Early Academic

4 to 7 years

Children use their evolving concepts of the environment to organize and reason about their perceptions and experiences. Through experience, their precepts are beginning to resemble adult concepts and they can use language to explain, describe, and reason (versus language being more rote in the previous stage). However, their reasoning is illogical.

Cognitive and Communication Milestones

  • Multi-variable thinking emerges (e.g., sorts by both shape and color)
    • Classify by representational properties and multiple class membership
  • Use intuitive reasoning to give a simple explanation of the result of an experiment or cause of common phenomena; magical thinking or based on immediate perceptions, not logical (e.g., "what happens to the sun at night?"..."it goes behind the mountain")
  • 1:1 correspondence (sense of quantity)
  • Sequence pictures to tell a story
  • Attend to a short story and answer simple questions about it
  • Use language to narrate and explain based on their perceptions
    • Make predictions
    • Express sympathy
    • Request clarification
  • Can repeat longer number strings and more complex sentences
  • Understand simple relationships (associations, opposites, categories)
  • Explain object functions and describe properties of objects
  • Use a variety of sentence structures, including complex sentences
  • Engage in cooperative play
    • Create imaginary roles and props
  • Use language to resolve disputes with peers
  • Use direct requests with justification (e.g., "Stop that. You’re hurting me.")
  • Follow three-step directions without cues
  • Play competitive games
  • Have good control of the elements of conversation
  • Ask questions for information
  • Identify sound/letter correspondences and decode simple words and patterns
  • Write/spell common words
  • Emerging theory of mind

Strategies to AVOID

Strategy to AVOID


What to do instead

Only whole group instruction

Whole group does not provide frequent access for student to engage meaningfully as there is more downtime and limited opportunities to differentiate

  • Small group rotations allow the adults to differentiate tasks for multiple levels, quickly redirect or provide reinforcement, check for understanding, and limit downtime

Lengthy lectures

Auditory systems are still developing through this stage so relying on lectures and verbal explanations does not create an optimal learning environment

  • Keep verbal language short and paired it with visual supports and hands-on learning

Extensive group work

Their organization, planning, and problem-solving skills do not support the ability to work in groups for extensive periods of time, without guidance from adults

  • Short brainstorms in groups
  • Think-Pair-Share

Too delayed reinforcement and cost response systems

Students continue to need frequent (although not immediate) reinforcement to stay engaged and motivated.  Cost response may lead a child to give up on positive behavior and has multiple variables for them to consider, which can be confusing at this level when their understanding is still pre-logical and concrete

  • Positive reinforcement represented through a visual closure

Relying extensively on logic or perspective taking

Although students at this stage are starting to learn there are reasons and explanations outside of their immediate perceptions and experiences, they still have magical thinking and they are still egocentric until the end of this stage.

  • Clear expectations
  • Simple rules
  • Visuals to support expectations and rules

Strategies to Use

Strategy to Use



An array of visual supports

Visual supports continue to be meaningful and with emerging literacy skills, simple text-based visual supports can also be incorporated

  • Picture/written schedules
  • Task checklists
  • Recipes/Step-by-step instructions
  • Video instruction/models

Skills embedded in routines and activities (supported with picture/text)

Routines continue to provide a meaningful context for learning as they are predictable and familiar. Targeted skills within the routines can increase in language, cognitive, and academic complexity (from previous stages)

  • Circle/story time paired with picture text information
  • Whole group lessons paired with text/picture, students answer simple questions, follow simple directives

Opportunities to explore cause-effect

Children have a much better understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. They begin to see how their actions have an effect on their environment and other people

  • Providing materials for experimentation.

Delay in reinforcement (if visually represented)

Ability to inhibit has increased so they can delay gratification a little more, but need to know when that gratification is coming as time is still an abstract concept

  • Reinforcement provided upon completion of a visual closure

Touch Math (if 1:1 is solid - middle/end of range)

Students now have 1:1 correspondence to support addition and subtraction. TouchMath provides multisensory strategies to support computation.

  • Student computes a simple addition problem of two numbers by adding touch points to the corresponding numbers and counts the overall total.

Teaching and shaping desired behavior/forms?

When students use negative behaviors to communicate, a more appropriate form (e.g., gesture, picture, script, etc.), that serves the same function as the negative behavior, needs to be shaped and reinforced

  • If a student elopes the classroom to escape difficult tasks, then adults can teach the student to use a break card, skip card, or say "I need a break" (depending on what is most meaningful for that student)

Teaching and shaping desired behavior

In order to reduce negative behaviors, students need clear expectations and simple rules taught in context and linked to reinforcement.

  • Teacher shapes hand raising to a student who frequently calls out in class

Picture-Based Communication Systems

Not only are students symbolic, but they have acquired a lot more vocabulary and grammar. Therefore, students who are non-verbal can use communication systems to generate novel utterances. Their expressive communication using AAC systems is at a more advanced level.

  • High-tech voice output devices


Back to Cognitive and Communication Milestones