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Cognitive Development

The cognitive development of children in the middle years can be organized into three different areas: 1) brain development and processing; 2) learning and reasoning skills; and 3) behavioural learning. Each of these is outlined below.

Brain development and processing

How the brain is changing

A child’s brain develops significantly very early in their lives, and then another burst of development occurs in middle childhood, between the ages of five and nine.18 This launches a period of time when a child’s brain is primed for learning — they have greater adaptability or "plasticity," and are open to change.

Various types of development are taking place during this time. First, the various processing parts of the brain are developing and maturing, starting with those regions that affect vision, hearing, touch and movement. This is followed by the areas related to memory and language, and then by the frontal regions and systems that integrate and process information and support executive functioning.

During these middle years, children’s brains are going through actual physical changes. The outer layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex (often called "grey matter") is thickening and then thinning in specific regions as the brain continues to mature. There are also notable changes in growth patterns at the start of puberty.

While all of this is going on, there is also a great deal of "rewiring" occurring as different areas of the brain become increasingly interconnected and efficient and develop greater processing speed. During puberty, there are also significant changes in brain chemistry. Together, these processes of growth, maturation and change are associated with the development of intelligence, language, memory, visual-spatial, numeracy, literacy, social information processing, response and inhibition skills.19

Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem-solving, and decision making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Supports of cognitive health include adequate, affordable, fresh and nutritious food, accessible transportation, and safe and secure housing.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep has a strong influence on a number of critical brain functions. These include learning and memory, executive functioning, academic performance, emotional perception, reactivity and regulation, attention span, creativity and problem-solving. During the middle years, inadequate or poor quality sleep can lead to irritability, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, increased risk-taking and mental health issues. As well, shorter sleep duration can affect hormone levels, which is associated with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes and hypertension.20, 21, 22 Studies have consistently shown that short sleep duration is associated with weight gain and the development of obesity.23

Sensory and perceptual abilities

There are differences in the way the brains of adults and children receive and process visual information and the ways in which they understand spatial relationships. There is a transition during the middle years in the sensory and perceptual abilities of children, which is to say how they think and feel about the world. While children younger than six years prefer looking and thinking about things in a detailed, specific way, after the age of six they prefer focusing on the broader, or global, information they see.24

The ability to organize visual information into meaningful patterns and understand where things are in space improves in middle childhood,25 and two-dimensional visual-spatial functioning becomes fully developed.26 As noted above, there is a thickening in the area of the brain that supports these abilities that occurs sometime between the ages of 10-12 (and generally earlier for girls than boys). By age 12-14, a child’s ability to respond to complex visual tasks is close to that of adults, while the perception of complex visual scenes is still developing.27

Memory

Significant improvements occur in the memory capacities of children during the middle years. Episodic memory, which is the ability to recall specific events, improves, as does procedural memory, which is the part of long-term memory that stores information on how to perform certain actions and activities, such as walking, talking and riding a bike. Finally, what is referred to as working memory also improves. This is the ability to keep relevant information readily available and apply it to the tasks at hand.28, 29

Higher levels of brain functioning

During the middle years, there is a gradual increase in inquiry, investigating, logical thinking and problem-solving. Children are asking more questions, and doing a better job of analyzing the answers. They are occasionally able to think, "what if?" based on concrete life examples.

The thickening of the part of the brain that supports planning, organizing, strategizing, and paying attention peaks at ages 11-12 (earlier for girls). As a result, there is frequently improved behaviour and self-regulation among children in their later middle years.

The Challenge of Multi-Tasking

It is hard for children in their middle years to filter out irrelevant and distracting information during learning. Multi-tasking, such as using multiple digital devices while learning, makes memory much less accessible for recall. As a result, learning while multi-tasking is not easy during the middle years (or at any age). The most beneficial way for children at this age to learn and to remember is through mono-tasking — that is, focusing on one task at a time.30

Learning and reasoning skills

Developing learning strategies

Children in their middle years are gradually becoming better at learning. They develop a number of traits that are useful in the learning process, such as curiosity, creativity, imagination, cooperation, confidence, commitment, enthusiasm, and persistence.31 They begin to understand cause and effect.32 While their ability to pay attention and concentrate on tasks will vary,33 this is a time when children are becoming more aware of strategies to improve their memory and learning.34 Essentially, they are learning how to learn.

Drawing conclusions and critical thinking

Throughout the middle years, children are increasingly able to collect, organize and integrate information and ideas from various sources. In addition, they are learning to question and predict, examine and analyze opinions, identify values and issues, detect bias and distinguish between alternatives. In fact, they are learning how to think critically about things. The development of these early critical literacy skills means children at this age are able to start to look beyond what is literally said or written, and determine what it actually means.

Behavioural Learning

Children's Artwork

Self-monitoring, behaviour and impulse control

The areas of the brain that regulate impulses are among the last to develop. This stage of brain development during the middle years results in children beginning to experience an increase in self-control. They are better able to pay attention, better able to regulate their emotions, and better able to inhibit impulsive behaviour.

