School Years

Kathleen M Cain. Encyclopedia of Human Development. Editor: Neil J Salkind. Volume 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006.

The term school years refers to the years in which children of many cultures find themselves undergoing formal education. During the approximate ages of 6 to 11, children around the world spend more time away from direct parental supervision and show increasing independence and ability to take on more mature responsibilities. They also become increasingly engaged with their peers. In most industrialized and many nonindustrialized societies, these changes occur at the same time that children are immersed in a school setting. These years are distinctive from other periods of development because children begin, often in limited ways, to participate directly in the world of adults, and receive deliberate training in the values and important knowledge of this world. However, children in this age group are widely believed not to have the full understanding and expertise held by adults. They also do not typically engage in the romantic or sexual relationships in which adolescents and adults participate.

There are many hallmarks of entry into this period of development, most of which appear across widely differing cultures. Physically, children become larger, stronger, and capable of better balance and coordination, although they have not yet undergone the development of secondary sex characteristics associated with puberty. Cognitively, children in this age group appear better able to think in two ways at the same time. For example, they become more fully capable of considering others’ viewpoints, they consider alternative logical possibilities, and they begin to integrate conflicting ideas in areas as diverse as emotional understanding and reasoning about physical concepts. Children in middle childhood are more consistent in their reasoning and more deliberate in planning their activities than when they were younger. Socially, children in the school years become deeply engaged in the world of peers and begin to form a sense of personal identity that includes their role in the larger world as well as in their own families. Children have more independence from their parents, increasingly regulate their own behavior, and are held to higher standards by their parents than in the preschool years. They also begin to participate more fully in cultural institutions such as schools, religious communities, and social organizations.

In the following paragraphs, major changes that occur in the school years are outlined for the broad areas of physical development, cognitive development, emotional development and self-understanding, and social relationships. These areas are thought to overlap and influence one another in many ways. In each of the areas outlined, connections to other aspects of development at this time period are noted. The overall picture of development in the school years is one in which changes in physical and cognitive competence are mirrored in widespread changes in children’s self-understanding and social relationships.

Physical Development

Many societies recognize that children are starting to leave the preschool years behind when they lose baby teeth. For most children, permanent teeth gradually replace the 20 baby teeth between the ages of 6 and 12. Although the loss of teeth and accompanying “toothless grin” is perhaps the most obvious outward marker of entry into middle childhood, this period is also a time of important skeletal growth. The average child in the United States weighs 45 pounds and is 42 inches tall at age 6. Over the next few years, children grow two to three inches in height and gain about 5 pounds each year. This growth is not as rapid as in early childhood or in adolescence but is still noteworthy. The lower portion of the body grows the most quickly in middle childhood, so that children in the school years often look “leggy” or “lanky” compared with younger children. Children’s bones increase in both length and broadness during this time period. Because the ligaments are not yet firmly attached to the bones, children in this age group are quite flexible compared with both younger children and adults. Skeletal growth is associated with new accomplishments in motor development. In particular, children in middle childhood show marked increases in strength, balance, and coordination. They run faster, jump higher and farther, and become accomplished in skills such as kicking balls, swimming, riding bicycles, and climbing trees. At the outset of the school years, girls tend to be slightly smaller and thinner than boys. Girls, however, enter the adolescent growth spurt about 2 years earlier than boys, so that by age 9 girls typically catch up to boys in height and weight, and by age 10 to 11, they often are taller and look more mature than their male age-mates.

In addition to growth in height and weight, children show important brain growth in middle childhood. In particular, the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, thought to be responsible for consciousness, planning, and impulse control, increase in weight and undergo myelination. Synaptic pruning is a normal process that leads to the death of unused synaptic connections and increased stability of heavily used connections throughout the brain. This process occurs at different rates in different areas of the brain throughout childhood. Synaptic pruning in the frontal cortex is especially prominent during middle childhood. Other areas undergoing major brain development in middle childhood include the parietal lobes (involved in spatial abilities) and the corpus callosum (allowing enhanced communication between the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex). These changes are associated with increased lateralization of brain function.

