Middle and Late Childhood

Martha Lally, Suzanne Valentine-French, and Diana Lang

Middle and late childhood spans the ages between early childhood and adolescence, approximately ages 6 to 11 years. Children gain greater control over the movement of their bodies, mastering many gross and fine motor skills that eluded the younger child. Changes in the brain during this age enable not only physical development, but contributes to greater reasoning and flexibility of thought. School becomes a big part of middle and late childhood, and it expands their world beyond the boundaries of their own family. Peers start to take center-stage, often prompting changes in the parent-child relationship. Peer acceptance also influences children’s perception of self and may have consequences for emotional development beyond these years.[1]

Rates of growth generally slow during these years. Typically, a child will gain about 5-7 pounds a year and grow about 2-3 inches per year.[2] They also tend to slim down and gain muscle strength and lung capacity making it possible to engage in strenuous physical activity for long periods of time. The beginning of the growth spurt, which occurs prior to puberty, begins two years earlier for females than males. The mean age for the beginning of the growth spurt for girls is nine, while for boys it is eleven. Children of this age tend to sharpen their abilities to perform both gross motor skills, such as riding a bike, and fine motor skills, such as cutting their fingernails. In gross motor skills (involving large muscles) boys typically outperform girls, while with fine motor skills (small muscles) girls outperform the boys. These improvements in motor skills are related to brain growth and experience during this developmental period.

Two major brain growth spurts occur during middle/late childhood.[3] Between ages 6 and 8, significant improvements in fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination are noted. Then between 10 and 12 years of age, the frontal lobes become more developed and improvements in logic, planning, and memory are evident.[4] Children in middle to late childhood are also better able to plan, coordinate activity using both left and right hemispheres of the brain, and to control emotional outbursts. Paying attention is also improved as the prefrontal cortex matures.[5]

 

Video Example

Watch Dr. Dan Siegel describe adolescent brain development.

 

Childhood Obesity

The decreased participation in school physical education and youth sports is just one of many factors that has led to an increase in children being overweight or obese. The current measurement for determining excess weight is the Body Mass Index (BMI) which expresses the relationship of height to weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children’s whose BMI is at or above the 85th percentile for their age are considered overweight, while children who are at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese. Excess weight and obesity in children are associated with a variety of medical and cognitive conditions including high blood pressure, insulin resistance, inflammation, depression, and lower academic achievement.[6]

Being overweight has also been linked to impaired brain functioning, which includes deficits in executive functioning, working memory, mental flexibility, and decision making.[7] Children who ate more saturated fats performed worse on relational memory tasks while eating a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids promoted relational memory skills.[8] Using animal studies Davidson et al. (2013) found that large amounts of processed sugars and saturated fat weakened the blood-brain barrier, especially in the hippocampus.[9] This can make the brain more vulnerable to harmful substances that can impair its functioning. Another important executive functioning skill is controlling impulses and delaying gratification. Children who are overweight show less inhibitory control than normal-weight children, which may make it more difficult for them to avoid unhealthy foods.[10] Overall, being overweight as a child increases the risk for cognitive decline as one ages. Visit this link from the CDC to learn more about childhood overweight and obesity.

An added concern is that the children themselves are not accurately identifying if they are overweight. In a United States sample of 8-15 year-olds, more than 80% of overweight boys and 70% of overweight girls misperceived their weight as normal.[11] Also noted was that as the socioeconomic status of the children rose, the frequency of these misconceptions decreased. It appeared that families with more resources were more conscious of what defines a healthy weight.

Children who are overweight tend to be rejected, ridiculed, teased and bullied by others more than their peer counterparts.[12] This can certainly be damaging to their self-image and popularity. In addition, children who are obese run the risk of suffering orthopedic problems such as knee injuries, and they have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood. It is hard for a child who is obese to become a non-obese adult. In addition, the number of cases of pediatric diabetes has risen dramatically in recent years.

Behavioral interventions, including training children to overcome impulsive behavior, are being researched to help children achieve and maintain a healthy weight.[13] Practicing inhibition has been shown to strengthen the ability to resist unhealthy foods. Parents can help their children the best when they are warm and supportive without using shame or guilt. Parents can also act like the child’s frontal lobe until it is developed by helping them make correct food choices and praising their efforts.[14] Research also shows that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can help improve cognitive functioning in children.[15] Parents should take caution against emphasizing diet alone to avoid the development of any obsession about dieting that can lead to eating disorders. Instead, increasing a child’s activity level is most helpful.

