Understanding Ages & Stages

You don't need a doctorate in psychology to help children, but a little background on child development will help you build programs and activities that are more effective and appropriate. Understanding a few basic concepts will help build your relationships with the children and set the stage for learning.

For example, working with groups of pre-readers or kids at the early stages of reading (typically ages 3 to 8) requires exposure to specialized teaching methods. The lack of such training often results in children "acting out" in classes when inexperienced instructors try to engage them in activities that do not meet their developmental needs. As children grow older, they become more sophisticated and better able to master more and different learning skills, but that growth is only one aspect of the process of maturing into a complete and capable adult.

Most important, an understanding of child development will help you think about each child's strengths, resources and challenges; the expectations you should have; and how you can help them best.

The Domains of Growth

Kids mature in three domains of growth: cognitive, physical and socio-emotional.

The cognitive domain includes intellectual and academic skills, such as math, language and science; the physical domain involves factors such as dexterity and being comfortable with one's body as it changes and matures; and the socio-emotional domain is the realm of emotions, psychology and social skills.

Traditional educational environments tend to focus almost exclusively on the cognitive domain, paying less attention to the other two, but it's important that your program take a "whole child" approach, incorporating age-appropriate learning in all three domains. For example, if you are doing a project on dance, don't just study it in books or watch a video—get the kids up and moving. For the socio-emotional domain, try having them talk about how they danced in a way that reinforces positive interaction.

One of the many reasons we are advocates for inquiry-based learning is that it is better at incorporating the whole child approach.

Different age groups reach milestones in each domain at different times. Most physical competencies are achieved in the early ages, and most of the basic "hardwiring" of adult logic and thinking skills begin to appear around age 12. Match your skills components accordingly. One particular challenge for youth workers in underserved communities is that children may be lagging in one or more domains. Observe your children with an open mind and see where their specific needs and strengths lie. Also remember that other factors, such as gender, nutrition and home environment, influence the age at which kids master certain skills.

Although it's important to get a complete picture of each child's strengths, challenges and competencies in each domain, avoid thinking in terms of buzz words and pop psychology. Labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Even if kids never hear you say words like "at risk" or "ADD," they'll respond to how you treat them and the expectations you show.

Applying Child Development Concepts

In general, you'll create much more effective programs by grouping kids of the same age range together. Although you sometimes might want to match younger children with older ones for tutoring or mentoring relationships, keeping children of similar ages together will let you focus on common needs and will enable them to interact with each other on the basis of common experiences. Working with children across even modest age ranges can be demanding. Chip Wood, the author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14: A Resource for Parents and Teachers, notes that "the maximum range for even the most talented teachers is about a three-year chronological and two-year grade spread."

How you implement these guidelines will change according to your goals and resources, but consider the following rules of thumb:

    • At ages 5 to 7, skills in all domains are emerging.
    • At ages 6 to 8, kids are beginning to consolidate their growth in all domains. They're still learning fundamental communication, math and problem-solving skills, and their social and community awareness is expanding.
    • At ages 9 to 11, kids are well coordinated in large and fine motor skills and they now have an increased attention span. Their developing self esteem requires positive reinforcement and it is important for them to be part of a group.
    • At ages 12 to 14, kids start looking at art and music more seriously. They are more sophisticated at conceptualization and abstract thinking, and they start making the shift from learning to read to reading to learn.

Here's an exercise to try with other members of your center's staff. Collect a number of children's books and examine them. If they specify a recommended reading age, do you agree? Even if you do, are they right for your kids? What domains of growth does each explore? What developmental themes are addressed? Compare thoughts with your colleagues and see if you get any ideas for how to use some of the books in your sessions.

How you group kids by age will be a key factor in your planning, affecting everything including how you schedule sessions in your center to the activities you choose to pursue in those sessions. Although you always want to offer kids high expectations for achievement in order to build their skills and self-esteem, nothing will be more frustrating or demoralizing than setting goals that are beyond them developmentally.