Understand Big Kid Development
And help support your child.
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You may have mastered the terrible twos, but once kids enter elementary school, the developmental stages they experience affect them physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Learn what milestones to expect during the school years.
You can start out with a precocious learner who is seemingly ahead of the pack, only to realize two years later that his classmates have caught up and they’re speeding ahead. Not to worry. It’s all just part of growing up.
Still, “knowing where your child is developmentally can help you understand and support him,” says Vivian Seltzer, a professor of human development and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. Most kids don’t need a lot of assistance navigating the landscape, especially the older they get. But if you’re aware of where they are, you’ll know when to step in if you need to.
Use our guide to help your child make the most of every age and stage, from kindergarten through high school.
Elementary School: Milestone Mania
What’s happening now: From kindergarten through fifth grade, kids make major strides, from initially learning how to transition to school and being comfortable with a classroom routine to learning how to read (kindergarten and first grade) to reading to learn (third grade and beyond) in all subject areas.
Emotionally, they begin to develop their academic self-esteem based on feedback from you and their teachers. By the fourth and fifth grades, they’re moving from concrete to abstract thinking. “When concrete thinkers see the Statute of Liberty, they see it as a lady with a torch. An abstract thinker also sees it as a symbol of freedom and democracy,” says Rebecca Branstetter, an educational and clinical psychologist in Oakland, California. By the fifth grade, kids are also beginning to set goals, work independently, function better in groups, make more complex decisions, and become better organized with their school and homework.
Extend learning beyond school. Reinforce what your child is learning in school with activities at home. For example, let your second-grader count change at the checkout and measure the ingredients (fractions) while you’re baking cookies together. Have her tell time. Talk about numbers while you’re driving, such as how fast you’re going, the distance you’ll travel, and how long it will take to get there. Play board games involving money, time, logic, or vocabulary such as Monopoly, Scrabble or Apples to Apples.
On the weekends, take family outings to museums and zoos to visit exhibits that coincide with school subjects. “If your child is learning about Egypt, take a trip to a local museum with an Egyptian exhibit,” says Branstetter. “It reinforces curiosity, sends the subtle message that school is important, and shows your child that school and home are connected.”
Develop good homework habits. Make doing homework automatic by coming up with a routine that fits your child’s personality. Some kids like doing homework right after school. Others need to burn off steam by playing for half an hour first before getting down to business. Whatever you choose, stick to the schedule you establish for your kids as much as possible. To minimize distractions, keep the TV off during homework time. For younger kids, begin each homework session by asking your child to explain what she’s supposed to do then gauge if she can do it alone of if she needs your help.
If you’re not around when your child does his homework, let him know you’ll look at it when you get home and be sure to follow through. “Praise him when he completes his homework by emphasizing the process, such as “You worked really hard to learn your math facts” rather than the product, such as “Good job on learning your math facts.” “Praising the process teaches persistence, which is a skill kids need for school success,” Branstetter says.
Middle School: Hormone Havoc
What’s happening now: In middle school, the sixth through eighth grade, kids are starting to go through puberty and the physical changes can make them feel like they’re not in control of their bodies. “It’s a complicated time physically, socially, and emotionally,” says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute (betterparentinginstitute.com) in Melbourne, Florida.
During this difficult age and stage, kids’ sense of self is also developing. “There’s a lot of exclusion in middle school,” says Panaccione. Cliques can provide a safe haven as kids try to figure themselves out.
Expect turmoil. The mood swings and overreactions, such as total hysteria over whether a boy or girl looked at your child in the hallway, are a normal part of this phase of development. “Don’t take it personally. Just understand that your child is going through a lot,” says Panaccione. Be supportive but don’t minimize the problem or try to fix it either. “Middle-schoolers don’t want you to solve anything,” Panaccione says. Instead, use phrases like: “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “Gosh, that must have been embarrassing for you,” rather than “Just ignore it” or “Just get over it. It’s not a big deal.”
It is a big deal to your child. Placating doesn’t help and can be harmful. “It can push your child away because she’ll feel like you just don’t get it,” Panaccione says.
Don’t be too concerned if your child starts to hang with the wrong crowd. “As kids develop and decide who they want to be, they need to decide who they don’t want to be,” says Seltzer. They may try on various groups, including one that’s not your favorite, to see what feels right. All kids have friends their parents don’t like. But kids are good self-barometers. “Don’t butt in unless you think their friends are dangerous,” Seltzer cautions.
Empathize academically. In middle school, the workload gets more difficult because kids have to meet the demands of up to seven different teachers instead of one. “It’s a big challenge. The best thing you can do is allow your child to vent,” Panaccione says. If your child complains that one of his teachers gives too much homework, you might say, “Well, what do you think you might need to do, given that he gives lots of homework?” rather than “He’s only trying to teach you.”
The idea is to help your child solve the problem, find his own way, and keep the lines of communication open so your child will continue to feel comfortable talking to you about even bigger problems that might come along later.
High School: The Who-Am-I? Years
What’s happening now: In high school, teens forge their identity academically, socially, morally, sexually, and spiritually while trying to figure out who they are apart from you. “High-schoolers question everything and may even rebel against your opinions and beliefs,” says Panaccione. If you’re a Democrat, for example, your child might say he’s a Republican. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes family, she’ll become a vegan. You get the idea.
Keep talking. Allow your child to question your opinions and values and express himself. Ask questions such as, “Oh, why do you think so?” rather than lecturing or yelling. “It’s a great time to find out who your kids really are,” Panaccione says.
Note dramatic changes. It’s normal for high-schoolers to be just as moody as middle-schoolers. But if your teen shows a drastic change in personality or behavior, a significant drop in grades, study habits, or attitude, or a dramatic shift in appearance, dress, grooming, interests, goals, or activities, know that something’s up.
“Talk to your teen about your concerns,” says Panaccione. Start by saying something like: “I’m concerned that you’re spending time in bed when you used to be out with your friends.” Then listen to what your child has to say. If the behaviors are a sign of rebelling against a lack of freedom or privilege, be open to discussing and compromising. If you’re concerned your child may be suffering from depression or another mental health disorder, seek professional help. “Your child’s primary care provider or the school guidance counselor is a good resource for a referral to qualified child/teen psychologists in your area,” Panaccione says.
Help your child deal with college pressure. By the eleventh grade, college pressure comes on strong. But start talking college now only if your child is ready to. “Some kids are focused. But most have no idea what they want to do or major in,” Panaccione says. To reduce anxiety, Panaccione tells her high school patients that they don’t have to know what they want to do going into college. That’s where they’ll figure it out, which is something you could say at home, too. Also, listen to your child’s wishes for college rather than pushing your agenda. “To be successful, kids should end up going to a college that’s right for them,” she says.