A brief overview of the developing brain: How you can help your kids thrive as they grow.

Now that we’ve covered what’s going on in your child’s developing brain and how you influence that development, let’s address when your kid becomes capable of certain types of higher functioning. The goal is to help you identify when to provide your kids with the support to reach new, cognitive heights. If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, I recommend spending 12 minutes (they each take about 6 minutes to read) getting up to speed. You will get much more out of this post if you do.

In Western societies, we put a lot of focus on when a child reaches a certain milestone in relation to her peers. You often hear parents brag: “He was potty trained by two!” “She learned to read at 4!” More likely than not, an especially smart child will read earlier than an average child. Or, a child of average intelligence may be more interested in reading than another child. Another child of average intelligence is pushed by his parents and caregivers to read early. Yet another child develops a bit later than her peers, only to become the best reader in her class. Think of it as an intellectual growth spurt. If you look at a bunch of third graders — more often than not, the tallest kids will become the tallest adults, but it isn’t a linear process — neither is brain development.

While reaching a stage earlier than most children can be celebrated, we should not focus on making sure that our children are “ahead” in certain areas. Instead, we should focus on encouraging horizontal integration of the current abilities that our children have at a certain age. To bring back the reading analogy: We want our kids to show good comprehension, not just speed. Said in Developmental Psychology speak, we want our children to have “integrated” brains.

What does “integrated” mean anyway?

The body (including the brain) is part of a complicated system. Internal inputs (like your heart rate) and external inputs (like the smile of a stranger) are processed by two very different hemispheres of the brain (right and left)…

…and across three different levels: the reptilian (hind brain), the limbic (midbrain), and the neocortex (front brain)).

As we grow, each of these components mature and integrate into an “integrated,” adult brain.

OK, but what’s so great about integration?

When you see an integrated person, you can sense it. What she’s thinking, feeling and saying are fully aligned. He seems completely comfortable in his own skin. She can acknowledge an emotion, articulate how that emotion contradicts her moral stance on the same topic; and finally, act on her conviction while honoring her negative emotion without internalizing any shame. Do you want your kids to grow up to become integrated adults? Make sure they’re hitting their developmental milestones, but spend the majority of your time helping them to integrate the capacities of their tri-level (called triune) and bi-hemispheric brains.

We could spend hours exploring the inner workings of the developing brain; but, in service of staying focused, here is what you need to know about the layers and the hemispheres of the brain as they pertain to becoming an integrated adult. Let’s start with the three levels of the brain. As I mentioned in my first blog post on child development, the brain develops back-to-front, which makes sense. Humans need to birth our infants before their heads get too big to fit through the birth canal. So, we better make sure that all of our autonomic functions (like breathing and heart rate) are online before we exit the womb.

Once outside, we can take our time to develop sensory control, emotional regulation and rational thought. Plus, we can get help from our parents as these systems integrate and come online! So, what specific functions to each of these layers perform?