Patterns of electrical activity in the brain, as measured by electroencephalography (EEG), show an increase in alpha waves (characteristic of periods of alert attention in adulthood) and a decrease in theta waves (characteristic of adult sleep) during middle childhood. Before age 5, there is more theta activity than alpha activity. The two types of activity are approximately equal between ages 5 and 7, and then alpha activity is more common than theta activity from age 7 into adulthood. Moreover, different areas of the brain show increased synchronization of electrical activity during middle childhood, suggesting greater coordination of the various brain parts. This increase in EEG coherence is especially marked between the frontal lobes and other areas of the brain.

Other brain changes in this time period are less fully researched, but there is some evidence that synaptic responding to neurotransmitters becomes more selective in middle childhood. It has been suggested that this more specialized chemical responsiveness of synapses may lead to greater efficiency in school-aged thinking. The adrenal glands release more androgens (male sex hormones) in both sexes beginning at around age 7, which may also affect brain organization in middle childhood. Later increases in androgens for males are known to affect brain organization in adolescence, but the effects of androgens on both sexes in middle childhood are less well understood.

Cognitive Development

Most psychologists believe that the many cognitive changes that occur in middle childhood are intimately connected to and enabled by the brain changes described above. Theorists from different perspectives tend to agree that a hallmark of school-aged thinking is the ability to consider several different, even conflicting, aspects of a situation at the same time. Jean Piaget describes this change as an increase in reversibility, that is, an increase in the ability to carry out mental operations flexibly. This change is the main characteristic of entry into the period of concrete operations, a stage in which children show a marked increase in logical reasoning. Entry into this stage is thought to occur around ages 6 to 8 across the world. (Piaget believes, however, that children in the concrete operational stage are only logical when reasoning about tangible objects or events. According to his theory, children do not have the ability to engage in reversible reasoning about abstract or hypothetical problems until they enter the period of formal operations at about age 11 or 12.)

Piaget’s best-known method for assessing children’s entry into the period of concrete operations is the conservation task. Conservation actually refers to a family of tasks that present children with two equal quantities or qualities, make a change to the outward appearance of one, and require children to recognize that the underlying quantity or quality has not changed despite the change in superficial appearance. For example, the conservation of liquid task is often passed by 7- or 8-year-olds. In this task, the experimenter puts two identical beakers partially filled with liquid (e.g., colored water) on a table in front of the child. The experimenter asks the child if one container has more liquid or if both have the same amount. Both preschoolers and children in middle childhood recognize that the two containers have the same amount of liquid. Next, in full view of the child, the experimenter pours the contents of one beaker into a taller, thinner glass. The other beaker remains unchanged. Now the experimenter repeats the question of whether one container has more liquid or if both have the same amount. Preschoolers answer by referring to only one dimension of the appearance of the liquid in the new container. Typically, they point to the greater height of the liquid and state that there is now more liquid in the new container. School-aged children, however, consider both aspects of the visual appearance of the containers, and state that although the liquid is higher in the new container, it is also narrower. They assert correctly that both containers still have the same amount of liquid.

The increase in reversibility that characterizes concrete operations can be seen in children’s “decentrated” responses, in which they can focus on two competing dimensions of the containers at the same time. They recognize that the greater height of the new container is compensated for by its narrower width. The increase in reversibility is also seen in school-aged children’s recognition that the experimenter could easily pour the liquid in the new container back into the old container, and it would still be the same amount of liquid as before. Piaget argues that this increase in the ability to consider two conflicting pieces of information together results from maturation of thought structures.

Many recent theorists disagree with Piaget’s stage analysis of this shift, arguing that it takes place more gradually than his work suggested. They also report evidence suggesting that the shift reflects changes in a variety of underlying cognitive skills rather than a fundamental reorganization of thought structures. For example, children can sometimes solve conservation tasks correctly as young as 4 years of age when the tasks draw on areas in which they have extensive background knowledge or when the language of the tasks is modified to clarify ambiguities. These findings indicate that even very young children are sometimes capable of more mature thinking. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that children do not typically pass Piaget’s conservation task until they enter the school years. Despite the fact that younger children may have pockets of capability, and may show advanced logic in certain circumstances, they do not show consistent use of reversible logic until they are in middle childhood.

