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Understanding Development: School-Age

Understanding positive youth development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about typical development. You will also learn developmentally appropriate expectations for the behavior of 5- to 12-year-olds.

  • Describe typical development of children ages 5-12.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Identify risk factors that make children or youth more likely to experience abuse or neglect.



You have already learned that understanding child and youth development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. Why do you think this is true? What are the risks of not understanding child and youth development? If we don’t understand child and youth development, we are likely to think a child should act older than he or she is. We might put children in situations that are too challenging for them.Causing the child and us to get frustrated. The child doesn’t understand what we want, and we don’t understand why the child won’t “behave.”

Understanding child and youth development is a protective factor because it helps us recognize when a school-age child needs extra help. If we do not understand child and youth development, we might become frustrated instead of recognizing an opportunity to help a child learn a new skill or way of coping. When we get frustrated, we do not use our best thinking. We are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. We may be less able to support the children or youth who need our help the most.

Let’s begin by thinking about some common behaviors you might have already observed in school-age children (or remember from your own pre-teen years):

  • Maddie rolls her eyes at her mom when asked her how her day at school was.
  • James sulks around the room. When asked what’s wrong, he says, “Nothing.”
  • It’s time to go to school, but Taylor is still eating breakfast and moving very slowly.
  • Two groups of boys get in a fight over who deserves a foul in their pick-up basketball game.
  • Claire keeps getting the candy she got at school out of her backpack even though she has been asked her several times to put it away.
  • Solomon sneaked an iPod into the program and children are gathered around listening to his music with explicit lyrics.

Based on what you have seen, heard, or experienced in the program or community, do these scenarios ring true? Have you seen them happen? Have you experienced them? If you have spent time in programs, you have likely seen some or all of these behaviors. They are reflections of typical child and youth development. We all go through stages as we grow, and certain behaviors can be expected at certain stages. This does not mean that all behaviors are easy for us as adults to deal with. It does mean that we can be prepared to recognize behaviors as reflections of growth and help children develop and mature. You will learn more about this in the Cognitive course.

Let’s take look at how children typically develop from the ages of 5 to 12 years. The information on this table is compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health ( You can find this same information in an easy-to-use information sheet in the Apply section.

School-Age Development Chart

  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be like friends
  • More likely to agree with rules
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Is aware of gender
  • Can tell what's real and what's make-believe
  • Shows more independence (for example, may go on a play date)
  • Is sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative
  • Speaks very clearly
  • Tells a simple story using full sentences
  • Uses future tense; for example, "Grandma will be here"
  • Says name and address
  • Counts 10 or more things
  • Can draw a person with at least six body parts
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
  • Knows about things used every day, like money and food
  • Stands on one foot for 10 seconds or longer
  • Hops; may be able to skip
  • Can do a somersault
  • Uses a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife
  • Can use the toilet on her or his own
  • Swings and climbs
  • Shows more independence from parents and family
  • Starts to think about the future
  • Understands more about his or her place in the world
  • Pays more attention to friendships and teamwork
  • Wants to be liked and accepted by friends
  • Friendships tend to be with children of the same sex; may talk about members of the opposite sex as "gross" or "weird"
  • Uses simple, complete sentences that average five to seven words
  • Can follow a series of three directions in a row
  • Can focus attention on a task for at least 15 minutes
  • Strong motor skills, but balance and endurance can vary
  • Sense of body image begins to develop
  • Starts to form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • Experiences more peer pressure
  • Peer acceptance is very important; may take part in certain behaviors to be part of "the group"
  • Becomes less negative about the opposite sex
  • May experiment with lying, cheating, or stealing
  • Can follow a series of five directions in a row
  • Might be nervous about asking for help
  • Can focus attention on a task for about an hour
  • Faces more academic challenges at school
  • Becomes more independent from the family
  • Begins to see the point of view of others more clearly
  • Becomes more aware of his or her body as puberty approaches; body image and eating problems sometimes start
  • Develops secondary sex characteristics like breasts and body hair


As you read the characteristics of children at each age, did you notice any behaviors that might frustrate or challenge adults? This table can help you remember that behaviors like talking back to adults, occasionally lying, and exerting peer pressure can be normal parts of development. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and constructively. You’ll learn more about how to do that in the next two lessons.