  • The reptilian (hindbrain): The hindbrain is called the reptilian brain because it resembles the brain of a reptile. If fact, your hindbrain looks a lot like a crocodile’s entire brain. It regulates breathing, heart rate and other automatic functions. It is also responsible for reacting to threats. When you hear a loud bang, you flinch and duck reflexively, regardless of whether or not you are in actual danger. That’s your hind brain reacting. Your hind brain is constantly asking “Am I safe now?” “How about now?” “And now?” When you’re in crisis, your reptilian brain often takes over completely until the crisis passes and you settle down.
  • The limbic brain (midbrain): The limbic brain is the intermediary between our reptilian brain and our neocortex. The purpose of the midbrain is to make us care about other members of our species. It wields emotions to accomplish this goal. The joy of loving someone; the profound sadness of losing someone — that’s the limbic system at work. Why do mammals have this system while reptiles don’t? Laying an egg and leaving town doesn’t require bonding with your little, lizard babies. Growing up to be a solo predator? You have no incentive to get along with your peers, either. In fact, the biggest threat to baby alligators is the likelihood that their mother will eat her eggs, or another crocodile will eat them once they hatch! Alternatively, if you’re a mammal, you cannot survive on your own at birth. Thus, to survive, your parents have to care about you, protect you, and teach you how to survive as you grow. Grazing with your fellow Zebras when a pride of lions comes along? You better work with your equid buddies to hightail it to safety. That requires teamwork. Without emotion, there is no teamwork. For mammals, teamwork really does make the dream work.
  • Neocortex (Front Brain): Our centers of “rational thought” and reasoning develop last. This is the part of your brain that isn’t’ fully mature until you’re 25 or 26. If your reptilian brain reacts to a stimulus and your limbic brain tells you how to feel about it, your neocortex helps you make sense of what just happened. The Constitution, Atheism, Creationism, NAFTA, Mein Kampf, The Golden Rule — all of these works of thought came from the front brains of their creators. While the neocortex makes us “human,” be careful not to deify conscious thought. As the aforementioned examples betray, a lot of unconscious reacting and semi-conscious emoting influence the fully conscious explanations we provide to justify our behavior. As one of the most brilliant frontal lobes in human history put it: “We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve.” — Albert Einstein

As a caretaker, you have to help your children to integrate their triune brains while various components of each system are coming online. Not an easy task in-and-of-itself; but wait, there’s more! Not only do our brains have three levels, they also have two hemispheres, which serve very different functions. For a succinct overview, check out this diagram:

The corpus callosum (a wide bundle of neural fibers that stretches between the two hemispheres) is responsible for managing and maintaining the integration of the left and right hemispheres. Your child’s corpus callosum won’t become fully insulated for quick functioning until she’s 7 or 8, making whole brain behaviors challenging. Plus, the neocortex continues to develop until we’re 26; consequently, the work of integration doesn’t stop until your kid is a quarter century into life!

As a result, when faced with a challenge, children have to respond with a 3-level, 2-hemisphere brain that is simultaneously developing and integrating new capacities on a regular basis. While all of this is going on, they have to go to school, do chores, play sports and make friends. It is really hard to be a kid. We can’t change that for them; but, by knowing how developed and how integrated a child’s brain is at certain ages, we can approach our struggling kiddos with empathetic, developmentally appropriate support.

Kudos to you for making it through that lengthy (but important) setup. Without further ado, here’s an overview of some of the core, developmental tasks that children face at different life stages; what to expect as they grapple with these stages; and, some ways that you can support your kids in mastering these tasks. Your role is to understand what they’re going through, to approach them with empathy, and to provide them with the “scaffolding” necessary to help them mastering the work of each developmental stage. Hopefully this will serve as a helpful reference for you!

Age 0–1 Year:

Developmental Overview:

The brain develops most rapidly during the first 2 years of life. While sight, hearing, smell, touch, sensitivity to pain and reaction to movement are all present at birth, stimulating the sensory motor pathways so that they “wire together” and myelinate (insulate) is super important. Newborns can see objects 8–10 inches away (the approximate distance of baby’s eyes from her mother’s gaze when baby is held in her arms). Significant visual growth occurs in the first 6 months. By age 4, a child’s vision is 20/20. Children have fully developed hearing by 2. So, if you want them to be bilingual, expose them regularly to both languages while in the womb and throughout the first year.

Your infant is capable of integrating senses (identifying associated sounds and images). When you provide them with multi-sensory inputs, you help them to make as connections across the senses. If they are overstimulated, they will grimace and turn away from the offending input. This is an infant’s only way to self regulate — honor it!

Infants also develop the ability to discriminate between individuals quickly. At first, by smell, sound and hazy sight. Later, through multiple sensory inputs at the same time. Babies become capable of reacting to facial expressions and internalizing the moods of others very quickly. As such; in addition to developing significant sensory and motor development and integration, very young children are capable of internalizing the basic, self regulation skills modeled by their parents during the first year. Mastery surrounding self regulation will result in more regular day/night sleep patterns, eating patterns and basic abilities to down regulate when distressed.