Another important arena in which Piaget notes an increase in reversible thinking is in taking other people’s perspectives. In his three-mountain task, Piaget showed children a three-dimensional model of papier-mâché mountains on a table. He seated each child at one side of the table and asked the child to arrange small cardboard images of the mountains to indicate their appearance to a doll seated on a different side of the table. Piaget found that younger children often arranged the cardboard to show their own view of the mountains rather than the doll’s view. Piaget called this inability to take a different visual perspective egocentrism. School-aged children, however, could accurately identify the doll’s perspective when it contrasted with their own. Piaget noted that similar difficulties with egocentrism appear in preschoolers’ language, in that they often fail to adjust their communication to make it comprehensible to others without the same background information. Concrete operational children, however, typically communicate in ways that account for others’ needs and access to relevant information.

More recent research has pursued a similar question in the study of theory of mind. This term refers to the fact that we never directly see the contents of other people’s minds and, in the absence of direct evidence, must formulate theories about what others think, know, believe, and feel. Most studies agree that children begin to understand other people’s minds as distinct from their own sometime around the age of 3, and solidify this understanding at 4 and 5 years of age. Thus, recent research sees a shift in perspective-taking skills as occurring somewhat earlier than Piaget believed. Whether these skills are just beginning, as Piaget argued, or whether they are firmly in place, researchers agree that a major way in which school-aged children differ from younger children is that they are able to consider other people’s points of view. This cognitive change reflects the larger tendency to consider conflicting aspects of a situation and has numerous implications for children’s functioning in the social world.

Information-processing theorists focus on specific cognitive skills rather than underlying changes in thought structures. They agree that children in the school years show increased logic, consistency, and ability to consider and weigh several pieces of information at once. For example, school-aged children become much more skilled at classifying information, such as categories and subcategories of animals or plants. Children also become more skilled at finding their way through their neighborhoods because they can consider landmarks from several directions and angles at the same time. Information-processing theorists argue that children move from isolated competencies to widespread competencies because of improvements in the ease, speed, and flexibility with which they can deploy specific cognitive skills.

In particular, memory processes improve dramatically in the early school years. The speed with which children can encode new information into memory and retrieve stored information from memory improves, leading to the ability to hold greater numbers of items in working memory—that is, to actively think about more pieces of information at once. Children have a much greater knowledge base with which new information can be interpreted and integrated, leading to improvements in the ability to encode new information. Children also use memory strategies, such as rehearsal and organization of information to be remembered, much more consistently and efficiently in middle childhood. For example, in a classic study conducted by Terrence Keeney, Samuel Cannizzo, and John Flavell, 5- and 10-year-old children were asked to remember sets of seven pictures for periods of 15 seconds. Older children moved their lips while waiting because they repeated, or rehearsed, the lists of items. Younger children rarely showed any evidence of rehearsing the items. Those children who rehearsed remembered more items than those who did not, regardless of the age of the child, and younger children who were taught to use rehearsal did so effectively and improved their performance. This study indicates that younger children are capable of using strategies to improve their memory, but that they rarely do so. In contrast, school-aged children approach memory tasks differently by choosing to engage in strategies that increase their success. Some psychologists have argued that a major part of development in the school years consists of children’s increasing ability to select and use the most efficient strategies to enhance their performance.

Similar findings exist in the area of attention. School-aged children can sustain and direct their attention more skillfully than younger children, so that they deploy attention to various aspects of problems in a systematic fashion rather than having their attention “captured” by random aspects of the task. Children in middle childhood are better at ignoring distractions and choosing what they will pay attention to.

In part due to improvements in memory and attention, children become better able to plan their behaviors or approaches to problems during the school years. They are more likely than younger children to plan their approach to a complex task ahead of time. They can pursue a goal for a longer period of time and meet more subgoals along the way. They can shift means of obtaining the goal along the way, suggesting an ability to consider the goal and the means as separate aspects of a situation.

Overall, a major cognitive development in the school years is metacognition. This is the ability to think about thinking, to reflect on one’s approach to a problem at the same time that one is also trying to solve the problem. In many different arenas, children in the school years show increased awareness of their own thought processes and greater skill at finding ways to focus and improve their thinking.

In the area of language, children undergo similar development in the school years. Their vocabulary improves at a tremendous rate; recent estimates indicate that the typical 6-year-old has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, while the typical 10-year-old has a vocabulary of 40,000 words. Children’s increased ability to appreciate alternative meanings of words leads to their fondness for jokes involving word play, such as knock-knock jokes. Children also show increasing metalinguistic awareness, that is, the ability not only to use language but also to reflect on it.

