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Understanding children’s thinking, including their decision making in social situations, is a hard task for teachers. A keen understanding of developmental theory can help teachers interact with and meet the needs of their students more effectively. Unfortunately, developmental research is often discussed out of context. One challenge in applying findings from developmental psychology to classrooms is figuring out how to translate a construct in a way that changes or clarifies how teachers instruct and interact with students (Davis, 2004). The purpose of this research-paper is to assist readers in identifying common themes in the cognitive and socioemotional characteristics of third- through fifth-grade students and to identify guidelines for modifying classroom instruction and interactions to be developmentally appropriate.
The Challenges of Being a Préadolescent
One task of developmental psychologists is to identify what defines each developmental period. Biologically, the period from 8 to 11 years old tends to be defined by what it is sandwiched between. Preadolescents are, in part, defined by their lack of experience with the biological changes associated with puberty. The “pre” implies they are still somewhat childlike, and yet it is during this period that preadolescents experience a dramatic change in their thinking.
A consistent finding among scholars is that the period from 8 to 11 years old is defined by children’s attempts to understand themselves in the wake of copious performance feedback. Erik Erikson identified tasks, what he termed developmental crises, which are characterized by contexts and tasks children and adults face throughout their life span. For Erikson, the period when children enter and transition through primary school is defined by their attempts to understand what it means to be industrious, to successfully accomplish the tasks allotted by teachers and peers. Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson, and Collins echo Erikson’s call dubbing the period of middle childhood “the era of competence” (2005, p. 148). Children who experience success with tasks transition into adolescence feeling valuable and productive, while children who struggle and fail move into adolescence feeling inferior to those around them.
Robert Havighurst (1971) took a much broader approach to describing developmental tasks, identifying a broader set of interpersonal and social tasks. In this vein, Hughes (1999) argues that in addition to the need for industry, preadolescent children are striving to satisfy their needs to belong and to have order in their worlds. This still seems to be too narrow a characterization to encompass the wealth of findings. What persists from across early childhood to and through preadolescence in the literature is the child’s pursuit of greater and greater control over their “self,” what scholars like Ryan, Connell, and Deci call self-determination, coupled with their limited skills in regulating their behaviors. In order to truly feel self-determined, students must feel competent, autonomous, and connected in their classroom environment (Ryan, Connell, & Deci, 1985). From this perspective, I identified four critical tasks that reflect the preadolescent child’s attempt to feel competent, autonomous, and connected throughout third through fifth grade:
- Managing Symbols—Making Sense of the World: How do I make sense of more and more information and what should I do with information that conflicts with what I feel, what I believe, or what I know?
- Merging Conceptions of Effort and Ability: How do I make sense of not knowing and of making mistakes? What does it mean to try hard and succeed or fail?
- Understanding Classroom Relationships: Who matters in this class and where do I stand compared to the other students in this class?
- Regulating Academic Behaviors and Emotions: What does it mean to set goals, to create a plan of action, and to be responsible for the result? How do I resolve conflicts when I disagree with a teacher or someone in my class?
The following sections flesh out each theme, highlighting changes in children’s thinking and the ways in which qualitative differences in how preadolescents view the world shape the nature of their intellectual and social interactions. Sroufe et al. argue that understanding where children are developmentally involves understanding “the totality of the person’s history” (2005, p. 150). This includes the history of how the child has adapted to changes in his or her environment and the constraints of the current context. Preadolescents come to school with a wealth of prior knowledge. In addition to informal learning, children have acquired foundational subject matter knowledge from their formal experiences in PreK-2 classrooms. Children also bring with them emerging conceptions of friendship and social roles, rules and fairness, status and conflict. By third grade, some children will have already experienced problems with teachers, classmates, and academic subject matter. These past failures and successes create pathways for future failures and future successes— but not in an inevitable way. Thus it is the task of third-through fifth-grade teachers to discover each child’s emerging schooling history and think in terms of what developmental trajectory students are following and how to maximize their opportunities for growth.