Developmental Tasks:

  1. Develop ability to regulate arousal and response to arousal
  2. Orient to external world and gradually gain control over motor skills

Parental scaffolding:

  1. Respond quickly to your infant’s distress. Learn to identify the cause of their stress (most parents can discern between types of crying within 1–2 months). Work to alleviate their stress as quickly as possible. If your infant consistently experiences relief from distress through parental support, your child will become confident that help is on the way within a certain timeframe, thereby minimizing her distress. The less anxiety your child feels, the more adept he will become at learning to “wait” for relief. It is counterintuitive, but the more responsive you are to your infant’s needs, the more she will grow up be capable of waiting for what she needs.
  2. To further alleviate the anxiety associated with being helpless, be organized and create structure for your infant. Routine will help your child’s nervous system to anticipate when a need will be met, which also enhances tolerance for discomfort and confidence in eventual relief.
  3. Model soothing techniques to your children when they are upset. Through their little mirror neurons, your babies are learning your behaviors, even if they can’t reflect them back to you until they’re older. Consequently, know that by responding to your child’s distress, you’re taking advantage of another opportunity to teach him how to self regulate in the future.
  4. Along those lines, sleep training may be necessary for your sanity; but, it will disrupt the consistency of the child’s experience of relief from distress in a timely fashion. In attachment studies, children who’s distress is ignored by parents will learn not to cry; however, they will still show physiological evidence of distress. Thus, while the cries for help may cease after they go unanswered for a few nights, do not assume that the child is no longer distressed. Instead, he may not be crying because he knows that he can’t expect relief.
  5. Engage with your child within her capacity for vision, hearing and motion. If he grimaces and turns his head away, he’s overstimulated. By removing the stimulus from his sight, he’s employing his most basic ability to self regulate. If she smiles and responds to your initiated play, continue to engage and encourage repetitive play behaviors until your child gets bored or moves on.

Summary:

If you are attentive in responding to your child’s needs for arousal regulation and sensory stimulation over the first year, a secure attachment will emerge between you and your infant. Your kid will know that you are consistently present to help her feel better and to help her to develop her rapidly evolving sensory control. Only the relaxed brain is capable of learning and self regulating. In a low-stress environment, chock full of lessons, your kid has the best possible chance of internalizing your behavior to self regulate. The less consistent the soothing and the less frequent the sensory interaction, the more anxious your child will become when he has an unmet need. To exacerbate the issue, children who do not receive consistent support in self regulating will become more aroused when they have needs, because they are not sure their need will be met. Thus, even when a parent does respond, the child is less likely to internalize the message because she is already agitated — thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of dysregulation.

Toddler (1–3 years):

Developmental Overview:

While kids are taking their first steps at 1; by 3, the majority of toddlers will be running around, fully potty trained. Toddlers need to concentrate intently to maintain control of their bodies between ages 1–2, when development is still happening at a rapid pace. Between 2–3, it is all about integrating the new circuitry. A rapid period of myelination (neural pathway insulation) begins, linking the brainstem to the cerebral cortex and the frontal lobe. The result is integration of perceptual and cognitive functioning, the emergence of language, an acceleration in mental processing and basic, self-awareness.

Neurobiology studies show a burst in language learning between 16–24 months, enabled by a surge in cortical growth in the language center of the brain. Understanding words precedes the ability to speak them. While toddlers can understand 50 words between 13–16 months, they can’t speak 50 words until 18–22 months. Thus, toddlers will often use symbolic gestures to fill in the gap.

Around 18-months, toddlers begin to understand that they are “self” and everyone else is an “other.” Around 2, possessive behavior will emerge as a result. This possessive behavior will begin to subside around 3, when toddlers begin to grasp the concept of empathy.

