventually, they will learn and grow. The other perspective argues that kids need somewhat of a figurative leg-up that comes from support and modeling from caretakers and educators. When children receive support and modeling from others, they will learn more and be more effective.

What we know today can guide caretakers and educators as to where the pressure points are to help children develop socially. This debate is important to have an opinion on because childhood is a critical period where caretakers and educators have more influence than any other period of life and how much or little they choose to be involved can have a long-lasting impact both on how children exist in our social world and later how they choose to be involved as role models in other children’s’ lives.

One side of the debate argues that caretakers and educators should follow more of a “free-range” style of parenting and mentoring children. This “free-range” style allows children the freedom they need to experience social and interpersonal frustration which is required for them to learn how to problem-solve and later improve. This struggle is imperative for the child to properly develop cognitively and socially. As a species, we have a bias to be social so we are wired to acquire skills to get through discomfort we face in social situations to develop our social cognition and sense of self. We are set up for this process, neurologically, to develop executive function and memory, to interact with others socially to develop reasoning and use of strategies, and later develop a sense of self.

As humans, there are certain things that we are biased to have some intuition about and to learn about further (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Social cognition is part of folk psychology and is one of those things we are naturally intuitive and curious about. To learn and develop our social cognition, we are constantly participating in social interactions with other humans. This need to socially interact with other people gives us the opportunities to develop our social cognition by developing our executive functions, memory, use of strategies, and reasoning. The development of executive function includes the speed of processing, memory span, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility which are all skills that are later used skills that aid in the development of social cognition. As Piaget found, when humans are placed in a state of discomfort, they are motivated to keep the schemes of their environment aligned in a process called Equilibration (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 157). While interacting with other humans, we will inevitably face some kind of interaction or task that requires us to use reasoning or strategies.

In a very simplistic form, interactions in which we are forced to acquire or develop some kind of skill can be seen with infants. Meltzoff and Moore called this neonatal imitation. Neonatal imitation is “the ability of newborns to reproduce some behavior, such as facial expression, that they have seen in others” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 405). Though this interaction can be seen as very simplistic, it is showing that infants are aware of the importance of social interactions with other humans and that they are participating in a form of social learning by observation. Participation in both social interactions and social learning continues throughout adulthood, however, to recognize that, even at infancy, we are participating in these actions. Therefore, caretakers and educators do not need to “helicopter parent” or push these interactions to happen because we are born with the intuition and curiosity to do so.

After infancy, these social interactions and learning can be seen in children playing with one another because they are beginning to come across obstacles forcing them to develop reasoning and the use of strategies to help them work through those obstacles. Reasoning “heavily relies on prior knowledge” therefore making reasoning a skill that gets better with age and experience. When executive functions are better developed at a younger age, reasoning as a skill is more developed at an older age. One type of reasoning, analogical reasoning, is a skill that is used to learn about things we do not already know by using the knowledge of relationships between things that we do know but is hindered when there is a conflict between the perceptual and relational connections (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 290).

The use of strategies is another skill that children acquire and use to solve problems that they face in a social setting. Strategies are “deliberate, goal-directed mental operations aimed at solving a problem” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 266). Both reasoning and the use of strategies develop with age and experience. Part of that experience is being put in a place of discomfort when facing an obstacle and attempting to solve the problem with reasoning or use of strategies. Children use a model called the adaptive strategy choice model to decide which strategy to choose for a given obstacle. Many strategies exist at any given moment so if the strategy fails or is not as effective, the child will reevaluate and try again because we are driven to get to a place of comfort.

As mentioned previously, the development of reasoning and use of strategies also require other cognitive skills such as skills that are a part of executive function, specifically memory. Social information processing and memory are crucial parts of social cognition because the development of each allows us to process and interpret what we see so we can later apply it to social situations we are in. Social Information Processing states that we can learn just through observing. However, once we observe something, the information we process needs to be evaluated and stored to use later in other social situations (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 402).

Neurologically speaking, our brains have neurons called mirror neurons that serve as a large part of social learning. Mirror neurons fire when one observes another performing the same action they are and facilitates social learning. Similar to the infant imitating facial expressions, we are observing and processing other humans taking part in specific actions in specific places under specific circumstances. As humans, we see this as important so we process the information and store it so that it can be accessed later when we face a problem or obstacle. Symbolization, forethought, self-regulation, and vicarious learning are all processes that are a part of processing social information we encounter. The ability to do this as well as the effectiveness of it increases with age and experience.

Bringing it all together, it is clear that as humans, we have adapted as a social species for survival so we are given all the tools at birth to develop in a species-typical way in order to function. Based on this, there is no reason for caretakers or educators to be too involved in the development of a child’s social cognition. If they are too involved, children will not be able to process the social information they perceive and problem solve or use strategies to effectively navigate their social situations. Without failing and trying again, children will not be able to develop these skills in a way that allows them to use them effectively and efficiently.

However, can caretakers and educators be certain that children are placed in the correct situations to face discomfort and the process of problem-solving to develop all the proper skills they need socially? To go even further, will the children navigate the situations correctly so that when cognition continues to develop, it is developing properly? This is where the second perspective comes. The second side of the debate argues that children need some help in the form of support and modeling from caretakers and educators to give them a leg up in the development of their social cognition. If children receive support and modeling, they will learn more and be more effective when it comes to the tasks and obstacles they face later in life. Piaget believed that “children are the primary agents in their own development” and that would hold true considering that we are drawn to social cognition, however, interaction with other people and the environment is critical for social cognition to develop (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 155). As described earlier, neurologically we are set up for this development to happen but caretakers and educators can positively help this development through giving support and mentoring children.