Table 9.1 Developmental Challenges Facing Third- to Fifth-Grade Students and Their Teachers
What developmental changes allow for children to see their world in a more dynamic way? Table 9.1 summarizes the major developmental changes that occur during this period, organized in each row by the four defining tasks. It is important to understand that within the field of developmental psychology there are several traditions, each having a lens (i.e., perspective) that controls which aspects of change are viewed as underlying the unique way 8- to 11-year-old children think about their worlds. The first column lists changes 8- to 11-year-old children evidence in the way they process information from a Cognitive Science perspective. From this perspective, they are able to manage a more dynamic world because of changes in the amount of information they can manipulate mentally, their efficiency with connecting new information to things they have already learned, and their growing repertoire of problem-solving strategies. Qualitative differences in preadolescent thinking from younger children reflect changes in their capacity to manage more and more information in their intellectual and social worlds. The second column lists the different kinds of cognitive tools preadolescent children acquire from a Piagetian perspective. Jean Piaget outlined a theory of cognitive development and qualitative differences in children’s thinking that not only reflects their ability to process more information, but also reflects meaningful changes in the way they understand and organize information. Piaget described how children acquired each of these cognitive tools in a predictable sequence so as to ultimately support their understanding of the world and support their ability later on, as adults, to think in complex ways. Preadolescents are defined by their struggle to acquire what Piaget called conservation tools, or basic principles that enable us to hold the world together and view it as predictable. The third column lists changes in 8 to 11 year old children’s language acquisition from a Sociocultural perspective. Lev Vygotsky outlined a theory of cognitive development that argued language—a defining tool of one’s culture—plays a crucial role in shaping thinking. Language serves as a gatekeeper to full participation in a community. It is not merely that children are able to communicate better, but that the greater their literacy, the more flexible their thinking becomes. In Table 9.1, language is broadly defined to include elements of more implicit semiotics (i.e., cultural symbols) and nonverbal language communication skills. Throughout preadolescence, children learn about the multiplicity of symbols and learn that words, expressions, postures, and actions can have multiple meanings that can vary across their family, peer, school, and larger cultures.
Managing Symbols: Making Sense of the World
By third grade, children have acquired a wide repertoire of symbols, or mental representations. The term symbol refers to the mental images we hold of object, actions, and relationships. By preadolescence, children have become so adept at acquiring symbols that when they encounter a new word or a new experience they can use the context surrounding the word to glean the name and meaning of the new symbol. Preadolescents are focused on comprehension. They are able to understand the meaning of words from basic definitions and can appreciate that one word may have multiple meanings. Their flexible understanding of language enables them to participate in word humor and to play with language. Their increased understanding of grammatical structures can spur them toward telling stories and writing letters.
Physically, their increased gross and fine motor skills allow them to adeptly manipulate and explore their world, and their increased capacity to concentrate, hold, process, and store new knowledge allows them to retain many experiences. They are actively making connections between new experiences and prior knowledge. Practiced skills become automatic, freeing up space for more attention to new things to learn.
But the seminal marker of this period is that children’s thinking becomes more sophisticatedly patterned. The acquisition of new knowledge compels them to find ways to organize what they know around salient principles. As toddlers and young children, the principles children chose to organize their understandings tended to be superficial— guided by look, size, or conduct. In cases where they had limited experience, their classifications might have been crude, grouping things together in a way that would not make sense to an older child or adult. But as children transition to and through preadolescence they begin to encounter failure with some of their intuitive conceptions (Ben-Ze’ev & Star, 2001). When teachers talk about children holding misconceptions in science or social studies, they are usually describing incidents of children having classified something inappropriately. But the term intuitive conception is used more broadly to describe the prior knowledge structures children use when trying to understand something new. From this perspective, children’s attempts to understand new events using old understandings, even when children have accurately organized their knowledge, represent a type of intuitive approach to under-standing. These intuitive understandings can, essentially, interfere with new learning. Thus, the central challenges for teachers of preadolescents are to (1) assess children’s intuitive understandings, (2) consider how their own understanding of the event differs, and (3) create opportunities for children to reorganize the symbols they have acquired around adult principles.
Organizing symbols according to basic principles that enable us to hold the world together and view it as predictable is a life-long task; each time adults encounter new phenomena they make sense of it by identifying the underlying principles that define the event. In this way, preadolescent thinking begins to approach adult thinking. Piaget called the principles that define events and allow humans to view the world as predictable conservation skills. Conservation skills include:
- Identity: Understanding that phenomena or events have properties that define them and make them unique. Changing these properties, not conserving them, essentially changes the phenomena or event.