In most industrialized and many nonindustrialized societies, children spend many hours of middle childhood in school. Children can benefit more from direct instruction at this age than at earlier ages because of their improved memory, attention, and language skills. In recent years, developmentalists have grown increasingly interested in the question of how schooling itself affects children. Most studies indicate that children acquire large amounts of specific knowledge in school; this knowledge is typically that held important in the larger culture. In most countries, the early school curriculum is focused on mathematics and language arts, and it is in these areas that the most dramatic increases in knowledge and skills occur.

Less clear, however, is the answer to the question of how school affects children’s reasoning skills. Some studies have found that children in school, when compared with children from similar backgrounds who do not attend school, show no differences in the ages at which they pass Piagetian tasks. Other studies do show some improvements in reasoning on Piagetian tasks. The current evidence suggests that children in school become more skilled in using memory strategies in particular and metacognitive skills in general, so that overall they approach cognitive tasks more logically and with more planning than children of the same age with little experience in school. Sometimes these skills lead to improved performance on Piagetian tasks. However, the school-related changes seem to affect children’s understanding of cognitive testing itself, rather than raw cognitive capacities. Children in school are more used to being asked questions by an adult who already knows the answer, and have better strategies for figuring out how to answer these questions. They are able to reason about problems apart from the real-life context in which the problem might appear. For example, Terezinha Nunes and colleagues studied children with little school experience who were street vendors in Brazil. The study found that the children were very skilled in solving math problems in the context of real transactions in their places of business. However, when given the identical problems in a classroom setting and without a business context, the same children’s mathematical reasoning was much less advanced. Schooling appears to enhance children’s abilities to marshal their thinking skills to solve abstract problems.

Overall, there are larger effects of school attendance. In most countries, children who attend school later have better access to jobs and higher income than children who do not. In the United States, adult income level is closely associated with years of education. Thus, children who attend school grow up to have more financial resources. They also appear to have better skills in negotiating with health care providers and are more likely to engage in direct teaching with their own children. Thus, some researchers suggest that schooling for children eventually leads them to become parents who are more able or likely to raise their children in ways expected in schooled society.

Children’s entry into school is usually the first time that they are expected to sit still for long periods of time and to engage in sustained cognitive activities. Clearly this arrangement suits some children better than others. It is estimated, for example, that 25% of children have great difficulty learning to read when taught by traditional methods. Children are first likely to be diagnosed with disorders related to learning, such as specific learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, during the school years. Currently, a great deal of educational research is focused on designing alternative classroom styles that allow children to participate more actively in the learning process and provide better learning opportunities for children with different learning skills. There is also a large amount of research on ways to create classrooms that are sensitive to cultural differences in children’s learning styles. Many studies have found national differences in school success; for example, Japanese and Chinese children have been found to outperform children from the United States in mathematics. Current research on schooling asks why these differences appear and how education in countries with less academic achievement in some areas can incorporate the best aspects of education in countries where children achieve more.

Emotional Development and Self-Understanding

Many of the social and emotional changes in children’s lives during the school years are closely related to the cognitive changes described above. In the area of emotions, children become better able to regulate their emotions (consistent with better regulation of thinking skills) and show less overall emotional negativity than in earlier years. Consistent with their greater logic, children’s fears are more likely to be based on realistic (if exaggerated) concerns than on imaginary creatures such as monsters. For example, children in middle childhood report fears for the health of their family members and fears of being victims of violent crimes. When they are harmed, school-aged children are less likely to show anger unless they believe that the person who harmed them intended to do so; this change is related to children’s increasing capacity to consider several pieces of information and specifically to recognize other perspectives. School-aged children are also better able to understand and reconcile conflicting emotions in themselves and others, such as excitement about an impending visit to grandparents that occurs in conjunction with sadness about being separated from one’s parents.

Given children’s increasing abilities to consider several different pieces of information and to reflect on their own thought processes, it is not surprising that children develop a more differentiated and abstract conception of self during the school years. Self-understanding in this age group is likely to involve some analysis of one’s traits and some acceptance of these traits as relatively stable aspects of the self. For example, whereas preschoolers may describe themselves in terms of possessions and activities, school-aged children may describe themselves as “smart,” “shy,” or “good at sports.” As in the area of cognitive development, some psychologists believe that younger children are capable of this more refined self-understanding, but that it is not shown consistently and readily until the school years.

