Ages & Stages
Parents often worry and wonder if their child is developmentally on track. It can be tempting to compare your child to their siblings, neighbors or friends, but parents should remember to treat each child as an individual. Watch, learn and respond to your child’s specific needs and progress. As they develop, use careful, thoughtful observation to understand your child’s behavior.
In the early school years, children are still learning social skills so they may have trouble with friendships. Kids can quickly go from being best friends to being very upset with each other.
“Some children have a tendency to let arguments or struggles turn into physical incidents,” said Melissa Johnson, PhD, pediatric psychologist with WakeMed Children’s. If this occurs, it is best to talk to your child about other ways to work through differences. Be aware that schools have very little tolerance for physical conflict.
“In most cases parents do not need to get directly involved in friendship woes; however, they do need to listen and help their children think through the situations,” said Dr. Johnson. “Children need to learn to work things out on their own, and things that may seem big to them in the moment can usually get worked out over time.”
If they are feeling left out, talk to them about ways that they can make closer connections with friends. If they get their feelings hurt, talk to them about what made them feel bad and why. Acknowledge their feelings and encourage them not to do the same thing to others.
It is important to keep a watch on possible bullying. If concerned, parents should gather as much information as possible before taking action.
The Early School Years
As young children reach kindergarten, parents should prepare and adjust the family routine to make sure they get what they need outside of school.
Parents need to make sure there is a balance between academics and other activities. There is much debate among experts about how much academic activity should be expected of children ages 5 to 7. “Many children are not quite ready for a lot of paper and pencil work at age 5,” said Melissa Johnson, PhD, pediatric psychologist with WakeMed Children’s. “They’re still developing the ability to sit still and work with fine motor skills.”
Since children already have plenty of structured academic time in their school day, Dr. Johnson emphasizes that parents need to make sure their children get lots of fun, active physical play and cuddly reading time.
School Day Reminders
- School days are much more demanding than life at home.
- The longer days in a classroom can take more emotional energy.
- Challenges for working parents will arise as the timing of school days don’t match up with job schedules.
As children enter the school years, parents need to make sure they get plenty of rest. Although it can be challenging at times for families to stick to a set schedule, it should be a priority as children adjust to being socially and academically engaged for longer periods of time.
“A tired kindergartner is not a happy one,” said Dr. Johnson. “Make sure they get a good night of sleep and a healthy breakfast.”
These are the years when children really become chatterboxes. At times, it can be overwhelming for adults. It’s important to remember that children this age need to be encouraged, listened to and understood. It’s a key time for language development.
Take the time to listen to your children. You never know what you might learn. Set aside 10 minutes or so at various times throughout the day and give undivided attention to them. Let them know when you are listening.
Carving out undistracted time together will make it a lot easier for your child to understand when you need to take care of something else. After listening, explain to them that you need to do some other things for the family such as make dinner, wash dishes or pay the bills.
Laugh a Little
Parents should remember to try not to take things too seriously. From age 5 to 7, kids start to have a lot of fun with verbal humor. “They love jokes, riddles and bathroom talk,” said Dr. Johnson. “They think it is all hilarious, and they are learning the subtleties of language.” She tells parents to expect and laugh at knock-knock jokes – let them enjoy language play.
“If bathroom talk and related giggles get to be too much in public, quietly let them know that it’s not the right time or place,” advises Dr. Johnson. “Remind them later that it’s better to use some funny words only at home.” Explain that there is a time and place to be silly. Help them understand that people in public places, new friends, other grown ups or teachers may not think it’s as funny as they do.
The early school years are a good time to be reinforcing logical consequences. Be clear and specific about expectations and help them begin to understand self-control and how to follow rules. For example, offer to let them pick out their favorite fruit if they are patient and helpful while you are at the grocery store.
AGE 5 TO 6
At this age, children are being asked to do more and more academically, but Dr. Johnson stresses the importance of putting the emphasis on play. “Parents should not add more academic activities to their time outside of school,” said Dr. Johnson. “They really need to just play!”
Focus on Free Play
Children need physical play, pretend play and lots of social play with peers and siblings.
“While some children may get involved with organized sports at an early age, they still need plenty of unstructured time to simply play,” said Dr. Johnson. “They should be allowed to interact freely with other children.”
Five-year-olds are going through a lot of physical changes. They may be learning to ride a bike, tie their shoes or other new challenges. It’s great to watch them figure out new things. Be sure to keep it fun!
- Get outside
- Let them explore
- Expose them to a variety of foods
- Encourage them to tell stories
- Make a fort with cushions
Sounds & Senses
Parents should make sure their children have a variety of sensory experiences. Read, read and read some more. Parents should read with children even if they aren’t reading on their own yet. Don’t make it academic. Keep it joyful with sounds and talk about the pictures.
Dr. Johnson encourages families to make some noise. Use various instruments. Pots, pans, spoons and other household items can be added to the mix for some easy fun. Other good sensory experiences can be part of your family’s everyday tasks. Talk about the smells of what’s cooking, let them pound and roll dough and give them the chance to dig in the garden.
AGE 6 TO 7
As children approach age 7, they start to become more aware of themselves as individuals and think more about things that may come to pass. They may be more self-critical. At the same time, they also tend to be very thoughtful and affectionate at this stage.
Time with Teachers
Many children grow to love time with their teachers. Great relationships with educators in the early years can make a really big difference in how children thrive. “Your child’s teacher will hopefully create an atmosphere where they feel challenged and supported,” said Dr. Johnson.
Worry & Wonder
As children get closer to age 7, they may begin to worry more. They might even worry about getting in trouble. “That’s completely normal at this stage,” said Dr. Johnson. “They are thinking about things more abstractly as they encounter everyday life.” The best things parents can do are to acknowledge their child’s worries and provide support and reassurance as they explore new ways of thinking.
Explore the Arts
“We are fortunate that our community offers lots of opportunities for children to explore the arts in a comfortable way,” said Dr. Johnson.
Take children to places that encourage uninhibited play, create fun story times, explore public art spaces and enjoy discovering new things together. Let them enjoy and experience the arts in a playful way. “Outdoor concerts are a great family outing,” said Dr. Johnson. “Bring a blanket, have fun and let them listen, dance and interact at their leisure.”
Symptoms of Concern
If a child is showing physical symptoms that you believe are the result of stress, make an appointment to see a pediatrician. Watch for repeated complaints of a stomachache, headache or other physical pains. There could be vision, hearing and dietary concerns. If something else is creating stress for your child, your pediatrician will be able to identify possible sources and refer you to experts for help.
Parents should pay close attention to school refusal, nightmares and significant changes in eating habits. Children don’t separate their emotions and physical feelings, so parents are advised to address specific concerns, listen to feedback from teachers and talk to their pediatrician.
Resources for Parents
By the Ages: Behavior & Development of Children Pre-Birth Through Eight by K. Eileen Allen and Lynn R. Marotz