- Reversibility: Understanding that phenomena or events have superficial properties that can be changed and changed back. Disrupting them does not change the phenomena or event.
- Seriation: Understanding that phenomena or events have sequences that define them that must be conserved, or held constant. For example, when employing a mnemonic for the order of operations algorithm for solving complex math equations (PEMDAS, i.e., Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction), which sequences must be held constant?
- Classification: Understanding that phenomena or events can be classified, sometimes into multiple categories. Understanding which classifications work and, in some cases, whether there are superordinate and subordinate categories (i.e., within continents there are cities embedded in countries).
- Amount and Volume: Understanding that phenomena or events can have multiple dimensions that define them. For example, when studying planets, children learn that multiple dimensions need to be held constant in order for a plant to sustain life.
Teachers of preadolescents need to identify when children are not employing these conservation skills to understand assigned academic tasks. To do this teachers need to break down, or deconstruct, their curricula and anticipate where children will get stuck. Children who do not organize their thoughts around conservation tools are said to evidence preoperational thought because they have not yet acquired the cognitive tools to understand dynamic events. Children who organize their understandings around conservation tools are said to evidence concrete-operational thought. An additional challenge for teachers of preadolescents is that children may not acquire these cognitive tools at the same pace in each content area. Piaget applied the term décalage to children’s tendency to exhibit characteristics of more than one developmental period simultaneously. For example, while a child might evidence concrete thinking in language arts, enabling him or her to write stories that have correct grammatical structure, he or she may struggle in math to solve problems with multiple, sequenced steps. The more experience children have had with an event, the more likely their thinking is to be organized and complex.
The Case of Teaching Fractions
Nowhere can the dilemmas of intuitive understandings interfering with new learning be seen more clearly than in the case of learning fractions. In mathematics instruction, learning fractions is a focal task for children in Grades 3 through 5. Children enter third grade with a solid understanding of addition and subtraction of whole numbers and the ability to quickly recall addition and subtraction facts. Moreover, earlier teachers will have introduced concepts of decimals, place value, base 10, and multiplication. When learning about fractions, many of children’s intuitive conceptions about whole numbers interfere with their ability to fully understand part-to-whole relationships. Figure 9.1 demonstrates how whole number progression can interfere with understanding sequence in fractions.
When learning about whole numbers, children acquire an accurate understanding sequence that as the number gets larger the amount or size increases. This intuitive conception is disrupted when they learn fractions. When numbers appear in the denominator, the sequential relationship is reversed: as the number in the denominator gets larger, the amount or size of the fraction gets smaller. Until children understand that fractions have unique properties (identity) that must be held constant with a distinct sequential relationship, they will struggle when learning fractions.
Acquiring conservation skills is ultimately needed to truly understand fractions. Children must understand that fractions can change in appearance but still remain the same fractional amount. For example, oranges and grapefruits are not the same size; however, one-half of an orange is the same fractional amount as one-half of a grapefruit. Moreover, children need to understand that fractional quantities are distinct from each other—that in terms of the fractional quantity, one-half of an orange is more than one-fourth of a grapefruit. Without understanding identity (whole-to-part relationships hold constant) and reversibility (superficial features like size and shape change), children may be deceived by the relative size of pieces of fruit. Teachers need to create activities that trouble children’s intuitive notions of quantity, ultimately pushing them to question, If fractions are not about absolute size, then what are factions?
Figure 9.1 The Challenge of Understanding Fractions in Terms of Their “Reverse” Sequence
As children’s learning of fractions becomes more complex, so does their classification scheme. Intuitive notions of base 10 and multiplication, which allow children to easily classify groups of numbers into mutually exclusive categories of 10s, 100s, 1,000s, or multiples of 3s, 4s, and 5s, and so forth, interfere with the complex classification system needed for fractions. In that fractions can be transformed to appear with common denominators, children must learn that each fraction has a root quantity (i.e., the lowest common denominator) and can, when transformed, also belong to any number of other groups. In other words one-half can be represented as two-fourths, three-sixths, or four-eighths and in doing so can belong to the fourths, sixths, and eighths families. But, in not sharing the same root quantity, it does not belong to other families: thirds, fifths, sevenths. Even more confusing is how to transfer these principles of multiple classifications and multiple representations of fractional quantities to understand how whole numbers can be represented in alternate ways (see Figure 9.2). To fully understand fractions, children must come to think about math in radically different, more flexible ways.
