When becoming a parent there is a wealth of information on pregnancy and early childhood development – it is easy to be inundated by different perspectives and parenting strategies surrounding the rapid changes children experience from birth to age 5. There is so much emphasis placed on developmental markers in early years – when is it normal for my baby to be beginning to stand, walk, talk?
When children then go on to start school, the focus often shifts to their academic development. It can be easy to become concerned about whether your child is developing number sense slower than their peers, or if they seem to find phonics challenging while their friends are picking it up with ease. However, as with younger children, school-aged children still have a lot of change and growth ahead of them mentally, emotionally, and socially. It is important not to forget about these developmental markers throughout their school life as they are just as crucial to your child’s wellbeing and growth. As well as this, developments in social and emotional cognition can also impact your child’s relationship to school, education and learning, with natural peaks and troughs in their attitude, productivity and focus.
There are 3 developmental stages throughout primary school: ages 6 to 7, 8 to 9 and then 10 to 12. Of course, each individual person develops at a different rate and in different ways, so behavioural markers will not be exactly the same for everyone; however, it is good to have a bit of information about general stages in development across your child’s years at school.
The beginning of your child’s formal education is a big leap developmentally as their understanding of language grows and they begin to be able to effectively use increasingly complex sentences and participate in organised games and activities.
Social development is at the forefront during this time, as the child becomes a lot more independent and friendships become a far bigger part of their life. As such, parents have a balancing act to maintain between fostering independence and giving the child the opportunity to explore and make decisions, while continuing to prioritise their safety and ensuring they respect rules and boundaries. They can often also start to feel more embarrassed by their parents’ behaviour, or seek more privacy and time by themselves!
6 and 7 year olds are capable of a higher level of decision-making and are able to understand more of other people’s perspectives – but as they are also starting to understand more about themselves and are interacting with people in a lot more contexts, they can also be quite possessive of their belongings, competitive with peers and a bit bossy!
The concept of fairness is really important to younger children so a good way to balance competing needs as a parent is to ensure you are providing an explanation for decisions and giving them options to decide for themselves, where they can:
Why do we need to wear a jumper today?
We have to wear a jumper today because it is winter and will be cold – which one would like to wear?
The age of 8 is often a time of increased emotional sensitivity and a trough in self-confidence. Children around this age develop more social awareness, so have a deeper understanding of how those they interact with perceive them. This can mean that they are more self-conscious about their behaviour and choices, more concerned with their social status and identity and may even start to feel that the people they care about do not like them. A peer rolling their eyes at them while they play may have gone unnoticed when they were younger, but now they are keenly aware!
This increase in emotional and social awareness can lead to quite a drastic and unexpected change in behaviour. Parents who may have been expecting the tantrums and tears of toddlerhood to be behind them, can be quite shocked to find their previously happy and outgoing child is suddenly reduced to tears because of fairly minor setbacks. Academic challenges can be a source of great stress, meaning that students are less engaged in tasks.
Children understand the importance of social customs (e.g., saying thank you), but may struggle to manage their emotions when they are overwhelmed by frustration or a series of personal setbacks. Your child’s ability to listen to reason has increased and [they] depend less on routines to provide a stable emotional state.
(“The Emotional Lives of 8 to 10 year Olds”, Scholastic Parents).
Knowing this is a normal part of development for a lot of children can help parents to tackle issues with self-confidence. Parenting expert Maggie Dent specifically focuses on this increased sensitivity in boys and advocates for ‘proving wrong’ children when they spiral into ‘I’m not smart enough’, ‘I can’t do it.’ She says “when our kids say these things it is up to us to remind them gently that this is not the case. Provide examples of when he’s succeeded, explain how proud you are of him and how amazing he is.”
Communicate with your child, validate their emotions (even if they seem silly in comparison to the stresses of an adult managing a household!) and focus on ensuring home is a secure space where they can unwind from the day and express feelings they may have had to bottle up while at school and extra-curricular activities.
The focus on peers and friendships often intensifies even further for children 10 to 12 years old, where there is often a strong sense of group identity. Fitting in with the latest trends in toys and clothing can become strongly valued (as much as parents may wish this was not the case!). Late childhood is marked by an increased ability to interact with others and the development and testing of personal beliefs and values. This does mean that late childhood can lead to less focus on family as time spent with parents and participating in family activities is ‘uncool’. The schoolyard can also see an increase in bullying and exclusion due to the increased prevalence of fitting in and being part of a group.
At this age, children are beginning to develop the skill of abstract thinking, rather than the more ‘concrete thinking’ of early childhood. However “preteens are still developing this method of reasoning and are not able to make all intellectual leaps, such as inferring a motive or reasoning hypothetically.” (National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning Hunter College School of Social Work). They can struggle to understand the ‘why’ in a situation but are nevertheless learning to understand the world outside of just their own experiences, and their values and beliefs are beginning to be less black and white and instead more nuanced.
It is still important for parents to work on helping their child navigate the world, learn right from wrong, and manage expectations and responsibilities, but this is done best through gentle guidance rather than by implementing your own structure into their day so their stronger sense of independence is fostered.
Just like adults, young people’s belief in themselves, their mindset and attitude will go through ups and downs throughout their time at primary and high school, so setting realistic goals that can be adapted according to emotional wellbeing, ability to focus and general outlook, is the best way to make the most out of education.
In next month’s newsletter we will explore the development markers students experience throughout high school in their early and late adolescence.