Pediatric Annals

The Development of Thinking Skills in School Age Children

Heidi Feldman, MD, PhD

Abstract

This article presents a conceptual framework for the development of thinking skills in school age children. The model simultaneously highlights the differences between younger and older children and the differences between children who follow the usual developmental course and those with learning problems. Although the terminology and concepts come from the fields of psychology and education, pediatricians will find direct clinical relevance in an increased understanding of their school age patients. One practical application is the ongoing care of children with learning difficulties. In these cases, familiarity with the concepts from psychology and education enhances the pediatrician's ability to serve as case coordinator, parent educator, and child advocate. More subtle applications can be found throughout pediatric practice. For example, young children confronted prematurely about weighty issues such as death and dying often demonstrate surprisingly mature thinking. A pediatrician who assesses the child's thinking in this domain and understands the reasons for apparent precociousness may communicate more effectively with both the youngster and the family.

The development of thinking entails improvements in four distinct but interrelated components: basic skills, strategies, knowledge, and awareness of the thinking process. Historically, the mind was conceptualized simply as an empty container and development as an increase in capacity. ' Modern views, built on a detailed analysis of the processes of higher mental functions, conceptualize the development of thinking as a complex interplay of multiple component processes. The model described here is a synthesis of different versions of this approach. '*3

Basic skills. The ability to process information (ie, to register environmental events, understand and remember them, communicate with others about them, and respond to them appropriately) depends on many basic psychological skills such as perception, memory, attention, language, problem solving, and motor implementation. These skills form the building blocks of more complex cognitive activities.

Table

Children with learning problems, regardless of how they are classified for educational purposes, typically face serious difficulties with the speed or efficiency of basic skills. Their memory capacity may be small, their ability to attend compromised, or their motor skills clumsy. Academic problems can be understood as emerging from specific skill deficits.

Neuropsychological or neurodevelopmental assessments play an important role in the evaluation of children with learning problems because they systematically evaluate a wide variety of basic skills including verbal memory, visual memory, selective attention, language reception, language expression, and motor implementation. Such assessments generate a profile of processing strengths and weaknesses.8·9 One limitation of this approach is that the profile itself is not sufficient to explain the learning difficulties; although two children share an identical neurodevelopmental profile, one may have academic difficulties and the other may not. Neurodevelopmental tests do not consider the interplay of strategies and basic skills. A critical difference between the successful and unsuccessful students in the above example may be the successful student's ability to use meditational strategies to compensate for weak basic skills. A second limitation is that the neurodevelopmental approach does not consider the interplay of knowledge and baste skills. A mentally retarded or learning disabled student may remember hundreds of baseball cards or may figure out how to fix the carburetor of a motorcycle. However, in academic areas of low interest, the same student may show limited memory and problem solving skills.

In addition to deficits in basic skills, children with learning problems show serious limitations in strategy use and metacognitive awareness. Academic failure often appears to be related more to a passive learning style than to limitations of basic skills.10 Mentally retarded children, like young children, spontaneously use fewer and more passive processing strategies than chronologically age-matched children. Similarly, learning disabled…

This article presents a conceptual framework for the development of thinking skills in school age children. The model simultaneously highlights the differences between younger and older children and the differences between children who follow the usual developmental course and those with learning problems. Although the terminology and concepts come from the fields of psychology and education, pediatricians will find direct clinical relevance in an increased understanding of their school age patients. One practical application is the ongoing care of children with learning difficulties. In these cases, familiarity with the concepts from psychology and education enhances the pediatrician's ability to serve as case coordinator, parent educator, and child advocate. More subtle applications can be found throughout pediatric practice. For example, young children confronted prematurely about weighty issues such as death and dying often demonstrate surprisingly mature thinking. A pediatrician who assesses the child's thinking in this domain and understands the reasons for apparent precociousness may communicate more effectively with both the youngster and the family.

The development of thinking entails improvements in four distinct but interrelated components: basic skills, strategies, knowledge, and awareness of the thinking process. Historically, the mind was conceptualized simply as an empty container and development as an increase in capacity. ' Modern views, built on a detailed analysis of the processes of higher mental functions, conceptualize the development of thinking as a complex interplay of multiple component processes. The model described here is a synthesis of different versions of this approach. '*3

Basic skills. The ability to process information (ie, to register environmental events, understand and remember them, communicate with others about them, and respond to them appropriately) depends on many basic psychological skills such as perception, memory, attention, language, problem solving, and motor implementation. These skills form the building blocks of more complex cognitive activities.