Children are much more likely to engage in social comparison in the school years than they did earlier. Many researchers believe that this change is brought about at least in part by the school setting itself, in which children are explicitly and publicly compared to their classmates on a regular basis. It is also likely that children’s increasing ability to consider conflicting pieces of information enables them to more accurately compare their own skills to those of others. Whereas most 6-year-olds tend to rank themselves near the top of their class, most 10- and 11-year-olds rank their academic skills relative to the rest of the class very similarly to their teachers’ rankings. Children in middle childhood are also increasingly concerned with their peers’ opinions of themselves and begin to define themselves in ways that reflect their roles in school and with their peers.

Self-esteem refers to the way in which individuals evaluate and feel about themselves. In middle childhood, self-esteem is based on a wide array of information. Some factors that affect preschoolers’ self-esteem, such as beliefs about parental approval, continue to be important in the school years. New information also comes into play, however. Social comparison processes in areas of performance that children value, such as academic and athletic skill, affect self-esteem in middle childhood. Children’s beliefs about their peers’ attitudes toward them are also important. Physical attractiveness is also a component of self-esteem in middle childhood, as are children’s beliefs about others’ opinions of their own background, such as whether they think they live in a neighborhood that other children would dislike. Because children are making more realistic appraisals of themselves in relation to others, self-esteem often shows some decline in the early elementary school years. This decline is thought to be a normal part of development and not especially harmful unless it is extreme.

In cultures around the world, adults believe that success in school is a function not only of cognitive intelligence (defined differently in different countries), but also of less tangible factors such as motivation, effort, and confidence. As children enter the world of school, these factors begin to impact their academic performance and their beliefs about themselves that arise from that performance. Several psychologists (e.g., Carol Dweck, Eric Anderman) suggest that children in North America differ in whether they emphasize learning/mastery goals, or improving their skills, versus performance goals, or obtaining high marks and outward judgments of success. Different cultures, schools, classrooms, and tasks are also thought to give greater emphasis to learning or to performance goals. When children are oriented toward performance goals, they are more likely to respond negatively to failure. They interpret failure as a sign that their ability is low, experience negative emotions about themselves and the task, and often perform at less sophisticated levels or withdraw from the task. In contrast, when children are oriented toward mastering skills and improving their ability, they tend to be less disturbed by academic failure. Rather, they view failure as a temporary reflection of inadequate knowledge or strategies. They improve effort and ultimately their performance. Dweck believes that children who favor performance goals have an underlying view of their intelligence as a stable, unchangeable component of themselves, but that children who favor learning goals tend to think of intelligence as malleable and improvable with effort.

These developments in the area of achievement motivation are well documented among children in the United States by age 10 or 11, and there is evidence that similar patterns occur in younger children as well. The complex interplay of cognitive development with emotional and social development can be seen in this example. Children’s ability to compare themselves to others, to think about their own thought processes and others’ judgments of themselves, and to think of their own qualities as stable can have negative consequences for some children during the school years. Children are increasingly able to judge themselves and their abilities harshly and then to behave in ways that will prevent future successes.

Social Development

During the school years, parents are less often involved in direct supervision of their children. Consistent with children’s greater cognitive and physical skills, parents allow children more freedom to spend time out of their sight. Some of this time away from parents is in the care of other adults, such as in school (where, however, only one or two adults are typically responsible for large numbers of children). Children are also increasingly involved in peer clubs (e.g., scouting), athletic teams, and religious organizations that involve both adults and peers from outside the family. Other time is spent with peers away from any adults, often in unsupervised play. Children in many societies bear greater responsibilities for their families, too, whether in doing chores in the home, caring for younger siblings, or contributing economically to their households. In many cases this work takes place without constant monitoring from caregivers.

In the school years, parents are often less overtly affectionate with their children. Parents hold higher standards for their children than in the preschool years, and more frequently criticize children for not meeting those standards. Discipline is less likely to be physical at this age, and more likely to involve loss of privileges. School-aged children in many societies are also more likely than when they were younger to point out inconsistencies in their parents’ decisions and to argue with their parents.

Perhaps because of children’s greater cognitive understanding as well as the reduced opportunity for direct supervision, parents rely more on coregulation strategies than direct supervision for discipline. That is, they count on children to behave in ways the parents would approve even when the parents are not present, and they often use disciplinary tactics involving guilt and/or reasoning, designed to have continued effects on behavior long after the moment of misbehavior is past. Despite their generally greater distance, however, there is ample evidence that parental involvement in children’s lives during the school years is beneficial for children. For example, in the United States, children are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and to be rejected by their peers when their parents do not know where they are or with whom they are playing.

