Early development

Children’s understanding, and their use of memory and learning strategies, is a considerably more complex situation than most of us realize. To get some feeling for this complexity, let’s start by looking at a specific area of knowledge: mathematics.

Children's math understanding

Here’s a math problem:

Pete has 3 apples. Ann also has some apples. Pete and Ann have 9 apples altogether. How many apples does Ann have?

This seems pretty straightforward, right? How about this one:

Pete and Ann have 9 apples altogether. Three of these belong to Pete and the rest belong to Ann. How many apples does Ann have?

The same problem, phrased slightly differently. Would it surprise you to know that this version is more likely to be correctly answered by children than the first version?

Whether or not a child solves a math problem correctly is not simply a matter of whether he or she knows the math — the way the problem is worded plays a crucial part in determining whether the child understands the problem correctly. Slight (and to adult eyes, insignificant) differences in the wording of a problem have a striking effect on whether children can solve it.

Mathematics also provides a clear demonstration of the seemingly somewhat haphazard development in cognitive abilities. It’s not haphazard, of course, but it sometimes appears that way from the adult perspective. In math, understanding different properties of the same concept can take several years. For example, children’s understanding of addition and subtraction is not an all-or-none business; adding as combining is grasped by young children quite early, but it takes some 2 to 3 years at school to grasp the essential invariants of additive relations. Multiplicative relations are even harder, with children up to age 10 or so often having great difficulty with proportion, probability, area and division.

Neurological differences between children and adults

Part of the problems children have with math stems from developmental constraints — their brains simply aren’t ready for some concepts. A recent imaging study of young people (aged 8-19 years) engaged in mental arithmetic, found that on simple two-operand addition or subtraction problems (for which accuracy was comparable across age), older subjects showed greater activation in the left parietal cortex, along the supramarginal gyrus and adjoining anterior intra-parietal sulcus as well as the left lateral occipital temporal cortex. Younger subjects showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex (including the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex), suggesting that they require comparatively more working memory and attentional resources to achieve similar levels of performance, and greater activation of the hippocampus and dorsal basal ganglia, reflecting the greater demands placed on both declarative and procedural memory systems.

In other words, the evidence suggests that the left inferior parietal cortex becomes increasingly specialized for mental arithmetic with practice, and this process is accompanied by a reduced need for memory and attentional resources.

Not just a matter of brain maturation

But this isn't the whole story. As the earlier example indicated, difficulties in understanding some concepts are often caused by the way the concepts are explained. This is why it’s so important to keep re-phrasing problems and ideas until you find one that “clicks”. Other difficulties are caused by the preconceptions the child brings with them — cultural practices, for example, can sometimes help and sometimes hinder learning.

Other domains: neurological differences between children and adults

What's true of mathematics is also true of other learning areas. When we teach children, we do need to consider developmental constraints, but recent studies suggest we may have over-estimated the importance of development.

In an intriguing imaging study, brain activity in children aged 7-10 and adults (average age 25 years) while doing various language tasks was compared. Six sub-regions in the left frontal and the left extrastriate cortex were identified as being significant. Both these areas are known to play a key role in language processing and are believed to undergo substantial development between childhood and adulthood.

Now comes the interesting part. The researchers attempted to determine whether these differences between children and adults were due to brain maturation or simply the result of slower and less accurate performance by children. By using information regarding each individual's performance on various tasks, they ended up with only two of the six sub-regions (one in the frontal cortex, one in the extrastriate cortex) showing differences that were age-related rather than performance-related (with the extrastriate region being more active in children than adults, while the frontal region was active in adults and not in children).

The researchers concluded that, yes, children do appear to use their brains differently than adults when successfully performing identical language tasks; however, although multiple regions appeared to be differentially active when comparing adults and children, many of those differences were due to performance discrepancies, not age-related maturation.

Childhood amnesia

Let's talk about childhood amnesia for a moment. "Childhood amnesia" is a term for what we all know -- we have very few memories of our early years. This is so familiar, you may never have considered why this should be so. But the reason is not in fact obvious. Freud speculated that we repressed those early memories (but Freud was hung up on repression); modern cognitive psychologists have considered immature memory processing skills may be to blame. This is surely true for the first months -- very young babies have extremely limited abilities at remembering anything for long periods of time (months), and research suggests that the dramatic brain maturation that typically occurs between 8 and 12 months is vital for long-term memory.

