Understand Each Age and Stage

Recognize and Support Your Child's Developmental Changes

Children move through a predictable set of developmental stages physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. “Along the way, any of these areas can be ahead of or behind the others in their timing, then switch, which can be confusing for parents,” says Vivian Seltzer, PhD, professor of human development and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. 

“Knowing where your child is developmentally can help you understand and support him,” Seltzer notes. Use this guide to help your child make the most of every age and stage from Kindergarten through high school.

Elementary school: Milestone mania

What’s happening? In elementary school, kids make major strides. They transition to a classroom routine, learn how to read, and then read to learn in multiple subjects. In grades 4 and 5, they move from concrete to abstract thinking. Also by grade 5, kids begin to set goals, work independently, function better in groups, make more complex decisions and better organize their schoolwork.

Prescription for success

Extend learning beyond school. Reinforce what your child is learning in school with activities at home. Let your second grader count change at the grocery checkout. Visit museums and zoos to see exhibits that coincide with school subjects. These trips “reinforce curiosity, send the subtle message that school is important and show your child that school and home are connected,” says Rebecca Branstetter, an educational and clinical psychologist. 

Develop a homework habit. Establish a routine that fits your child’s personality. Some kids like to tackle homework right after school. Others need to burn off steam by playing for an hour first. Begin each homework session by asking your child to explain what he’s supposed to do; then gauge if he can do it alone or needs your help. 

Middle School: Hormone havoc

What’s happening? From grades 6 to 8, kids start to go through puberty, which can make them feel like they’re not in control of their bodies. “It’s a complicated time physically, socially and emotionally,” says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute. They’re also developing a sense of self. Cliques can provide a safe haven as kids try to figure themselves out.

Prescription for success

Expect turmoil. Mood swings are a normal part of this developmental phase. Be supportive, but don’t minimize a problem or try to fix it. “Middle schoolers don’t want you to solve anything,” Panaccione advises. 

Don’t be too concerned with ‘the wrong crowd.’ “As kids develop and decide who they want to be, they need to decide who they don’t want to be,” says Seltzer. “Don’t butt in unless you think their friends are dangerous.” 

Empathize academically. In middle school, the workload gets more difficult because kids have to meet the demands of several teachers. “It’s a big challenge. The best thing you can do is allow your child to vent,” Panaccione says. Keep the lines of communication open so your child will feel comfortable talking to you about bigger problems later.

See page 2 for tips on your high-school child's developmental changes.


High School: The who-am-I? years

What’s happening? In high school, teens forge their identities academically, socially, morally, sexually and spiritually, while trying to figure out who they are apart from you. 

Prescription for success

Keep talking. Allow your child to question your opinions and express himself. Ask questions such as, “Oh,why do you think so?” rather than lecturing or yelling. 

Note dramatic changes. It’s normal for high schoolers to be moody, but if your teen shows a drastic change in personality, a significant drop in grades or a dramatic shift in appearance, talk to her. Say something like, “I’m concerned that you’re spending time in bed when you used to be out with your friends.” Then listen to her. If the behaviors are a sign of rebellion, be open to discussion. If you’re concerned your child may suffer from depression or another mental health disorder, seek professional help. 

Help with college pressure. By junior year, college pressure hits. Start talking college only if your child is ready to. “Some kids are focused. But most have no idea what they want to do or major in,” Panaccione says. Listen to your child’s wishes for college, rather than pushing your agenda. 

Sandra Gordon is an award-winning freelance writer.

Categories: Elementary Age, Elementary Education, Secondary Education, Tweens & Teens