This section highlights what is known about cognitive development in young children. It begins with key concepts from research viewpoints that have contributed to recent advances in understanding of the developing mind, and then presents the implications of this knowledge for early care and education settings. The following section addresses the learning of specific subjects, with a focus on language and mathematics.
Although syntactic understanding develops for most children through conversation with adults and older children, children also use these rules of syntax to extract meaning from printed words. This becomes an important reading skill after first grade, when text meaning is less likely to be supported with pictures. Construction of sentences with passive voice and other complex, decontextualized word forms are more likely to be found in books and stories than in directive conversations with young children. An experimental study illustrates the role of exposure to syntactic structures in the development of language comprehension (Vasilyeva et al., 2006). Four-year-olds listened to stories in active or passive voice. After listening to ten stories, their understanding of passages containing these syntactic structures was assessed. Although students in both groups understood and could use active voice (similar to routine conversation), those who listened to stories with passive voice scored higher on comprehension of this structure.
Seminal theories and studies of reading describe an inextricable link between language development and reading achievement (e.g., Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley, 1995; Gough and Tunmer, 1986; Hoover and Gough, 1990; Johnston and Kirby, 2006; Joshi and Aaron, 2000; Tunmer and Hoover, 1993; Vellutino et al., 2007). Early oral language competencies predict later literacy (Pearson and Hiebert, 2010). Not only do young children with stronger oral language competencies acquire new language skills faster than students with poorly developed oral language competencies (Dickinson and Porche, 2011), but they also learn key literacy skills faster, such as phonemic awareness and understanding of the alphabetic principle (Cooper et al., 2002). Both of these literacy skills in turn facilitate learning to read in kindergarten and first grade. By preschool and kindergarten listening and speaking abilities have long-term impacts on children's reading and writing abilities in third through fifth grade (Lee, 2011; Nation and Snowling, 1999; Sénéchal et al., 2006).
Vocabulary development (a complex and integrative feature of language that grows continuously) and reading words (a skill that most children master by third or fourth grade) (Ehri, 2005) are reciprocally related, and both reading words accurately and understanding what words mean contribute to reading comprehension (Gough et al., 1996). Because comprehending and learning from text depend largely upon a deep understanding of the language used to communicate the ideas and concepts expressed, oral language skills (i.e., vocabulary, syntax, listening comprehension) are at the core of this relationship between language and reading (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Perfetti, 1985; Perfetti and Hart, 2002). For example, children with larger speaking vocabularies in preschool may have an easier time with phoneme awareness and the alphabetic principle because they can draw on more words to explore the similarities among the sounds they hear in spoken words and the letters that form the words (Metsala and Walley, 1998). Each word a child knows can influence how well she or he understands a sentence that uses that word, which in turn can influence the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to learn new words. A stronger speaking and listening vocabulary provides a deeper and wider field of words students can attempt to match to printed words. Being bogged down by figuring out what a given word means slows the rate of information processing and limits what is learned from a sentence. Thus, differences in early vocabulary can have cascading, cumulative effects (Fernald et al., 2013; Huttenlocher, 1998). The transition from speaking and listening to reading and writing is not a smooth one for many children. Although a well-developed vocabulary can make that transition easier, many children also have difficulty learning the production and meanings of words. Longitudinal studies of reading disability have found that 70 percent of poor readers had a history of language difficulties (Catts et al., 1999).
The oral language and vocabulary children learn through interactions with parents, siblings, and caregivers and through high-quality interactions with educators provide the foundation for later literacy and for learning across all subject areas, as well as for their socioemotional well-being. The language interactions children experience at home and in school influence their developing minds and their understanding of concepts and ideas.