As parents become less directly involved with their children, children in many cultures are immersed in the world of peers. Whereas preschoolers typically prefer to play in dyads, school-aged children often play in groups. Children still become involved in conflicts with their peers at this age, and still most often resolve conflicts by means of coercion. In general, there is a decline in physical aggression toward peers and an increase in prosocial behavior during the school years. Nonaggressive strategies for conflict resolution become more prevalent.

School-aged children continue to engage in fantasy play, as in the preschool years, but this type of play declines during middle childhood. One activity that increases during the school years across the world is playing games with rules. Although younger children play together, the rules are few and change often. Among school-aged children, however, beliefs about rules are shared by large groups of children and the rules are sustained for long periods of time in the course of game play. It is thought that children’s greater perspective-taking skills enable them to set out rules clearly and uphold them for all, and that their more consistent and flexible logic allows them to use the rules for protracted play. Games with rules, not directly supervised by adults, may be occasions for practicing mature relationships and responsibilities.

At this age, children in many cultures segregate themselves by gender, especially when they are not under adult supervision. Although some children in most classrooms report having a handful of cross-gender friendships, most children’s best friends and most frequent playmates are of the same gender. It is estimated that children in the school years initiate play with a member of their own gender five times more often than they do with a member of the opposite gender. Gender grouping is common on school playgrounds and in classrooms when children are allowed to choose their own groups, although it is somewhat less apparent when children play with neighbors near their homes. Children who play with members of the opposite gender on a regular basis tend to be less popular with their peers. Eleanor Maccoby, after a review of many studies, suggested that school-aged girls, who tend to have a more cooperative style of interacting with their peers than do boys, find the rough-and-tumble, coercive interactions of boys extremely unpleasant. Boys tend to ignore girls’ requests and preferences, and girls may actively seek the company of other girls so that they can experience smoother social interactions. Girls also tend to stay closer to adults than do boys, perhaps as a way of gaining protection from boys’ aggressive play. Overall, peer segregation by gender appears to be self-initiated and self-perpetuated.

During the school years, children in industrialized societies differ in the extent to which their peers accept them. Developmental psychologists have identified subgroups of children with different status in their classrooms. “Popular” children are liked by most of their classmates. These children tend to be prosocial, emotionally well regulated, and socially skilled. Although they are rarely aggressive for hostile reasons, they do use aggression occasionally as a means of self-assertion. “Neglected” children make very little impact in their classrooms; rather than being liked or disliked, they are mostly overlooked. These children are not especially sociable or aggressive, but they appear to be of average social competence. “Rejected” children, in contrast, are actively disliked by their classmates. These children fall into several groups. About half of rejected children are aggressive; they tend to be hostile and disruptive in interactions with their peers. A smaller proportion of rejected children are socially withdrawn and timid. These children are not merely shy (as some neglected children may be); rather, they are also immature and show poor emotional regulation. Finally, “controversial” children have a high but mixed profile in their classrooms. They are actively liked by some children and actively disliked by others. They tend to be highly visible and to show both cooperative and hostile behaviors. They are often perceived both as group leaders and as snobs. (Peer acceptance is based on varying criteria across cultures; for example, in China, shyness is associated with peer acceptance during the school years, whereas in North America, shyness is associated with neglected social status.)

Differences in peer status are important in part because of differences in children’s feelings about their social experiences. Many rejected children, especially rejected-withdrawn children, report being lonely on a regular basis. Differences in peer status are also important because they are associated with long-term adjustment. Rejected children are at greater risk for a range of later difficulties, including poor academic performance, school dropout, externalizing symptoms such as aggression and substance abuse, and internalizing symptoms such as depression. Peer relations are an important arena for children’s development, and disruptions in these relations are considered a risk factor in their own right. It is likely, however, that cause and effect relations are complex in this area, and that children who are rejected by their peers may have other factors in addition to poor peer relations per se that contribute to later adjustment problems.

