Childhood Development & Information Processing Theory

Childhood Development & Information Processing Theory

Role in Child Development

Information processing theory evolved in the 1950s and early 1960s from the belief that human thought occurs similar to computers (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This theory emerged during a time when computer technology became an emergent field and led to theories of the mind employing similar methods of information storage and retrieval. Today, information processing theory presents differently than from the early computer conceptualizations, positing that the mind actively builds unique information and understanding using stored memories.

There are several components to information processing theory. While the specific mechanisms of the Information processing theory are debatable, the components of the theory are generally agreed upon. These components include sensory register, working memory, long-term memory, and central executive (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). These components work together to form the information processing model.

The sensory register is the first part of the information processing system. This form of memory is extremely short ranging from fractions of seconds to two seconds (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This memory is the sensory input that one would receive from any number of daily activities. For instance, walking down the street would experience many different sensations of smell and sight. This memory serves the purpose of functioning but does not hold the many different sensations beyond the time they are needed to complete the walk. Only by paying attention and thinking about these sensations can they be transferred into working memory.

Working memory is as the name describes memory that is being used or working. The working memory is where people hold information while it is being used such as solving an arithmetic problem or try to figure out a solution to something. Working memory is temporary in nature and limited in its capacity. Typically, small amounts of information are held for 20 to 30 seconds (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004).

In contrast to working memory, long-term memory is able to hold vast amounts of information and memories. Long-term memory comprises the vast experience and education of an individual (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). There is some debate over whether long-term memory lasts indefinitely or if it fades over time. Despite this debate, long-term memory does last a very long time and seems to have an unlimited capacity.

The fourth part of the information processing theory is the central executive. The component of the theory is still a mystery as its mechanism and functions are unknown. What the central executive is believed to be is it is a form of thought supervisor that oversees the other components in order that information is processed properly. The primary function of the central executive is to make sure that information flows properly through the memory system in order to ensure proper “planning, decision making, self-regulation, and inhibition of unproductive thoughts and behaviors (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004, pg. 188).”

The information-processing model of memory creates a framework or model for how memory and learning work. The components of the model work together to encode, store, and retrieve information (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This model works on the premise that each of the parts of memory works in stages with information being shifted from one to the next and lasting longer and longer. To provide an example of how this model functions, information from sensation enters the sensory register and if this information is actively considered important enough by the central executive, it is shifted to the working memory. Once in working memory, if the information is actively being used consistently and for some time, it will be shifted by the central executive into the long-term memory (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). It should be noted that the brain operates in this manner because not all knowledge is important enough to store, this is indicative of the idea that the brain may not have infinite capacity and this model provides a means for choosing which information is important enough to store.

Another reason for the model to exist in the state that it does is by virtue of its role in child development. Children (infants and toddlers) learn primarily through sensory input from their surroundings (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). Infants are able to discern from their senses information about stimuli. For instance, infants understand the differences between temperature and object shapes as they experience them (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). Because humans are not born with innate knowledge it would stand to reason that the information processing model must incorporate the ability to utilize sensory information as knowledge. This process would seem to grow and become more complex with age.

As children age, the information processing model becomes more robust. Maturation brings with it increased attention and ability to focus the attention; faster processing; increased working memory, and more effective information processing (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). These changes in the model allow children to not just take in sensory information but also to utilize it. For instance, a child might learn from sensory information that ice cream is cold and that it hurts her teeth. This same information can be applied to other things that are cold such as ice. The child did not have to experience the ice to form this knowledge. This is where the central executive has performed its job and correctly correlated information. This is a function of age as young children do not have enough sensory information to create knowledge in this manner.

The information processing model forms the basis for how knowledge is acquired but more importantly it provides a working understanding of intelligence. At first, it would seem that intelligence would be determined by the ability of the model to function. For example, larger working memory would allow for greater problem-solving. While this seems logical it is not a complete view of the measure of intelligence with the model. The fact remains that some individuals are better at processing different forms of information and stimuli. This would mean that the information processing model is different among people.

If the model is different amongst individuals then this would seem to indicate that there are other factors that impact intelligence and the development of the model. It is known that some people are born with high functioning abilities such as mathematics and language comprehension. It is also known that the environment impacts intelligence such as lifestyle, education, nutrition, etc… Because of these two facts, It would stand to reason that the information processing model is impacted both by heredity and environment. Generally speaking, intelligence is believed to be formed from the combination of inherited traits, environmental factors, and socialization. Because intelligence is difficult to measure and quantify, the degree of impact from these factors is a source of controversy. The controversy centers on the argument of whether intelligence is derived genetically or environmentally or the degree of combination between these factors.

The nature vs. nurture question, of how-much-of-it-is-genetic-and-how-much-of-it-is-the result-of-environment, is a flawed argument. The flaw in this thinking is that genetic factors and experiential factors do not combine in an additive fashion. Intelligence is created through a combination of many genetic factors and many interactions with the environment (Pinel, 2011). It is incorrect to ask the question of how much intelligence is due to genetics and how much of it is due to experience because it takes both factors to create the attribute. It is more appropriate to categorize nature and nurture and try to separate the contributions of genetics and experience when measuring the development of differences between people.

When dealing with children it is a better approach to separate the genetic endowments from the environmental endowments because this provides a more exact picture of how the child is processing information and knowledge (Pinel, 2011). Anyone trying to understand intelligence in terms of genetics vs. environment would need to focus their attention on the interaction of the person with the environment as well as skills. By focusing on the child’s intellectual development in this way, a more robust and clear view of the process can be obtained. Ultimately, viewing intellect and child development in this manner will provide a more objective means of teaching and interacting with children.


Pinel J.P. (2011) Biopsychology, Eighth Edition,. Published by Allyn & Bacon. Pearson Education, Inc. pg. 23–25

McDevitt, T. M., & Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Child Development: Educating and Working with Children and Adolescents Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Pearson Education, Inc.

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Triola Vincent. Wed, Jan 06, 2021. Childhood Development & Information Processing Theory Retrieved from

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