|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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:
|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:
|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:
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.
|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:
|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.