Bullying and victimization are common problems in the school years that tend to decline in adolescence. Some studies report that most children regularly both bully and are victimized. However, about 20% of children engage in extensive bullying, and about 15% of children are frequent victims. Although girls can bully and be victimized, it is more common for males to be bullies as well as to be victimized. Many victims tend to be passive and visibly upset when bullied, and they have few if any defenders in their peer groups. Other victims also engage in aggressive behaviors, and their occasional violent retaliations may make them targets of more bullying in the future. Many studies now suggest that school-implemented programs are effective in reducing bullying and victimization. These programs are actively encouraged in many schools because of the negative long-term consequences of bullying for the perpetrators and especially the victims.

Friendship is a supportive and mutual one-to-one relationship with another child. It is conceptually distinct from more general peer acceptance. Friendships allow children to develop social skills, experience fun and companionship, and establish models of intimate relationships. Regardless of peer status, children who have at least one reciprocated close friendship have a better chance of long-term adjustment than children without close friends. Even rejected children and victimized children with a best friend show fewer adjustment problems than those with no friends. On the other hand, aggressive and rejected children often have friendships of poorer quality than other children, and it is believed that friendships are more beneficial when they provide greater support and acceptance.

Although younger children have friends, children in the school years are increasingly aware of the qualities of positive friendships. They cite trust, kindness, and emotional support as key components of friendship. During the school years, children gradually engage in more intimate conversation and overt self-disclosure with their friends (as opposed to self-disclosure in the context of make-believe play in the preschool years). They become more selective in their friendships. Whereas preschoolers report having many friends, most children have just a few good friends by age nine. Most children’s friends are similar to themselves in social background, personality, peer acceptance, and academic success. Cross-race friendships are common in integrated schools and neighborhoods, but less common in less integrated environments. Friends are typically skilled at resolving conflicts with one another. Children’s improved perspective-taking skills are thought to both contribute to and benefit from the deeper friendships that occur as children go through the school years.

One domain closely related to children’s experiences with both peers and parents is moral development. Parents’ use of coregulation in discipline reflects the belief that children in the school years are beginning to internalize moral values, such that they themselves desire to behave in moral ways even when others are not present to administer consequences. Over the course of the school years, children do in fact show increasing understanding of moral issues and internalization of moral values. They are increasingly likely to consider others’ perspectives and intentions when making moral judgments. For example, Piaget believed that children beginning school are governed by a moral framework in which rules are immutable and punishments for rule breaking are amply justified. By age 11 or 12, however, Piaget thought that children have come to value fairness and egalitarianism, and to see rules as flexible products of social agreement. Kohlberg saw morality in the school years as moving from a concern for one’s own best interests to a concern for meeting mutual interpersonal needs and expectations. The development of prosocial moral reasoning follows a similar trajectory. When asked to reason about hypothetical dilemmas pitting voluntary helping of another person against personal satisfaction (e.g., helping a boy who has hurt his leg vs. continuing on one’s way to a birthday party), school-aged children from widely differing cultures exhibit concern for social approval. Toward the end of this age, children’s reasoning reflects greater empathy and concern for the other person. Children in the school years are also better able to distinguish between moral rules (involving fair and just treatment of the self and others) and rules that reflect social conventions (e.g., styles of clothing, table manners). These advances in moral understanding often express themselves in the realm of peer interactions, but it is also the case that extensive peer interactions in the school years contribute to these advances. Overall, in children’s moral reasoning, the interplay between their increasingly logical and flexible cognitive skills and their expanding social worlds is clearly illustrated.


Physically, children in the school years increase in size, strength, and motor coordination. Their brains continue to develop, especially in the frontal cortex responsible for planning. Their cognitive skills reflect underlying brain changes; children’s thinking in the school years is more efficient, logical, and consistent than when they were younger. Children are also increasingly able to consider different and conflicting pieces of information and to plan and direct their cognitive activities. Children’s emotional development mirrors their increasing ability to consider conflicting information and take others’ perspectives. Children come to have more differentiated and realistic views of the self, as a result of both their new cognitive skills and the new social contexts in which they find themselves. These social contexts include more time with peers and less time with parents, although parents remain important in children’s lives. The world of peers allows school-aged children to use their perspective-taking skills and logic, and peer interactions in turn contribute to children’s abilities to understand other perspectives and to regulate their own behavior. In this phase of development, as in others, the many interconnections between physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development are apparent. In the school years, this interplay prepares children for the more mature responsibilities of adolescence and adulthood.