Relationship Between Cognitive and Emotional Development in Toddlers

By Scott Thompson
Learning to think and learning to feel are interconnected processes.
Learning to think and learning to feel are interconnected processes.

Emotion and cognition may seem like distinct concepts, especially considering the huge difference between the behavior of a toddler calmly stacking up blocks and a toddler in the grip of an emotional meltdown. However, developmental psychologists have found that emotional and cognitive development become more and more closely connected as children grow.


Children are not blank slates whose personalities are shaped solely by their environments. Instead, every child is born with a unique temperament that determines how she will react emotionally in different situations. One child will jump in fear when she hears an unexpected noise, while another will laugh. A situation that would make one child cry will make another child angry. Even adults cannot control their emotions completely, but babies have no control over their emotions at all. Emotional development is the process by which children learn to gain some control over their inborn emotional temperaments.

Emotion and Cognition

Most kids begin to be able to control their emotions around age 3. According to a study conducted by University of Virginia psychology professor Martha Ann Bell, the process of cognition is originally separate from the emotional process. A toddler playing with blocks can be totally absorbed in learning how to stack them on top of each other until another child takes one of the blocks. When emotion takes over, cognition stops, and the toddler is overwhelmed by his emotional reaction.


According to Bell, increasing cognitive development gives the toddler the tools she needs to regulate her emotional reaction. Over time, her developing memory allows her to remember that there are other ways to handle the conflict besides shrieking or hitting the child who took her block. By the time she reaches adulthood, the same areas of her brain will handle both cognition and emotional regulation. Emotional development is the process of learning how to use thoughts to control feelings.


Child development researchers Theresa E. Bartolatta and Brian B. Shulman compare the process of learning emotional self-regulation to the process by which babies learn to control their movements and facial expressions. Over time, their cognitive and emotional skills become a single combined skill-set. According to the California Department of Education's "Cognitive Development Domain," children learn and practice many of these skills through role-playing social situations. As toddlers develop the ability to play pretend and act out imaginary scenarios, they use these new cognitive skills to practice handling their own emotions.

About the Author

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.