Formal Operational Stage: How Parents Support Cognitive Development

A young girl sits on a kitchen counter, attempting to write a science essay titled “What would the world be like if the scientific method wasn’t developed?” After scribbling a few ideas, Fiona gets visibly annoyed and scrunches up another page to throw towards the bin.

Fiona is another teenager who’s been struggling with school work and her father watches unhappily from the stove as his daughter worries. He may not understand it yet but Fiona is struggling with the formal operational stage.

What is the formal operational stage? The formal operational stage is the final stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. During this time, children start thinking about abstract concepts and hypotheticals. The formal operational stage starts around the age of 11 and continues through to adulthood.

This type of deductive reasoning is needed in STEM subjects and a technologically driven society. 

In a difficult world, every parent wants their child to succeed. However, not all parents know how to help their child through tough developmental stages as they grow and take on the world.

There is some quality research out there that should help parents to understand and guide their kids through what Piaget called the Formal Operational stage.

While many early child psychologists focused on children’s physical and emotional growth, Piaget’s theory was meant to look at how humans acquire knowledge through exploration.

His theory broke down development into four stages, beginning with simple actions like grabbing objects as a baby during the sensorimotor stage, playing make-believe with household objects in the pre-operational stage and understanding that the amount of milk in a cup can be the same as the amount of milk in a jug although it appears to be less, during the concrete operational stage.

Most children eventually finish the development with the formal operational stage.

During this time they are them thinking about hypotheticals such as where they would place a third eye on their body and explaining their choices.

This kind of hypothetical reasoning allows them to function better in the world, understanding the consequences of their actions and being able to problem-solve.

Once a child reaches this stage, their method of acquiring knowledge does not change, it only involves building upon knowledge.

Every child is different and may move from one stage to the next on a slightly different timeline. Fiona is one of those kids on her own timeline.

There’s a lot to understand about the formal operational stage.

It helps to know when your child may reach it and what parents can do to help their kids understand abstract and hypothetical concepts a little better.

Do All Children Reach the Formal Operational Stage?

No. According to Piaget, formal education and developmental stages are closely linked together and non-literate children are found to struggle significantly with deductive reasoning.

Fiona is lucky. She goes to a great school and has a strong support system at home, so she’ll reach the formal operational stage soon enough.

Even if she wasn’t in a great school, her parents shouldn’t worry too much, because they are her primary teachers and have the power to ensure she is exposed to experiences that will aid in her development.

At home, they can challenge her by giving her roles that increase in responsibility and complexity.

If they assist her along the way, they can fuel her ability to think critically and solve problems. 

Formal Operational Stage Examples

During the formal operational stage, children should be able to show deductive reasoning when presented with “what if” situations.

What if the snow was warm? What would you do with a million dollars? What if no one had hair anymore?

The ability to grasp examples that have no basis in the child’s reality demonstrates more common instances of having achieved the formal operational stage.

Fiona’s essay is a perfect example of a hypothetical “what if” and her frustration shows that she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of the type of thinking acquired during the formal operational stage. 

Piaget explored this abstract thinking by asking children where they would place a third eye if they had one.

Younger children generally answered that they would place the third on their forehead, as that is their concrete understanding of where an eye should be.

Older children were able to give ideas like placing the eye on the back of the head as that would help with seeing what’s happening behind them. (source)

One of Piaget’s experiments to assess formal operational thought was through the use of scale and weights.

Children were given the task of creating balance by hooking different-sized weights to a scale.

While a child in the concrete operational phase would work through trial and error, placing and moving weights multiple times to achieve balance, a child in the formal operational stage would understand that heavier weights closer to the center of the scale would balance lighter weights placed farther from the center.

This reminds us that the formal operational phase is closely linked to mathematical and scientific concepts.

Maybe this is why Fiona’s grades aren’t great in mathematics and science.

While the bulk of her classmates can calculate answers in their heads and answer the teacher confidently, Fiona has to write equations down before she can get to the correct answer.

Within the classroom setting, students who have reached the formal operational stage are able to better understand and solve problems presented on paper.

