Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
The importance of middle childhood, as a developmental period, was not always recognized by scholars. The grand theorists Freud and Piaget saw middle childhood as a plateau in development, a time when children consolidated the gains they made during the rapid growth of the preschool period, and when they prepared for the dramatic changes of adolescence. Erik Erikson, however, who proposed the "eight stages of man" depicted in Table 1, stressed the importance of middle childhood as a time when children move from home into wider social contexts that strongly influence their development.2 Erikson viewed the years between 7 and 11 as the time when children should develop what he called "sense of industry" and learn to cooperate with their peers and adults. The involvement in formal schooling and organized activities that begins during these years, introduces children to new social roles in which they earn social status by their competence and performance.3 Children who do not master the skills required in these new settings are likely to develop what Erikson called a "sense of inferiority," which can lead, in turn, to long-lasting intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal consequences.
Researchers have corroborated Erikson's notion that feelings of competence and personal esteem are of central importance for a child's well-being.4,5 For instance, children who do not see themselves as competent in academic, social, or other domains (such as athletics, music, drama, or scouting) during their elementary school years report depression and social isolation more often than their peers,6 as well as anger and aggression.7 Frequent feelings of frustration and incompetence early in a child's school career may coalesce into a negative pattern of adaptation toward schooling. Compared to children who feel competent, those who experience early learning difficulties in school are at increased risk for short-term and long-term behavioral, academic, and psychiatric difficulties. They are likely to be retained in grade and to drop out before completing high school.8-12 Children's experiences of success or frustration when they participate in organized activities outside school can also play a crucial role in development, as they either exacerbate or compensate for children's experiences in school. Successful experiences in a wide range of settings can help to give a child a healthy, positive view of his or her competence, and a positive attitude toward learning and engagement in life's activities and challenges. Bearing in mind how important successful experiences can be to children of these ages may help the leaders and staff of out-of-school programs to maximize the benefits their programs provide.
Three key forces combine to influence children's self-confidence and engagement in tasks and activities during the middle-childhood years: (1) cognitive changes that heighten children's ability to reflect on their own successes and failures; (2) a broadening of children's worlds to encompass peers, adults, and activities outside the family; and (3) exposure to social comparison and competition in school classrooms and peer groups. Middle childhood gives children the opportunity to develop competencies and interests in a wide array of domains. For most children this is a positive period of growth: With the right kinds of experiences, they develop a healthy sense of industry and a confidence that they can master and control their worlds.Development Changes in Middle Childhood
A crucial shift in children's cognitive skills occurs at around age six. Although the cognitive changes that occur during infancy and the preschool years are dramatic (as children learn their native language, for instance), almost all theories of development point to age six as the time when children begin to actually "reason" in the commonsense meaning of the word. All cultures that provide formal schooling for their children begin it between ages five and seven.13 Although the origin of the change is not well understood, there is a broad consensus that children develop key thinking or conceptual skills during this transition period, which are then refined and consolidated throughout the middle-childhood years.
Middle childhood is marked by several types of advances in learning and understanding. During this period, in school and wherever they spend time, children acquire the fundamental skills considered to be important by their culture, such as reading and arithmetic. Skills of self-awareness also develop dramatically in middle childhood. For instance, children develop a notion of how one goes about learning, and they discover that strategies such as studying and practicing can improve learning and performance. They become more able to retrieve information and use it to solve new problems or cope with new situations. Both of these skills require the ability to reflect on what one is doing and what one wants to accomplish, and that ability increases dramatically during middle childhood. Children begin to plan consciously, coordinate actions, evaluate their progress, and modify their plans and strategies based on reflection and evaluation.
