Category Archives: Cognitive

My 3-year-old’s attention skills

According neuroscientist Michael Posner, there are three underlying cognitive networks that relate to different functions of the attention skills. The first one is alerting and it’s defined as being able to get into and maintain a state of high sensitivity to information. The second one is orienting, which refers to a person’s capacity to select only the relevant parts of the incoming information. Lastly, there’s the executive control function, which involves figuring out any conflict with feelings, thoughts and responses that might impede focus and attention.

All three components are necessary to “pay attention” or “focus” successfully on something. When your son is doing something as seemingly simple as focusing on the bedtime storybook you’re reading, he is maintaining the functions of attention and using different areas of the brain, like the frontal and the parietal cortex. These parts of the brain will continue developing well into adolescence, but your 3-year-old is undoubtedly laying some very important bases now. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can calculate the minutes of the attention span of children between 3 and 5 years by multiplying their age by two or five. That means that your 36-months old kid can probably stay focused on an interesting toy or situation for a maximum of fifteen minutes at a time. Therefore, if you want to engage your child in something, try to suggest 10-minute-long activities.

My preschooler’s memory skills: storing and recalling memories

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that between 36 and 48 months of age, your preschooler working hard to develop her memory skills. From now, she will delight you by completing the lyrics to beloved songs, finishing sentences from her favorite storybook, following 3-steps instructions, matching objects to their pictures or drawings, and even remembering long parts of a story or movie!

Your child’s memory started developing before she could use language to recall experiences, and in the two previous years, you kid relied on her senses and feelings to store and access past important events. This sensorial feature of memory continues throughout a person’s lifetime: adults also find it easier to remember events that are linked to strong emotions or bodily experiences, like surprise, love, anger or fear. Memory skills are all about making as many connections as possible between a new thing and similar ones that are already stored in the mind. So, the more aspects of an object or event your child experiences, the easier it will be for her to link this new memory and store it.

In 2010, a team of researchers from Loyola University published an article in the journal Experimental Child Psychology that looked into how children’s memory skills changes and progresses between 24 and 30 months of age. They tracked a group of kids across this 12-month period of time. They measured their different cognitive skills and how they interacted with their memory capacity, and found that there’s a strong relationship between the children’s language skills and their ability to recall memories when asked to, and that this relationship increased as time passed. They concluded that while from a very young age emotions are important for storing memories, once the language skills start to develop during the preschool years, having the right words to refer to a past experience is crucial for memory recalling.

Helping the development of my child’s memory skills

As you can observe from your own experience, memory is not only a muscle that needs lots of exercise, it’s also directly correlated to what you already know. For example, learning a new language is easier if you already are fluent in more than one. In the same way, a child’s capacity for encoding new memories and correctly recalling them grows as their background knowledge of the world increases. Following the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines on early development, between 3 and 4 years of age, your son’s cognitive development is on the fast-lane, as they are learning to speak, understand relationship and differences between things, and grasp concepts of time, size, shapes, etc. So, naturally, their memory is also growing rapidly during this time.

Here are some ideas on how to help you child’s memory skills:
• Play together. A simple game of “I Spy” can be very beneficial for your kid’s memory, especially if you keep him interested in the task by involving loved characters or toys.
• Use many senses. When you process information using more than one sense at a time, it’s easier for the brain to make a memory of the situation or event.
• Make it musical. Music and songs can be amazing memory-boosters. You can help your child put his memory skills to work by singing together and then asking your little one to help fill-in-the-blank of the lyrics.
• Look at fun photos of family events or outings together. You can help your child identify family members or ask him to tell a story about that day.
• Don’t forget that sleep is necessary for memory-storing. According to the AAP, toddlers need between 11 to 13 hours of sleep per day, nap-time included.

The relationship between attachment, attention and memory skills

Attachment became a buzzword in pediatrics and developmental psychology when London’s psychiatrist John Bowlby used the term to describe the deep emotional bond that two people share across time and space. He proposed that this can be best observed in the child-parent relationship, which led to extensive research about the importance of the role of the caregivers in a kid’s emotional, social, and cognitive development.

In his 1969 book Attachment: Attachment and loss: Vol. 1, he stated that attachment can be thought of as a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings. Its power goes well beyond a kid’s social and emotional skills; it’s even been discovered to foster a child’s cognitive development.