Remember, the characteristics in the tables above tell us what children typically do at certain ages. They are not hard and fast rules. Individual children will vary a great deal in when and how they develop. If you have a concern about a child’s development, talk to your Training and Curriculum Specialist or administrator.

Understanding Temperament, Personality, and Individual Differences

By the time children reach school-age, their personalities are fairly well formed. Just like adults, school-age children each have different ways they prefer to interact with the world and the people around them. One way to think about these preferences is in terms of temperament. The Council on Accreditation, a national body that promotes quality school-age care, describes the importance of understanding each child’s temperament. They define temperament as:

“A person's disposition or nature. The intensity and range of a person's emotions are influenced by temperament. A person's temperament will define his or her activity level, regularity of bodily functions, and response to new situations or things. Temperament is also linked to a person's adaptability, quality of mood, attention span, and persistence. Individual differences in temperament are present from birth. They are thought to be hereditary, and they remain relatively consistent over time. However, individual experiences and development can affect temperament.”

Temperament influences how we interact with the world and the people around us. We are born with certain temperament traits or styles, and temperament is thought to be consistent across a life span. There are nine temperament traits that you might see in school-age children (Thomas, Chess, & Birk, 1968). Read the figure below to see the nine traits and examples of characteristics on the extreme of each trait. Remember, most children fall somewhere in the middle of each continuum.

Extreme Trait Extreme

Jared prefers to sit on the couch and read a book.

Activity Level

Sasha is always on the move. She plays every sport and joins every club.

Felicia has variable schedules. Some days she eats snack, and some days she doesn't. She chooses different activities every day in the school-age program.


Lucas likes his routines. He gets up at the exact same time every morning and eats the same things for breakfast every day.

Micah moves from activity to activity. It is easy to shift his attention to a new idea or project.


Malia enjoys working on projects for long periods of time. She can spend an afternoon writing a story in her journal.

Abby prefers to watch other children participate in activities before she tries.

Approach to New Things

Clyde is the first one to volunteer during special activities.

Blair misses her friends from her old school. She talks about her old program every day and has not joined into activities at the new program.


Juan joined right into the pre-teen program on his first day and left with several new best friends.

Jillian rarely shows emotions. She remains relatively calm.

Intensity of Reactions

Bryce's parents love to film his reactions to special events and surprises: he gets so excited. When he is upset, it is best to give him space. When he is excited, upset, or surprised, everyone around him knows.

Summer is often described as "being in her own little world."

Threshold of Responsiveness

Calvin gets upset if you give him a direction or correct him. He seems very sensitive.

Liv tends to worry about things and seems serious most of the time.

Quality of Mood

Talia is generally happy and cheerful.

Foster is interested in many different things. He tends to "dabble": he will start a project, get bored, and move onto a different project.

Attention Span and Persistence

Malik does multi-day and multi-week projects. He has been working on a model car for two weeks. He wants to get every detail perfect.

Take a minute to reflect on your own temperament. How do you define your temperament traits? How does understanding temperament help you understand your own behaviors and the behaviors of children?

Temperament researchers also have identified three temperament types that summarize these traits (Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968). The three temperament types are:

  • Adaptable:
    These are “easy-going” individuals. They are open to new situations, have a moderate activity level, and are generally happy. In school-age programs, these children “go with the flow.”
  • Feisty:
    These individuals have a high activity level and usually strong responses to new stimuli. They might be considered energetic, assertive, and full of emotion. In school-age programs, these are the children who are always moving and talking. Some adults might perceive their behavior as challenging.
  • Cautious:
    These individuals need time and support to feel comfortable in new situations. They might be considered timid or serious. In school-age programs, you might see these children hanging back and watching.

