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Cognitive Development: School-Age

School-age children usually follow predictable patterns in how they grow and learn. This lesson will help you understand typical cognitive development, or how school-age children develop thinking skills as they mature. You will learn about developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a school-age child’s development.

  • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones in school-age children.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a school-age child’s cognitive development.
  • Demonstrate developmentally appropriate expectations.



Think about the school-age children that you care for in your home. You have likely already noticed the differences between the youngest 5-year-olds and the oldest 12-year-olds. As school-age children grow from kindergartners to preteens, their bodies and minds undergo extraordinary changes. They are on their way to adulthood, and they are learning the skills they need to be successful in their homes, communities, and schools. Cognitive development is a major part of the changes you see, but it is not the only change. It is important to remember that physical development and social-emotional development also contribute to cognitive development during the school-age years. You will learn more about other aspects of children’s development in other courses (for example, in the Social & Emotional Development course and the Physical Development course). This lesson highlights the cognitive developmental milestones you can expect during the school-age years.


School-age children’s thinking skills become increasingly sophisticated as they encounter new people, places, and ideas. They develop the ability to learn in abstract ways from books, art, movies, and experiences. You have the exciting opportunity to witness some children’s first encounters with formal schooling and to watch others learn as they move between grades and schools.

The chart below highlights cognitive development during the school-age years. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which children meet these milestones and that each child is unique. Milestones provide a guide for when certain skills or behaviors typically begin to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development or help you know when and what to look for as school-age children mature. You can use this information about developmental milestones, and what you learn from families, to create high-quality interactions, experiences, and environments for school-age children.

Cognitive Developmental Milestones

Middle childhood (ages 5-7)
  • They begin to see things from other school-age children's perspectives and begin to understand how their behavior affects others.
  • They are developing their oral language skills, acquiring new vocabulary, and understanding sentence structures.
  • They enjoy planning and building.
  • They understand concepts of space, time, and dimension.
  • They understand concepts like yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
  • They know left and right.
  • They begin to develop a sense of self-confidence and mastery of their learning.
  • They are learning to read and write and can sound out simple words.
  • They begin to reason and argue.
  • They can perform simple addition and subtraction.
Early adolescence (ages 8-12)
  • Most early adolescents are fully capable of perspective taking and understand and consider other's perspectives.
  • They begin to think hypothetically, considering a number of possibilities, and are able to think logically.
  • They become more goal-oriented.
  • They may develop special interests that are a source of motivation.
  • Cognitive development may be affected by school-age children's emotional state.
  • They begin to understand facets of the adult world like money and telling time.
  • They may enjoy reading a book. They can interpret the context of a paragraph and writes stories.
  • They appreciate humor and word games.

Cognitive development is a process specific to each school-age child. Sometimes school-age children may exhibit cognitive difficulties that can affect their learning and behavior. School-age children experiencing difficulties may not receive proper interventions, supports, or care from caregivers and other adults. We might ignore some behaviors because we think that they are related to the mood changes most middle and early adolescent school-age children experience. However, certain behaviors should not be overlooked.  According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (2014), these include:

  • Excessive depression
  • Antisocial behaviors, or the inability to relate to peers or fit into a peer group
  • Acting out
  • Difficulty staying engaged in an academic task

It’s important to recognize the difference between behaviors that might be annoying to us (e.g., listening to loud music, talking back once in a while, and occasional moody behavior) and behaviors that are truly harmful (e.g., excessive depression, antisocial actions, harmful risk-taking). If you are concerned about a school-age child’s development, those feelings should not be ignored. Work with parents to discuss observations and brainstorm ideas on how to best support the child. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. You can share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk.  

Ultimately, if families are concerned about a child’s development, they should talk to the child’s health-care provider about their concerns. Their health-care provider can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to specialists. Families should also contact their local school district. The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development. This early intervention can help children get the services and help they need.


Just as children’s bodies grow throughout the childhood years, their brains are growing, too. You will see major changes in a child’s thinking skills between the ages of 5 and 12. Watch this video to learn more about milestones for school-age children and youth.    

Cognitive Development in School-Age Children

Watch the range of cognitive development between ages five and twelve.


A school-age child’s positive cognitive development can sometimes be disrupted, and they may not achieve expected milestones. This can cause learning delays. Researchers suggest that using school-age children’s personal strengths might increase the likelihood of positive healthy development (Benson, 2009). This has been called a “developmental assets” approach, and you can learn more about this approach in the Apply section of this lesson. The following is a list of ways you can support school-age children’s development.

  • Provide thought-provoking materials and challenging games for school-age children to complete if or when they have some downtime.
  • Provide a variety of developmentally appropriate and culturally diverse books for school-age children to read.
  • Model the values of kindness, respect, honesty, and responsibility.
  • Make sure that the family child care environment is culturally sensitive and that there are no negative portrayals of different genders, races, or ethnicities.
  • Ensure that the space reflects the needs and interests of school-age children.
  • Provide spaces where school-age children can relax and be alone.
  • Allow school-age children to design or personalize part of the space.
  • Implement activities where children and youth can use their strengths and abilities.


Observing school-age children and youth can help you see where they are developmentally, which is important as you plan learning experiences for them. Read, review and complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Then share with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


How might you support school-age children’s strengths or developmental assets through your planned experiences and activities? Browse through the resources on the Strengthening School-Age Children’s Development: Resource Sheet. Identify ideas about how you might help strengthen and support school-age children’s development through your program activities.  


Cognitive skills:
the mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
Developmental Assets:
personal strengths that school-age children possess that are linked to positive healthy development
Developmental delay:
may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
Developmental milestone:
a set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
Developmental screening:
a tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers, or others who know both the child and child development well.


Finish this statement: Developmental milestones are . . . 
Which of the following skills are not expected for children 5 to 7-years-old?
What should you do if you think a child or youth is not reaching developmental milestones? 
References & Resources

Benson, P. L. (2009). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and  responsible children and adolescents (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.  

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Middle childhood (6-8 years of age). 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Middle childhood (9-11 years of age). 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Young teens (12 -14 years of age). 

Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J. M., Pullen, P. C. (2014). Exceptional learners: An introduction to special education (Thirteenth Edition). Pearson Publishing. 

Institute for Human Services for the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program. (2008). Developmental milestones chart