In 1997, a team of researchers from Washburn University published a very interesting article on the journal Child Development. They studied the link between attachment and a preschooler’s memory and attention skills. They had 68 3-year-olds participate in various attention and memory tasks, and compared the results with their attachment style. They found that when asked to stay focused and afterwards recall stories about interactions with parents, children that felt sure about their relationship were better remembering than the children that weren’t so sure about the consistency of their relationship. Then in 2015, a group of psychologists from the University of Nis and the University of Belgrade found that children that had a good and solid relationship to a trusted caregiver had many advantages in their emotional development, including enhanced conversational, memory, attention and conceptual reasoning skills! So, when you nurture your relationship with your preschooler, you are not only encouraging her to have a good self-esteem and learn how to make and keep healthy relationships, but you are actually helping your child’s cognitive skills as well!

If you want to read more about this topic, you can check out Duke’s University handout here:
https://childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu/pdfs/pubpres/SupportingHealthyRelationships.pdf

Responsible use of media to support my child’s development

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released an update on its guidelines for children’s exposure to screens and medias. According to their recommendations, children between 18 and 24 months of age can be exposed to high-quality children’s media if you help them understand what they are seeing, and between 2 to 5 years old they can have up to 90 minutes a day of high-quality programs for children.

The organization Zero to Three has some important reflections on how to use technological media to support your kid’s learning and development, as well as his memory and attention skills. Here are some of the highlights:
• When you and your child use media together, try to ask questions and talk about what you are seeing, both to strengthen the connection between you and your son, and to help him make sense of the content.
• Aid your child in connecting what you’ve seen together on a screen with real-life objects and situations. You can point out animals you recognize from a loved cartoon program, or activities you’ve seen on a tablet game.
• Be careful not to overwhelm your child with loud sounds and vivid colors of a screen. Even if it’s just the TV playing on the background, this can be distracting for young children.
• Avoid situations in which your child is having scree-time or using digital media without supervision.

Above all, the most important and nurturing experiences for your child are those he has in the real world with you. Kids learn by observing and doing in a trial-and-error kind of way. The things he dynamically experiences with his senses will be the easiest to recall and learn from. When you use digital media alongside your child, try to use it in ways that foster your relationship.

Encouraging my preschooler to ask questions

Preschoolers are known for their curiosity. So many of the things surrounding them constitute brand new experiences while their own capacity to take in and process the world is constantly being updated! Because of this, around 3 or 4 years of age, you’ll probably notice that your daughter is suddenly very invested in knowing how things work. Since she relies on trusted and loved people to help her figure out the world’s mysteries, at this developmental stage your child will be asking lots and lots of questions, from the mundane and seemingly simple, to literally rocket science.

It is vital for your little girl’s cognitive development that she feels comfortable asking questions, because by doing so she is taking an active role in learning. According to the book Transdisciplinary play-based assessment, by developmental psychologist Toni Linder, between 26 to 32 months your child will begin asking “where” questions, at around 40 months of age she will do “who” inquiries, and then around 42 to 49 months of age, you can expect her to start asking you “when” and “why” questions.

Here are some tips on how to encourage your child’s reasoning and curiosity skills:
• Be interested in the questions asked and in what your child finds attention-worthy.
• To keep the task fun, offer her plenty of interesting things to discover.
• Provide answers that invite your child to further explore something together, rather than answering with “yes”, “no” or “because that’s just how it works”.
• Explore what the five senses can tell you about something.
• Model asking questions and sharing knowledge without being rude.
• Encourage thinking about why and how something works, like when painting, playing with water, cooking or baking.

When children ask questions, they are learning how to solve problems

Every time you answer one of your son’s questions, you are actually fostering his cognitive development! Specifically, your kid’s reasoning and problem-solving skills which, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are developed between 36 and 48 months of age.

A developmental psychologist and researcher from the University of California, doctor Michelle Chouinard, decided to study further how kids use questions in order to solve problems. In 2007, she looked at the link between the children’s questions and whether or not they actually gained new information from the answers in order to solve a problem. A group of 4-year-olds were asked to figure out what a hidden object inside a box was. Half of them were allowed to ask questions about the object to help themselves, while the other half had to guess blindly. As you can imagine, there were lots of different ways in which the young kids could’ve used the questioning opportunity in distracting ways, but this wasn’t what happened! Children that asked questions were significantly more likely to identify the hidden object, which indicates that preschoolers actually use the new information to change what they know about a problem in a way that allows them to solve it.

