The first eight years of a child’s life are the most critical, rapid, and sensitive span of development for physical well-being and motor skills, language and literacy skills, math and science skills, and social-emotional, motivational, and regulatory skills. In the latter years of this critical time, children typically enter kindergarten, where the basic skills established earlier begin to be shaped more systematically by educational experience to support functioning in the long-run. Typically, what might be thought of as foundational development continues through 2nd or 3rd grade, at which point children become capable of acting with greater intention. For example, under normal circumstances at this point, their orientation shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.
Less advantaged children are more likely to enter kindergarten with deficits in basic skills, delaying solidification of, and sometimes permanently weakening, the foundation needed for subsequent learning. Failure in elementary school is difficult to overcome in later life. The abilities of children, the relationship with their parents/caregivers and siblings, and the schools and other out-of-home settings where they learn all have important effects on their development. However, during the elementary school period, compared to earlier, children start a phase in which they will spend increasing amounts of time in school and other out-of-home settings and less time with their families.
Middle Childhood Abilities
The executive functions of the brain, centered in the prefrontal cortex (the large, forepart of the brain), serve as the biological foundation for learning in elementary school. Working memory (e.g., the amount of information that can be held consciously at one time for problem solving purposes), inhibitory control (e.g., ignoring irrelevant information), and attentional skills provide the basis upon which children’s abilities to learn to read, write, and do math are built. Executive functions support the process of learning – focusing, remembering (such as rules), planning, etc. – that enables children to effectively and efficiently master the content of learning. Essentially, the first half of elementary school is, in effect, devoted to the firming up of these underlying capabilities and the second half to deploying them for the purpose of learning the curriculum and relating appropriately to peers and adults.
Order and predictability, combined with increasing levels of controlled challenge over time, foster the development of executive function skills during middle childhood. As these skills improve, so,too, do educational achievement (particularly in math) and behavior. Research has shown that stress, anxiety, and not being physically fit impair activity in the prefrontal cortex, which compromises executive functioning and associated academic and social learning.
Executive functions contribute to a child’s ability to regulate himself or herself. Self-control has been found to be a robust predictor of grades, of equal or greater influence than intelligence, which may explain why teachers often report that the most important determinant of classroom success in elementary school is the extent which children can sit still, pay attention, and follow rules. There is also reason to think that it helps to explain the greater school success of girls compared to boys.
Strong evidence exists that children with reading disabilities have deficits in executive functioning, especially in working memory and inhibitory control. Deficits in inhibition may allow irrelevant or no longer relevant information to interfere with reading comprehension. Working memory may get overloaded, reducing the ability to handle new information. The same difficulties likely impair math learning as well, since the ability to discard useless information can be critical to finding correct solutions to math problems.
Children with the poorest executive functioning appear to gain the most from interventions intended to improve it. Children from lower income families, with smaller working memory, with ADHD, and possibly boys tend to show the most improvement. For example, creative use of directed play, which incorporates cognitive challenge and physical exercise, seems to have potential as a vehicle for treating ADHD. Opportunities to make up stories, exercise their imaginations and bodies, and resolve conflicts without adult help may foster the development of attention and other aspects of conscientiousness.
A child’s home environment during the elementary school years matters to the development of their executive functions and to their cognitive and social skills. Family socio-economic status (SES, combining such factors as income and parental education) has been found to predict executive functions. Children living with one parent in low SES families tend not do as well on tests of executive functioning as other children. This adverse effect is reduced by parental responsiveness (emotional and verbal sensitivity), enrichment activities (use of family and community resources to foster education), and family companionship (parental involvement in the child’s activities). Parents’ aspirations for their children and quality and quantity of their oral vocabulary can also help to overcome the adversity of low socio-economic status in terms of academic performance.
The relationship between children and their parents is “bidirectional,” meaning that they each affect the behavior of the other. The chronic stress, for example, of trying to put food on the table may put a heavy burden on this interaction, leading to an escalation in negative conduct on the part of both parent and child. Children with ADHD, a self-control disorder, are more likely in families with low income (difficulty in meeting basic needs), a young mother (lack of parenting knowledge and emotional maturity), and a lone parent (overwhelmed by responsibility). Parenting quality (warmth, monitoring) appears to be a principle mediator of the relationship between relative family affluence or economic deprivation and child behavior. In other words, children in economically deprived families with supportive parenting are no less likely to engage in anti-social behavior than children in more affluent families.
School and Other Out-of-Home Settings
It is often within the group setting of a classroom and the demands of schoolwork that delays or deficits in the development of executive functions are first noted. Teachers identify problems with paying attention, managing emotions, completing tasks, and communicating wants and needs as major determinants of whether a child is ready to succeed. And it takes only a couple of children with substantial problems in these areas to disrupt the whole class.
Perhaps owing, at least in part, to this reality, research shows that elementary school teachers tend to do better with creating an appropriate emotional climate and classroom organization than with instructional support. Classroom management explicitly designed to bolster social and emotional growth has been shown to benefit academic learning. Studies indicate that new teachers increase their classroom organization and management skills over the period covered by their student teaching placement and first two years on the job. Their emotional support increases, and then declines, over this period, which may reduce their ability to positively affect the ongoing development of the executive function and social and emotional skills of their students. The particular environment of the schools where teachers work may contribute to this tendency. There is persuasive evidence that school staff cohesion and community contribute to student engagement and achievement and that a sizeable portion of the effect of teachers on student performance is actually an effect of the goodness of the fit between the teacher and her or his school.
Instructional approaches that rely on cooperative and collaborative learning activities have been found to foster higher literacy achievement. Academic performance overall is improved by instruction that not only provides direction for completing tasks, but also instructs students on the nuances of how to complete those activities effectively. Student achievement increases as well with the amount of instructional time to which they are exposed, albeit with gradually diminishing returns. Teachers face very complex choices in designing their instructional practices. By one recent estimate, there are some 205 trillion instructional options when you consider known techniques (e.g., spacing practice over time, providing feedback, cuing prior learning), possible differences in amount of instruction, and options as to its timing.
Greater levels of parent engagement in elementary school are associated with a range of outcomes, including students’ self-concept, achievement, and social development. The frequency of teacher-family communication has been shown to increase student engagement as measured by homework completion rates, on-task behavior, and classroom participation. And yet, a 2007 national survey showed that less than half of families received a call from their child’s school and just over half reported getting an email or note. Another study found that while 71 percent of elementary students attended a school with at least one type of family involvement activity, teachers said that only 17 percent of families of children with emotional problems received parent support of any kind.
Out-of-school activities, such as after school programs and summer school, have been found to have small but statistically significant positive effects on reading and math achievement. The effects have been largest for one-on-one tutoring for reading in after school programs. With after school or summer school, small group instruction has worked better than either large groups or tutoring for mathematics learning. More participation in after school programs has been linked to improved regular school attendance, and participating in after school programs over a longer period of time has been linked to better academic performance. Participating in such out-of-school activities seems especially important for less advantaged children, who may otherwise, unlike their better off peers, lack access to experiences designed to build on what they learn in school.
One-on-one mentoring, when designed and implemented well, has been found to have positive benefits for both student behavior and academic performance. What appears to matter most in the effectiveness of mentoring is the closeness of the relationship between the mentor and child. Academic performance does not improve for children who perceive the relationship as lacking in closeness. The closeness of the relationship between teacher and child is seen to have the same effect at the elementary school level.