The specific operational stage of cognitive development

The specific calculation stage is the third stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory. This period spans the middle of childhood—from about 7 years old and lasting to about 11 years old—and is characterized by the development of logical thinking.

Thinking still tends to be very specific, but at this stage of development, children’s thinking becomes more logical and complex.

Although this is an important stage in itself, it is also an important transition between the early stages of development and the upcoming stage, where children will learn how to think more abstractly and hypothetically.

Children at this age become more logical about concrete and concrete things, but they still struggle with abstract ideas.

Understand logic

Piaget concluded that children at specific stages of computing are quite good at using inductive reasoning. Inductive logic involves going from specific experience to general principles.

An example of inductive logic is to notice that every time you are with a cat, you will have itchy eyes, a runny nose, and a swollen throat. Then you might infer from that experience that you are allergic to cats.

Illustration by Cindy Chung, VigorTip

On the other hand, it is difficult for children of this age to use deductive logic, which involves the use of general principles to determine the outcome of a particular event. For example, a child may know A=B and B=C, but may still have difficulty understanding A=C.

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Understanding reversibility

An important development at this stage is the understanding of reversibility or the awareness that actions can be reversed. An example of this is the ability to reverse the order of relationships between mental categories.

An example of reversibility is that a child may be able to recognize that his or her dog is a Labrador, the Labrador is a dog, and the dog is an animal.

Other key features

Another key development at this stage is the understanding that something remains the same when its shape or appearance changes. This concept is called protection. Children at this stage understand that if you divide a candy bar into smaller pieces, it is still the number of whole candies. This is in stark contrast to young children, who usually think that pouring the same amount of liquid into two cups means more liquid.

For example, suppose you have two candies of exactly the same size. You divide one candy bar into two equal-sized pieces, and the other candy bar into four smaller but equal-sized parts.

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Children at the specific stage of calculation will understand that the number of two sugar cubes is still the same, while younger children will think that the sugar cube with more cubes is larger than the cube with only two cubes.

Children become less self-centered

The specific operation stage is also marked by the reduction of egocentricism. Children in the previous stage of development (pre-operational stage) have difficulty seeing problems from the perspective of others, while children in the specific stage can think about problems in the way that others see things.

For example, in Piaget’s Three Mountains task, children in specific stages of computing can describe the mountain view in the eyes of the observer sitting opposite them.

In other words, children are not only able to start thinking about how other people see and experience the world, they even start to use this type of information when making decisions or solving problems.


One of the key features of the specific operation phase is the ability to focus on many parts of the problem. Children in the pre-computing development stage tend to focus on only one aspect of the situation or problem, while the children in the specific computing stage can perform so-called “distraction”. They can focus on many aspects of a situation at the same time, which plays a vital role in understanding protection.

This stage of cognitive development is also an important transition between the pre-computing phase and the formal computing phase. Reversibility is an important step towards more advanced thinking, although at this stage it only applies to specific situations.

Although children in the early stages of development are self-centered, children in the specific stage of operation become more social-centered. In other words, they can understand that other people have their own ideas. Children at this time realize that other people have unique perspectives, but they may not be able to accurately guess the way or experience that other people are going through.

When logic and abstract thinking become essential, this growing ability to manipulate information and think about other people’s ideas will play a key role in the formal operational phase of development.