What this study tells us is that question-asking is one of the ways in which preschool children naturally learn about the world. The questions they ask might seem random, but in fact they are directly related to both their surroundings and stimuli, and where they are in their cognitive development. You can expect your kid’s questions to get more complex as he ages, but also you will soon start to notice that your little one draw conclusions without having to ask you for the answer. So, enjoy this moment and remember that your kid’s capacity to ask questions is a very powerful tool that will accompany him throughout his life through curiosity, problem solving and conceptual reasoning skills.

The importance of my 2-year-old endless “why”

After hitting the 24-month mark, you might notice that your toddler’s verbal and cognitive skills have developed so much and so quickly, that she is starting to be increasingly interested in understanding how things work, especially how they relate to one another. In fact, you might have become so accustomed to hearing the “why” question coming out of your little one’s mouth, that you even hear it in your dreams. Although sometimes it might be complicated to answer a young child’s emerging questions all day-round, the answers they receive are precious to them as they are their main source of information to understand the world.

Following the American Academy of Pediatrics guides about early childhood development, the endless “why” inquiries mean that your daughter is working on building cognitive skills that will later allow her to solve problems and think using abstract concepts and categories.

In fact, many cognitive psychologists wondered about how asking questions can help children’s development. In 2007, Michelle Chouinard from the University of California analyzed the way children formulated questions and what they did with the newfound knowledge. She found that kids between 2 and 5 years of age indeed ask questions with the intention of understanding something, it’s not just to get an adult’s attention for a moment. She also discovered that the type of questions and the complexity of the answers a kid deems satisfactory changed over time. Older children have more developed conceptual and abstract thinking skills that allow them to seek answers that go beyond describing something. They actually inquire about cause-and-effect relationships. Amazing, right?

Can my preschooler distinguish appearance form reality?

As adults, our understanding of the world relies on our ability to differentiate appearances from reality. We know from experience that not everything is what it seems. For young children this is not always as clear, as they sometimes seem to confuse reality with appearances. Can my 3-year-old girl already tell the difference between them? Let’s take a look at what developmental science says about it.

In 2006, psychologist Gedeon Deák from the University of California at San Diego investigated the extent to which preschool children understand the difference between appearances and reality, as well as between reality and fantasy. He discovered that as early as 3 years of age, children are capable of discriminating reality from misleading appearances in multiple tasks. What was interesting was that he observed that preschoolers could easily and accurately describe real and fantastical or fake aspects of an object or situation, but their failing to do so depended not on their cognitive capacities, but on how understandable and clear were the questions about the objects. This led him to suggest that, even if 3 or 4-year-olds can seem challenged to represent reality in their minds, they are, in fact, naturally and flexibly describing appearances and an independent and different reality. Your young child’s mind is already capable of more than what’s easily assessed! Impressive, right?

You want to read more about your preschooler’s capacity for differentiating between reality and fantasy? Here you can read the full article referenced above:
http://cogdevlab.ucsd.edu/files/2013/05/DeakTCS2006.pdf

How kids learn to match objects by their shape and function

Have your ever wondered how did that your 3 or 4-year-old develop his understanding of characteristics and proprieties? When your little one pinches soft food with a fork and feeds himself, does he actually understand how eating utensils are used or is this behavior pure imitation? In what moment is this cognitive milestone achieved? In this article, we’re going to talk about how preschoolers develop their ability to find relationships and patterns between objects, their physical characteristics and their abstract proprieties.

Around the 3 years mark, children are still learning to identify and classify objects by their shape and color, amongst other physical characteristics. Between 3 and 4 years of age, kids start to develop a more complex understanding of objects and their abstract qualities, like how they are used and what are they for. Older children and adults, on the other hand, think effortlessly in terms of function and complex cause-and-effect relationships.

A team of psychology researchers from the University of California in San Diego, Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota investigated when and how preschoolers start using abstract information to relate the daily life objects that surround them. In 2002, they conducted a study in which they presented common kitchen utensils to 3 and 4-year-olds, instructed them to match the objects by shape or function, and then observed the kid’s responses.

They found that 4-year-old kids had no problem following either rule, but 3-year-olds got lost when trying to identify objects by their function. Nonetheless, if no instruction was given, 4-year-olds tended to match by shape unless prompted otherwise. This showed that by this age, most kids can understand both shape and function of objects to which they are frequently exposed to. They concluded that kids around 36 to 48 months are developing their conceptual and abstract thinking skills, and that their cognitive abilities are measurably different in this short lapse of moths.

If you want to dive deep into the research on preschooler’s cognitive development, here’s the article mentioned above:
http://cogdevlab.ucsd.edu/files/2013/05/DeaketalDP2002.pdf