Cognitive Development in Middle to Late Childhood

Suzanne Valentine-French; Martha Lally; Laura Overstreet; Julie Lazzara; Alisa Beyer; Diana Lang; and Naomi H. Dan Karami

Animal classification for a dog, from domain to supspecies.
Children in the concrete operational stage can classify organisms. (Image Source: “Dog,” modification  by Janneke Vreugdenhil, CC BY)

Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage

From ages 7 to 11, children are in what Piaget referred to as the Concrete Operational Stage of cognitive development.[1] This involves mastering the use of logic in concrete ways. The word concrete refers to that which is tangible; that which can be seen, touched, or experienced directly. Children in the concrete operational stage are able to make use of logical principles in solving problems involving the physical world. For example, children can better understand principles of cause and effect, size, and distance.

During this stage, children use logic to solve problems tied to their own direct experiences, but have trouble solving hypothetical problems or considering more abstract problems. Children in this stage also use inductive reasoning, which is a logical process in which multiple premises believed to be true are combined to obtain a specific conclusion. For example, a child has one friend who is rude, another friend who is also rude, and the same is true for a third friend. The child may conclude that friends are rude. We will see that this way of thinking tends to change during adolescence and is typically replaced with deductive reasoning. We will now explore some of the major abilities that children exhibit during the concrete operational stage.

  • Classification: As children’s experiences and vocabularies grow, they build schemata and are able to organize objects in many different ways. They also understand classification hierarchies and can arrange objects into a variety of classes and subclasses.
  • Identity: One feature of concrete operational thought is the understanding that objects have qualities that do not change even if the object is altered in some way. For instance, mass of an object does not change by rearranging it. A piece of chalk is still chalk even when the piece is broken in two.
  • Reversibility: The child learns that some things that have been changed can be returned to their original state. Water can be frozen and then thawed to become liquid again. But eggs cannot be unscrambled. Arithmetic operations are reversible as well: 2 + 3 = 5 and 5 – 3 = 2. Many of these cognitive skills are incorporated into the school’s curriculum through mathematical problems and in worksheets about which situations are reversible or irreversible.
  • Conservation: Children in the concrete operational stage can now understand the concept of conservation, which means that changing one quality (height or water level) can be compensated for by changes in another quality (width). Consequently, there is the same amount of water in each container, although one is taller and narrower and the other is shorter and wider.
  • Decentration: Children in this stage no longer focus on only one dimension of any object (such as the height of the glass) and instead consider the changes in other dimensions too (such as the width of the glass). This allows for conservation to occur.
  • Seriation: Arranging items along a quantitative dimension, such as length or weight, in a methodical way can also be demonstrated by children in this stage. For example, they can methodically arrange a series of different-sized sticks in order by length, while younger children approach a similar task in a haphazard way.

These new cognitive skills increase the child’s understanding of the physical world, however according to Piaget, they still cannot think in abstract ways. Additionally, they do not think in systematic scientific ways. For example, when asked which variables influence the period that a pendulum takes to complete its arc, and given weights they can attach to strings in order to do experiments, most children younger than 12 perform biased experiments from which no conclusions can be drawn.[2]

Information Processing

Children differ in their memory abilities, and these differences predict both their readiness for school and academic performance in school.[3] During middle and late childhood children make strides in several areas of cognitive function including the capacity of working memory, their ability to pay attention, and their use of memory strategies. Both changes in the brain and experiences foster these abilities.