But an intriguing study (carried out by researchers at my old stomping ground: the University of Otago in New Zealand) has provided evidence that an important stumbling block in our remembrance of our early years is the child's grasp of language. If you don't have the words to describe what has happened, it seems that it is very difficult to encode it as a memory -- or at least, that it is very difficult to retrieve (before you leap on me with examples, let me add that noone is saying that every memory is encoded in words -- this is palpably not true).

This finding is supported by a recent study that found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped 4-year-old children remember mirror image visual patterns.

The role of social interaction in memory development

Another study from my favorite university looked at the role mothers played in developing memory in their young children. The study distinguished between reminiscing (discussing shared experiences) and recounting (discussing unshared experiences). Children 40 months old and 58 months old were studied as they talked about past events with their mothers. It was found that mothers who provided more memory information during reminiscing and requested more memory information during recounting had children who reported more unique information about the events.

In general, parents seldom try to teach memory strategies directly to children, but children do learn strategies by observing and imitating what their parents do and this may in fact be a more effective means of teaching a child rather than by direct instruction.

But parents not only provide models of behavior; they also guide their children's behavior. The way they do this is likely to be influenced by their own beliefs about their children’s mnemonic abilities. If you don't believe your child can possibly remember something, you are unlikely to ask them to make the effort. But when parents ask 2 – 4 year olds to remind them to do something in the future, even 2 year olds remember to remind their parents of promised treats 80% of the time.

By 3 yrs old, children whose mothers typically asked questions about past events performed better on memory tasks than those children whose mothers only questioned them about present events. Observation of mothers as they taught their 4 year olds to sort toys, copy etch-a-sketch designs, and respond to questions regarding hypothetical situations found 3 interaction styles found that related to the child’s performance:

  • imperative-normative, in which mother gave little justification for requests or demands;
  • subjective, in which mother encouraged child to see his own behaviour from another’s point of view;
  • cognitive-rational, in which mother offered logical justifications for requests and demands.

Children whose mothers used the last two styles were more verbal and performed better on cognitive tasks.

A study of kindergarten and elementary school teachers found that children from classes where teachers frequently made strategy suggestions were better able to verbalize aspects of memory training and task performance. Although this made no difference for high achieving children, average and low achievers were more likely to continue using the trained strategy if they had teachers who frequently made strategy suggestions.


What lessons can we learn from all this?

First, we must note that there are indeed developmental constraints on children's capabilities that are rooted in physical changes in the brain. Some of these are simply a matter of time, but others are changes that require appropriate stimulation and training.

Secondly, the importance of language in enabling the child cannot be overestimated.

And thirdly, for children as with older adults, expectations about memory performance can reduce their capabilities. Supportive, directed assistance in developing memory and reasoning strategies can be very effective in helping even very young children.

  • Best, D.L. 1992. The role of social interaction in memory improvement. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag. pp 122-49.
  • Liston, C. & Kagan, J. 2002. Brain development: Memory enhancement in early childhood. Nature, 419, 896-896.
  • Reese, E. & Brown, N. 2000. Reminiscing and recounting in the preschool years. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14 (1), 1-17.
  • Rivera, S.M., Reiss, A.L., Eckert, M.A. & Menon, V. 2005. Developmental Changes in Mental Arithmetic: Evidence for Increased Functional Specialization in the Left Inferior Parietal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 15 (11), 1779-1790.
  • Schlaggar, B.L., Brown, T.T., Lugar, H.M., Visscher, K.M., Miezin, F.M. & Petersen, S.E. 2002. Functional neuroanatomical differences between adults and school-age children in the processing of single words. Science, 296, 1476-9.
  • Vergnaud, G. 1997. The Nature of Mathematical Concepts. In T. Nunes & P. Bryant (Eds.), Learning and Teaching Mathematics: An International Perspectives (pp. 5-28). Eastern Sussex: Psychology Press Ltd.


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