Before the age of 3, toddlers also start to understand how things work, including basic cause-and-effect relationships. Anxiety and fear emerge, as children begin to anticipate that something will happen, but they don’t know what will happen. Sequential reasoning leads to goal setting behaviors, which makes children less distractible and more focused on purposeful play.

Developmental tasks:

  1. Balancing attachment and exploration, with increasing movement toward autonomy and individuation
  2. Internalization of parental values and standards
  3. Developing the ability to symbolize, through play and communication

Parental scaffolding:

  1. While your infant used his mirror neurons to mimic your smile, your toddler will use his mirror neurons to mimic more advanced behaviors, mannerisms and words. If your toddler is securely attached to you, she will want to mimic what you do, especially household tasks. Play is practice for the future mastery of individual and group tasks, encourage it!
  2. Over-index on explaining and clarifying every experiences to your toddler. When possible, give your kid advanced notice if a new experience is coming his way. Toddlers use their newly minted ability to anticipate future events to prepare themselves for overstimulation. If your kid asks a question, answer her honestly. You are helping her to see patterns and solidify cause/effect relationships in the world around her. In fact, lying to your child about what is about to happen is a very bad idea. If caught by surprise, a toddler will become anxious and fearful of new experiences. It will also put your child’s trust at risk. A good example of a situation that will test your desire to lie is a doctors visit. If your kid is going to get a shot, prepare him. If he can watch you calmly get a shot beforehand, even better! Be honest that she’ll feel a pinch. Have her pinch her arm for a few seconds to practice. Explain to your child that the discomfort will be temporary. Show your child that it isn’t a big deal to get a shot by modeling calm behavior when you talk about it and practice it. These steps will ensure that the experience is just unpleasant, not traumatic.
  3. Encourage your toddler to use language to communicate. Remember, before toddlers use words, they use actions to explore their environment and raise questions about what they’re experiencing. Help your toddler construct an understanding of the world by “filling in” missing words or connections, asking questions and adding details to your child’s narrative of the world around him.
  4. Provide your child with transitional objects (like blankets, stuffed animals and dolls) to use as symbols of their attachment to you. Toddlers will cling to these objects for comfort as they experiment with longer separations from caregivers. Autonomy is a new (and scary) concept, which may lead to ambivalent behavior about attachment figures. Meaning, your child may demand that you release her one minute, and crawl back into your arms for comfort the next. Give your toddler as much space as you can (while keeping her safe). Respond positively when he needs comfort and affection. If you are comfortable with the transitions between togetherness and autonomy, your toddler will be, too.
  5. Along similar lines, toddlers are just starting to understand that they are separate from other people. Combined with a sporadic command of cause-and-effect relationships; toddlers are horrible at choosing effective ways to get their increasing list of needs met. Just like you don’t blame an infant for crying, you shouldn’t blame a 3-year-old for hitting you to get your attention. Calmly disavow the behavior in a caring and non-punitive voice. Work to identify “unacceptable” behaviors; but, do not tie those behaviors to your child’s character. If you do, he will internalize that he is bad, not that he did a bad thing. As you might imagine, this has catastrophic consequences for self esteem and future behavior.
  6. While advanced empathy isn’t in a toddler’s wheelhouse, she can begin to grasp that she “should” and “shouldn’t” do certain things. This is the first moral thread you can pull on to help combat the terrible 2’s. Set clear rules and reinforce them, without becoming angry or shaming your child. Add some cause and effect explanations to your ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ behaviors, to provide toddler-level explanations for the rules they’re trying to internalize. For example: “We don’t go in the broom closet because there are lots of sharp and heavy objects that could fall on you. Mommy loves you very much and I don’t want you to get hurt.” Eventually, older toddlers will begin to internalize rules (and the reasons for them).

