The schoolchild – Mental development

During the school years, a child’s life is enriched in a wide variety of ways. No longer the simple, self-centred infant, he or she increasingly comes into contact with different aspects of the outside world -school, authority, friendships, challenges and so on. Attentive parents can both assist and enjoy their child’s development of self expression, reasoning power, memory capacity, social understanding, self-awareness and sense of moral values.

Emotional development

Whereas pre-school children are very much the centre of their own world, by the time they are six or seven most children are no longer so egocentric. Gradually it starts to dawn upon them that their viewpoint is not the only possible one; that other people have thoughts, expectations and feelings they should take account of, and needs that may be different from their own. School-age children begin to see the world in a more realistic way, and to distinguish fact from fantasy. Family relationships are still the most important ones to them, but their own friends start to play a greater part in their lives. Increasingly they want to branch out on their own, and become still more independent.

Intellectual development

School-age children gradually learn to think in a more flexible way. Unlike the pre-school child, they are able to see beyond what lies directly in front of them. They begin to notice different aspects of the same object and are able to reconcile these different views. Children of this age rely much more on sight and hearing to interpret the world, in contrast to younger children who gain much of their information about their environment from touching, prodding and poking it.

This new way of thinking is called “concrete operational’ and it has several characteristics. The first is that the child begins to think logically. Jean W.F. Piaget (1896-1980). the Swiss development psychologist, carried out a famous experiment which showed that pre-school children could not believe a tall, narrow glass did not hold more liquid than a short, wide one, although they had seen the same quantity of liquid poured into each.

Seven- and eight-year-olds have no difficulty in understanding that both containers hold the same amount. Moreover, their thinking is reversible: they can imagine the changed shape the water would have if it were poured into yet another container. Asked to say which is longer, a straight line of five matches placed end to end or six matches placed in a zigzag, pre-school children choose the straight line of five, simply because its ends are farther apart. Older children are able to quantify and measure the difference between the lines, and so correctly choose the zigzag.

Another aspect of the increasing mental sophistication of the concrete operational stage is that perception is dominated by form rather than by colour. Younger children, asked to match similar objects. Judge two red but differently shaped objects to be more similar than two identically shaped but different coloured ones. By seven or eight, however, children notice the similarities of form, just as adults do. By the time a child is seven, intellectual potential may be assessed quite accurately. There is a significant ^rrn^A correlation between his intelligence quotient at this age and the score achieved as an adult. Although children in the concrete operational stage are beginning to use abstract terms, they are doing so only in relation to concrete objects. Not until the final stage of cognitive development, the formal operational stage which begins around the age of 11 or 12 years, are children able to reason in purely symbolic terms.

In one test for formal operational thinking, the child tries to discover what determines the period of oscillation of a simple pendulum. The child is shown a length of string suspended from a hook and several weights that can be attached to the lower end. He or she is able to vary the length of the string, change the attached weight, and alter the height from which the bob is released.

Children still in the concrete operational stage will experiment, changing some of the variables, but not in a systematic way. They are as yet unable to consider all the possible variables, work out the consequences for each hypothesis and confirm or deny the consequences for each hypothesis. It must be noted, however, that although research has largely supported Piaget’s observations of the sequences in which cognitive development occurs, the ages at which children reach the different levels vary considerably. For example, a very bright nine year old might be skillful at systematically analyzing a problem and testing hypotheses, whereas some adults never achieve formal operational thought.

Learning and memory

Between the ages of five and seven, children learn best by doing – exploring objects and solving problems that seem to have some basis in reality. Until the age of five-and-a-half or six, children tend to try to solve problems by a simple trial-and-error method. Gradually they adopt a more conceptual or verbal approach: they form general hypotheses and rules that enable them to reason and to apply what they have learnt from one situation to another. Memory improves significantly during these years. Children begin unconsciously to use various strategies to help them memorize. They can organize thoughts, ideas and objects into categories – for example, T-shirt, jumper and jeans can be classified as ‘clothes’ rather than seen as three separate things; this enables more to be held in memory.

All parents are anxious for their children to succeed and may worry if their progress seems to be slower than they believe it should be. It is important to remember that children vary in the rate at which they learn; what and how well they learn depends at least partly on the opportunities they are given and on their motivation. Children need rewards to maintain their interest: praise, increased self-confidence and excitement all help to keep them motivated. Most children learn to read simple books by the age of seven. A few (three to six per cent) have more difficulty in learning to read and spell than would be expected from their apparent general ability. Parents who think their child has a specific reading or numeric difficulty should ask the school to arrange for an assessment by an educational psychologist, who will be able to tell if the child needs any special help.


Discovering how to get along with other children is one of the most important aspects of school life.

Children of school age usually make their closest friends with children of their own sex and go about in small groups, again of the same sex. They may profess to find the opposite sex boring and tiresome, claiming to want little to do with them. However, this almost always masks a growing interest in and awareness of the opposite sex. At this age girls especially tend to make intense, ‘best friends’ and to invest a good deal of emotional energy in them. For boys, this is above all the age of the ‘gang’.

School-age children start to use comparisons with their friends to measure their own position. Friends are likely to be cited when family arguments arise about pocket money, watching television, degrees of freedom, or choice of clothes. Parents cannot, and should not, radically alter or reorganize their own life and attitudes to accommodate their children’s newly acquired ideas about what is or is not desirable; but they need to remember that it is important for their children’s social development to fit in with their peer group, and they should try to make some compromises. This first experience of being part of a group teaches children to become part of a world outside the family, to modify their own behaviour so that it is acceptable to the group, to co-operate with and consider other people.

Parents may be tempted to interfere with or try to control their children’s friendships, but this is nearly always a mistake. Even if parents are convinced that a particular friend is a bad influence, it is seldom a good idea to forbid a friendship, although it is sensible to keep a watchful eye on it. Similarly, although it can be hard to stand by and see a child rejected by a best friend, or temporarily an outcast from the chosen gang, these problems are nearly always short-lived and best solved by the children themselves. However, parents can and should give their children support and sympathy, and suggest ways in which any breach might be mended.

Many children go through a brief stage of relative friendlessness; and some children are naturally more solitary and self-sufficient than others. Nevertheless it is not usual for children to choose to isolate themselves completely. Children who seem unable to join in the activities of other children, or to make friends, probably need help: parental consultation with their teacher may be a useful first step.

Starting School

Starting full-time school is a tremendously important event for children. They have to adapt to a whole new and different culture, with its own rules and codes of behaviour. They have to learn to be independent, to conform and to compete for adult help and attention when they need it. It is natural for children to be anxious at the start of a new school year, especially if they are changing schools. It helps if they can see the new school and meet the teacher before term starts. Most children settle well, but some find the transition difficult. School meals, anxiety or shyness about using school lavatories or undressing for games, fear of a teacher or a bullying child can all worry children during the early school years. These problems should be dealt with promptly, preferably by discussing them with the child’s teacher, before they become a focus for a serious dislike of school.