Table

TABLE 1Strategies for Enhancing Memory

TABLE 1

Strategies for Enhancing Memory

Strategies. Specific procedures used to improve the function of basic skills are strategies. In everyday experience, mediational strategies are frequently used to support memory and thinking: We prepare lists of the chores to be accomplished, skim chapter headings before purusing the text, and allot additional study time for difficult material. Strategies have been extensively studied in the field of memory. An adult or child typically remembers a maximum of seven numbers from a longer list of digits. However, if the strategy of grouping the numbers into familiar units, such as addresses or telephone numbers, is used the apparent size of the digit span is increased considerably. Table 1 describes other useful mnemonic devices from everyday experience.

Knowledge. The sum of what we know about the world forms our knowledge base. Knowledge is more than a list of disjointed facts or isolated episodes; it is an organized structure. Individual experiences, such as the sight and smell of particular roses, coalesce into concepts, in this case, rose. Concepts develop associations and networks with similar concepts, such as tulip and poppy, and become integrated into higher order concepts, such as flowers and plants.

Metacognitive awareness. The ability to reflect deliberately and self-consciously about one's own thinking skills is called metacognitive awareness.4 It is this awareness of cognitive limitations that leads people to prepare lists, read chapter headings, and vary study time, ie, to use performance enhancing strategies. Metacognitive awareness entails actively conceptualizing the goals of a task, choosing from a repertoire of strategies the most appropriate option, judging the success or failure of a mental effort, and constructing new strategies when old ones prove inadequate.

NORMAL DEVELOPMENT

These four basic components of thinking each undergo developmental change during the school age years (Table 2). The developmental trends are interdependent. Progress within a component depends largely on the integrity of the other components and, in turn, promotes development in the other areas.

Basic Skills

During the school age years, children improve the speed and efficiency of basic psychological skills. Memory capacity, as reflected in tasks such as digit span, seems to increase over this period. A convenient rule of thumb is that digit span equals the age in years minus two, up to age 9 or 10 when adult levels are reached. Similarly, the amount of time a child can remain at a task, the period of sustained attention, improves. In practical terms, first graders are expected to spend approximately 20 minutes on homework assignments, fifth graders approximately an hour. Selective attention, the ability to notice important aspects of a stimulus and ignore irrelevant features, also improves. Preschoolers may remember trivial details of an event, such as the color of the teacher's shirt, without recalling the main idea, such as what the teacher said. Older children, with stronger skills of selective attention, should remember the message even if they forget the clothing.

Problem solving skills also develop during the school years. As Piaget demonstrated, preschool children depend on immature and idiosyncratic reasoning to solve problems, whereas school age children use logical principles similar to those used by adults. 5 In a now classic example, 4 and 5 year olds claim that the amount of liquid in a glass changes as the liquid is poured into containers of different shapes. Focused on appearances, young children assume that changes in appearance correspond to changes in quantity. Older children understand that despite changes in appearance, quantity remains constant unless liquid is added or subtracted.

Table

TABLE 2Developmental Changes in Thinking Skills

TABLE 2

Developmental Changes in Thinking Skills

Academic skills, such as reading and mathematics, depend on basic skills. When all proceeds normally, academic skills are acquired early in grade school and then applied in the later years. For example, in the first three grades children focus on learning to read; in fourth grade and up children read to learn.

Strategies

During the school age years, children become increasingly sophisticated at using strategies to enhance their performance. School age children are more apt than preschool children to apply mnemonic devices spontaneously in difficult memory tasks. School age children have a wider repertoire of such strategies and are more competent at matching the strategy to the task demands. Some researchers actually feel that the superior performance of older children in memory tasks is a function of increased strategy use rather than of development in basic skills and capacities. 5 Strategy use and memory skill become so intertwined that it is virtually impossible to describe the developmental trends of each independently.

Despite the differences across the age span in the spontaneous use of strategies, younger children can be explicitly taught to use strategies to enhance their performance. Under most circumstances, the use of strategies improves performance regardless of whether children acquired the strategy on their own or through direct instruction.3 Once taught a strategy, however, older school age children are far more likely than younger children to transfer it to new situations. For example, if taught to rehearse a list to be remembered, older children can spontaneously generalize the strategy to new lists, but younger children stop using it altogether if they are not continuously prodded.

