Cognitive development is a field of study that looks at children's behavior over time in order to follow the development of language, problem solving, memory, and many other areas of cognitive growth (sometimes referred to as intellectual development, or brain development). It is usually described in terms of stages, or milestones, since there are predictable patterns of a child's cognitive development over time. We will take a look at the changes that are happening in our children's growing minds in first grade.
A child's entrance into first grade marks the beginning of a period known as middle childhood, which spans ages 6-12. During middle childhood, growth is slower and more consistent than it was in the early years, and it will remain so until kids hit adolescence. First graders are transitioning out of the foundational development of early childhood, and settling into a steadier pace of learning. The growth of language, memory, and general cognitive development is moving at a furious pace; teachers and parents are taken aback at how much a child suddenly knows. Children are able to describe experiences, thoughts, and feelings with much greater skill and fluency, though girls tend to be more verbally expressive than boys at this age.
Six and seven year olds are curious and eager to learn. They generally prefer structured activities to more open-ended experiences. They wonder about the world and ask a lot of "what if" questions. Pretend play is important to them, and they begin to involve others in the creation of complex imaginary worlds. However, children in first grade begin to want to use real items rather than toys: helping to cook "real food", helping authentically with chores, playing dress-up with "real" adult hats or accessories. They also become more adept and creative in everyday problem solving as their language improves along with their world knowledge and the ability to think abstractly.
You will be gratified to learn that, with the increase in cognitive development, your 6 and 7 year old children are developing longer attention spans. Kids will be much more likely to stick with a project until it is done, or to stick with a problem until it is solved. Also in response to changes in cognitive development, first graders may develop something of an obsession about finishing things. They really, really hate being interrupted in the middle of working on something. It is, in fact, one of the main causes of emotional explosions in this age, so be sure to give kids plenty of time to finish a task, and to finish it well.
Given their need for structure and for finishing things, it is a happy circumstance that first graders also respond extremely well to a daily schedule and to routine. This year, they have a much more developed sense of time, and they may worry about getting things done on time and not getting into trouble. Other organizational strategies help as well: regular daily routines, predictable family or class gatherings, ways of organizing backpacks and homework, etc.
In first grade, the growth of language, memory, and general cognitive development is moving at a furious pace.
All of these things help to reinforce children's sense of structure and help them make sense of their world. The predictability of each day gives them much-needed confidence and security as they learn to navigate in new school and social situations. Children are likely to feel stressed and upset when things don't go as they expected. By keeping to a schedule and giving a five-minute or ten-minute warning before transitioning to another activity, you will reduce children's stress and keep frustration (and meltdowns) to a minimum.
Six and seven year olds are excited about their new levels of independence, but also insecure about it. It is a heady feeling to be let loose for the day with new kids, new teacher, and new responsibilities-but it is quickly followed by the realization that they do not know quite what to do with that freedom.
The first grader responds to this uncertainty by holding on tight to rules. Where rules do not exist, children will make some. And in extreme circumstances, they will change them. But rules are always present, and are a very, very important part of first grade life.
Kids need time to transition to something new. Give a 10-minute warning before asking them to clean up.
Because rules tell children so clearly how they are supposed to act, children at this age prefer structured activities over more open-ended ones. They like activities and games that you can "do right". First graders still require a good deal of direction from adults, and ask questions to make sure they are doing things the right way. Vague requests or directions are stressful for them, and they may have a hard time getting started without specific instructions.
In spite of wanting the security blanket of clear rules, first graders enjoy making choices and decisions. This can be tricky, either because they want it all and can't choose, or because they feel there is a "best" answer, and the pressure is on to discover the right one.
1. Give plenty of opportunities for kids to make choices or contribute an opinion. Avoid open ended decisions like "What should we have for dinner?" For some kids, this is a big decision; the sky is the limit. More appropriate would be to give kids a choice of two items and have them make the final call between them: "Should we have chicken or tacos?" This way you have already chosen two good options and won't have to veto the child's decision, and the child becomes an important part of the decision-making process.
2. Gently encourage creativity and independent thought. Although conformity is the standard for kids at this age, it is important for them to continue to receive encouragement for creativity and individuality. Encourage kids to use different materials, or try things a different way. Don't make kids feel bad for trying to be exactly like their friends, but give them honest praise when they try something different. With time, they will develop more confidence and be willing to branch out more.
3. Speaking of praise, do it a lot. They may brag, they may be self-centered, they may even get a little obnoxious. No matter. This will pass, and what they need and crave is lots of authentic praise and encouragement for their efforts. Be careful with your criticism and use it sparingly. Instead, carefully show how you do want something done, then show your approval when it is done right.
4. Help kids finish what they start. Don't rush them; give plenty of time to really sink into an activity and experience it. A few significant activities are better than rushing through a bunch of superficial ones.
Vague requests are stressful for first graders, and they may have a hard time getting started without specific instructions. If you are rushed, slow down enough to make rules and directions clear; it will move things along faster in the long run.
Changes in first grade cognitive development may require some adjustments as adults try to respond to kids' changing needs. Talk and listen to your child to find out the reasons behind their actions and to learn what they are thinking; this will offer important clues to how you can help them.