Developing greater self-control tends to provide many benefits to children, including being more successful, getting into less trouble, doing better at school and having an easier time developing friendships. Some children are more susceptible to challenging emotions such as anger or sadness. In some cases, these children will have a harder time developing self-regulation skills. A number of strategies have been identified for helping children learn self-control. Music lessons, learning a second language, aerobic exercise, martial arts and yoga are some of the most popular and effective, as they involve repeated practice and are progressively more challenging. For children that are experiencing significant challenges with self-regulation, a children’s mental health program that focuses on self regulation and the development of social competencies may be helpful. Research has found that children in the middle years are good candidates for learning self-regulation strategies.35

Please note: Social learning, which is also impacted by changes in the brain, is covered in the section on Social Development.

Decision making and impulse control

In the early middle years, prior to puberty, taking risks is mainly related to a lower understanding of risk and less general impulse control. The ability to make good decisions depends on many factors, including the ability to stay focused and avoid distractions and this improves with maturity. As well, impulse control, anticipation of future consequences, strategic planning and resistance to peer influence all increase with age.

Later in the middle years, children learn how to assess risk, respond to threatening situations and protect themselves from a variety of social issues, such as bullying, violence, substance abuse and technology-related threats.36 They also develop the decision making and communication skills needed to resist pressures to engage in behaviours that can lead to injury or harm. In this period, children may take risks due to a desire for immediate reward and a need to seek out thrills.37 This behaviour is linked to the hormonal changes and resulting brain changes that occur in puberty. This type of behaviour is thought to be more strongly related to puberty than to age.38, 39, 40

The middle years are a key time to reinforce prevention supports. While early adolescents are generally not inclined to participate in risky behaviour, peer pressure can activate and increase activity in the reward regions of the brain and encourage risk-taking.41, 42 However, children will make fewer risky decisions when a low-risk or cautious peer is present. As well, they tend to make safer decisions when they are with a parent/caregiver or other responsible adult, compared to when they are alone. As children near puberty and adolescence, discussions about wellbeing should begin to include ways that children can protect themselves from potential threats such as cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug consumption and unsafe sexual activity.43, 44

Importantly, when children engage in positive social behaviour, such as volunteering, it changes the way their brain reacts in threatening contexts and may reduce risk-taking behaviour. Creating more opportunities for children to engage in positive activities may reduce the feeling of reward they experience in potentially dangerous situations.45

Programs and activities that target sensation-seeking and impulsiveness and address specific emotional and behavioural problems help children to improve self-regulation and have been shown to reduce behaviours that can lead to addiction. Programs would include those that teach the consequences of taking risks and provide opportunities for healthy risk-taking activities.

Risk-taking and safety

Not all risk-taking behaviour is a problem. In many cases, it can help children engage in new behaviours and thereby learn new skills. This type of risk-taking is best undertaken when emotions are not involved, using deliberate, analytical decision making.46 Ensuring children’s safety can be a balancing act for parents and caregivers.

Unsupervised travel and outdoor play benefit children through physical activity and can help them acquire confidence and independence. However, the benefits have to be weighed against concerns about strangers, bullies and traffic. Research has revealed that hyper-parenting—a parenting style in which parents or caregivers are very involved in managing every aspect of their child’s life—can limit physical activity, and when children are closely supervised outside, they are less active.47

Healthy and Responsible Use of Technology

Technology plays an increasingly prominent role in our lives. Children are now being exposed to technology almost from infancy, more often, and for longer periods of time. A 2014 survey of school age children revealed that children are encountering technology at younger ages. Close to half (49 per cent) of Grade 4 students have access to their own cell phone or someone else’s.48 Technology is also part of many learning environments and is increasingly used to help make social connections. At the same time there is a "digital divide", where disparities in access to technology are impacted by income, literacy, geography and broadband access.

There are both benefits and risks associated with exposure to digital technology. While the Internet, social media, and other communication platforms can give children the ability to interact with the world around them and the opportunity to develop as digital citizens, there are risks to its inappropriate or over use. Time spent in front of a screen and intense audio-visual stimulation in childhood can affect the way the brain is wired, social functioning, sleep and mental and physical health. More time in front of a screen means that it takes more stimulation to get the brain’s attention and children are more at risk for attention deficit disorder, learning problems and risky behaviours. Parents need to be aware that individual children may respond differently to the same kinds of technology.49

Guidelines from the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend that recreational screen time (TV, computer, video games, multimedia phones) be limited to no more than two hours each day for children between ages 5-11. Evidence indicates that breaks from technology have a number of benefits. Children who spend less time in front of a screen are less likely to exhibit negative behaviours, such as bullying and fighting.50

Parents and caregivers can moderate the possible harmful effects that technology use can have on children.51 To help children use technology in safe, responsible and healthy ways, parents and caregivers can:

  • Model safe, responsible and healthy technology use.
  • Regularly talk with children about safe and responsible use of technology and about their online lives.
  • Set limits on the use of technology (e.g., no texting during meal times, before bedtime or at family events).
  • Be aware of children’s Internet activities and what they can access. Create rules that you and your child can agree to, and incorporate technology that provides parental controls.
  • Locate devices in an open area of the home where you can monitor what the children are doing.
  • Encourage your child to lead a balanced life and engage in "offline" activities and face-to-face social time and play.
  • Support your child to set priorities and organize their time (e.g., doing homework before spending time online).
  • Spend time learning about the Internet and video games that are popular in your child’s age group and join them in these activities.52