Working Memory

The capacity of working memory expands during middle and late childhood, and research has suggested that both an increase in processing speed and the ability to inhibit irrelevant information from entering memory are contributing to the greater efficiency of working memory during this age.[4] Changes in myelination and synaptic pruning in the cortex are likely behind the increase in processing speed and ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli.[5]

Children with learning disabilities in math and reading often have difficulties with working memory.[6] They may struggle with following the directions of an assignment. When a task calls for multiple steps, children with poor working memory may miss steps because they may lose track of where they are in the task. Adults working with children who have learning variations may need to communicate by using more familiar vocabulary, using shorter sentences, repeating task instructions more frequently, and breaking more complex tasks into smaller more manageable steps. Some studies have also shown that more intensive training of working memory strategies, such as chunking, aid in improving the capacity of working memory in children with poor working memory.[7]


The ability to inhibit irrelevant information improves during this age group, with there being a sharp improvement in selective attention from age six into adolescence.[8] Children also tend to improve in their ability to shift their attention between tasks or different features of a task.[9] A younger child who is asked to sort objects into piles based on type of object, car versus animal, or color of object, red versus blue, may have difficulty if you switch from asking them to sort based on type to now having them sort based on color. This requires them to suppress the prior sorting rule. An older child typically has less difficulty making the switch, meaning there is greater flexibility in their attentional skills. These changes in attention and working memory contribute to children having more strategic approaches to challenging tasks.

Memory Strategies

Bjorklund[10] describes a developmental progression in the acquisition and use of memory strategies.

Table 1.  Percent of children who did not use any memory strategies by age.
Age Percentage
6 55
7 44
8 25
9 17
10 13

Such strategies are often lacking in younger children, but increase in frequency as most children progress through elementary school. Examples of memory strategies include rehearsing information you wish to recall, visualizing and organizing information, creating rhymes, such “i” before “e” except after “c”, or inventing acronyms, such as “roygbiv” to remember the colors of the rainbow. Schneider et al.[11] reported a steady increase in the use of memory strategies from ages six to ten in their longitudinal study (see Table 1). Moreover, by age ten many children were using two or more memory strategies to help them recall information. Schneider and colleagues found that there were considerable individual differences at each age in the use of strategies, and that children who utilized more strategies had better memory performance than their same aged peers.


Children in middle and late childhood also have a better understanding of how well they are performing a task, and the level of difficulty of a task. As they become more realistic about their abilities, they can adapt studying strategies to meet those needs. Young children spend as much time on an unimportant aspect of a problem as they do on the main point, while older children start to learn to prioritize and gauge what is significant and what is not. As a result, they develop metacognition. Metacognition refers to the knowledge we have about our own thinking and our ability to use this awareness to regulate our own cognitive processes.[12]

Critical Thinking

Photo of a child playing chess.
(Image Source: RawPixel, CC 0)

According to Bruning et al.,[13] there is a debate in the U.S. education as to whether schools should teach students what to think or how to think. Critical thinking, or a detailed examination of beliefs, courses of action, and evidence, involves teaching children how to think. The purpose of critical thinking is to evaluate information in ways that help us make informed decisions. Critical thinking involves better understanding a problem through gathering, evaluating, and selecting information, and by considering many possible solutions. Ennis[14] identified these skills useful in critical thinking: analyzing arguments, clarifying information, judging the credibility of a source, making value judgements, and deciding on an action. Metacognition is essential to critical thinking because it allows us to reflect on the information as we make decisions.

Language Development


Children looking down at books in a classroom and writing.
Children in their classroom in El Renacimiento school, in Villa Nueva, Guatemala. (Image Source: Maria Fleischmann / World Bank, CC BY NC SA)

One of the reasons that children around this age can classify objects in so many ways is that they have acquired a vocabulary to do so. By fifth grade, a child’s vocabulary has grown to 40,000 words. It grows at a rate that exceeds that of those in early childhood. This language explosion, however, differs from that of younger children because it is facilitated by being able to associate new words with those already known, and because it is accompanied by a more sophisticated understanding of the meanings of a word.

New Understanding

Those in middle and late childhood are also able to think of objects in less literal ways. For example, if asked for the first word that comes to mind when one hears the word “pizza”, the younger child is likely to say, “eat” or some word that describes what is done with a pizza. However, the older child is more likely to place pizza in the appropriate category and say “food”. This sophistication of vocabulary is also evidenced by the fact that older children tell jokes and delight in doing do. They may use jokes that involve plays on words such as “knock- knock” jokes or jokes with punch lines. Young children do not understand play on words and tell “jokes” that are literal or slapstick, such as “A man fell down in the mud! Isn’t that funny?”

