Turns out, cognitive growth isn’t linear. What does this mean, for parents and teachers?
Getting young children to be obedient and agreeable is often the ultimate task for parents, educators, and childcare providers. This is an especially formidable task when trying to instruct a child who is surrounded by twenty to thirty peers, but it can just as easily present itself at home (few children have never protested the declaration that it is bedtime). The frustration of watching children ignore what are seemingly easy instructions often prompts us to assume that there are only two possible reasons for the response: the child either does not understand the instructions or is deliberately choosing disobedience. Naturally, this prompts us to check for understanding and active listening, prompting one to follow up any instruction with phrases like “What did I just say?” and “Now tell me what I asked you to do.” If we can demonstrate that a child comprehended our instruction, then we assume a lack of follow-through should be a reprimandable action. Making this assumption, however, does not give consideration to the ways in which young children are developing. Perhaps a bit more empathy is in order.
Surely when children refuse to do something, or ignore the instructions entirely despite understanding how to do something, this refusal is active? While it may seem easiest to jump to this conclusion, inhibition is actually a very active process within the minds of children, and it’s one that even adults struggle with on occasion. Inhibiting thoughts is, for young children, quite difficult, as it strains their executive function (or quite simply, their ability to pay attention; Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). Inhibition is a skill that requires much practice; resistance to interference, or the ability to ignore distractions while remaining concentrated on a task, is also something that young children are not yet particularly adept at (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). Although your child may have understood perfectly when you asked them to clean up the toys, completing that task requires, for example, that the child be able to inhibit thoughts of playing outside, and also resist the distraction that the toys themselves pose. Although it might be difficult to believe staying on task is really so difficult for young children, a study by A.V. Fisher, Godwin & Seltman (2014) has shown that kindergarten children in more busily decorated classrooms actually demonstrated few learning gains than their peers in more sparsely adorned classrooms (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c).
When it comes to academic or more conceptual tasks, like completing a math problem, there are several reasons why children may struggle despite knowing how to do the task. Firstly, research has demonstrated that the brain itself develops more quickly between areas associated with “cool EF,” the type of executive function utilized in abstract actions like math and reading. In comparison, areas associated with “hot EF,” or the areas that help us to regulate emotion and our bottom-up responses to the world, develop more slowly throughout adolescence and into young adulthood (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). When a child is struggling with an academic task that they have already demonstrated competence in, it is worth wondering whether it is the task itself, or the ability to self-regulate, that is interfering with completion.
Another element that may encroach on a child’s ability to perform academically is their self-efficacy. If the task posed to a child is one that the child has not only struggled with before, but has also received significant negative feedback about, it is possible that the child will not see themselves as competent or able to complete the task, regardless of actual skill; children who overestimate their ability are often those who not only demonstrate the best performance, but also improve the most over time (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018e).
Outside of the classroom, children may also struggle to remember to perform tasks that are to be done sometime in the future. In a study done by Somerville, Wellman, and Cultice in 1983, children between the ages of two and four were asked to remind their parents of a task after either a short or long delay; these reminders were either of high interest to the children (like buying cookies) or low interest (buying milk; Bjorklund & Causey, 2018d). Although performance improved considerably with age, four-year-olds still only remembered to remind their parents in the high-interest/long delay condition a little over half of the time, and in the low-interest/long delay condition, less than a quarter of the time. Therefore, asking your young child to pick up their toys at the end of the day, while comprehensible, is hardly likely to occur, especially if this is not an everyday demand.
Another part of compliance often has to do with children coming to understand that they are agents capable of deception. This capability starts off weak, as children as young as two and a half, while capable of some deception, often struggle to understand what motivates the actions of others (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018b). As children grow older, they become better at lying to and deceiving others because they also become better at understanding the motivations and desires of others. While we can teach children that deception is wrong, it should not come as a surprise when children test the concept.
Finally, children are scientists and are constantly trying to find causal relationships between events. Asking a young child to complete a task, for which there is no apparent cause or subsequent outcome, is likely to be confusing (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018a). To a child, there is no apparent reason to tidy up one’s toys (after all, you are just going to have to get them all back out and set them up tomorrow, right?), unless the parent has utilized some sort of external motivation; even then, the reward or punishment will likely be associated with compliance, not with the actual behavior of being tidy. Imitative and instructive learning, which both involve completing a behavior (either demonstrated or verbally instructed) with the knowledge that the behavior will result in a certain outcome, is therefore difficult, and a child may not be able to relate to the motivation of the intervening adult (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018e).
It is natural to feel frustration when young children, although seemingly entirely capable, seem to effortlessly sidestep every attempt to structure their lives. However, it is important to understand that while children are indeed capable of a lot, they are still learning about the motivations of others, their own capabilities, and how to regulate basic impulses. They are often limited by their own life experience, as well as their developing brains. The most that educators can do, therefore, is to learn patience, but to also create environments that are not overly distracting. When a child needs to focus on a particular task, the shouts and shrieks of other children playing outside, or an overabundance of wall décor, is enough to derail their attempts despite investing all of their effort. Another factor that can contribute to better self-control is regular exercise (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). Making sure that children have opportunities every day to physically move is not only important in fostering physical wellbeing, but also in promoting cognitive development. It would be a mistake to write less compliant children off as simply disobedient.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018a). Thinking in Symbols: Development of Representation. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018b). Development of Folk Knowledge. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018c). Learning to Think on Their Own: Executive Function, Strategies, and Problem Solving. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018d). Memory Development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018e). Social Cognition. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.