Children's complex thinking skills begin forming before they go to school

January 23, 2013, University of Chicago

New research at the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that children begin to show signs of higher-level thinking skills as young as age 4 ½. Researchers have previously attributed higher-order thinking development to knowledge acquisition and better schooling, but the new longitudinal study shows that other skills, not always connected with knowledge, play a role in the ability of children to reason analytically.

The findings, reported in January in the journal , show for the first time that children's executive function has a role in the of complicated analytical thinking. Executive function includes such complex skills as planning, monitoring, task switching, and controlling attention. High, early executive function skills at school entry are related to higher than average in adolescence.

Growing research suggests that executive function may be trainable through pathways, including preschool curriculum, exercise and training. may be able to help encourage development of executive function by having youngsters help plan activities, learn to stop, think, and then take action, or engage in pretend play, said lead author of the study, Lindsey Richland, assistant professor in comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

Although important to a child's education, "little is known about the underlying children's development of the capacity to engage in complex forms of reasoning," Richland said.

The new research is reported in the paper "Early Executive Function Predicts Reasoning Development" and follows the development of complex reasoning in children from before the time they go to school until they are 15. Richland's co-author is Margaret Burchinal, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The two studied the acquisition of analogical thinking, one form of complex reasoning. "The ability to see relationships and similarities between disparate phenomena is fundamental to analytical and inductive reasoning, and is closely related to measurements of general fluid intelligence," said Richland. Developing complex reasoning ability is particularly fundamental to the innovation and adaptive necessary for a modern workforce, she pointed out.

Richland and Burchinal studied a database of 1,364 children who were part of the Early Child Care and Youth Development study from birth through age 15. The group was fairly evenly divided between boys and girls and included families from a diverse cross-section of ethnic and income backgrounds.

The current study examined tests children took when they were 4 ½, when they were in first grade, third grade, and when they were 15. Because the study was longitudinal, the same children were tested at each interval. Among the tests they took were ones to measure analytical reasoning, executive function, vocabulary knowledge, short-term memory and sustained attention.

Children were tested at 4 ½ on their ability to monitor and control their automatic responses to stimuli. In first grade they worked on a test that judged their ability to move objects in a "Tower of Hanoi" game, in which they had to move disks between pegs in a specific order.

In third grade and at 15 year olds, they were tested on their ability to understand analogies, asked in third grade for instance to complete the question "dog is to puppy as cat is to__?" At 15 year olds, they were asked to complete written tests of analogies.

The study found a strong relationship between high scores among children who, as preschoolers, had strong vocabularies and were good at monitoring and controlling their responses to later ability on tests of understanding analogies.

"Overall, these results show that knowledge is necessary for using thinking skills, as shown by the importance of early vocabulary, but also inhibitory control and skills are important contributors to children's analytical development," Richland said.

Explore further: Early executive function predicts reasoning development

Related Stories

Early executive function predicts reasoning development

December 14, 2012
Although analogical reasoning is a core cognitive skill that distinguishes humans from other animals, its origins are still not well understood. Psychological scientists Lindsey Richland of the University of Chicago and Margaret ...

Early learning about spatial relationships boosts understanding of numbers

June 13, 2012
Children who are skilled in understanding how shapes fit together to make recognizable objects also have an advantage when it comes to learning the number line and solving math problems, research at the University of Chicago ...

Mom's high blood pressure in pregnancy could affect child's IQ in old age

October 3, 2012
New research from the University of Helsinki, Finland, suggests that a mother's high blood pressure during pregnancy may have an effect on her child's thinking skills all the way into old age. The study is published in the ...

How early math lessons change children's brains

June 7, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine have demonstrated that a single year of math lessons is associated with unexpectedly big changes in the brain’s approach to problem solving ...

Recommended for you

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...

Can writing your 'to-do's' help you to doze? Study suggests jotting down tasks can speed the trip to dreamland

January 11, 2018
Writing a "to-do" list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants ...

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Tamper-resistant oxycodone tablets have no impact on overall opioid use

January 11, 2018
The introduction of tamper-resistant opioid tablets does not have an effect on rates of opioid use or harms at a population level, according to a new study led by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW ...

Suicides by drugs in U.S. are undercounted, new study suggests

January 11, 2018
The rate of suicides by drug intoxication in the United States may be vastly underreported and misclassified, according to a new study co-written by Mark Kaplan, professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.