Category Archives: Cognitive

Colors and shapes build my child’s cognitive skills

The guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that, between 2 and 3 years of age, children learn to discriminate shapes and colors from an object’s whole array of characteristics. This is a complex skill for kids to master because, in order to learn to recognize shapes and colors in everyday objects, they must be able to recognize sameness in color and shape.

Cognitive psychologists suggest that learning about shapes and colors, and using them to navigate daily life is done in three steps: 1) identifying an object and its qualities, 2) recognizing these qualities from past experiences, and 3) categorizing it by abstracting one of the object’s qualities. As fully-developed adults, we might be accustomed to do this in the blink of an eye, but it’s still quite a complex process to be undertaken by a preschooler. For example, crackers, a sofa cushion, a building block and a book might all be shaped like a square, and therefore be members of the same object category. However, they are evidently not the exact same shape, and they all have many other “distracting” characteristics that a child must be able to ignore using just the right amount of abstract thinking.

When your daughter learns to distinguish between basic colors or to identify shapes, what is seemingly a very simple and repetitive play is actually laying the bases for a vast array of skills, including vocabulary, attention, memory, integration of information, conceptual reasoning and abstract thinking.

Researchers like Alfredo Pereira, from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, have suggested that as kids approach 3 years of age their recognition and classification skills change from being centered in a few very distinctive parts of and object, into taking it as a whole. That means that, at 22 months, a kid might classify a horse-toy with wheels instead of hooves as being a car, but at 28 months, that same kid would very likely identify the toy as being a horse. For lots of ideas on how to help your daughter’s shape and color skills, check out Kinedu’s activities catalog under the skill “Learning about shapes and colors”.

Developing visual recognition: shapes and colors

Humans rely greatly on the information obtained through the eyes. Neuropsychologists call this process “visual object recognition”, and is such a complex mechanism that it likely depends on a multitude of other cognitive processes, like language, attention, memory, conceptual reasoning, etc. So it’s by no means a small feat.

Between 2 and 3 years of age, children start learning the names of common objects, and around this same developmental time they start generalizing new objects by their most prominent and already-understood characteristics: shape or color. Each time your kid identifies the moon, a ball and an apple as a circle, he is using the knowledge about already known circular-shaped objects, abstracting the common characteristic of that shape, and using that to recognize and further learn about an object.

Lisa Gershkoff-Stowe, a published researcher of the University of Indiana, has observed that the more nouns are known by a child, the more attention he or she will put into noticing the shape of new objects and identifying them by it. In an article published in 2004 in the journal Child Development, she suggests from her findings that children’s attention to shape increases the most between 18 and 30 months of age, and it usually emerges when they have between 50 and 150 object names in their vocabulary.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control guidelines on early childhood development, although your 2 or 3-year-old might not yet be able to correctly pronounce or recall the names of different shapes or particular colors, at about 26 months of age, you’ll start noticing how he is able to point or otherwise identify objects that resemble circles, triangles or squares. As you child’s language skills progresses as well, you can expect him to start naming a couple of colors approaching the 4-years mark.

The early memory and attention skills are related to later academic skills

In 2005, psychologists Debora Stipeck and Rachel Valentino from Stanford University looked into the relationship between memory and attention skills in early childhood, and whether these skills were related across time to academic skills such as reading and math comprehension. They followed 5,873 American children, starting when they were 3-years old and assessing their cognitive skills and school performance six times until they reached 14 years of age. Interestingly, they found that a child’s memory and attention skills during the first four years of life actually predicted academic achievement once the kid starts formal education, and this relationship lasted well into late adolescence.

Drawing conclusions from their findings, it appears that the relationship between children’s attention and memory skills was stronger during their preschool years, and that it seemed to become less important as time passed. This means that efforts to develop a child’s attention and memory skills are especially beneficial during elementary school, when a kid is first learning to read, write and use abstract and conceptual thinking. However, once the topics get more specialized in high school and college, this relationship fades into the background and the best predictor of success is learning each subject matter. Of course, academic success is a very complex topic and can’t be pinpointed to just one or two factors, but this research sheds a light on how the first four years of cognitive development become very handy once a kid starts navigating kindergarten or other school settings.

Some of the most important challenges your daughter will face when she starts school is being able to focus on the teacher, ignore distractions in order to complete activities and inhibit impulses or behaviors that might be sidetracking for the task at hand. Knowing this, you can give your little one the upper hand right now, even if schools seems still far in the horizon, by stimulating her with activities created specifically to help boost her attention and memory skills.

My preschooler’s working memory

Working memory, as the name suggests, refers to the cognitive skill that allows us to hold information in our minds during the time that it takes us to work on a mental task. Because of it we are capable of having the information we need close at hand when we put our brain to work on something in the short-term. As you can imagine, our working memory is essential for even the most simple and basic tasks, because without it we would lose track of what we’re doing right in the middle of it. Driving, answering a text message or cooking rice would be impossible if not for our brain’s working memory.

Scientists have had a hard time pinpointing the exact areas of the brain where the working memory might be located. However, they know it involves many parts of the prefrontal cortex, or the part of your brain that’s behind your forehead. Part of the complications researchers encounter when studying working memory is its complexity. Depending on the characteristic of the task at hand, your brain calls on different areas of the brain to help with retaining information, might it be visual, auditory, sensory, etc. Amongst others, neuroscientist Anne Berry from the Jagust Lab at Berkeley University has suggested in her papers that working memory is closely related to a specific person’s attention skills. This link it’s so intuitive that, for practical reasons, most psychologists think of working memory and attention as a package.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, your child’s impressive progress in cognition during his first years of life, including advancements in working memory, will allow your little one to remember and complete tasks that include multiple steps when he is around 3-years of age. This will also mean that around this age you can now engage your kid in games that involve short-term tasks: drawing, read a story together and have him intervene, imagine more complex games of play-pretend, etc. You can think of your child’s working memory as a temporary post-it note on his brain. It allows him to keep something in mind and afterwards decide whether or not this information is important enough to be passed into the long-term memory shelves.

Tips to improve my preschooler’s attention skills

Following the cognitive developmental milestones proposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, here are some practical ideas to help your daughter’s developing attention skills:

• Make the activity fun. Since playing is intrinsically motivating to children, try and incorporate your child’s interest of favorite toys into the task. That way, you can use play activities to foster your child’s attention skills, like recalling a story that features you kid’s favorite characters.
• Don’t expect attention beyond your child’s developmental stage. Kids around 3 and 4 years old have an average of 10-12 minutes attention spans.
• Make sure your daughter has plenty of time to wander and relax doing unstructured activities.
• Decrease background distractions when trying to have your child focus on a task. Even small stimuli like having the TV playing on the background can be very distracting to a young kid.
• Give praise for your child’s efforts and progress.
• Tackle internal distractions like hunger or tiredness. If we find it almost impossible to power-trough a meeting when having hunger pangs, kids are even more sensitive to hunger and sleep cues.
• Avoid overstimulating her.
• Try working together in building with blocks.
• Make it interesting and new. You can encourage your little one to be interested in her surroundings by playing fun games of “I Spy”.
• Have your child help you with simple tasks when cooking or baking.
• Set musical or visual reminders of routines.
• Give her your full attention.

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:

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.