The power of Piaget’s theory is that during this period children are struggling to acquire conservation skills in all subject areas. The challenges of writing a story someone else can understand are to carefully select words that have unique meaning (Identity), to transform them into past or future tense when necessary (Reversibility), to sequence them in a predictable way (i.e., sentence structure), and to organize their presentation in a way that describes characters, involves a plot, and finds resolution (Classification). Understanding the history of a people involves identifying critical events that held meaning for people of that region; understanding how the unfolding of events shaped the way
people thought about themselves and their country; being able to organize a series of events together to understand the worldview of a cohort of peoples; being able to look across peoples and classify different types of events that, when they happen, affect peoples’ lives in similar ways. Errors children make when they mismatch definitions, mislabel the order in a series, or misapply an algorithm can reveal to teachers the ways in which they view the phenomena in a qualitatively different way from their students. Preadolescents need activities that reveal underlying principles so that they may reorganize their existing symbols in more sophisticated ways.
Figure 9.2 The Challenge of Understanding Fractions in Terms of Multiple Representations and Multiple Classifications
Merging Conceptions of Effort and Ability
Ten-year-old children have been preparing their entire lives for the competence they show now. Their reasoning skills are supported by years of wrestling with cognitive problems in their real and fantasy worlds. (Sroufe et al., 2005, p. 172)
In trying to feel competent, preadolescents must understand their failures and successes. By the time they enter third grade, children view themselves as active agents and able to create knowledge. They can draw cause-and-effect inferences between actions and outcomes, and they are developing an increasing awareness of how their performance compares with peers. “As the individual becomes increasingly aware of her or his uniqueness, so she or he becomes increasingly aware of other’s appraisals and expectations” (Durkin, 1995, p. 300). At the same time, the literature on preadolescents’ sense of self also indicates they have an increasing sense of their self as possessing some stable internal qualities. They are beginning to differentiate, organize, and coordinate multiple representations of themselves across settings and capacities. It is during the period of preadolescence that children’s conceptions of effort (i.e., what it means to work hard) and ability (what it means to be smart) begin to merge. They are more likely to attribute success and failure on tasks to something stable about their ability rather than to their efforts. In observing their work and comparing it to other children in their class, preadolescent children may notice they don’t have to work hard to get the right answer, that sometimes they work hard and still get the wrong answer, or that sometimes they don’t work as fast as peers. Many begin to make connections that working hard indicates that they are not smart. Even their play becomes a venue for trying to meet their competence needs. Hughes (1999) notes that play during preadolescence tends to focus on games with rules as a way to understand social constructions of winning, losing, and what it means to be on a team. Dweck (1999) argues that this is a dangerous time. Her research suggests that children who believe ability is fixed and has little to do with effort can develop a maladaptive pattern of motivation toward school, avoiding challenging tasks and engaging only when success on a task is guaranteed.
As Erikson described, preadolescent children are driven by desire to understand what it means to be and to feel industrious. They will engage in behaviors that protect them from feeling inferior. What can teachers do to help preadolescent children feel competent in the classroom and avoid confirming, maybe even challenge, their notion of ability as stable and fixed? Hughes’ (1999) research suggests that teachers need to think about the nature of classroom activities and their students’ engagement in play. He notes the difference in convergent and divergent forms of play. “The experience of working with puzzles and other toys that suggest a single correct way to play with them may teach children there are correct answers and encourage them to seek them out. Playing with open-ended materials, on the other hand, may tell a child that numerous approaches can be taken to any problem and the possibilities for the use of one’s creative imagination are limitless” (Hughes, 1999, p. 187). Likewise, teachers can design activities that are convergent (suggesting the existence of a single correct answer) and divergent (suggesting either the existence of multiple correct solutions or multiple routes to a single solution). Children’s success or failure on a task could be attributed to unstable and controllable factors such as the strategies they selected or the way they framed the problem.