Knowledge

Children rapidly expand their knowledge about the world during the school age years. In the preschool era, knowledge is acquired through direct experiences or verbal instruction by parents or teachers. In the school age years, the ability to read affords children independent access to new worlds of inquiry. Many children actually develop a field of expertise such as chess, stamp collecting, or baseball during these years. Formal education further contributes to a child's knowledge base, exposing children to a variety of new subjects such as history, social studies, and science.

The organization of knowledge improves with development. New information that can be readily integrated into existing concepts is easier to learn than information with no structural ties to the knowledge base. However, with experience children encounter repeated exceptions or contradictions to their early conceptual organization. These contradictions force the child to modify early concepts or to adopt new ones, changes that bring the child's knowledge base more in line with the structure of adult concepts.

The acquisition of knowledge has a direct impact on the efficiency of basic skills. The more knowledge a child has in a particular area, the greater the capacity to remember facts and attend to relevant details. School age chess masters show superior memory for the locations of chess men on the board compared with adults unfamiliar with the game, even though those same adults show superior performance in a digit span task.6 Similarly, children with extensive experience in a particular domain may show more sophisticated problem solving skills than age-matched peers with limited exposure. Thus, a kindergarten or first grade student with a terminal illness may understand that death is a permanent state, although classmates conceptualize death as a reversible condition like sleeping.7

Metacognitive Awareness

Metacognitive awareness, the ability to think about thinking, is reflected in the ability to predict ones performance, to discuss the cause of failure, and to regulate the process of thinking. Children become increasingly aware of their own knowledge and individual skill profile during the school age years. Preschoolers, insensitive to their lack of knowledge or skill, are unable to judge how well they have done without feedback. First and second graders can sometimes judge accurately about past performance but cannot predict future performance. Children in third grade or older actively consider the goals of a cognitive task and their strategic options for the problem, and therefore accurately predict their performance.

Metacognitive awareness develops gradually and unevenly. The areas that children know best are frequently those in which they first demonstrate metacognitive awareness. The course of development involves the spread of this awareness to increasingly unfamiliar domains and to increasingly complex strategies. Yet, even for adults, there may remain some areas of limited self-awareness and minimal self- regulation.

THINKING SKILLS IN CHILDREN WITH LEARNING PROBLEMS

Application of the Framework

Children with intellectual or learning problems demonstrate limitations in at least one, and often several, of the basic components (Table 3). Unfortunately, all four components are not evaluated in traditional assessments of children with learning problems. The usual procedure is to categorize children for educational purposes on the basis of formal tests of intellectual ability and academic achievement. Operationally, children are classified as mentally retarded if their performance is at least two standard deviations below the mean on tests of intelligence, and as learning disabled if their performance on the tests of academic achievement is significantly below their IQ score. Many children who struggle to learn cannot be neatly categorized with these traditional measures.

Table

TABLE 3Characteristics of Children with Learning Problems

TABLE 3

Characteristics of Children with Learning Problems

Children with learning problems, regardless of how they are classified for educational purposes, typically face serious difficulties with the speed or efficiency of basic skills. Their memory capacity may be small, their ability to attend compromised, or their motor skills clumsy. Academic problems can be understood as emerging from specific skill deficits.

Neuropsychological or neurodevelopmental assessments play an important role in the evaluation of children with learning problems because they systematically evaluate a wide variety of basic skills including verbal memory, visual memory, selective attention, language reception, language expression, and motor implementation. Such assessments generate a profile of processing strengths and weaknesses.8·9 One limitation of this approach is that the profile itself is not sufficient to explain the learning difficulties; although two children share an identical neurodevelopmental profile, one may have academic difficulties and the other may not. Neurodevelopmental tests do not consider the interplay of strategies and basic skills. A critical difference between the successful and unsuccessful students in the above example may be the successful student's ability to use meditational strategies to compensate for weak basic skills. A second limitation is that the neurodevelopmental approach does not consider the interplay of knowledge and baste skills. A mentally retarded or learning disabled student may remember hundreds of baseball cards or may figure out how to fix the carburetor of a motorcycle. However, in academic areas of low interest, the same student may show limited memory and problem solving skills.

