Cognitive and Emotional Development in Children
In 1983, Howard Gardner rocked the education and social science communities with publication of a theory of multiple intelligences in his book, Frames of Mind. Gardner argued that in addition to defining intelligence in terms of a child or adult’s ability to solve problems and use language, other capacities and abilities such as musical, spatial, and bodily kinesthetic skills should be considered. Thus, after a century of believing there was one measure of how smart a person is, an intelligence quotient or IQ, Gardner directed psychologists, parents and educators to the range of cognitive skills a child or adult can use to succeed in any society. He skillfully pointed out that many of our most successful creative geniuses, businesspeople, and athletes underachieved in schools that emphasized traditional language tasks and mathematics to the exclusion of artistic capacities and people skills. In fact, one of Gardner’s original seven intelligences was personal intelligence, which he subdivided into interpersonal intelligence — a person’s ability to understand others’ intentions, motivations and desires — and, intrapersonal intelligence — a person’s ability to understand oneself to effectively regulate one’s life. Gardner emphasized the importance of personal intelligence for succeeding in business and service professions as well as making effective life-course decisions. He stressed the importance of a person’s emotional life in developing a strong intrapersonal intelligence.
Perhaps more important, within the context of recent outbursts of violence in our schools, it seems important to consider how the development of emotional skills in children relates to morality and motivation, and how they can be fostered at home and at school.
Just over ten years after Frames of Mind was published, Antonio Damasio rocked the proverbial “intelligence-measurers’” boat again with his book Descartes’ Error. A neurologist, Damasio proposed that one’s emotional life is a primitive brain function left over from our evolutionary history, not just one facet of one intelligence, but represents the core capacity for all human reason. He arrived at this view after years of studying the behavior of persons who have suffered different types of brain damage. Damasio has continued to develop his theory in his most recent book, The Feeling of What Happens, where he argues further that a key component of one’s emotional life is the development of a sense of self, which in turn, is critical for consciousness. Howard Gardner has also revised his original theory to consider the emotional facets of all intelligences in his more recent book, Intelligence Reframed.
While Gardner’s and Damasio’s books were seminal in redirecting our thinking about intelligence and reason, they were most widely read and discussed in professional communities. In 1998, Daniel Goleman reached a broader audience with publication of his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Having over a decade of groundwork laid by Gardner and Damasio, Goleman successfully argued to over 3 million readers worldwide that traditional education and intelligence testing have ignored a powerful set of emotional and people skills. He described these capacities as regulating one’s own feelings, developing a rich emotional life, understanding others’ emotions, having empathy and compassion for others, and working well with others.
“Just before a child’s second birthday, a remarkable human trait begins to appear, concern about what others think…. Antonio Damasio has termed this self-awareness the autobiographical self.”
Clearly, educators, social scientists, and parents have come to recognize the importance of one’s emotional life in all facets of family, work and community life. To consider the emotional components of all cognition logically follows. But, if we are to add emotional skill development to traditional education goals we must understand the natural developmental progression of emotion and look at the feasibility of adding one more set of responsibilities to our educators. Perhaps more important, within the context of recent outbursts of violence in our schools, it seems important to consider how the development of emotional skills in children relates to morality and motivation, and how they can be fostered at home and at school.
Newborn — Attention To Movement And Contour
We are all aware that a baby’s first experience is emotional — the birth cry. As though it is not enough that a child is abruptly removed from the safe warm environment of the womb, the doctor’s slap ushers it into the reality of a new, less friendly world. For the next few months of life, the infant will have a very small repertoire of responses to the world. The infant cries when hungry or in discomfort, eliminates waste, sleeps when sated and pacified, and, for short periods of time, studies his or her surroundings.
Within a few months the infant will have a much broader set of responses to the environment that we have come to view as the emergence of intelligence. Will the infant’s emotional skills increase as well? Jerome Kagan at Harvard has been studying the emotional development of children for decades and has shown that as the child’s cognitive capacity changes, so does the emotional response.
At birth the infant’s first cognitive task is to attend to objects in the environment so that she can begin to sort her perceptions by familiar and non-familiar. Kagan has found that the newborn infant has a natural perceptual bias toward curved lines, the color red and movement. When an object exhibits all of these features, the infant will be especially attentive. Kagan believes that one reason an infant will attend to his mother’s face for long periods of time is that the features of the face are curved, the face moves, and the lips are red.
Four Months — Attends to Slight Differences
By four months of age the infant’s attention will begin to change because the brain has changed. Now, the infant is interested in things that are just a little different from what he knows. At this age, a face with an eye patch will attract the infant’s attention but not face with the features greatly distorted. This bias towards an interest in things that are a little, but not too much, different is a cognitive trait that will actually persist throughout life. Adults love to see a new movie, read a new book, hear new music, or acquire a new gadget as long as the content or use is reasonably familiar. If the content is too far removed from what is already known or familiar, the item will be rejected. How many of us remember our parents’ first reaction to Elvis Presley, heavy metal, or rap music (depending on our age.) Mozart’s music was at first rejected for the same reasons and Christopher Columbus’ theory that the world was round was ridiculed. At the same time, if the content is too familiar the infant (or adult) will quickly lose interest.
