Introduction
Intellectual
Emotional
Physical
Social
Spiritual*

Developing Competence During Elementary School



As children enter and grow through elementary school, their world and their sense of possibilities expand. They are developing the knowledge and skills that help them be competent in many areas of development. Their sense of the world’s possibilities expands—both its opportunities and its dangers. And they are also spending much less time, on average, with their parents than they used to.

Each new experience offers opportunities and challenges for connecting with elementary school age kids. On the one hand, parents may feel like their kids are getting big enough to be much more independent. At the same time, they may also want to protect their kids from the risks they worry about. The balancing act for parents is to “have their back” while also giving them opportunities to discover their own voice, power, and potential.

Intellectual Milestones



What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Children become focused on building their own sense of being competent. They want to learn new things that build their self-confidence during elementary school.
  • They learn to read, and many enjoy reading “chapter books” on their own.
  • Their attention span grows. They ask more complex questions, and they want more detailed answers.
  • They will often take up hobbies or collecting things during these years.
  • Help kids focus on feeling good about getting better at things, not just in comparison to others. Try the “Challenge Growth” activities together.
  • Read together. When children can read themselves, let them read to you. (And even then, they will enjoy being read to.) Talk about books you read.
  • Explore the arts together, from drawing and painting to music and drama. Find what your child really enjoys.
  • Visit parks, museums, cultural and historical sites, libraries, and other interesting places together.
  • When you’re doing errands and activities, count things and read words so they begin to connect these skills to real life.

Emotional Milestones



What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Younger elementary school-age children cannot yet put themselves in other people’s shoes, so they often act self-centered. As they grow, they become more empathetic and see things from other people’s perspectives
  • Sometimes children sulk, pout, and worry. They are still figuring out how to manage their emotions.
  • Children tend to have their feelings easily hurt. They also tend to assume that people who hurt them “did it on purpose.”
  • Help children learn to recognize and describe their own emotions. Pay attention to their body language, behavior, and words. Give them practice in talking about their emotions without correcting them.
  • Work with your kids to help manage their feelings well, not just stuff them inside. This might involve taking a break, writing about them, counting to 10, or practicing deep breathing.
  • Set an example of managing emotions well. When you slip up, model apologizing and making amends.

Physical Milestones



What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Kids develop strong and smooth motor skills, but their coordination and fine motor skills vary considerably. This can affect their writing, how they dress, and how they perform chores and other tasks.
  • Children like (and need) to move. Many become restless and wiggle if they sit for too long, which is why school can be difficult for some children.
  • There are great differences in height, weight, and build among children during these years. These are affected by genetics as well as lifestyle. These differences can lead to socially awkward situations and teasing.
  • Support your child in getting involved in sports or other activities that they enjoy.
  • Limit screen time, balancing it with physical exercise, outdoor play, and other activities.
  • Talk honestly and respectfully with your kids about their changing bodies, their sexuality, and their gender. Help them be comfortable with who they are as they change, even if it’s different from other kids their age.
  • Give children more and more responsibility for their own health habits, including healthy food choices and hygiene.
  • Never make fun of children for being awkward, clumsy, or developing at different rates than others. Use differences to emphasize the importance of respecting everyone.
  • If children have trouble with weight control, talk with your doctor. Childhood obesity can lead to lifelong challenges if not treated.

Social Milestones



What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Elementary school age kids begin to pay more attention to those around them. They compare themselves to others and try to fit in.
  • School-age children get more selective in choosing friends, and they make judgments about other people. At age 6 or 7, kids tend to do best with one friend, but by age 8 or 9 they may have several best friends.
  • Kids may have a keener interest in differences between boys and girls. School-age children often want to play only with friends of the same gender. These dynamics can be challenging for children who are struggling with gender identity.
  • Children become aware of other people’s stereotypes, biases, and rejection due to race, gender, age, weight, and other factors, particularly when they experience the bias. Adults play  an important role in helping them interpret these issues so that they do not internalize negative biases about themselves or others.
  • Talk about friends and friendships, encouraging your child to interact with a wide range of other kids.
  • Support your child in participating in social activities in many different settings with different people from different backgrounds.
  • As they begin to understand or experience biases, children may want to pull back from activities. Reinforcing the importance of positive relations across differences is often more effective than overly negative messages about discrimination and bias at this age. Help children learn to respect themselves and others. Talking with teachers and others about consistent and repeated messages about being respectful of all can help set a positive environment, as children are still very open to learning from adults.

Spiritual Milestones



What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Because elementary school age children are concrete in their thinking, they begin to internalize spiritual concepts and experiences through storytelling, rituals, and activities, such as lighting candles, sharing music, using actions, or holding icons.
  • Elementary school children often ask big questions, such as “If God made everything, who made God?” or “Where do you go when you die?” These questions are normal parts of their developing intellectual capacities.
  • Children may be curious about their friends’ traditions and rituals that are different from your family’s. Conversations with adults about these differences play a big role in how respectful children become regarding religious, spiritual, and cultural differences.
  • Read stories, share music, or create art together that reflects religious or spiritual themes that are important to your family.
  • If you are part of a religious or spiritual community, encourage your child to be involved in the rituals, such as lighting candles or opening sacred texts.
  • Make conversations about spiritual matters a normal part of your conversations. You don’t have to know all the answers; sometimes it’s best to explore ideas together and, perhaps, research questions together.
  • Spend time regularly with other parents and families who share your spiritual beliefs, practices, and priorities. Create opportunities for your child to build friendships with other kids who share your family’s values and traditions.

* Search Institute describes spiritual development as “a constant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey.” It occurs both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. See our international, multi-faith, and multicultural research in this area of human development.

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