Because they can understand concepts hypothetically, they do not need props or objects to prove a hypothesis but instead can work through their own mental representations.

This allows them to understand and continue patterns, break down situations and come to logical conclusions based on existing knowledge.

How Parents Can Tell if their Child has Reached the Formal Operational Stage

All children reach Piaget’s third concrete operational stage, barring any kind of learning disability.

Fiona did. So how are Fiona’s parents supposed to tell when their child has started moving beyond this stage into the formal operational?

During the concrete operational stage, children between the ages of 7 to 11 start applying principles and logic to their thinking.

They can solve problems in a rational manner but it generally involves objects or events within their frame of reference.

They understand the concept of conservation that allows them to reason that an object can change its volume, size or appearance and still remain the same object.

Fiona had always been a creative kid and she understood the many ways that she could play with clay. 

Whether she was making animals or cars out of the clay, she always had enough.

She also helped her little brother when he wanted to make a lion out of her clay, as children in the concrete operational stage become less egocentric and care more for the needs of the people around them.

The formal operational stage calibrates a child’s understanding of the world and their own theories about it.

During this stage, the child should be able to hypothesize and handle abstract thoughts in their minds.

If they are still writing or drawing to reach conclusions, then they are still in the process of transitioning to the formal operations stage.

Fiona finally loses her cool with her essay, scratching at her next page in frustration. Her dad is at his wit’s end and can only pat her back sympathetically. This is when he needs some informed help.

How Parents Can Help Their Child During the Formal Operational Stage

Parents can help their child by breaking down concepts step-by-step, allowing their child to draw on their own knowledge while giving them the confidence to explore for themselves.

Visual aids like pictures and videos are great resources for children to build their knowledge. Let’s see what happens between Fiona and her father. 

Fiona looks up at her father in frustration and says “Dad, I can’t get this. Where do I even start?”

Her dad grabs his laptop off the counter and sits down next to her. “Let’s start this way.

What do you know about the scientific method?” He googles a few pictures of scientists carrying out the process as Fiona speaks.

Fiona started explaining its structure, remembering quite a lot from the class and the movie they had seen about the scientific method.

Her dad told her to write down the main driver behind its development and the impact it made. 

Fiona smiled down at her list, “I actually remember quite a lot. Cool.” 

“That’s great, hon.” Her dad encouraged her, “Now thinking about those effects, how would the world have been different if the scientific method was never developed?”

“Well, maybe the world would not have benefitted from all of this scientific and technological innovation?”, she said. 

“Well done, that’s a great start!”, he said. 

Fiona grinned up at her dad, “I think I’m getting it now.”

“Yeah, you are. Now, how do you think the people who believed in geocentrism felt at the time the method was being developed?”, her father asked. 

Fiona rattled off another possible scenario, thinking about what she had learned about the geocentrism and what people were traditionally taught back then. 

Her father is demonstrating how parents can help their child develop through the formal operational stage by encouraging them to view things from different perspectives, even when they disagree with them or the other viewpoint is found to be wrong.

This includes examining cross-cultural contexts that expose the child to frames of reference that they may not have encountered in their own lives.

Her dad smiled as he got back to the stove. Phew, another parenting moment that he had gotten right.

He was glad that Fiona went to a school which taught through a variety of media and texts, as rigorous education is a vital factor in promoting strong cognitive development.

Children should be encouraged to learn through their own desire for knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

Fiona’s dad knew that he couldn’t give her any answers but he needed to help her think along the right lines to come up with an answer on her own. (source)

In time, Fiona was on a roll and happily wrote new ideas down about this hypothetical world, which honestly didn’t sound that great.

She seemed to like what she was doing. Her dad wondered if he should bring more social components into her writing.

“Do you think that the scientific method can solve all problems?”

Fiona bit the end of her pencil as she thought. Children should be encouraged to think about broader concepts in their world, which assists in their cognitive development.

Parents should be there to guide them, especially through complex scenarios as children explore information from a variety of sources.

Since Fiona had happily completed her homework, she chatted to her father for a while longer.

