Children's complex thinking skills begin forming at age 4 1/2

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 24, 2013 08:50 hrs

Children begin to show signs of higher-level thinking skills as young as age 4 1/2, according to a new research at the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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 showed for the first time that children's executive function has a role in the development 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 reasoning skills in adolescence.

Although important to a child's education, "little is known about the cognitive mechanisms underlying children's development of the capacity to engage in complex forms of reasoning," said lead author of the study, Lindsey Richland, assistant professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

The new research follows the development of complex reasoning in children from before the time they go to school until they are 15.

Richland and her co-author Margaret Burchinal, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied the acquisition of analogical thinking, one form of complex reasoning.

They 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 1/2, 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 1/2 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 years old, 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__?" As 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 (executive function) 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 executive function skills are important contributors to children's analytical reasoning development," Richland said.

The findings were reported in January in the journal Psychological Science. (ANI)

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