Finally, alongside their increasing ability to reflect on themselves, children also develop the ability to take the perspective of others. They come to understand that others have a different point of view and different knowledge than they have, and they come to understand that these differences have consequences for their interactions with other people. Through their growing understanding of other people's behavior and through their grasp of written materials, children take in information that builds their knowledge base and stretches their reasoning capacities. The basic mental capacity for all of these skills is in place at a very young age, but it is during middle childhood that these abilities become salient and conscious.14Changes in Social Surroundings
The cognitive changes just described give children an expanded view of their social world and of themselves, providing the foundation for important social and emotional changes that also begin in these years. Along with their broadened exposure to adults and peers outside the family, children of these ages are typically given more freedom, more responsibilities, and more rights. This period is therefore marked by tensions between the new autonomy and the increasing expectations children encounter, which can either support or hamper the development of self-confidence.
Broadening Social Worlds
In the middle-childhood years, children spend less time under the supervision of their parents and come increasingly under the influence of teachers and activity leaders such as Sunday school teachers, coaches of Little League sports, instructors of dance or ballet, music teachers, camp counselors, scout leaders, and directors of various classes at youth organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA. In contrast with the intimacy and familiarity that characterize family relationships, participation in school and formal programs exposes children to different religious and ethnic groups, as well as diverse personal styles. They see adults acting in various social roles, and they see different adults acting in the same role—as teacher or camp counselor, for example. These experiences give children a chance to compare adults with one another and to observe how authority figures judge the behaviors and personalities of their peers.
Increasingly, children spend time with their peers outside the orbit of parental control. Members of peer groups are responsible for managing their own relationships by controlling group dynamics, providing nurturance to each other, and sometimes establishing hierarchies within the group. As children get older, they also seek to contribute to their best friends' happiness, and they become sensitive to what matters to other people.7,15 There is a beginning of a "we" feeling that goes beyond cooperation; children begin to adjust to the needs of others in pursuit of mutual interests. At the same time, of course, children are concerned with winning acceptance from their peers, and they must manage conflicts between the behavior expected of them by adults and the social goals of the peer group. Entering formal organizations such as schools and after-school programs represents a shift for children: In the preschool years, their social roles were defined for them at birth (as a daughter or a brother). In middle childhood, their roles in school, programs, and friendship groups reflect their personal qualities and achievements.3
Schools and Formal Programs
The key social event that divides middle childhood from the preschool period is children's entry into elementary school, an event that coincides for many with participation in other formal organizations and programs outside of the family. As children enter school and join programs, they experience both increased individual freedom and heightened demands that they control their behavior. On the one hand, they are allowed to move about more freely, for instance, to ride bicycles to school and the YMCA, or take the bus alone to and from school or activities. On the other hand, parents, teachers, and other adults put increasing pressure on children to be "good," to show respect for adults, and to cooperate with their peers.16 In school, in particular, children are expected to control themselves, cultivating good "work habits," sitting quietly for long periods of time, and complying with rules and expectations for personal conduct that are set by adults.
Schools and many after-school and summer programs tend to be age-segregated; that is, children of a certain age are grouped together. In such groups, the differences among the children in the group are fairly narrow, especially when contrasted with the differences among family members whose ages vary widely. The homogeneity of the school class or peer group focuses children's attention on individual strengths and liabilities, and on differences in personality or social skill. By heightening children's attention to social comparison, age-segregated programs and classes can undermine children's self-confidence.