Likewise, Dweck (1999) urges teachers to watch how they praise student success. She cautions against using global praise such as “good job” or solely praising the outcomes of student work. Students can attribute this type of praise as commenting on their abilities. Instead, she suggests, “We can rave about their effort, their concentration, the effectiveness of their study strategies, the interesting ideas they came up with, the way they followed through. We can ask them questions that show an intelligent appreciation of their work and what they put into it” (Dweck, 1999, p. 8). This can be challenging for both teachers and students because strategic learning itself is still developing. Bjorklund (2005) reminds us that increasingly complex tasks and instruction bring with them the challenge for preadolescents to learn new, more complex strategies (i.e., multistep, organizing, elaborating). These new strategies may cost mental effort to implement. Preadolescents can easily become frustrated when they struggle to master complex tasks with complex strategies and do not find immediate success. Students need to see their time as an investment in learning how to learn.
Learning From Functional Failures
What is consistent across the literature, however, is that protecting students from failure on academic tasks is also not the answer to helping them feel competent. “Giving students easy tasks and praising their success tells the students that you think they are dumb. It’s not hard to see why. . . . Wouldn’t you feel that the person thought you weren’t capable of more and was trying to make you feel good about your limited ability?” (Dweck, 1999, p. 4). In their study of adaptive learning (see Table 9.2), Rohrkemper (now known as McCaslin) and Corno describe the ways in which student success on easy tasks can backfire. They define adaptive learning as, “Students who strive, seek goals, that involve mental risks, and can learn from their mistakes” (Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988, p. 299).
How can students learn to persist in the face of failure and critique if they are always protected from it?
Table 9.2 Characteristics of Adaptive Learners
Uninformative success, or success that occurs without increased understanding, does not further learning any more than does mindless failure. . . . Meaningful learning has much to do with false starts, thwarted tries, and frustrated attempts. Shielding students from this also shields them from learning not only the content under consideration, but also the processes of learning, achieving, and what we call adaptive learning. (Rohrkemper & Corno, 1998, p. 303)
This challenges teachers to really confront how they conceptualize error or failure and respond to it in their own learning and teaching. Is failure something they fear and avoid? If so, why? Do they seek to make sense of their own limits, their own struggles in order to grow as problem solvers? And, if so, in what ways do they model this for their students? Choosing to teach in a way that supports adaptive learning is tough for both the students and the teacher because it inevitably means students must face the emotional consequences connected to failure: stress, anger, frustration, as well as their concerns over their own competence. “We do not suggest that stress in and of itself is positive, but that learning to cope with and modify stressful situations is an important outcome of education” (Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988, p. 296). In this vein, Rohrkemper and Corno argue that teachers must learn to “titrate” the stress associated with failure on tasks. This involves monitoring the frequency, timing, placement, magnitude, and aggregation of social and academic failures students in their class are experiencing. Likewise, Goldstein (1999) emphasizes that teaching for adaptive learning involves striving for students to understand that their teacher designs classroom activities from a position of caring: caring about the content, caring about learning, caring about individual students’ understanding. Because teachers care about the way students see themselves as problem solvers, they give students tough problems to work through and help them find creative solutions. Because they care about students’ ability to meet failure head-on, and to persist through to a solution, they give students tasks that are challenging and in which they may not be immediately successful. This is what sociocultural scholars call seeking intersubjectivity—teachers helping students to understand their motives and striving to understand the perspective and motives of their students.
Understanding Classroom Relationships
From their initial entrance in school, children seek to understand classroom social relationships (Davis, 2003). The developmental literature is clear: Students who feel like they belong in their classroom, who have supportive relationships with peers and teachers, do better in school. They evidence more adaptive forms of motivation, including a willingness to be socially responsible and to seek help, and they are more engaged in learning tasks. This trend sustains throughout children’s K-12 schooling and beyond to college. But teachers face different challenges in cultivating a sense of belonging in their classroom at each phase. In general, preadolescents’ relationships to teachers are a type of hybrid of the parent relationship, as are peer relationships of siblings (Sroufe et al., 2005). Children who have experienced conflict or alienation in their parent and sibling relationships carry these burdens with them as they enter school and struggle to connect with their teachers and peers. Early positive relationships with teachers and peers at school, however, can have a compensatory effect. Likewise, initial conflict or alienation with teachers and peers at school can cause children with supportive parent and sibling relationships at home to be wary of school and teachers. Thus, third- through fifth-grade teachers must be sensitive at the start of the school year to the cues children send about wanting or avoiding relationships. Moreover, teachers must be cautious about attributing early conflicts to relationships children have outside of school. Additionally, the developmental literature suggests that children are interpreting all of their interactions within the classroom with a specific lens: Who matters in this class and where do I stand?
