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EIF report

Key competencies in early cognitive development: Things, people, numbers and words

This major report sets out the evidence on how best to support children’s foundational cognitive development in the early years, covering their theory of mind, objects, numbers and words. Understanding these crucial areas of development is key to ensuring children are ready for school and supporting efforts to reduce income-related gaps in school attainment.



Full report



Healthy cognitive development is strongly associated with children’s attainment at school and their future life chances.

This review highlights the importance of children’s early language development, which previous EIF reviews have identified as playing a critical role in children's overall development and wellbeing, as well as three other competencies associated with their future success: understanding of objects, people and numbers. These four competencies were chosen because they draw from perceptual capabilities that are already present at birth, and are widely viewed to represent the building blocks for children’s later learning. 

This report:

  • provides a comprehensive summary of the most recent evidence involving the development of children’s knowledge of objects, people, numbers and language
  • identifies factors which support the development of early competencies or place them at risk
  • sets out the implications of this evidence for improving the quality of early years services, particularly those aimed at reducing income-related differences in children’s cognitive performance at school.

Key milestones in children’s cognitive development

The report also sets out a range of milestones in children's development in each of the four areas, summarised in the following chart (click to expand).

About the author

Dr Kirsten Asmussen

Kirsten is head of what works, child development, at EIF.