What Happens In The Formal Operational Stage

Piaget’s formal operational stage begins around age 12 or 13 and ends around age 16 or 17. Many teens go through this period before high school graduation, although some may not reach this stage until college, work, or even much later. This stage represents the time when adolescents use abstract, logical thinking skills to solve problems. A major change from the concrete thinking that characterized earlier stages of cognitive development. What Happens in the Formal Operational Stage?

The Basics

A person holding a baby

The formal operational stage of cognitive development was first described by psychologist Jean Piaget, who studied how young children develop the ability to understand abstract concepts. One example of an abstract concept that children must learn to comprehend during this stage is mathematics, particularly geometry. Children begin to demonstrate the ability to think logically about symbols and their relationships with one another through these mathematical studies, which are some of the earliest examples of formal operational thought in humans.

Reasoning Moves

Your formal operational child won’t struggle as much with emotions or self-control and is less apt to throw a tantrum if things don’t go her way. Instead, she’ll use good reasoning and logic to solve problems and make decisions. For example, your child may be able to analyze situations and come up with multiple solutions for a problem instead of just one. She also will be able to understand theoretical concepts more easily than concrete ones.

Abstract Thinking

This stage of development is characterized by abstract thinking. In other words, children now understand that a concept exists independent of their perception or experience. This is a big deal! In concrete operational thought, a child’s view of reality is defined entirely by what they can see and touch. On the other hand, informal operational thought, kids can make logical deductions about ideas they have never actually experienced first-hand.

Inductive Reasoning

Parents begin to see their children using inductive reasoning during a child’s development from early childhood to middle childhood. They’ll use information gained from one experience to make inferences about other similar experiences, and they’ll usually arrive at sound conclusions that can often be applied to other situations. In middle childhood, young children will also understand complex mathematical concepts like fractions and ratios; they may apply these concepts to concrete situations and use proportional reasoning to solve problems.

The Problem-Solving Cycle

Sometimes, no matter how much you try to make sense of a problem, it still doesn’t make sense. You can think about it all day long and come up with nothing. This is when you need to apply The Problem-Solving Cycle. The cycle involves generating potential solutions, examining each solution for plausibility, executing on your best idea, then comparing it to your initial expectations. Rinse and repeat until your problem is solved. If only every problem were that easy.


One of Piaget’s most profound findings is that children do not grow out of cognitive errors. For example, a young girl may think her pet kitten will disappear if she puts it behind her back because no evidence to date has led her to believe otherwise. Piaget found that by age 11 or 12, children can incorporate new evidence, if provided, to update their current understanding of reality.

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