Some students with special needs may have a specific lack of certain executive function competencies (Harris et al., 2005; Jenks et al., 2012; Lyon and Krasnegor, 1996; McLean and Hitch, 1999; Raches and Mazzocco, 2012; Schoemaker et al., 2014; Toll et al., 2010; Zelazo et al., 2002). Most of the research on executive function deficits in relation to disabilities that affect young children has focused on specific disorders, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). An early theory posited that ADHD is a lack of the behavioral inhibition required for proficiency with executive functions such as self-regulation of affect, motivation, and arousal; working memory; and synthesis analysis of internally represented information (Barkley, 1997). Research has found that children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely than children without ADHD to have two or more deficits in executive function (Biederman et al., 2004; cf. Shuai et al., 2011). A meta-analysis of studies of one measure of executive function, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, suggests that the performance of individuals with ADHD is fairly consistently poorer than that of individuals without clinical diagnoses (Romine et al., 2004). In another study, children with ADHD were found not to have learning problems but rather problems in a measure of inhibitory control, which affected arithmetic calculation (as well as written language) (Semrud-Clikeman, 2012). Other evidence suggests that children diagnosed with ADHD may have deficits not in executive processes themselves but in motivation or response to contingencies, that is, the regulation of effort allocation (Huang-Pollock et al., 2012).
These remarkable advances in social understanding are important to children's developing socioemotional skills for interacting with educators and peers. These advances also are fostered by children's classroom experiences. Children learn about how people think and feel from directly observing; asking questions; and conversing about people's mental states with trusted informants, such as parents (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995; Dunn, 2002; Thompson et al., 2003). Similarly, interactions with educators and peers provide young children with apt lessons in mutual understanding and perspective taking, cooperation, conflict management, personality differences and similarities, and emotional understanding in an environment where these skills are developing. This is especially so when educators can use children's experiences as forums for developing social and emotional understanding, such as when they explain why peers are feeling the way they do, suggest strategies for resolving conflict over resources or a point of view, or involve children in collective decision making involving different opinions.
How young children think of themselves as learners, and in particular their self-perceived efficacy in mastering new understanding, is an early developing and continuously important influence on their academic success. Young children become increasingly sensitive to the positive and negative evaluations of their behavior by parents, which serve as the basis for their self-evaluations (Stipek et al., 1992). In one study, mothers who provided positive evaluations, gentle guidance, and corrective feedback during teaching tasks with their 2-year-olds had children who, 1 year later, were more persistent and less likely to avoid difficult challenges. By contrast, mothers who were intrusively controlling of their toddlers had children who, 1 year later, responded with shame when they had difficulty (Kelley et al., 2000). Gunderson and colleagues (2013) found that 14- to 38-month-old children whose parents praised their efforts during unstructured home observations were more likely, as third graders, to believe that abilities are malleable and can be improved.
Social experiences provide emotional security and support that enables learning and can also contribute to the development of language, number skills, problem solving, and other cognitive and learning skills that are foundational for school readiness and academic achievement. Through their interactions with children, adults provide essential stimulation that provides rapidly developing mental processes with catalysts that provoke further learning. Conversely, the lack of these catalysts contributes to learning disparities by the time that children become preschoolers. These processes are well illustrated by considering the growth of language and literacy skills and of mathematical understanding.
A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study linked increasing physical activity and enhancing physical fitness to improved academic performance, and found that this can be facilitated by physical activity built into children's days through physical education, recess, and physical classroom activity (IOM, 2013). Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently highlighted the crucial role of recess as a complement to physical education, suggesting that recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits and is a necessary component of a child's development (AAP Council on School Health, 2013). However, fewer than half of youth meet the current recommendation of at least 60 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per day, and recent years have seen a significant downward trend in the offering of daily physical education in schools at all levels (CDC, 2012; GAO, 2012). Positive support from friends and family encourages children to engage in physical activity, as do physical environments that are conducive to activity. However, the school environment plays an especially important role. The IOM report recommends that schools provide access to a minimum of 60 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per day, including an average of 30 minutes per day in physical education class for students in elementary schools (IOM, 2013). 2b1af7f3a8