Now take a minute to think about your own temperament type. Which of the three do you relate the most to? How do you think your own temperament can influence your work with children? For example, if you have a feisty temperament, you might feel most comfortable when the schedule changes often and people respond quickly to you. You might ask lots of questions and make frequent changes. You might love lots of fast-paced conversations and loud interactions. This might overwhelm a cautious child and lead them to disengage. If you have a cautious temperament, you might crave order and quiet. You might prefer a space that remains consistent from day to day, and you might plan long-term projects. A child with a feisty temperament might seem bored and act out.

How can you use an understanding of temperament in your work to prevent child abuse and neglect? First, understanding temperament helps you remain calm and see frustrating situations as potential personality differences. Second, you can use your understanding of a child’s temperament to come up with solutions to problems that work for them. Here are a few ways you can use temperament in your work:

Tips for Children with Cautious Temperaments:

  • Remember, children with cautious temperaments are most likely to be stressed or nervous when there are major changes (like starting a new program or staffing changes)
  • Check with your program to see whether an introduction can be sent home in advance that lets the child know what to expect in the program.
  • Participate in an open house or welcome night where children can meet staff members.
  • Make sure the child is shown around on the first day, so he knows where the restrooms are, where to put his belongings, etc.
  • Pair children up with a buddy to help them feel comfortable.
  • Provide reminders when there will be changes in the schedule.
  • Provide consistent spaces for things like homework.
  • Include a transition time prior to changes in activity. Discuss with children when an upcoming transition will occur. (“In 5 minutes it will be time to clean up for lunch.”)

Tips for Children with Feisty Temperaments:

  • Talk with children about situations that have caused trouble for them in the past (e.g., a time when she got in an argument with another child). Brainstorm ways to respond to stressful situations.
  • Talk with the child about events that trigger problems. Identify ways to prevent problems.
  • Give frequent opportunities for movement and lots of breaks.
  • Use positive directions by telling children what to do instead of what not to do. This helps children learn how to meet appropriate expectations. (“Use an inside voice please.”)

Children At-Risk for Abuse and Neglect

There are two categories of school-age children more at-risk for child abuse and neglect: children with disabilities and children with challenging behavior. Why do you think these children are at an increased risk? Generally, these children might have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others. The adults around them might get frustrated easily or not know how to help the child. This can put the child in a dangerous situation. We must be careful to remember this does not mean that the child causes the abuse and neglect. The child is never to blame. It also does not mean that only children in these categories are abused or neglected. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.

When children do not meet the milestones described above in predictable ways and at predictable times, we can experience stress. We may not understand the child’s communication, we may not know how to meet the child’s physical needs, or we may doubt our competence. All of this can leave a person feeling helpless and confused. This stress puts children with developmental delays or disabilities at greater risk for child abuse or neglect.

Children with severe and persistent challenging behavior are also at a greater risk for abuse or neglect. When children demonstrate severe and persistent challenging behavior, adults often feel personally challenged. It’s not unusual to feel like a child is “pushing your buttons.” Adults may not know what to do and in a moment of crisis might resort to unacceptable punishment practices.


Now let’s think about how knowledge of child development looks in a program. Often knowledge of child and youth development comes across as realistic expectations for behavior. Watch this video to learn more about realistic expectations.

Understanding Development for School-Age Children

Learn about realistic expectations for school-age children

Read the following statements from staff members. On the left, you see unrealistic expectations. On the right you see realistic expectations. Which programs do you think feel like better places to be for children? Which staff members do you think feel less stressed at the end of the day?

