Critical Thinking & Cognitive Behavior for Kids

Along with their physical growth, a child’s mental, or cognitive, growth is a continuous process. Yet parents will often notice large leaps in critical thinking and cognitive behavior abilities at certain stages of childhood. The benefits that come with leaps are enormous, from academic achievement to better social skill. Luckily for most parents, you have a role in helping your child develop her cognitive skills.

You Can’t Give a Five-Year-Old Much Homework

Critical thinking and cognitive behavior skills increase naturally with age. Because of their strong link to the development of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, in particular, develops as your child’s brain develops, and so does your child's ability to think critically and to dedicate more cognitive resources toward life’s problems. In this regard, cognitive resources include attention span and concentration, as well as the ability to self-regulate. As your child grows, his range of cognitive abilities increases, allowing him to engage in behaviors that were impossible earlier, such as discerning the motives of others and spending uninterrupted hours doing his homework.

From Understanding Others to Understanding the Self

Though the development of critical thinking and cognitive behavior is a constant process, psychologists have consistently discerned stages in the process. According to developmental psychologist John Gottman, author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” the first important stage in which children begin to think critically is the development of the theory of mind, which starts in the preschool years 1. At this time, children begin to understand the motivations and thoughts of others, allowing them to integrate the thoughts of others into their own thought processes. Then, starting at around the age of 10, children begin to recognize the brain’s ability to override emotion with logic. This allows for thought such as, “I feel angry and I want to hit someone. But I won’t, because it’s wrong,” which are cognitive behaviors almost impossible in earlier years. This ability of self-regulation only increases through the years and hits its peak after the teen years, when children begin to learn how to make careful decisions and to use logic to plan for their futures.

The Mind Is Key to Academic and Social Success

Children stand much to gain from improved cognitive behavior and critical thinking skills. As a parent, likely you have noticed some children more “mature” than others. In an adult’s mind, “maturity” is often mental maturity, the ability to self-regulate and understand complicated issues. A child who possesses strong cognitive and critical thinking skills will not only have better academic performance but will also be better at controlling her own behavior, which can go a long way in helping her build a social circle. Both IQ, linked to critical thinking, and EQ, linked to self-regulation, are important facets of the mind, and while IQ often predicts academic performance, EQ often predicts success within society, such as at work or in making connections.

How You Play Determines How Your Child’s Brain Grows

Even though cognitive behavior and critical thinking follows a natural, physiological course of development, parents still have a role in pushing children along in this realm. Oddly enough, psychologists who study cognitive development have found that many of the natural behaviors that parents engage in with their children are motivators of cognitive development. For example, mother-child play tends to be mentally engaging. Moms often play puzzles or read books to their children, putting the role of the brain at the forefront. Similarly, father-child play tends to be exciting and emotionally fulfilling. Fathers who play “airplane” with their kids or who take their children out to an exciting outdoor excursion are showing their children how to understand, express and regulate emotions. Parents can consciously engage in such activities to further stimulate their children’s cognitive development.