2 to 4 years

The major achievement in this stage is the attachment of symbolic language to sensorimotor experiences. This attachment eventually frees the child from the immediate present so that he can mentally act on absent events or things. The child’s thought is still dependent upon percepts rather than concepts. Vocabulary continues to expand and now the child uses grammatical components (morphology and syntax).

Cognitive and Communication Milestones

  • Sort by one variable (e.g., color or size, not both)
    • Discriminate size
  • Reasoning and problem-solving based on associations, previous experiences, what can visibly be seen(associative reasoning)
    • Egocentric: views world from their perspective, unable to take the view of others
  • Lack one-to-one correspondence
    • Has ability to rote count, but lacks understanding of math concepts
  • Understands symbolic representations(e.g., pictures, icons, words)
    • Communicates in symbols (spoken words, pictures) more than gestures
    • Recognizes properties (size, quantity, texture, color)
    • Names pictured objects and actions
    • Match objects to pictures and pictures to pictures
    • Engages in symbolic play
    • Identifies and labels letters and numbers
  • Grammar (morphology and syntax) emerges
    • Combine words into phrases and simple sentences
    • Use plurals
    • Ask what/where questions
    • Distinguish between pronouns
    • Understand and use prepositions
  • Beginning immediate memory (2-3 number repetition, sentence imitation)
  • Gradual improvements in processing speed and accuracy on impulse control tasks

Strategies to AVOID

Strategy to AVOID


What To Do Instead

ONLY Audio timers and verbal prompts for transition

While symbolism is an emerging skill it is not completely reliable

  • Pair audio/verbal prompts with concrete visual supports or transition items

Long explanations/ Lecture-based instruction

Their language is still very concrete and too much language can be a stressor

  • Short verbal directives
  • Teaching skills in context
  • Using visual supports and hands-on materials

Logical reasoning and emphasis on too many rules taught out of context

Their reasoning is still predominately

  • Short simple rules directly related to student behavior and taught in context

Use of Perspective taking to support behavior and emotion regulation

Students are still egocentric and have difficulty thinking about something from another point of view

  • Use simple rules and redirection


Students have not yet acquired the understanding of one-to-one correspondence

  • Number sense activities with manipulatives
  • Concepts of more/less, one/all, etc.

Strategies that depend on logical thinking

As a pre logical thinker, these strategies will not be understood and provide meaningful leaning opportunities

  • Use rules and redirection.
  • Focus on what they should do, not the "why"
  • Teach concrete concepts using manipulatives and visuals

Delayed reinforcement or cost response systems

These systems are usually not understood at this developmental level, are viewed as unfair, and lead to an increase in challenging behavior

  • Frequent reinforcement throughout the day using visual closures

Curriculum emphasizing mastery of reading/writing or paper/pencil math computation

The foundational skills for math and literacy are emerging but are not yet reliable.

  • Experiential learning

Emphasis on paper-pencil activities/ worksheets

Individuals rely on hands on materials to understand and make meaning of concepts and skills. Heavily loaded paper-pencil activities increase the likelihood individual will not make connection to their personal lives and may decrease task engagement and increase in challenging behavior.

  • Hands on materials

Strategies to Use

Strategy to Use



Opportunities for self-initiation and choice-making

Autonomy starts to become more important at this stage. It provides opportunities to gain some control over their environment and become more active participant in learning as opposed to being guided through activities as in the previous stages of development

  • Choosing order of activities, choosing materials needed to complete tasks, choosing how many tasks or who to work with
  • Helping adults prepare a simple snack, gather materials, assist with simple chores

Short simple rules directly related to student behavior and taught in context

Primary mode of learning at this stage is by associations they have experienced

  • If I put my work in "all done" bin I get to play.
  • I shake my head "no", teacher takes work away

Hands-on materials and activities

Auditory systems are still developing, and language understanding is still limited so they need to be active participants in their learning by engaging with materials

  • Sorting familiar household and classroom materials.
  • Matching toys to pictures or printed text

Teaching skills embedded in routines and activities

Routines continue to provide a meaningful context for learning as they are predictable and familiar

  • Turn taking, requesting items, activities of daily living (bathroom, bathing, hand washing, dressing routines)

Opportunities to replicate routine, familiar behaviors already within repertoire in new contexts

Routines provide a context to demonstrate recently mastered behaviors. Additionally, it allows the individual to demonstrate their understanding of the skill and how it applies to their daily life

  • Examples of mastered skills:
    • using novel restroom
    • having a meal in a new environment

Some delay in reinforcement, if minimal and represented visually

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 (still needs to be frequent and multiple times a day)

Picture-Based Communication Systems

Student now understands that 2 dimensional pictures stand for real objects/activities in their environment so pictures can be used to support their expressive communication (vs just exposing them to symbolic language) as well as written communication

  • PECS
  • Communication boards
  • Low/High tech voice output systems

Symbolic visual support (Pictures, photos, icons, etc.)

Due to significant increase in their symbolism, symbols/pictures can be used to support their understanding of concepts as well as their organization

  • Picture schedules
  • Pictured examples
  • Topic boards
  • Picture dictionary


Given the student has symbolism and delayed imitation, modeling provides opportunities to demonstrate application of new behaviors, language, and skills

  • Adult models routine/ language
  • Peer modeling
  • Video modeling


Back to Cognitive and Communication Milestones