Grammar and Flexibility

Older children are typically able to learn new rules of grammar with more flexibility. While younger children are likely to be reluctant to give up saying “I goed there” (an example of overregularization), older children tend to learn this rather quickly along with other rules of grammar.


Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are Bilingualmeaning that they understand and use two languages.[15] Even in the U.S., which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 60 million people speak a language other than English at home in 2018[16] and about 23% of children and youth spoke a language other than English in 2019. [17] A large majority of students who are bilingual (75%) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than 100 different language groups from around the world. In larger communities throughout the U.S., it is common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once.

Cultural Variations in the Classroom

Cultures and ethnic groups differ not only in languages, but also in how languages are used. Since some of the patterns differ from those typical of modern classrooms, they can create misunderstandings between teachers and students.[18][19] Consider these examples:

Photo of students paired up and presenting at the front of a classroom in Asia.
How do classrooms accommodate a variety of cultures? (Image Source: PxHere, CC0)
  • In some cultures, it is polite or even intelligent not to speak unless you have something truly important to say. Chitchat, or talk that simply affirms a personal tie between people, is considered immature or intrusive.[20] In a classroom, this habit can make it easier for a child to learn not to interrupt others, but it can also make the child seem unfriendly.
  • Eye contact varies by culture. In many African American and Latin American communities, it is considered appropriate and respectful for a child not to look directly at an adult who is speaking to them.[21] In classrooms, however, teachers often expect a lot of eye contact (as in “I want all eyes on me!”) and may be tempted to construe lack of eye contact as a sign of indifference or disrespect.
  • Social distance varies by culture. In some cultures, it is common to stand relatively close when having a conversation; in others, it is more customary to stand relatively far apart.[22] Problems may happen when a teacher and a student prefer different social distances. A student who expects a closer distance than does the teacher may seem overly familiar or intrusive, whereas one who expects a longer distance may seem overly formal or hesitant.

Wait time can vary by culture. Wait time is the gap between the end of one person’s comment or question and the next person’s reply or answer. In some cultures, wait time is relatively long, as long as three or four seconds.[23] In others, it is a negative gap, meaning that it is acceptable, even expected, for a person to interrupt before the end of the previous comment.

Photo of three girls smiling.
Friends are important during this stage of childhood. (Image Source, “Girls at a New Day Cambodia,” The Documentary Group on Flickr, CC BY NC ND)

In most non-Anglo cultures, questions are intended to gain information, and it is assumed that a person asking the question truly does not have the information requested.[24] In most U.S. classrooms, however, teachers regularly ask questions, which are questions to which the teacher already knows the answer and that simply assess whether a student knows the answer as well.[25] The question: “How much is 2 + 2?” for example, is a test question. If children are not aware of this purpose, they may become confused, or think that the teacher is surprisingly ignorant. Worse yet, students may feel that the teacher is trying deliberately shame students by revealing the students’ ignorance or incompetence to others.

Children with Disabilities

Illustration of a teen looking at letters floating around outside of books.
(Image Source: “Dyslexia,” by Tim Kwee, CC BY NC)

Learning Disability (or LD) is a specific impairment of academic learning that interferes with a specific aspect of schoolwork and that reduces a student’s academic performance significantly. A LD shows itself as a major discrepancy between a student’s ability and some feature of achievement: The student may be delayed in reading, writing, listening, speaking, or doing mathematics, but not in all of these at once. A learning problem is not considered a learning disability if it stems from physical, sensory, or motor handicaps, or from generalized intellectual impairment. It is also not an LD if the learning problem really reflects the challenges of learning English as a second language. Genuine LDs are the learning problems left over after these other possibilities are accounted for or excluded. Most importantly, though, an LD relates to a fairly specific area of academic learning. A student may be able to read and compute well enough, for example, but not be able to write. LDs are by far the most common form of special educational need, accounting for half of all students with special needs in the United States and anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of all students, depending on how the numbers are estimated.[26][27]

These difficulties are typically identified in school because this is when children’s academic abilities are being tested, compared, and measured. Consequently, once academic testing is no longer essential in that person’s life (as when they are working rather than going to school) these disabilities may no longer be noticed or relevant, depending on the person’s job and the extent of the disability.