Recall from earlier chapters that children in early childhood are in Piaget’s preoperational stage, and during this stage, children are learning to think symbolically about the world. Cognitive skills continue to expand in middle and late childhood as thought processes become more logical and organized when dealing with concrete information. Children at this age understand concepts such as past, present, and future, giving them the ability to plan and work toward goals. Additionally, they can process complex ideas such as addition and subtraction and cause-and-effect relationships.

Concrete Operational Thought

From ages 7 to 11, children are in what Piaget referred to as the Concrete Operational Stage of cognitive development.[16] 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. The concrete operational child is able to make use of logical principles in solving problems involving the physical world. For example, the child can understand the principles of cause and effect, size, and distance.

The child can use logic to solve problems tied to their own direct experience, but has trouble solving hypothetical problems or considering more abstract problems. The child uses 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 being replaced with deductive reasoning. We will now explore some of the major abilities that the concrete child exhibits.

Figure 2. Children in the concrete operational stage understand how to classify organisms
  • 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: Remember the example in our last chapter of preoperational children thinking that a tall beaker filled with 8 ounces of water was “more” than a short, wide bowl filled with 8 ounces of water? Concrete operational children can understand the concept of conservation which means that changing one quality (in this example, 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: Concrete operational children 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 is now demonstrated by the concrete operational child. 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.[17]

Education

Remember the ecological systems model that we explored? This model helps us understand an individual by examining the contexts in which the person lives and the direct and indirect influences on that person’s life. School becomes a very important component of children’s lives during middle and late childhood, and parents and the culture contribute to children’s experiences in school as indicated by the ecological systems model through their interaction with the school.

Parental Involvement in School

Parents and caregivers vary in their level of involvement with their children’s schools. Teachers often complain that they have difficulty getting parents/caregivers to participate in their child’s education and devise a variety of techniques to keep parents in touch with daily and overall progress. For example, parents may be required to sign a behavior chart each evening to be returned to school or may be given information about the school’s events through websites and newsletters. There are other factors that need to be considered when looking at parental involvement. To explore these, first ask yourself if all parents who enter the school with concerns about their child be received in the same way?

Horvat (2004) found that teachers seek a particular type of involvement from particular types of parents.[18] While teachers thought they were open and neutral in their responses to parental involvement, in reality teachers were most receptive to support, praise and agreement coming from parents who were most similar in race and social class with the teachers. Parents who criticized the school or its policies were less likely to be given voice. Parents who have higher levels of income, occupational status, and other qualities favored in society have family capital. This is a form of power that can be used to improve a child’s education. Caregivers who do not have these qualities may find it more difficult to be effectively involved. The authors suggest that teachers closely examine their biases. Schools may also need to examine their ability to dialogue with parents about school policies in more open ways. Any efforts to improve effective parental involvement should address these concerns.

Erikson: Industry vs. Inferiority

According to Erikson, children in middle and late childhood are very busy or industrious.[19] They are constantly doing, planning, playing, getting together with friends, and achieving. This is a very active time, and a time when they are gaining a sense of how they measure up when compared with peers. Erikson believed that if these industrious children can be successful in their endeavors, they will get a sense of confidence for future challenges. If not, a sense of inferiority can be particularly haunting during middle and late childhood.

Bullying

According to Stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Further, aggressive behavior happens more than once or has the potential to be repeated. There are different types of bullying, including verbal bullying, which is saying or writing mean things, teasing, name calling, taunting, threatening, or making inappropriate sexual comments. Social bullying, also referred to as relational bullying, involves spreading rumors, purposefully excluding someone from a group, or embarrassing someone on purpose. Physical Bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions.