Socialization Through Peer Groups
Hughes (1999) notes that friendships and play in the classroom serve an important social function. They allow children to stretch themselves cognitively, to learn the value of roles, and to use role-play as a way to understand their own intentions and actions in what Selman (1980) called “self-reflective role-taking.” But social interaction and play appear to take an interesting turn during preadolescence. The rise in friendships is coupled with a startling rise in bullying and victimization that appears to peak around the fifth grade. Aggression also takes on a different character. Whereas toddlers and young children may engage in instrumental aggression in which they strike out physically to get something they want, preadolescents tend to engage in hostile aggression. While it may be more overt and physical in boys and more exclusionary and relational in girls, the intent is the same: The goal is to hurt another person in order to get what you want. Cognitively, preadolescents are increasingly able to understand another’s perspective and can use these skills to anticipate, cooperate with, and manipulate others. More disturbing are findings from Pellegrini, Bartini, and Brooks (1999) that suggest teachers may not be accurate in distinguishing acts of aggression from rough-and-tumble play (particularly in boys).
Where does this rise in aggression originate? It may, in part, reflect preadolescents’ desire to understand their social standing in the classroom. Researchers studying social dominance argue children and adults differ in their orientations toward being dominant and that it is during preadolescence that children begin exploring issues of dominance inside and outside the classroom (Pellegrini et al., 1999).
Developing an inclusive classroom culture requires teachers to be savvy to the ways in which children are exploring issues of dominance and to offer alternative conceptions of dominance. This includes identifying the ways in which children subjugate each other: by excluding each other from play and work groups, through sarcasm or fault-finding commentary on each other’s work, and by silencing perspectives other than their own. Teachers need to help preadolescent children use their confidence, authority, and influence to lead their peers in inclusive ways. Specifically, they need to help students learn about what it means to be a leader, including the characteristics of good leaders, and to understand that their choices about how to treat a peer in the classroom fundamentally reflect moral decisions.
The Classroom as a Microcosm of Society: Norms and Stereotypes
The relationship between values and education has always been a checkered one. Despite the claims in each generation that society is experiencing, to some extent, moral decline, there is rarely any agreement about whether teachers should express their values in the classroom or should their classrooms essentially be value-free. Reforms toward character education are frequently criticized for being biased in the values they address. Yet, teachers serve as models in their classrooms. Their every interaction, every decision is judged by students to reflect what they care about. Do their classroom practices reflect that they care about the inclusion, growth, and achievement of all students in the class, or just some? If we align ourselves with a progressive view of values in the classroom—one that favors developing children’s moral decision making—the debate about values in education becomes absurd. From this perspective, teachers have the responsibility to create safe opportunities for their students to engage in moral decision making. These opportunities enable students to think about what it means to be in different kinds of relationships, to be responsible, to set boundaries, to evaluate laws and moral imperatives, to participate as a citizen, and to make tough adult decisions that may or may not have a clear answer.
The period of preadolescence is characterized by an important shift in children’s moral thinking. Kohlberg described children’s thinking as conventional, guided by their understandings of good and bad, law and order. Wadsworth (2004) notes that throughout elementary school, children are acquiring information about social norms, or what is considered right and wrong in society, from their interactions in the classroom. He also notes that children’s sense of will and autonomy—what they want to do—may be distinct from what they know they should do based on those social norms. It is during preadolescence that children begin to reason about what is right and wrong and make some moral evaluations. They are sensitive and seek to understand classroom mores and norms as well as the social hierarchies and social categories that result. In her seminal book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum (1997) describes how young children begin noticing and questioning social differences early. She argues that by preadolescence many children may have already learned it is not appropriate to talk about race, class, gender, or other social differences. Yet, it is during preadolescence that children become aware that these differences matter in society, that they result in social stratifications. They may have internalized stereotypes about people who are different from themselves, and they may approach peers who are different in ways that perpetuate the existing status quo.
