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Supporting Cognitive Development: 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 and experience.

  • Describe the importance of interactions in supporting cognitive development.
  • Identify ways your interactions support learning.
  • Discuss how the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your program can promote a sense of belonging and community. every routine and experience.



Interactions Support Learning

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. In fact, this might be part of the reason why you have chosen to work in child and youth programs. Being thoughtful and intentional about your interactions with school-age children makes your program 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 learn by watching adults. When you show curiosity, ask interesting questions, or join in a physical activity, they notice. 
  • Joining children in play. 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?”).
  • 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.”
  • Noticing children’s interests and needs. Experienced staff members 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:
Interactions with Adults


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’s 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 pool. Dominic is having a hard time getting any balls into the pockets.


What you might say:

  • What would happen if you stood over here and hit?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • Did you notice how the ball bounced when you hit it?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • Watch this. How is my hand different?


What you might do:

  • Point out where to hit the ball.
  • Show him where to stand.
  • Encourage Ashley to offer thoughtful feedback about what is working for her.

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 kindergarteners 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 excited to work together on the drama script.
  • You can do hard things.
  • The yarn you have 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.

Which type of comment do you think gives the child more information? The statements on the right side of the chart have more meaning and richer vocabulary. They let the child 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 like 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 out new and 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. Think about:

  • Giving children different ways to respond to you. Depending on the type of activity or question, you might consider responding orally as a group, discussing an idea individually, holding up a sign with a response written on it, entering a response on a survey website, or giving a signal such as “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”
  • Using questions that the children need to think about in order to answer.
  • Using verbs that engage thinking such as “notice,” “predict,” or “describe.”
  • Avoiding saying that a question is “hard” or “easy.”
  • Giving 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 for in your program. There are several ways to do this that have been shown to effectively improve children’s learning and interactions.

  • Peer tutoring can be a helpful way to think about structuring homework time or study groups in your after-school program. It is an activity in which children are assigned partners and work on structured activities under the guidance and supervision of an adult. First, the adult models the activity for the group and the roles 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.
  • 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. Adults model the steps of the activity then help the children learn to lead the activity. In leading the activity, adults 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. This activity allows children to work out problems together and check answers with each other.

The Role of Culture in Interactions

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 likely influence how you interact with children.

Children enter our programs with 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, parents, and staff in your own program setting, you promote a sense of belonging and community. Many children attending your program will come from different cultural backgrounds. Some school-age children may have different levels of English proficiency. For example, some children may enter your program with a first language other than English. Be aware of how your interactions support the learning of all children. Watch for evidence of bias like:

  • Do you comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments?
  • Do you praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their academic achievements?
  • Do you comment on children's size (e.g., "He's going to be a football player")?
  • Do you encourage girls and boys to play sports or lift weights? Do you encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys"?
  • Do you encourage peaceful solutions for all children (e.g., avoid giving directions like not hitting kids with glasses)?
  • Do you have conversations with all children-including those who may have speech and language difficulties or who are learning English?

When it comes to being culturally relevant, all children need to learn about their world and their community. Their community includes their families, people in your program, and neighborhoods. Consider implementing the following ideas into your program:

  • Support the home languages of children and their families by learning a few words from the child’s native language to help them feel more comfortable. 
  • Maintain open communication with families on what materials and activities you are providing to support their child’s learning.
  • Provide books in the classroom library that feature many different races, religions, or cultures.
  • Display pictures or artwork on the wall that feature people of varying races, ethnicities, genders and abilities or incorporate fabric and other textiles relevant to cultures. 
  • If you discuss one holiday in class, make sure to discuss them all. For example, instead of focusing only on Christmas, make sure to cover Hanukkah and Kwanzaa too. Make sure to discuss the Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and Diwali when the time comes too.

When you offer culturally relevant experiences daily that are based on school-age children’s real-life experiences you are supporting their cognitive development. 


Supporting Cognitive Development: Interactions

Cognitive development happens in the context of relationships


There are some important guidelines you should know about interactions that promote learning:

  • 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.
  • 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 program's rules. Involve 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 in the media (race, ethnicity, language, disability, sexuality, gender, language, etc.). Create a space where staff and school-age children feel comfortable talking about identities, differences, and similarities.
  • Discuss the choices school-age children make and how those choices affect peers, the program, and the community.


Think about the unique ways interactions help school-age children learn. Read the scenarios, and answer the questions in the Reflecting on Interactions that Support Learning activity. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator. 


We all learn from positive interactions and like to get encouragement about our work. Children and youth like to be noticed, recognized, and encouraged, too. Download the Celebrating School-Age Children handout. It contains sample phrases you can use to celebrate and encourage a school-age child.

It is important to understand and reflect on how culture and personal biases may affect your interactions with children and families. Print the What is Anti-Bias Education? handout to help guide you in supporting children to have a sense of belonging so they can explore themselves, their families, and their communities in happy and healthy ways.


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 response or a specific piece of information; these encourage children to respond by giving whatever information they think 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.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Boston, MA: 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.). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. 

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

Reading Rockets. (2014). Reciprocal Teaching.