Unrealistic Expectations

Realistic Expectations

  • We tell the kids exactly where they need to be every minute.
  • We know how much the kids need to feel independent, so they choose their activities every day.
  • Marchia and Cassidy talk and giggle nonstop. We need to separate those two.
  • Marchia and Cassidy’s friendship is really important to them.
  • Caldwell lied to me about washing his hands. He is completely dishonest.
  • Caldwell is testing the boundaries. We need to make sure we’re consistent but fair with him.
  • Decklen has a round belly, so I call him our little Buddha. He’s too young to get it.
  • Kids this age are so self-conscious. We focus on fitness and a healthy lifestyle, but we don’t single anyone out.


How Can You Make Sure Your Expectations of School-Age Children Are Appropriate?

  • Continue to learn all you can about positive youth development throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School has courses that will help you learn more about cognitive, physical, and social development. You will also learn about how to develop communication skills and a healthy sense of self. You can also visit the Military REACH Families website to explore modules about the foundations of positive youth development (
  • Share information about child and youth development with families. The handouts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Apply section are a good place to start, but your program or curriculum might have other resources you can share.
  • As a new employee, spend time observing children in the program where you work. This will help you begin to understand what is typical for your age range. Also visit classrooms or programs for children who are older or younger. This will help you take the long view on development. If you expect 5-year-olds to behave the same way as 11-year-olds, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
  • Remember what you have learned here when you get frustrated. It can be frustrating when an 11-year-old rolls his eyes and mutters, but these are all a part of growing up. Many of the behaviors that challenge adults are very typical parts of development. If you have a concern about a child’s behavior, talk to your trainer, administrator, or coach. They can help give you perspective on whether the behaviors are typical.
  • Ask for help when you need it. We all need new ideas and support. When you are feeling frustrated or unsure about what to do for a school-age child, ask an administrator, Training & Curriculum Specialist, or co-worker for ideas. This is a great way to build your own social connections and professional knowledge.
  • Learn appropriate ways to express frustration and model for youth effective techniques to navigate challenges. Frustration is a normal human feeling. By recognizing frustration, we can better control our response to this feeling and find appropriate and effective ways of reacting to frustration.


Read the scenarios in the Reframing Activity: Understanding Development activity below. Indicate whether you think the scenario represents a realistic expectation for the individual’s behavior or an unrealistic expectation. Then write what you think the staff member should say that reflects realistic expectations. After rewriting realistic expectations you’re encouraged to share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


It is important to find resources that can help you understand child development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed excellent guides. These can be great resources to share with families, but they are also a nice tool for you to keep in your program and refer to regularly. View and complete the Milestone Checklists for the age group of children with whom you work.


Developmentally appropriate:
Knowledge and practice based on how children develop and learn, what is known about an individual child, and what is culturally important
Developmental milestone:
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age


Cantor is 9 years old and gets frustrated when the model car he is building falls apart. Clyde thinks Cantor should ask for help right away instead of getting so upset. Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
Cecil is always moving, always talking, and sometimes talks back. He has strong opinions and shares them with you often. What is Cecil’s most likely temperament type?
11-year-old Miles does not want his mom to hug him goodbye at the before-school program. If Miles were in your program, what might you say or do to help his mom understand that this is typical child development?
A group of school-age children is standing on the basketball court. The staff member says, “Why don’t you start a game?” Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
True or False? 7-year-old Maddie and Jayne have created a “club” and they are not allowing others to join in their play. This is typical behavior, so the adults should not intervene.
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Violence Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones. Available from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Factsheet. 

Council on Accreditation (2013). Temperament. Available from[letter]=T&cHash=e79524c68eac91434e364a043b1639a8

Military One Source. (n.d.). Military Family Advocacy Programs.

National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2013). Childhood sexual development.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network in partnership with the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2009). Sexual Development and Behavior in Children.

National Institutes of Health. (2013). Medline Plus: School-Age Development. Available from

University of Minnesota REACH. (2020). Supporting Families through Research and Outreach.

Thomas, Chess & Birch. (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York University Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2021). Child maltreatment.