Summary:

A securely attached toddler will try something he thinks might be bad, then look at your response to confirm or deny his hypothesis. Through consistently enforced rules, a successful toddler will begin to internalize the rules you set. When toddlers behave poorly, parents of securely attached children explain why the behavior is bad, but they do not imply that the child is bad. This is critical, because a toddler is building a sense of self through the way that you treat him. In addition, toddlers are still very shaky with the cause-and-effect concept. If you attack a child’s character when she hits another toddler, she will internalize that she is bad. She will also be unable to accurately contain the impact of her “badness” to the temporarily hurt feelings of a daycare buddy. If you tell her that you love her, but you have to let her know that hitting is never ok, she’s more likely to internalize that she is a good person, and that good people don’t hit other people.

Preschool (3–6 years):

Developmental Overview:

Good news, parents: self regulation, impulse control and interpersonal coping skills improve significantly between 3 and 6. While the toddler relied on external approval, the preschooler begins to internalize the lessons he’s learned and synthesize them into his own value system. These values are upheld by the preschooler’s developing conscience. If parents successfully addressed bad behavior (without making their children feel inherently bad); older preschoolers will have the courage to judge and correct their own bad behavior.

In addition, a 4-year-old has the ability to track sequential events and gage time in a manner that a toddler cannot. Because a preschooler can anticipate when her mother will return, she can manage her separation anxiety more productively. If securely attached, a preschooler will increasingly turn to peers for social stimulation; however, if he becomes distressed, anxious or upset, he will still run to a parent for support. This is not a regression; instead, it is a sign that a preschoolers autonomy is precarious. She will attempt to solve a problem on her own, but will turn to an adult when her resources are exhausted.

But wait, there’s more good news! The corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) begins to myelinate during the preschool years. Once insulated, the corpus callosum allows a preschooler leverage her left brain more quickly and efficiently. Consequently, while a toddler relies on magical thinking, preschoolers are more logical and realistic. An insulated corpus callosum also enables a preschooler to connect another child’s words (left brain) with the emotional nuances behind those words (right brain); thereby increasing her capacity for empathy. As a result, the preschooler discovers the joy of friendship. Preschoolers love taking their newly integrated brain hemispheres for a spin, repeatedly playing sequential, “make believe” games with peers.

While the aforementioned cognitive capacities increase drastically from 3–6, physical development continues to play a central role as well. Significant synaptic pruning and insulating (within hemispheres and between hemispheres) translates into improved perceptual abilities and motor skills. As a result, preschool play should remain very physical, allowing kiddos to become fully integrated (and coordinated) adults. Because the brain is still “pruning” (a.k.a. killing off) synaptic connections that aren’t used; if your preschooler isn’t big on physical play, encourage him to make art, to build a fort, or to play interactive video games. It is important for your preschooler to get practice using both sides of the brain to engage in complex motor activities at this age.

Finally, between 3 and 4, a preschooler’s language abilities begin to take off. Preschoolers increasingly arrange words according to syntactical rules, switch between tenses and insert connecting words, like “and,” “so,” “then,” and “because.” These words reflect a preschooler’s ability to understand the relationship between things, the sequence of events and causality. While toddlers struggle with a large gap between what they can understand and what they can express, preschoolers begin to close that gap, allowing them to more accurately represent their needs, their feelings and their thoughts to caretakers and to peers.

Developmental Tasks:

  1. Development of play as a vehicle for exploring reality
  2. Making the transition from an egocentric (me, me, me) worldview and magical thinking (it won’t rain because I want to keep playing) to a more logical based world view (I don’t control the weather and there are other stakeholders on this planet)

Parental Scaffolding:

  1. As your kid begins to speak more fluently, ask questions, probe for details and encourage him to analyze his experiences by putting them in the broader context of his life experiences. Now that your child is capable of constructing complex sentences, aid his narrative and analytical development by modeling advanced communication and reasoning.
  2. Preschoolers are increasingly aware that others have different thoughts and experiences, which fuels their desire to share their experience with friends and caregivers. This is the beginning of wanting to feel understood. Validate and repeat back the emotions that your children convey, so they feel understood. This will decrease the loneliness and anxiety associated with increasing autonomy. Finally, help your children connect their feelings with the sequential events that elicited them. Memory and emotion are deeply intertwined. Make sure your kids remember what happened, how they felt and why they felt that way.
  3. Delineating between fantasy and reality is a big part of surviving the preschool years. At 3, a child is simultaneously learning what the word “ghost” means, and whether ghosts actually exist. While trivial to you, a preschooler’s fears and anxieties are very real to him. Help your kid articulate her understanding of ghosts and put them in the “not real” category through imaginative, narrative play.
  4. Voicing, addressing and conquering anxieties through play can be used to process traumatic events as well, like a minor car crash, a trip to the doctor or a scary encounter with an aggressive dog. Even if these events happened before a child is able to recollect it (with explicit memory); the emotions associated with implicit memories can lead to generalized anxiety later on.
  5. Cause-and-effect relationships, logic, sequential reasoning and empathy are both nascent and fragile in the preschooler’s brain. When even slightly agitated, these cognitive abilities go offline. Thus, your preschooler is at risk of jumping to false, egocentric conclusions. As a result, it is imperative to talk through stressful and emotionally painful experiences with your children when they are ready. This will ensure that they don’t internalize blame for extraneous situations. For example, young girl’s father left suddenly when she was 3 years old. She came to her mother a year later, tearfully confessing through her sobs: “Daddy left because he was mad that I was jumping on the bed!” Make sure your children aren’t making false associations that could traumatize them.
  6. While it is important for your child to learn to coexist with peers, in preschool, you must also begin to help him to identify and fortify himself against the poor behavior of others. Ask your preschooler: “what was the most fun thing you did today?” Then, “what was the least fun thing that happened today?” By uncovering potentially troubling experiences with your preschooler, you can help him to process the behavior of others, his reaction to it, and how he might handle a similar situation in the future.

Summary:

Play is important work for preschoolers. Much of that work will be constructing and maintaining fantasy games with peers. While preschoolers have a nascent ability to consider the feelings of others, when agitated or exhausted, they revert to the egocentric state of the toddler. This will result in possessiveness over toys, over fantasy play narratives and over their “best friends.” The less securely attached a child is, the more easily she will become agitated; and thus, the more likely she’ll be to revert to a possessive state. That said, it is important to understand that ALL preschoolers will revert to toddler behavior A LOT. Again, the insulation of the corpus callosum is just beginning to integrate the two hemispheres of the brain, all while the midbrain and forebrain continue to grow at a fast clip. The entire system goes offline A LOT for preschool, and even grammar school children. You’re not failing as a parent when your kid has a meltdown. You’re succeeding as a parent if you approach him with empathy, because a meltdown means he’s exhausted his capacities to master his developing brain that day. Throwing logic at your preschooler before she’s calmed down is futile, as her left brain is offline. Once you’ve soothed her enough that her left brain comes back online, then you can talk about how to handle her frustration differently in the future.

Middle School (6–12 years):

Developmental Overview:

From age 6 to the onset of puberty, children come to see the world as a place with rules that must be followed and systems that must be joined. They understand that the world does not revolve around them; but instead, that they must find their place in it. School kids learn that success comes with practice. The prefrontal cortex undergoes a big growth spurt between 5 and 8, which results in vast improvements in working memory, planning, selective attention and inhibition. Like the preschooler will frequently revert to toddler behavior; the middle school child may still dissolve into egocentric and magical thinking. While your middle school child becomes capable of reasoning, learning and perceiving reality accurately, she won’t always be able to employ these skills, so be patient.

Along the same lines, the developing conscience is also shaky for school aged children. They still have volatile impulses; but, they also have an internal voice, warning them against bad behaviors. Coming to terms with the self-regulating voice in our heads can be very anxiety producing for kids. Until it becomes an integrated part of the self, it kind of feels like an adult moved in to their heads!

