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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, and 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 cognitive 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 in your program. You have likely already noticed the differences between the youngest 5-year-old and the oldest 12-year-old. As school-age children grow from kindergarteners to pre-teens, 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 the cognitive skills children develop during the school-age years. You will learn more about social-emotional development in the Social & Emotional Development course and physical development in the Physical Development course. This lesson will highlight 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, place, and ideas. They develop the ability to learn in abstract ways from books, art, movies, and experiences. They are able to focus and concentrate on tasks for longer periods of time, understand a variety of concepts and their memory improves significantly. 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. As a school-age program staff member, you also have the opportunity to observe all the ways school-age children learn outside of school time. 

The chart below highlights cognitive development milestones 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 each child is unique. As you may have already learned in other courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development, or to help you know when and what to look for as school-age children mature. You can use this information, what you learn from families, and your own knowledge in the interactions, experiences and environments you create 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 sentence structures.
  • They can compose sentences with five or more words.
  • 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.
  • They can distinguish fantasy from reality.
  • They have increased memory, attention span, and impulse control.
Early adolescence (ages 8-12)
  • They are capable of perspective taking and understand and consider other's perspectives.
  • They begin to think hypothetically, considering several possibilities, and can think logically.
  • They begin using and manipulating symbols representationally.
  • They become more goal oriented.
  • They may develop special interests that are a source of motivation.
  • Their 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.
  • They understand the conservation of objects.
  • They understand fractions and the concept of space.
  • They can count backwards.
  • They know the date and can name the months and days of the week in order.

Cognitive development is a unique process and is specific to each school-age child. Sometimes school-age children may exhibit cognitive difficulties that can affect their learning and behavior.  Some potential red flags for school-age cognitive development include:

  • Lacking an understanding of basic concepts such as colors, shapes, letters and numbers
  • Intense frustration by school related tasks and assignments
  • Inability to follow the rules of games or assignments
  • Inability to stay focused and on-task

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 mood changes that most middle and early adolescent school-age children experience. However, certain behaviors should not be overlooked. These include (Center for Disease and Control and Prevention, 2014):

  • 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 is important to recognize the difference between behaviors that might be frustrating to us (e.g., listening to loud music, talking back, occasional moody behavior) and behaviors that are truly hurtful (e.g., excessive depression, antisocial acts, harmful risk-taking behavior). If you are concerned about a school-age child's development, those feelings should not be ignored. If you are concerned about a child's development, talk with your trainer so that you can brainstorm and work together to talk with parents about your observations. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child's needs. With the guidance of your trainer and program manager, 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 pediatrician about their concerns. The pediatrician 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 can help the child get the services and help he or she needs.


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 about milestones for school-age children and youth. 

Cognitive Development in School-Age Children

Watch the range of cognitive development between ages 5 and 12.


A school-age child's positive cognitive development can sometimes be disrupted, and they may not achieve the expected milestones. This can cause a delay in learning. Youth programs, such as before, after, and summer-school programs, can play a key role in helping school-age children develop and enhance their thinking skills. Researchers suggest that by using school-age children's personal strengths it may 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 downtime.
  • Provide a variety of developmentally appropriate and culturally diverse books for school-age children to read.
  • Model the values of care, respect, honesty, and responsibility.
  • Make sure that the environment is culturally sensitive and that there are no negative portrayals of different genders, races, ethnicities, or abilities.
  • Ensure 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. Complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Share your observations with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


How might your program help support school-age children’s strengths, or developmental assets? 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:
Developmental assets are personal strengths that school-age children possess that are linked to positive healthy development.
Developmental delay:
Developmental delays may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times. Delays can occur in any area of development.
Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range.
Developmental screening:
Developmental screening is 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 should not be expected of school-age children ages 5 to 7?
What should you do if you think a child 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.). San Francisco, CA: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 Leaners: An introduction to special education (13th ed.). London, England: Pearson Publishing.

Institute for Human Services for the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program (2007). Developmental milestones chart.

Leffert, N., Benson, P., & Roehlkepartain, J. (1997). Starting out right: Developmental assets for children. Minneapolis, MN: The Search Institute.