What can teachers do to cultivate a culture in their classroom where all students belong regardless of race, sex, gender, religion, or sexual orientation? Teachers need to capitalize on preadolescents’ increasing awareness of their own and others’ psychological states. Teachers can take advantage of students’ ability to understand complementary roles, reciprocity, and mutual respect. As they struggle to understand what it means to be similar, be in a group, and to conform, preadolescents need to be encouraged to assume the perspective of another and to trouble the accuracy of social stereotypes and the validity of social norms that subjugate one group of people to the service of another.
Regulating Academic Behaviors and Emotions
Earlier I argued that to overlook preadolescents’ need for autonomy would be to overlook one of the challenges and accomplishments of the period. Zimmerman (2002) argues the period of adolescence is defined by children’s ability to achieve self-regulation. While it would be inappropriate for a third-, fourth-, or fifth-grade teacher to assume preadolescents could regulate their own behavior, it is important to recognize preadolescent children have the potential to engage in some self-regulatory behavior with the support of an adult. It is during this period that children should be asked to assume some responsibility for regulating behaviors that were largely externally regulated by parents or teachers in the past. Research suggests that, cognitively, preadolescent children are able to selectively attend, set goals, make plans, and adapt their strategies. They are increasingly able to understand temporal, spatial, and comparative terms. And they are increasingly able to reflect on their behavior, thoughts, and strategies with support. Most third-grade children are able to inhibit primary, and often inappropriate, mental and behavioral responses in order to delay gratification. In part, the potential to engage in self-regulated behaviors reflects cognitive changes in their problem-solving abilities. During preadolescence, children shift from analogical reasoning (i.e., using what they know about one problem to solve another) to scientific reasoning (i.e., making evidence-based arguments). It is this emerging ability to engage in more future-oriented, data-driven, multistep thinking that allows children to participate in goal setting and strategy selection, and to monitor their own progress, reflecting on successes and failures. Teachers only need to create opportunities for children to engage in such activities. It is during this period that teachers can work with children to develop an adaptive understanding of what it means to be autonomous: specifically, that being autonomous means being self-regulated. Children may not always succeed in setting appropriate goals, selecting the best strategy, or identifying the sources of success and failure; however, teachers can use these types of interactions as opportunities to facilitate self-regulatory behavior during adolescence.
Self-regulation not only entails managing one’s own behavior, but also regulating one’s emotional responses. It is during preadolescence that children become increasingly able to read nonverbal messages, to identify masked emotions, to mask their own emotions, and to express blended emotions. They are acquiring sociolinguistic behaviors such as learning to be silent, making eye contact and respecting personal space, interacting with adults, responding to questions, and interrupting in appropriate ways. Finally, throughout preadolescence, children are internalizing appropriate emotional norms such as when it is appropriate to be angry and show anger.
The challenge for teachers is that many self-regulatory behaviors are learned implicitly. Thus, some children may enter third grade able to engage in rudimentary self- and emotion-regulatory behaviors while others may not. That children have not acquired some skills to regulate their emotions by the time they enter third grade is okay; however, it is the task of teachers during this period to help children to develop some skills before moving on to middle school. Perhaps this period can best be characterized as a period of “co-regulation” (Hickey & McCaslin, 2001) in which teachers support and assist preadolescent children in engaging in self-regulatory behaviors.
How can teachers participate in co-regulating students’ behavior? Zimmerman (2002) describes four stages in the development of children’s self-regulatory behaviors. In the first stage, children observe adults modeling self-regulatory behaviors. In other words, teachers must make their own regulation visible to their students. Teachers might do this by sharing with students the goals they set for the unit, by sharing with them how they planned the unit and the strategies they selected, and by participating with students in reflecting on the successes and failures of meeting the unit’s goals. In the second stage, children emulate the self-regulatory behaviors they have observed. It is during this phase that children need to be given more opportunities to participate in setting goals, choosing strategies, and evaluating outcomes. During the fourth stage these behaviors fall under self-control, and it is during the final stage that children are truly able to self-regulate their behavior and emotions in class.
What Does This Mean for Teachers Wanting to Enact Developmentally Appropriate Practice?
What Norms Can I Anticipate?