In addition to an infant’s brain showing perceptual biases, the infant also comes into the world with a temperamental bias that affects the way the child responds emotionally to the world. Jerome Kagan has shown that this bias of temperament is largely innate and predisposes the infant toward responding differently to novelty. Although there are a large variety of temperaments in infants, many can be roughly divided into High Reactive children (those who are very sensitive to novelty — they stop, they cry) and Low Reactive (those for whom novelty does not affect their behavior). High Reactive infants are biased to become shy, timid, quiet and fearful children while Low Reactive infants are biased to become sociable and fearless. However, this is only a bias and not a predictor of ultimate personality. By age 10 only 10 to 15% of High Reactive infants are fearful children and the same proportion of Low Reactive infants are ebullient extroverts, the others in each group fall along a continuum of reactivity. However, few if any High Reactive children become ebullient extroverts and few Low Reactive children become shy introverts. Obviously, for 85% of the infants studied, environmental experiences tempered their natural inclination toward fearfulness or acceptance of novelty.
Nine months — Fears Change
By nine months, neuroscientists have found that the frontal lobes of the brain (the regions that, in part, allow for retrieval of the past) have connected with the emotional centers of the brain, the limbic system. With this brain maturation, Jerome Kagan has found the baby can now remember the immediate past. This enables her to know when someone familiar leaves, causing her to cry. The child cries because the limbic system responds with fear to the change that the frontal lobe retrieved. This separation anxiety is common to nine-month-olds is observed around the world. Another fear seen in babies at this age and caused by the same brain mechanisms of recognition and fear of change, is a fear of strangers. Kagan believes that the child is now able to retrieve a set of familiar faces from memory and compare a new face to the familiar set. If the new face does not match the existing set, the child’s amygdala, part of the limbic system, registers anxiety. Anxiety or fear of change persists into adulthood when perceptions in the environment do not match our existing schema. We can recognize the experience in ourselves when we hear an unknown sound in our automobile engine or feel an unusual sensation on an elevator.
Two Years — Infers the Mind of Others
Just before a child’s second birthday, a remarkable human trait begins to appear, concern about what others think. Freud called this trait the Superego. We see the trait emerge around 18 months of age, when a child begins to show the first signs of understanding right and wrong. Jerome Kagan has shown this ability is tied to the brain’s new competence of inferring the mind of the other and believes it is due to the growth of the frontal lobes. He has found three abilities are key to development of the Superego. First, the child wonders, “what will my mother or father think if I soil my clothes, hit my brother, etc.?” Second, the child becomes aware of his intentions, his name, and his degree of enjoyment of an event. Antonio Damasio has termed this self-awareness the autobiographical self. Finally, the child develops language skills that enable her to categorize the world into groups, strata, and opposites. A ball is a toy, toys are objects to play with, food is something you eat but not something you are supposed to play with, even though it is just as interesting to throw as a ball.
“By five or six years of age, the child recognizes that violating the standard did not need to occur and the child is vulnerable to guilt.”
Four years — Relates the Past to the Present
Until a child reaches the age of four the world exists only of the here and now. The child can reconstruct the immediate past well enough to know when a change occurs, but the child cannot integrate the past with the present. If we punish a three-year-old child for an infraction that occurred several hours before, the child would not be able to associate the punishment with the event. By four years, the child can make the connection because he can relate the past event with the consequence in the present. One can see this relationship in the child’s language; at four years of age the child begins to consistently use a full range of verb tenses.
Five to Seven Years — Relates Events to a Broader Context
Have you ever wondered why children around the world begin school or are given responsibilities for chores at five to seven years of age? Dr. Jerome Kagan has found that the reason for this is that the child can now relate a responsibility to his or her social context. He can sit in a classroom, even though it is boring, because he understands it is important to learn. She can pick up her toys even though she does not want to because she knows her mother likes the house to be kept neat. This understanding of relationships of events to larger context enables the child to understand inconsistencies in language; she knows that one cannot be ugly and pretty at the same time, tired and rested, big and small.
This cognitive ability, though very important for developing behavioral guidelines, also has profound influences on the child’s social development. For now, the child is aware of social class and its constraints. The child will identify with his social category, rich or poor, native or alien, smart or stupid. If a child labels himself, he now knows the meaning of those labels. A child who labels himself as “bad” may commit crimes. A child who labels herself as “poor” may give up on school because she believes poverty cannot lead to good jobs or college.
The child at this age is also capable of guilt because he or she is aware that there are standards of conduct, there are behavioral choices, and errors could have been prevented. If a two or three year old breaks a glass, she may be fearful or anxious because of the mistake but she does not realize the action could have been prevented. By five or six years of age, the child recognizes that violating the standard did not need to occur and the child is vulnerable to guilt.
