Skip to main content

Supporting Cognitive Development: School-Age Interactions

Your relationship with school-age children is one of your strongest teaching tools. This lesson will focus on interacting with school-age children and youth to support exploration and learning. You will discover how interactions with adults and peers can make the most of every routine.

  • Describe the importance of interactions in supporting cognitive development.
  • Identify ways your interactions support learning.
  • Discuss how the cultures and traditions of the children and parents in your family child care setting can promote a sense of belonging and community.



Although they might not always show it, school-age children and youth care about interacting with adults. Interactions provide a space for children to learn about your program, your expectations, and adulthood. During interactions, school-age children try new ideas, gain new perspectives, and decide how they fit in with the group. This is all part of cognitive development.  

Not only are interactions important for cognitive development, they are also enjoyable for you and the children. This might be part of the reason why you have chosen to be a family child care provider. Being thoughtful and intentional about your interactions with school-age children makes your home a place that promotes learning and it makes your job more fulfilling.  

You can turn your interactions into teachable moments throughout the day, every day. Teachable moments are ways to build on natural events. As you get to know each child or youth, you will learn how to recognize and respond to these events. This is done by carefully observing children, providing an interesting learning environment, and using thoughtful communication. Make the most of teachable moments by:  

  • Being a role model. Children and youth learn by watching adults. When you show curiosity, ask interesting questions, behave in prosocial ways or join in a physical activity, they notice.  
  • Helping children choose activities that are appropriate for their abilities and joining children during activities. You can help children expand their thinking and try new things during play. If children are pretending to be servers at a restaurant, you can join and order your favorite food. You can model language adults use at restaurants (“What’s the special today?” “Can I have the check please?”). 
  • Spending uninterrupted time together reading a book or engaging in discussions about topics, issues and current events. 
  • Using open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have multiple answers and encourage children to describe things in their own words. They are also helpful to guide the conversation: “Why do you think the elephant is sad in the story?” “How do you want this to look when you’re done?” 
  • Modeling the skills children need for an activity: “Hmm…I wonder where this puzzle piece will fit. I am going to look at the shape and then try putting it in a few places. Nope, it does not go there. I’ll try another spot.” 
  • Encourage children and youth to share their ideas, set goals, and give feedback on their strengths and areas to improve. 
  • Noticing children’s interests and needs. Experienced providers can recognize times when a child or youth is on the edge of getting frustrated or angry. Perhaps the child exhales loudly, moves the materials a little too forcefully, or begins to look upset. These are moments when an adult can step in and help find a solution to the problem. Consider a few examples: 




You Saw:

Jose is frustrated that he cannot get the model plane wings constructed like they look in the directions.


What you might say:

  • Did you notice that this piece looks different?
  • Let us ask a friend for some help.
  • Remember when we built the model truck, and we had to use the glue. Do you think that would work?


What you might do:

  • Hold the pieces for Jose while he works on connecting them.
  • Point out the pieces he needs.


You Saw:

Three children have noticed a bird nest in the tree outside the fence. They are concerned about the well-being of the baby birds.


What you might say:

  • What are you concerned about? What might threaten them? What keeps them safe?
  • What do you think is happening in the nest?
  • What tools could we use to get a closer look without disturbing the babies?
  • How could we monitor the nest? What could we do to let others know a nest is nearby?


What you might do:

  • Provide safe binoculars.
  • Provide materials for the school-age children to create signs about the nesting area.
  • Take a photo of the nest with a zoom lens. Look at details together from a safe distance.
  • Create a “viewing spot” that is a safe distance away from the nest.
  • Bring in books about nests and the species of bird.
  • Have the children draw their thoughts or create a list of ideas or questions.


You Saw:

Dominic and Ashley are playing catch. Dominic is having a hard time catching the ball in his baseball glove.


What you might say:

  • What would happen if you pulled your glove closer to your body? Why do you think that happened?
  • Did you notice how the ball bounced? Why do you think that happened?
  • Watch this. How is my hand different?


What you might do:

  • Point out where to place the baseball glove.
  • Show him where to stand.

Remember from Lesson Five that how you talk to children makes a difference in their learning. One of the most powerful things you can do is use words that encourage. Take a few moments to compare the types of comments:

Simple Praise

  • Good job!
  • Nice work.
  • That is cool.
  • I like how you all came in the building.
  • Some of the kindergartners are listening.
  • That is pretty.
  • You are a good friend.

Descriptive Feedback & Encouragement

  • You are working so hard on that model plane. It is really coming together.
  • I can tell you two are really excited to work together on the drama script.
  • You can do hard things.
  • The yarn you've chosen for your scarf is so vibrant. I cannot wait to see it when it is done.
  • You are waiting so patiently for Jeremy to finish his turn.