This effect is evident in school classrooms. The experiences children have in elementary and middle school, and in organized activities, tend to focus on skills (intellectual, athletic, artistic, etc.) and tend to make a child's success and failure relatively public. The performance of an elementary school student is systematically evaluated against preset standards of excellence, progress, and acceptable style; and children earn status in school depending on their performance. They also experience failure and frustration, especially if they are less skilled than their peers. Growing up in their families, children observe that older individuals are usually more competent and may conclude that they, too, will become more proficient over time. After-school programs that mix children of different ages can create a family-like environment that encourages children to master new skills and try activities even if success is unlikely at first. Competition and social comparison, in their many forms, are key threads of development during the middle-childhood period.The Developing Self-Concept
School achievement and success in other arenas do not take place in a vacuum. The influence of psychological factors such as motivation, self-concept, and readiness to take on challenges has attracted the attention of researchers. Typically, children enter the middle-childhood years very optimistic about their ability to master a wide array of tasks and activities, including their school-work.4 For example, when asked if they will be able to solve a complex puzzle, the vast majority of six-year-olds say yes, even after they just failed to solve a similar puzzle.17,18 When asked how good they are at reading, math, musical instruments, and athletics, most first graders rank themselves near the top of the class, and there is essentially no relation between their own ability ratings and actual performance levels.19,20 By age 10, however, children are typically far less optimistic, and there is a much stronger relation between their self-ratings and their actual performance. Their ability self-concepts and their expectations for success tend to decline over the elementary school years. For school subjects, this decline in self-confidence and motivation continues through adolescence, when it may lead students to avoid certain courses or to withdraw from school altogether.
A number of factors contribute to the drop in confidence during middle childhood. In part, the optimistic comments of kindergarten and first-grade children reflect hoped-for outcomes rather than real expectations.18 Moreover, young children's skills improve quite rapidly, so for them it is not unrealistic to expect to shift from failure to success on any particular task.17 With time, children receive more failure feedback and they become more able to reflect on their performances and compare those with the performances of other children. They learn that current failures are likely to be clues to future performances.
As some children pass through middle childhood, experiencing more frustration and becoming more pessimistic about their abilities, they may shy away from activities in which they are unlikely to succeed at first. This hesitancy to try new things depends, partly, on the meaning children attach to failure. Under usual circumstances in the American culture, children come to conclude that failure is an indication of their incompetence, not a condition that can be modified by learning or practicing.21 If they believe they lack innate ability (especially intellectual, athletic, or artistic ability), children understandably become discouraged and withdraw from the activity or task. By contrast, if children view abilities as subject to incremental improvement, it is plausible that they can become more competent with practice and development. When it is coupled with appropriate help from supportive adults, a belief that ability can be cultivated reduces children's frustration with failure and allows them to maintain high expectations for future success.
Expectations of success help to explain children's willingness to engage in tasks and to strive to succeed, but engagement is also influenced by children's interests and by the belief that a given task is important. Even if people are certain they can do a task, they may not want to engage in it. Both children's interests and their evaluation of specific tasks typically change during middle childhood.22 For instance, during the preschool years, children become more aware of their identity as male or female, and they often take up gender-stereotyped behaviors, attitudes, and interests.23 Studies have also shown that the value children assign to activities such as reading, music, math, or sports drops as they go through this period,4 and their judgments of how useful and important these subjects are also decrease.20 Especially valuable are school activities and courses that provide children with (1) the opportunity to learn without continual social comparison norms, (2) chances to control their own learning, (3) respect for all participants, and (4) strong emotional and social support.Out-of-School Programs in Middle Childhood
Middle childhood is an exciting time of development. Typically, children begin this period with great optimism and enthusiasm for learning their place in their culture. It is often a time of enjoyable and productive relationships between children and adults, because children have acquired skills and knowledge that make them interesting companions to adults. In addition, in this culture adults may see this period as the calm before the storm of adolescence.24 Nonetheless, problems with anxiety, low self-esteem, and withdrawal in the face of challenges begin to emerge during this period as children respond to the new demands placed on them by the complex social institutions (school, programs, peer groups) to which they must adjust.25 These problems can affect the children's lives for a very long time.
Out-of-school programs can play a valuable role in buffering children against some of these problems. Such programs have more autonomy than the schools to design settings that support skill acquisition without emphasizing differences in children's abilities and talents. These programs can allow children to safely explore independence, peer relationships, and leadership. They can provide opportunities for children to form long-lasting relationships with adults outside their families. Programs with these characteristics will not only support healthy, positive development during middle childhood, they will also put in place the kind of safety net needed to support healthy, positive passage through early and middle adolescence.