Fundamentally, developmental psychology can be used to help teachers think about their classroom, plan activities, and reflect on their successes and failures given what we know about the normative, or typical, characteristics of preadolescent children. This research-paper describes the ways in which 8- to 11-year-old children tend to approach academic tasks differently from adults. When evaluating unit goals or lesson plans, these findings ask teachers to consider: What does it mean to make activities concrete, or hands-on, from a Piagetian perspective? Teaching in a developmentally appropriate way means teachers of pre-adolescents need to consider the extent to which the activities they design reveal underlying principles that define the phenomena or event. Teachers need to consider what representations (i.e., language or symbols) students need to have in order to be successful with the activity. They need to think about the ways in which preadolescents’ intuitive theories, particularly theories that emerge from preceding academic units, interfere with their understanding of new concepts. They need to identify which elements of the phenomena or event must be conserved in order to truly understand its uniqueness. This might include defining sequences and salient ways of classifying as well as revealing to students the superficial characteristics that may deceive them.
Teachers also need to be aware of preadolescents’ tendency toward social comparison and the ways in which their comparisons can go awry. In making social comparisons, preadolescents may come to the conclusion that their ability is a fixed entity and that they are either smart or stupid compared to their peers. They also may strive to be on top by making choices that subjugate their peers. Teachers seeking to meet preadolescents’ needs for belonging need to identify ways to integrate discussions of leadership, altruism, and social responsibility. They need to challenge stereotypes that not only exist within domains (e.g., “Girls can’t do math.”) but also in the larger social arena (e.g., “Poor kids fail.”). This might include establishing classroom norms that everyone can succeed, that members of the class are responsible for success, and that part of the teacher’s role is to identify when students are engaging in thinking or behavior that presupposed they or another member of the class cannot be successful.
What Are the Potentials and Limits of Children’s Thinking?
There is inherently a limit to only looking at normative, or typical, development. That is, of course, teachers may overlook children who exceed or are slower to achieve developmental indicators in one or more areas.
Unfortunately having a toolbox full of tools designed to reach only 68% of our target population (the average or “typical” students) would not be viewed as a proud accomplishment. The magnitude of our task, then, is defined by our goal to reach and support the growth of all our students. (Davis, 2004, p. 255)
Thus, teachers working with preadolescent populations need to be sensitive to some children’s struggles to see underlying principles no matter how many times they are presented with them and in how many different ways teachers strive to reveal them—and that is okay. Some children will be slower on the developmental curve and may not develop these skills until they reach adolescence. Teachers need to monitor the motivation, the strategy use, and the effort of these children and to reassure them (and their parents) when all other patterns appear adaptive that learning will happen. Some children merely need more opportunities to explore phenomena than teachers are able to provide in class (or in a single academic year). Learning to be creative and to tease out when developmental shifts undermine achievement is important for teachers. Telling children who are not ready to learn that they should work harder may be construed as saying that they are not smart. Not so. Developmental shifts have little to do with effort and ability. We cannot, nor can the child or the child’s parents, make children develop before they are ready. Likewise, teachers of preadolescents need to have a fluid understanding of the characteristics of adolescent thinking because some of their students, particularly those in fifth grade, may already evidence the abilities to engage in abstract thinking. As noted earlier, in the absence of challenge, these children may come to attribute their uninformative successes in the classroom in terms of their fixed ability and may, in turn, establish motivation patterns that do not serve them well as they transition to middle school and beyond.
What Does It Mean for Teachers to Preserve Childhood for Their Students?
Fundamentally, the task of all primary teachers is to preserve childhood for their students. All developmental psychologists agree that thinking at each stage of development serves a purpose. When children struggle and fail, it is our natural inclination, as adults, to protect them from those failures, to find quick fixes that help them to succeed; however, scholars across the fields of developmental psychology and education agree that teachers of preadolescents need to monitor the frequency of uninformative success and the value of functional failure. “When students in our classes struggle to understand, it may be important to step back from our own agenda and validate the child’s perspective” (Davis, 2004, p. 256). Teachers need to be particularly sensitive to creating learning environments where preadolescent children can fail in a safe, meaningful way. This entails creating classrooms where children can make mistakes on academic tasks and learn from them, can explore the stereotypes they hold and ask the tough questions about the way society works, and can learn to assume responsibility for pursuing their own goals even if that means failing the first time.
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