A more recent form of bullying is Cyberbullying, which involves electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include sending mean text messages or emails, creating fake profiles, and posting embarrassing pictures, videos, or rumors on social networking sites. Children who experience cyberbullying have a harder time getting away from the behavior because it can occur at any time of day and without being in the presence of others. Additional concerns of cyberbullying include that messages and images can be posted anonymously, distributed quickly, and be difficult to trace or delete. Children who are cyberbullied are more likely to experience in-person bullying, be unwilling to attend school, receive poor grades, use alcohol and drugs, skip school, have lower self-esteem, and have more health problems.[20]

Bullying can happen to anyone, but some students are at an increased risk for being bullied including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) youth, those with disabilities, and those who are socially isolated. Additionally, those who are perceived as different, weak, less popular, overweight, or having low self-esteem, have a higher likelihood of being bullied.

Bullies are often thought of as having low self-esteem, and then bully others to feel better about themselves. Although this can occur, many bullies in fact have high levels of self-esteem. They possess considerable popularity and social power and have well-connected peer relationships. They do not lack self-esteem, and instead lack empathy for others. They like to dominate or be in charge of others.

Unfortunately, most children do not let adults know that they are being bullied. Some fear retaliation from the bully, while others are too embarrassed to ask for help. Those who are socially isolated may not know who to ask for help or believe that no one would care or assist them if they did ask for assistance. Consequently, it is important for parents and teachers to know the warning signs that may indicate a child is being bullied. These include unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed possessions, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, declining school grades, not wanting to go to school, loss of friends, decreased self-esteem and/or self-destructive behaviors.


  1. This chapter is adapted from Lifespan Development by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French, licensed CC BY NC SAhttps://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-lifespandevelopment/
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2000). 2000 CDC growth charts for the United States: Methods and development. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_11/sr11_246.pdf
  3. Spreen, O., Rissser, A., & Edgell, D. (1995). Developmental neuropsychology. New York: Oxford University Press. Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  4. van der Molen, M., & Molenaar, P. (1994). Cognitive psychophysiology: A window to cognitive development and brain maturation. In G. Dawson & K. Fischer (Eds.), Human behavior and the developing brain. New York: Guilford.
  5. Markant, J. C., & Thomas, K. M. (2013). Postnatal brain development. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), Oxford handbook of developmental psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Lu, S. (2016). Obesity and the growing brain. Monitor on Psychology, 47(6), 40-43.
  7. Liang, J., Matheson, B., Kaye, W., & Boutelle, K. (2014). Neurocognitive correlates of obesity and obesity-related behaviors in children and adolescents. International Journal of Obesity, 38(4), 494-506
  8. Davidson, T. L. (2014). Do impaired memory and body weight regulation originate in childhood with diet-induced hippocampal dysfunction? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(5), 971-972.
  9. Davidson, T. L., Hargrave, S. L., Swithers, S. E., Sample, C. H., Fu, X., Kinzig, K. P., & Zheng, W. (2013). Inter-relationships among diet, obesity, and hippocampal-dependent cognitive function. Neuroscience, 253, 110-122.
  10. Lu, S. (2016). Obesity and the growing brain. Monitor on Psychology, 47(6), 40-43.
  11. Sarafrazi, N., Hughes, J. P., & Borrud, L. (2014). Perception of weight status in U.S. children and adolescents aged 8-15 years, 2005-2012. NCHS Data Brief, 158, 1-8.
  12. (Stopbullying.gov).
  13. Lu, S. (2016). Obesity and the growing brain. Monitor on Psychology, 47(6), 40-43.
  14. Liang, J., Matheson, B., Kaye, W., & Boutelle, K. (2014). Neurocognitive correlates of obesity and obesity-related behaviors in children and adolescents. International Journal of Obesity, 38(4), 494-506
  15. Lu, S. (2016). Obesity and the growing brain. Monitor on Psychology, 47(6), 40-43.
  16. Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  17. Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books. Jaffee, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2000). Gender differences in moral orientation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 126(5), 703-726.
  18. Horvat, E. M. (2004). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion: Race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships. In A. Lareau (Author) & J. H. Ballantine & J. Z. Spade (Eds.), Schools and society: A sociological approach to education (2nd ed., pp. 276-286). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  19. Erikson, E. (1982). The life cycle completed. NY: Norton & Company.
  20. (Stopbullying.gov)

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Middle and Late Childhood by Martha Lally, Suzanne Valentine-French, and Diana Lang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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