Think about which types of comments provide more information. The statements on the right side of the chart have more meaning and richer vocabulary. They let the child or youth know you noticed their learning, but they also encourage the child to keep going. It is OK to occasionally say, “Good job,” but look for opportunities to describe what the school-age child is doing and learning. Just as it is important to notice and use encouraging words when school-age children show you they are learning, it is also important to use encouraging words when school-agers struggle or are frustrated. School-age children learn by taking risks and trying challenging things. Sometimes they make mistakes. Caring adults make the most of these moments and are careful to avoid embarrassing the child. Approach children with a warm tone and avoid criticism. Also be aware of the social setting: sometimes a school-age child might prefer to ignore a mistake in front of friends. You can always talk later. When it feels right to approach the child, you can say things like, “It looks like that didn’t go the way you planned. How can I help?” or “What’s your plan for next time?” Think ahead about the interactions you will have with children. Plan the different ways you might interact and how school-age children might respond. You can:

  • Give children different ways to respond to you. Depending on the type of activity or question, you might consider discussing an idea individually, holding up a sign with a response written on it, or giving a signal such as thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
  • Use questions that the children need to think about in order to answer.
  • Use verbs that engage thinking such as “notice,” “predict,” or “describe.”
  • Avoid saying that a question is “hard” or “easy.”
  • Give children three seconds or more to think about their answer.

Interactions with Peers

You are not the only source of learning for school-age children. They also learn from interacting with peers. Arranging opportunities for school-age children to learn with their peers is another type of interaction that you can plan as part of your daily activities. There are several ways to do this that have been shown to be effective for improving children’s learning and interactions.

  • Peer tutoring can be a helpful way to think about structuring homework time or study groups for older children in your program. In this activity, children are assigned partners and work on structured activities under your guidance and supervision. First, you model the activity for the peer group and the role each child will play. For example, if children are working on math homework, one child can be the tutor, and one child can be the tutee. The tutor explains the homework and helps the tutee with a problem. Then the children switch roles. Each child has 10-minutes as a tutor and tutee. The adult encourages and assists as needed. 

    Depending on the task, you can also set up tutoring between older and younger children in your program. The younger children often enjoy learning about the world of formal schooling from conversations and interactions with the school-age children. Think carefully about what experiences would be developmentally appropriate. For example, a 7-year-old can use some small manipulatives or blocks to help a 4-year-old think about simple “more, less or equal” quantities or counting in small numbers. You could then ask the 4-year-old to share with the 7-year-old a project they worked on during the day while away at school. 
  • Reciprocal teaching is an activity where a child acts as the teacher in a small group or with a partner (Reading Rockets, 2014). This could be a nice model for letting school-age children teach others about their hobbies or interests. It could also be a way to structure homework help between older and younger children. You model the steps of the activity, then help the children learn to lead the activity. In leading the activity, you model engaging in different behaviors, including making predictions, reading a text, asking questions, clarifying information, and summarizing information. Once school-age children learn how to lead the activity, they take turns “teaching” to their peers or other children in your program. This activity allows children to work out problems together and check answers with each other. 

The Role of Culture in Interactions

As discussed in previous lessons, elements of culture affect every part of our life. Think about your childhood and the way you were raised. Did your family value independence or family loyalty? What were your parents’ attitudes and beliefs about how children should interact with adults? What were your family’s views about the role of parents in their children’s education? Did your family believe that parents should take an active role, or did they think that a child’s education is best left in the hands of teachers and other educators? How you answer these questions are all influenced by your culture and upbringing; and how you answer these questions likely influences how you interact with children.

Children have unique backgrounds and experiences. Knowing children’s backgrounds and preferences is the heart of developmentally appropriate practice. You can use this information to send the message, “You belong here.” By acknowledging and respecting the cultures and traditions of the children and families, you promote a sense of belonging and community. The children and youth in your family child care program may come from different cultural backgrounds and some may have different levels of English proficiency. For example, some children may enter your program with a first language other than English. It is important that you honor, respect and celebrate children’s unique cultures through your interactions and daily experiences in your family child care program. You support school-age children’s development by offering culturally relevant experiences that are based on real life experiences. There are many ways you can enhance the materials and experiences in your program to improve children’s understanding and acceptance of culture. The following are some examples (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010):

