Zero in on cognitive development and learning – Justin Smith CALCIVIS

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  Posted by: Dental Design      4th January 2019

In modern society, it is very much the belief that ‘children are the future’ and nurturing and development has become a huge element of youngsters’ learning. This is true in all aspects of their life, from schooling to home life and social interactions.

Importantly, how a child learns and evolves in terms of their ability to process the information that is presented to them can affect a whole host of factors – including their understanding of their own safety and health. As such, if you are to get to grips with ways in which you can teach children the importance of oral health and prevention, then you will need to understand how a child’s mind works; at least in terms of their cognitive development. Child psychology is a complex topic, but as long as dental professionals have a basic knowledge they should be able to devise possible strategies that might be useful for educating young patients.

One of the first psychologists to categorise cognitive development was Jean Piaget, with a theory that is still in use today. He proposed that there are four stages where the increasing sophistication of children’s thoughts can be pinpointed.[i]These are:

  1. Sensorimotor stage(newborn to age two): According to Piaget, the main development during this time is that the infant builds a basic understanding of how things work as well as of themselves. It is thought that this is achieved via the processes of assimilation and accommodation.
  2. Preoperational stage(ages two to seven): Children are able to think about things symbolically at this stage, though their thought processes are still very much centred on themselves. As such, they still have difficulty in being able to understand the viewpoints of others.
  3. Concrete Operational stage(ages seven to 11): This is considered to be a pivotal turning point in cognitive development as it is around this time that children begin to think logically and rationally – but only with regard to physical objects.
  4. Formal Operational Stage (11 years and over): As soon as children enter into adolescence, they are able to better manipulate ideas and concepts, which helps them to perceive things in a more abstract way. This, in turn, means they can use abstract reasoning and comprehend the outcome of their actions.

Based on this information, it is clear to see that targeting children during the third and fourth stages would be much more conducive to achieving effective dental outcomes. Trying to educate children any earlier than that could potentially have less of a successful effect – or if it does, the impact might not be long lasting.

Of course, it’s not just about age, as each child will also have their own unique preferences and ways of learning when it comes to remembering and processing information. Some children for instance, are aural learners – in other words they respond well to sounds and music. Other learning styles include verbal (linguistic), physical (kinaesthetic), logical (mathematical), social (interpersonal), solitary (intrapersonal) and visual (spatial). By tapping into a young patient’s preferred method, and with the help of their parents and guardians, dental professionals may be able to increase the chances of relaying the message about the importance of an effective oral hygiene regime and balanced diet; and improve oral health.

Based on a child’s learning style and their stage of development, different strategies can be devised to aid with communication and education. For spatial learners especially, and those who are six years and above, there is the new, advanced CALCIVIS imaging system. Designed to help the dental team detect active tooth enamel demineralisation by applying a luminescent (light emitting) photoprotein, CALCIVIS serves as a great visual tool as it displays a glowing map of active demineralisation right at the chairside. This enables children to physically see demineralisation that could lead to dental caries, helping them to understand the consequences of a bad diet and poor oral hygiene.

Part of the problem with children’s oral health has always been youngsters’ understanding – or lack of – of the concept of preventive dentistry, and the importance of a good daily dental regimen from a young age. By executing a more targeted approach that takes cognitive development and learning into consideration, as well as using innovative tools, it might be possible to enhance children’s understanding and help them to look after their teeth and gums more effectively. Given the ongoing concerns surrounding children’s oral health and the knock-on effect it can have later in life, it’s certainly worth a try.


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[i]Piaget’s theory in PH Mussen in Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (1970), pp 703-732 by J. Piaget edited by Leonard Carmichael, Paul H, Mussen. New York: Wiley.


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