What Child Issues Can Affect Cognitive Development?

iJupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Cognitive development refers to the way a child learns, understands, memorizes and processes information as he grows. In the publication “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function” on Harvard University’s website, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs explain that the healthy development of cognitive skills helps a child multitask, solve problems, plan, make decisions and control impulses as he matures. If a child does not get the chance to strengthen and use his cognitive skills, he may have trouble with everyday tasks and social activities later in life.


Some forms of stress, like the first day of school, are a normal and healthy part of a child’s life. The stress that comes from prolonged or frequent adversities and a lack of adult support can have a negative impact on a child’s cognitive development, according the Harvard University article “Toxic Stress: The Facts.” Stressful adversities can come in the form of a parent’s substance abuse, exposure to violence, a family’s economic hardship, chronic neglect, emotional abuse or physical abuse. When a child lives in a stressful environment, the development of her brain’s architecture weakens and puts her at risk for cognitive impairments. Intervention from caring adults who offer responsive relationships, however, can help reverse the effects of “toxic” stress.

Adult Support

A child in a stable, two-parent home is more likely to have “higher cognitive abilities” than a child in a single-parent home, according to a University of London study discussed in the 2011 “Newsweek” report “Poverty Can Hinder a Child's Cognitive Development, Study Says.” The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs explain that a when there is a positive adult-child relationship in the home, the environment promotes cognitive growth and enhances its development. Parents can further foster development through the creation of a daily routine, frequent social interaction and by providing experiences that involve sharing.


A child who comes from a low-income household is more likely to experience cognitive deficits than a child whose family has a higher socioeconomic status. The World Health Organization, in the article “Early Child Development,” shares that a child who lives in poverty is at risk for not having access to nutritious foods, good health care services, supportive caregivers or a stimulating environment – all factors that can negatively affect a child’s cognitive development. The World Health Organization notes that parents with low incomes can help increase a child’s developmental success by accessing social programs that offer maternity benefits, healthy food, health care, financial support and increased opportunities to spend time with their children.

Heredity and Environment

Every individual carries up to 50 genetic abnormalities that can predispose him to a developmental deficiency or health problem, according to the NOVA article “Nature vs. Nurture Revisited” by Kevin Davies. If a genetically based cognitive or intellectual disorder runs in the family and a child acquires it, a chance exists that early intervention may help offset some deficiencies. Davies notes that a child’s experiences during his early years are just as crucial as the genes he inherits. For example, an environment that does not promote a healthy child’s development during the early years can place him at risk for cognitive delays, even if he does not have a genetic predisposition for them.