Adolescence — Detects logical inconsistencies
Jean Piaget, the French cognitive psychologist made the discovery that adolescents are able to learn algebra and perform logically because they can detect inconsistencies in logical arguments. If you ask a child to solve a logical problem such as the following:
All bears have six legs.
That animal is a bear.
Does that animal have six legs?
The adolescent says, “yes.” The seven-year-old child will respond, “bears don’t have six legs.” The child at seven is bound by concrete interpretations of fact and cannot go beyond his experience to develop hypothetical arguments. The adolescent can perform logical operations on hypothetical arguments.
“By showing tolerance for a variety of cultures, religious beliefs, and family-living styles, children may participate in a learning environment where they are not forced to consider themselves or others in oppositional terms. Such an environment may also foster development of compassion and empathy.”
According to Dr. Kagan, the adolescent’s ability to recognize logical inconsistencies poses new problems for his social and emotional development, however. He can no longer accept doctrines that are internally inconsistent and will ask questions such as, ” If God is all loving, how could God let some people suffer from horrible illness or starvation?” The adolescent no longer accepts unconditionally that his or her parents are without fault. When the teenager observes a parent doing something that is inconsistent with his concept of “good,” such as substance abuse, swearing, violence toward the spouse, dishonesty, these behaviors will now be viewed as internally inconsistent, hypocritical, and cause negative emotions like anger or anxiety.
The adolescent has also reached a cognitive level where he or she is aware when all possible solutions have been exhausted. This makes the child vulnerable to depression and suicidal thoughts caused by a sense of hopelessness. Finally, the adolescent has the cognitive ability to detect the logical inconsistency between thought and reality, which can lead to guilt for inappropriate feelings or desires. An adolescent, who hopes a friend will fail a test or lose a competition because of jealousy, will now feel guilt for those feelings. Dr. Jerome Kagan feels that the strong emotional fluctuations we see in adolescents are due in part to the new emergence of the cognitive ability to see the logical inconsistencies in the words and deeds of others.
Can Emotional Skills be Taught?
It is helpful to know the natural maturation of emotional and reasoning skills in the children we teach and parent. It is also useful to know the age milestones of emotional development so that we can identify children who are at risk for anxiety disorders because of environmental factors that impinge on a child at different ages. Certainly, understanding that a seven year old might live up to a label of “stupid” simply because he or she has been placed in a special class with other children labeled as learning disabled or developmentally delayed, may help us to be more sensitive to tracking and categorization of children. Knowing that a thirteen-year-old may feel very conflicted about her parents if they have problems with domestic violence or substance abuse may help an educator identify and mollify the causes of anxiety or behavioral problems before they affect the child’s academic performance. But there is a danger, as is true with all knowledge, of looking at the constraints of emotional development and assuming causality. Children from homes where there are potentially unstable emotional influences do not necessarily become anxious or fearful.
For parents, the message from the research seems to point to the importance of modeling effective use of emotional skills in problem solving and coping with life’s inevitable struggles. Learning to accept change calmly and embrace new ideas and resources is an important strain in the research and seems particularly relevant in today’s rapidly changing technological world. Parents and teachers can model the acceptance of change by showing tolerance for new ideas and scientific advances. Schools can minimize the anxiety associated with technological advances by making computers and the Internet available to all children and familiarizing their students with effective use. By showing tolerance for a variety of cultures, religious beliefs, and family-living styles, children may participate in a learning environment where they are not forced to consider themselves or others in oppositional terms. Such an environment may also foster development of compassion and empathy.
Most psychologists advocate talking freely about adult emotions as a way children can become comfortable with their own emotional conflicts. Making children aware of the range of solutions available to solve problems, including an option of counseling through an adult friend, professional, church or social agency, may help adolescents cope with feelings of helplessness. Finally, when the adults in a child’s world try to live up to their own beliefs and expressed values, they minimize the logical inconsistencies adolescents perceive as hypocritical. This may decrease some of the conflicting emotions that plague teenagers.
Experts like Howard Gardner, Jerome Kagan, and Antonio Damasio agree that genetic and biological influences are not predictors of ultimate personality traits or behavioral patterns. Fortunately, the brain is plastic and malleable through experience. All children seem to be born with the potential to develop a rich and balanced emotional life if placed in an environment that cultivates emotional as well as intellectual growth. For many children from troubling or emotionally unstable homes, school can offer a haven of fairly administered structure and emotional support. It is open to question, however, whether education can or should focus on emotional development per se. Perhaps the best lesson to be gleaned from our increased knowledge and understanding of emotional development, is that environments that are safe, fostering, and avoid potentially negative labels, will create the best climate for both social and cognitive growth.
Martha Burns is a certified speech-language pathologist on staff of Evanston-Northwestern University Hospital and on faculty at Northwestern University department of communication sciences and disorders. She has published widely on neurological foundations of language and reading disorders.