In addition to deficits in basic skills, children with learning problems show serious limitations in strategy use and metacognitive awareness. Academic failure often appears to be related more to a passive learning style than to limitations of basic skills.10 Mentally retarded children, like young children, spontaneously use fewer and more passive processing strategies than chronologically age-matched children. Similarly, learning disabled children have a narrow and inflexible repertoire of strategies and are far less likely than normal learners to use strategies, even in areas not explicitly defined as part of the learning disability. For example, reading disabled children rehearse less often and recall less material on memory tasks than normal readers.11 Similar problems are found in poor students from mainstream classes. The least successful students are less likely to increase their study time when given difficult reading material compared with more successful students from the same class. 12

Similar differences exist in metacognitive awareness. In some areas, mentally retarded students spontaneously demonstrate metacognitive awareness at approximately the same developmental time as mental age-matched peers. However, metacognitive awareness of more complex strategies may be delayed beyond expectations based on mental age. ' ' Previous research has demonstrated that children with learning disorders are less accurate compared with normal learners at predicting their own performance on a variety of tasks. Interestingly, despite long histories of academic failure, the learning disordered subjects, like younger children, tend to overestimate their performance capabilities.14

Implications for Educational Interventions

There are direct educational implications of the assessment of strategy use and metacognitive awareness in children with learning problems. Children with a restricted repertoire of strategies can improve from explicit instruction on performance enhancing strategies. It is unclear how much benefit can be afforded a student by continued practice of weak basic skills. However, it is clear that special learners, like young children, will show impressive improvements in performance if taught appropriate strategies.13 In fact, after extensive training and practice in rehearsal, retarded children can recall as much as adults with average IQ.15

Unfortunately, training on strategies is not the total solution to a child's learning problems. Mentally retarded and learning disabled students, in contrast with normal learners, are less likely to transfer a newly acquired strategy to different tasks and new settings. Analogous to the findings with young children, the more dissimilar the training and the generalization tasks, the lower the probability of transfer. The challenge becomes finding an educational approach that simultaneously promotes initial learning and encourages transfer: if the strategy presented has a narrow and specific content it may not be transferred; but if it is presented abstractly it may not be applied even in the training setting.

Generalization of strategy use is facilitated by metacognitive awareness.13 Older children and children with high levels of metacognitive awareness show the greatest transfer in generalization experiments. Presumably, self-conscious knowledge about the uses and applications of specific strategies triggers an understanding about the potential value of new strategies. Explicitly telling children how, when, and why strategies might improve their performance helps them generalize the strategies. However, only the most carefully planned instruction promotes generalization of strategies to new tasks.

Parental Involvement with Special Learners

Rarents of children with learning problems will frequently look to the physician for advice on how they can contribute to their child's education. The conceptual framework presented here provides some direction. First, as advocates for their child, parents should review individual educational plans to assure that their child receives not only practice for weak skills but also explicit training on performance enhancing strategies and metacognitive awareness. Without this broad focus, the educational effort will have limited usefulness.

Second, to balance the usual educational approach on the acquisition of basic and academic skills, parents can help their child to develop a rich and variegated knowledge base. Hobbies, scouting, sports, music, and cultural events expand a child's experience and information. Parents who actively share experiences with their child, even television watching or dinner conversation, can challenge the child to integrate new information into existing concepts and to reorganize concepts as needed. The expansion and organization of knowledge may allow the child to practice basic skills and strategy use in an area of proficiency which may then transfer to academic tasks.

Third, parents can promote the development of metacognitive awareness. Teaching a child about his or her unique learning profile becomes the foundation of an active self-reflective approach. Parents can challenge their child to make realistic appraisals of the chance of success in a routine chore, for example, by asking if the room can be cleaned before the friend arrives; they can help the child evaluate multiple options to see if one strategy improves the probability of success. Repeated metacognitive training in everyday affairs models for the child an approach to academic activities.

Finally, although not a direct implication of the model presented here, parents can come to accept and support their child despite cognitive limitations. Children rarely fail at school intentionally. Most children with learning difficulties have some limitations on basic skills coupled with inadequate strategies and delayed metacognitive awareness. With these multiple problems, many children lose the motivation to learn. Rsrental understanding of the breadth of the problems and, more important, parental acceptance of the child can go a long way toward minimizing some of the devastating secondary effects of chronic learning problems such as poor self-esteem, hopelessness, and frank depression.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The preparation of this article was supported in part by March of Dimes Grant #12-210, NICHD #1P01HD23388-01A1, and Department of Education Grant #H024F80014.

Special thanks to Robert Siegler for consultation, to Dena Hofkosh and the members of the Child Development Unit, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for their comments on an earlier version of the article and Carol Hallberg for assistance in manuscript preparation.

REFERENCES

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TABLE 1

Strategies for Enhancing Memory

TABLE 2

Developmental Changes in Thinking Skills

TABLE 3

Characteristics of Children with Learning Problems

10.3928/0090-4481-19890601-06

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