While it is true we can develop some by simply observing, so many other underlying cognitive skills need to be developed for social cognition to develop. When caretakers and educators are involved in the development of those underlying skills, children are better prepared to develop their social cognition. Caretakers and educators can help by supporting children through interacting with them in basic social interactions as well as teaching to help the development of executive function, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.

We already know that social cognition is folk psychology, and as humans we are naturally drawn to it. We already have some intuition about social cognition and are curious to learn more about it. Unfortunately, as humans when something is too easy or too difficult, we no longer give it our attention (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 105). This is where the Zone of Proximal Development comes into the picture because caretakers and educators play a large role in this. In terms of executive function, our brains are already set up to develop our brain’s processing speed, memory span and working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. The role social interactions and adults hold in the further development of those things is what really matters. Things like cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and memory are crucial for the development of other skills used in social situations and developing a sense of self.

How children and adults remember are very different from each other so when parents support a child’s memory, they remember more. Judith Hudson states that remembering can be carried out jointly by a child and an adult because it shows that when kids are given a push they remember more and with this conversation, children are creating patterns of what they should be looking for in situations for the future (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 323). Not only are they building patterns of what is important to remember, but their cognitive flexibility is also growing because they are being introduced to another perspective of situations. One example of a simple game that can be played with children to demonstrate their cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and memory is the game Simon Says (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). The social interactions between adults and children are so important to develop these skills that are later translated into the development of social cognition and sense of self.

After these cognitive skills are beginning to grow and develop, social cognition and a sense of self can begin to develop while still having the support and modeling from caretakers and educators. As humans, we have an amazing ability to learn from observation but we would learn so much more and be more efficient if learning happened through social situations. At one point or another people will face an obstacle or area of discomfort in a social situation where they need to learn how to problem-solve. We can use reasoning and strategies to help us navigate these issues. However, we do not just get these skills through observation solely. After already having a basis of memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition, we can participate in social learning to build our reasoning and strategy use skills. First and foremost, we need to process the information we are experiencing shown by the Social Information Processing Theory (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 402). Through this process, we encode, interpret, search for a response, evaluate the response, and enact the response. This process takes many cognitive skills and abilities which are constantly being developed through interactions with adults. However, those skills can also help build reasoning and use of strategies that help us better navigate social situations. We can acquire and develop these skills through social learning such as emulation and instruction learning. Analogical reasoning is the most common form of reasoning used by humans because scientific reasoning requires more metacognition (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 290). Analogical reasoning is a part of problem-solving in which you “use something you already know to help you understand something you don’t know” Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 290).

Another way to solve problems is through the use of strategies. Strategies are not necessarily taught in a classroom setting but are taught when a new skill needs to be learned. Both reasoning and use of strategies can be used in problem-solving but how to use them and when can be taught through social learning. Through social learning, we get perspective on ways to attain a certain goal. First, we can learn through emulation where we can observe someone doing something to reach a goal, and then we will try to reach the same goal but use a different method. One example of this is viewing one child using their fingers to sift through sand finding seashells so the next child throws sand up in the air to find the seashells Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 403). This way of learning only uses observation but another form of social learning is instruction learning. Instruction learning is when a child changes their behavior while around an adult and the adult can encourage or discourage behavior for the child to learn a new skill. This form of social learning requires there to be an interaction between an adult and a child and the adult needs to place the child in their own Zone of Proximal Development at the same time.

Since we as humans are naturally drawn to learning how to be social and appropriately act in social situations, there is not a big push for parents to be helicopter parents however, caretakers and educators should be involved because through those interactions, kids will learn more. Not only will they learn more, but they will also perform these skills more effectively in social situations. If caretakers and educators just allowed children to “figure it out” they would not always acquire the more difficult problem-solving skills for more complex problems. We know that the problems we face only grow in complexity with age and experience so why wouldn’t caretakers and educators provide support and modeling for children to learn from and use.

Both sides of the debate agree that we are set up with a skill set to learn how to be social and navigate social situations. The degree to which caretakers and educators are involved are different but they show two extremes. I do not think that parents should just let children “figure it out” because they will not learn as much as they could and develop as much if they did not have support and modeling from adults. The frontal cortex is not completely developed during childhood so adults need to be involved to give them a leg up. However, they also should not be “helicopter parents” because when everything is done for a child, they will not learn and develop. Seeing as both sides are seen to be extremes, I would still agree with the second one because the involvement of adults is very important in the development of social cognition. Adults should be involved in a child’s life through the interactions and conversations they have with them so that they can properly develop their executive function and memory.

Those two cognitive skills will help with problem-solving skills such as reasoning and strategy use allowing us to properly navigate social situations and obstacles. This can be done through social learning and part of that is keeping children in a space where they are uncomfortable so they can learn how to get to a place of comfort. That space is called the Zone of Proximal Development and caretakers and educators can help children in this area. By “helicopter parenting” children will not be in this place and will not learn to problem solve without the help of an adult or they will just choose not to because it is too difficult.

All parents and teachers want their kids to develop and grow in the best possible way. Part of that is being able to in social situations and navigate them properly. The ability to do that will allow children to develop a sense of self and that is really the goal. A sense of self and our place in the world is what gives us empathy for others and the drive to do something that brings a little bit of good into this world. Unfortunately, there is not a list of steps and it is not the same for everyone but there are some things we know about the development of cognition and social cognition. Caretakers and educators can take this information into account when deciding how to support their children so they grow in the best way possible in our society. For those who believe that children should just have to struggle to grow, I would say that there are benefits to struggling because you are forced to learn skills to get out of this discomfort. However, to grow, we’ve seen that some instruction and guidance from adults will bring more benefits in the long run for children to exist in our social world.

Work Cited

Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey K. B. (2018). Children’s thinking: Cognitive Development and 

Individual Differences.