The transition to school is a challenging one for both parents and children. By simply going to school to “learn,” your kid becomes aware that he is expected to develop capacities that he doesn’t yet possess. This realization can be motivating or intimidating. Your reaction to school will help shape your kid’s reaction to it. Learning, striving (and sometimes failing) should be modeled as exciting and fun! While school can be a blast, know that it is exhausting. No matter how independent she behaves, even your 12-year-old relies on you to help her to alleviate stress and combat fear. Newly developed psychic defenses allow your kids to act cool and collected all day long at school, even if they don’t feel OK inside. This is exhausting and your middle schooler will need to unwind (and sometimes melt down) at home after holding that stress all day.

By 6, most children can acknowledge another person’s point of view. At 8, most kids can describe others in terms of their psychological characteristics. By 10 or 12, kids can hold opposing viewpoints in mind at the same time. They can also feel multiple ways about something. As such, your 12-year-old begins to get that “it’s complicated.” Consequently, rules about behavior are organized into moral standards. Proactive altruism is now possible, because middle schoolers begin to understand how their friends will think and feel about a given outcome. Consequently, friendships begin to shift from opportunistic alliances based on shared interests, to relationships built on common values, mutual support, reciprocity and loyalty. Unfortunately, with the capacity to evaluate friendships based on personal characteristics, middle school children form clicks, negotiate social status and begin to exclude others in sophisticated and damaging ways.

Between 6 and 8, kids can reverse their own thinking, which makes syntax manipulation possible. They can also begin to distinguish between comparative words, like tiny, small and little. By 7 or 8, kids begin to use metaphors. Between 8 and 10, they enjoy jokes that include wordplay. By 10, kids can begin to guess what words mean by looking at their roots. By 4th grade, most kids can write fluently. With increased language skills, physical aggression decreases and verbal aggression increases. Teasing, insults and gossip are the unfortunate result.

As the outside world becomes increasingly logical, fantasy play is increasingly internalized, or shared solely with a middle schooler’s “best friend.” In groups, middle school children increasingly play games with firm rules, winners and losers. Breaking the rules becomes more and more unacceptable in middle school play and cheaters are often ostracized. A desire to collect and categorize objects also fills the void left by internalized fantasy play. Hobbies are half-way between work and play, and middle schoolers love them!

Advancements in spatial recognition, time orientation, sequential reasoning, memory and auditory processing allow school-aged children to approach tasks strategically and creatively. They can play out multiple scenarios in their heads, zooming in on details, then zooming out again to look at the big picture. When a developmentally normative middle schooler doesn’t have all of the information she needs, she’ll know to ask for help. Once all of the necessary information compiled, a middle schooler can also make a plan and execute it. With a developing capacity to hold mental images and communicate thoughts, school age children can increasingly work together to complete tasks, too. All of this advanced functioning relies on the ability to focus for extended periods of time. By age 8, children can consciously will themselves to maintain attention; however, this requires constantly inhibiting competing impulses.

Developmental tasks:

  1. Develop and utilize a sense of calm, educability and self control
  2. Develop real-world skills and a sense of competence
  3. Establish oneself in a world of peers

Parental Scaffolding:

  1. Because middle schoolers can organize, verbalize and analyze their experiences, they gain relief by talking through difficult experiences. Let your kids recount stressful events. Listen with empathy. When appropriate, point out and praise the steps your child took to handle a tough situation. Increasingly, middle schoolers become aware that the world will throw things at them that they cannot anticipate or control. Thus, it is your job to help them to develop the confidence that they’ll be able to handle whatever curveballs life throws at them.
  2. Your child will use her ability to “put up a front” to control her behavior in front of her teachers and around her peers. By the time she comes home from school, she may be plum out of the capacity to manage her emotions. Thus, she may handle criticism from a teacher with grace, but dissolve into tears when recounting the story to you over dinner. Encouraging the release of pent up, negative emotion is healthy. Not only will this allow your kids to “get it out,” process it and approach a new day with new resolve, it will teach them that their newfound ability to manage emotion does not mean that they will eventually banish emotions all-together. Instead, feelings are an inevitable, real part of being human. They can be denied temporarily, but they will eventually need to be released in a healthy and productive way. This will help your child stay in touch with her limbic brain as her neocortex gets stronger.
  3. School age children can delay gratification more than younger kids. They are also more aware that increased effort will yield better outcomes. That said, your middle school age child will increasingly assess himself based on his relative performance to his peers. Continue to praise your child’s focus and effort, not the outcomes that she achieves. With only so much time in each day, help your child manage his time in a manner that will allow him to meet his obligations and further develop his hobbies, while saving time for relaxation and rejuvenation. Unfortunately, regardless of what you espouse to your kids, they will pick up on the pressures and the expectations of the world around them. Talk openly with your kids about their struggles. Empathize by saying “I remember how hard it was to your age.” Don’t belittle their anxiety, but gently reassure them that it will get easier as they get older. Help them play out “what if” scenarios associated with their anxieties, so they can help put the peer pressure of their environment in perspective
  4. While even the younger school-aged kid has an internalized conscience, her relationship with it can be new and scary. When she ignores her internalized conscience and does something that she knows is “bad,” she may be very hard on herself. Thus, instead of scolding your child, let her know that we all mess up sometimes. Since messing up feels “yucky” and often has negative consequences, offer to help your child figure out why he made a poor choice and how he might avoid making a poor choice next time. Deliver whatever “punishment” you’ve applied her behavior with compassion, but do not yield to her attempt to wiggle out of the consequences of her behavior. Let your child know that you have faith in him, and that you know he’ll be able to avoid mess-ups with more practice.
  5. “Do as I say, not as a I do” does not work for middle school children. Parental modeling continues to be the most powerful determinant of the morality that children internalize. Walk the walk.
  6. Young middle schoolers are all about fairness. 9 year olds begin to understand the concept of merit — a.k.a. a kid who has done a good thing or worked harder than everyone else deserves more rewards. By 10 or 11, kids can conceptualize the idea of benevolence; specifically, that those who are coping with disadvantages deserve extra support. Watch for these changes in moral conceptualization. During the “fair” stage, honor the powerful, negative emotions that result when things are not fair. As soon as your kid calms down, focus on what can be done to minimize the disappointment resulting from the unfair occurence. During the merit stage, reward hard work in the pursuit of goals. During the benevolence stage, praise your child’s empathy toward those who are struggling. When your kid sees another kid struggling, ask her to think about an area where she struggles, showing her that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Along the same lines, when something comes easily to your kid, point out that it doesn’t come as easily to others. Encourage your kid to acknowledge his strengths, and remember those strengths when faced with a task that may be challenging or demoralizing for him. Help your child decouple her ability in one area from her entire self worth.

Summary:

The middle school aged child is increasingly proficient at delaying gratification, thinking ahead, acting based on an internalized moral compasses, creative problem solving, narrative explanation, emotional management and empathy. All of these skills are imperative, as the middle school child kid is asked to do a lot of individual and group learning and performing. The nascent ability to control one’s behavior in front of peers and teachers can be exhausting. As a result, your school-aged kids will often need to unwind at home. The introduction of peer pressure, teasing and social hierarchies can be really tough on school age children. At about 10 or 11, kids begin to feel as though they’ve mastered this whole school thing, only to be catapulted back into cognitive disarray, with the onset of the hormonal and physical growth changes of puberty. But, that’s for another blog post :)

This was quite a long post. Thank you for making it through! If you are interested in even more detail, the majority of its content was synthesized from Douglas Davie’s book Child Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, Third Edition. If you are interested in a lighter read, with a lot of digestible brain science, awesome anecdotes and great tips for how to handle some of the challenges you’ll face as a parent, I recommend The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.