Her father asked her what gift they should get for her mother’s upcoming birthday.

Fiona thought about what her mother liked and disliked and how she might possibly react to certain gifts as her dad offered some options. 

Parents can also include children in important decision-making at home, encouraging them to think through the consequences of those choices before making a decision (source).

Fiona’s dad also knows now that her little brother may need some help reaching the formal operational stage since he is 9 years old, he wondered if there were any toys or activities that could help with the process.

What Toys or Activities Can Be Used for Formal Operational Stage Play?

Q-Bitz

This pattern game challenges players to reconstruct the pattern in front of them using the pieces they are provided.

For each round players try to recreate the same model, whoever completes it fastest wins and it’s on to the next round.

This is an easy one for kids to take a liking to.

Check it out on Amazon here.

Kanoodle

This puzzle building game allows the player to build in either 2D or 3D.

Puzzles vary in difficulty, allowing the player the opportunity to get used to it and improve quickly.

Over time, kids can improve their critical thinking and visual spatialization skills without even realizing they are working.

Buy it on Amazon here.

Monopoly

Monopoly teaches the basics of money management, encouraging children to think about the right moments to spend and save, depending on their own budget and the purchases of the players around them.

It also encourages children to think about other perspectives as they calculate what other players may be trying to do on the board.

See it on Amazon here.

Rubik’s Cube

Rubik’s Cube involves the use of logical thinking. Every movement of a color creates a consequence somewhere else on the cube.

This encourages children to think holistically and hypothesize movements and solutions before actually committing to action.

Buy it here on Amazon.

Team Sports

Team sports encourage participation and social interaction. As children are moving away from an egocentric viewpoint, team sports encourage compromise and understanding of other perspectives.

They also create opportunities for children to interact with peers from other cultural backgrounds, sharing differing frames of reference. 

One Toy that Shouldn’t Be Used for Formal Operation Stage Play

Tablet

Tablets are tempting for parents because they present what appears to be a modern method of learning.

The research does not support this unless the child is working on something highly effective like Lego We Do 2.0.

If you want to learn more about using Lego We Do 2.0 with your child, read this article.

Children who spend significant time in front of screens may struggle with focus and face a reduced ability to be creative and think critically about the world around them.

Too much screen time also promotes isolation, as they do not encourage children to interact with each other in a natural manner. 

As with all objects, everything should be used in moderation.

While toys are a helpful way of encouraging deductive reasoning and problem-solving skills, they cannot be used as the only or best means of achieving these skills.

Piaget’s theory is based on the concept of exploration and children should be encouraged to explore the world in a way that is both safe and comfortable for them.

Why the Stages of Cognitive Development are Important for Parents. 

The stages of cognitive development give parents a framework to help their children progress healthily into adulthood.

It also helps manage the expectations of parents in a competitive world, encouraging parents not to push their children to do too much before they are cognitively ready for the next stage.

Fiona and her brother will get to the formal operational stage with positive reinforcement and assistance, but the purpose is to encourage independent thinking and the search for knowledge in children in a natural way (source).

Does a child have to reach the formal operational stage to be successful in school?

No. The theory only looks at the concept of knowledge acquisition and not at emotional or social issues that have a substantial effect on student success.

The formal operational stage has no bearing on behavior, motivation or work-ethic which are keys to success in formal education.

If Fiona had given up and her father had not been around, she possibly would not have continued with her essay at all, beginning a pattern of demotivation around difficult schoolwork. (source)

Is Piaget’s theory a perfect framework for cognitive development?

No. Some criticisms of the theory include accusations of Piaget creating over-complicated scenarios for children.

Some studies have found that children can demonstrate skills and knowledge through simpler scenarios and Piaget may have underestimated their abilities.

Piaget did not always account for cultural differences as well, as some of his experiments were not appropriately phrased and made assumptions about some non-literate cultures as not having reached the formal operational stage when they actually had. 

It is a framework that is still taught today, and many people make reference to it. Some of its ideas are helpful to provide a frame of reference, but it should not be considered completely reliable.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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