  • Program props or materials: Include props from a variety of cultures. Books, dramatic play clothes or other props, furniture, and musical instruments can all reflect experiences from around the world. Art materials should include a range of materials for representing skin tones and various artistic styles, fabrics of various patterns, and books about art around the world.
  • Displays: This space can be used to reflect and respect family traditions. Ask families to bring in pictures or other items for the display. Children and youth can spend time researching their own or another culture and documenting what they have learned.
  • Program books or biographies: Books about children in your program document the real experiences of children and families. Encourage children and youth to create pictures, drawings, and text about their lives, ideas, and families. You can encourage older and younger children in your program to work together on these creations. Could as school-age child write down the words said by a preschooler?
  • Family stories: Provide families with materials and instructions for creating a Family Book. Families and children can work together to talk about and record their family history and daily life. This can be a great way to introduce children and families to one another.
  • Storytelling: Encourage grandparents or community elders related to children in your program to share stories of their childhoods with your program. These can be audio-recorded or transcribed to create keepsake books for the program.
  • Messages from home: Using a tape-recorder, encourage family members to record a brief message in their home language. This can be played for a child when he or she is upset or homesick.
  • Music: Include music tapes or CDs and songs from different cultures during music time.
  • Field trips: Visit community cultural landmarks. Go see a dance troupe, play, or musical performance that will broaden children’s cultural perspectives.
  • Collaborative work: Encourage children to work together in groups. This may minimize the pressure on a child who is learning English. It also exposes children to a variety of ideas and encourages creativity.
  • Snacks and meals: Invite families to share a traditional meal or snack with the children.


Many of the guidelines provided in previous lessons in this course about interactions that promote learning for young children still apply to school-age children and youth. Below are guidelines that can be especially helpful for school-agers:  

  • Stay close. Avoid speaking to a child from across the room. Move to where the child is, sit or stand at their eye level, and have a conversation. 
  • Ask children what name they prefer you call them. For example, some children prefer to use their middle name or shortened version of their name rather than their full given name. Use children’s names in conversations and pronounce their names correctly. Make sure children know that you care about who they are. 
  • Ask open-ended questions to promote thinking skills. Open-ended questions do not have a specific answer. They give school-agers a chance to use their own ideas to form a response. Open-ended questions are thought to be especially helpful with learning because children learn their ideas are valued, they become more confident in explaining how they got their answer, and they can respond at their own level.  
  • Observe children’s play and interactions. Get to know how each child prefers to relax, what types of activities they tend to choose, and with whom they typically choose to interact. 
  • Involve school-age children in decision-making, planning, and problem-solving. Involve school-age children in developing and interpreting the rules. Engage them in choosing, planning, and setting up activities. Provide authentic leadership responsibilities to help children develop cognitive skills.   
  • Challenge stereotypes about differences that children express or that are expressed by the media (e.g., race, ethnicity, language, disability, sexuality, gender, language). Create a space where school-age children feel comfortable talking about identities, differences, and similarities.  
  • Discuss the choices school-age children make and how those choices affect peers, your family child care program, and the community.


Think about the unique ways interactions help school-age children learn. Review the Reflecting on Interactions activity, read the scenarios, and answer the questions. Share your responses with a coach, colleague, or family child care administrator.


There are many resources to help you address the needs of all learners in your family child care home. Download the Resources for School-Age Children activity to find ideas offered by websites, organizations, and journal articles to help you be more culturally competent and responsive in your program. The resources listed provide a range of information on a variety of topics. Explore each resource and then identify two new resources or ideas that you plan to use in your program. Share your thoughts with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.  


An environment in which the learning experiences, play materials and activities are meaningful, inclusive, and respectful for the participating children, their families, and the community.
Information provided to someone about his or her action, event, or behavior after it occurs
Questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no or a specific piece of information; these encourage the child to respond by giving whatever information he or she thinks is appropriate


You notice that Carly and Stefan have been working hard together on a wall mural. Which of the following statements is an example of descriptive feedback and encouragement you could offer?
True or false? Reciprocal teaching is an activity where children are assigned partners and work on structured activities under the guidance and supervision of an adult.
Which of the following is not an example of an open-ended question?
References & Resources

Derman-Sparks, L. & Olsen Edwards, J. (2019). Understanding Anti-Bias Education: Bringing the four core goals to every facet of your curriculum. Young Children, 74(5).  

Epstein, A. (2014). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning (rev. ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Cengage Learning, Inc. 

Maheady, L. & Gard, J. (2010). Classwide Peer Tutoring: Practice, theory, research, and personal narrative. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46(2), 71-78.  

Meyer, K. (2014). Making Meaning in Mathematics Problem-Solving Using the Reciprocal Teaching Approach. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 37(2), 7-14. 

Mooney, C. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Redleaf Press.  

Pennsylvania Early Learning Keys to Quality (2011, May). Ten Commandments of Interactions with School-Age Children 

Reading Rockets. (2014). Reciprocal Teaching.