Dyslexia is one of the most commonly diagnosed disabilities and involves having difficulty in the area of reading. This diagnosis is used for a number of reading difficulties. Common characteristics are difficulty with phonological processing, which includes the manipulation of sounds, spelling, and rapid visual/verbal processing. Additionally, the child may reverse letters, have difficulty reading from left to right, or may have problems associating letters with sounds. It appears to be rooted in neurological problems involving the parts of the brain active in recognizing letters, verbally responding, or being able to manipulate sounds. Recent studies have identified a number of genes linked to developing dyslexia.[28] Treatment typically involves altering teaching methods to accommodate the person’s particular problematic area.


Photo of teens receiving tutoring support.
Youth receiving additional support. (Image Source: (c) John Fensterwald/EdSource Today)

A child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) shows a constant pattern of inattention and/or hyperactive and impulsive behavior that interferes with normal functioning.[29] Some signs of inattention include great difficulty with, and avoidance of, tasks that require sustained attention (such as conversations or reading), failure to follow instructions (often resulting in failure to complete school work and other duties), disorganization (difficulty keeping things in order, poor time management, sloppy and messy work), lack of attention to detail, becoming easily distracted, and forgetfulness. Hyperactivity is characterized by excessive movement, and includes fidgeting or squirming, leaving one’s seat in situations when remaining seated is expected, having trouble sitting still (e.g., in a restaurant), running about and climbing on things, blurting out responses before another person’s question or statement has been completed, difficulty waiting one’s turn for something, and interrupting and intruding on others. The child’s behavior may be hasty, impulsive, and seems to occur without much forethought; these characteristics may explain why adolescents and young adults diagnosed with ADHD receive more traffic tickets and have more automobile accidents than do others their age.[30]

Siblings running through a field.
Exercise may reduce overactive behaviors. (Image Source: Mikhail Nilov via Pexels, cropped)

In the U.S., ADHD occurs in about 9.4% of children.[31] On the average, males (12.9%) are more likely to have ADHD than are females (5.6%); however, such findings might reflect the greater propensity of males to engage in aggressive and antisocial behavior and thus incur a greater likelihood of being referred to psychological clinics.[32] Children with ADHD may experience severe academic and social challenges. Compared to their non-ADHD counterparts, children with ADHD tend to have lower grades and standardized test scores, and higher rates of expulsion, grade retention, and dropping out.[33]

Causes of ADHD

Family and twin studies indicate that genetics play a significant role in the development of ADHD. Burt,[34] in a review of 26 studies, reported that the median rate of concordance for identical twins was .66, whereas the median concordance rate for fraternal twins was .20. The specific genes involved in ADHD are thought to include at least two that are important in the regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine,[35] suggesting that dopamine may be important in ADHD. Indeed, medications used in the treatment of ADHD, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine with dextroamphetamine (Adderall), have stimulant qualities and elevate dopamine activity. People with ADHD show less dopamine activity in key regions of the brain, especially those associated with motivation and reward,[36] which provides support to the theory that dopamine deficits may be a vital factor in the development this disorder.[37]

Treatment for ADHD

Recommended treatment for ADHD includes behavioral interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy, parent and teacher education, recreational programs, and lifestyle changes, such as getting more sleep[38] and more exercise. For some children medication is prescribed. Caregivers are often concerned that stimulant medication may result in their child acquiring a substance use disorder.

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Individual and Family Development, Health, and Well-being by Suzanne Valentine-French; Martha Lally; Laura Overstreet; Julie Lazzara; Alisa Beyer; Diana Lang; and Naomi H. Dan Karami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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