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Why Care About Cognitive and Psychosocial Development?

The second half of the 20th century has given rise to a deeper understanding of human development that continues to be explored - human cognitive and psychosocial development rooted in the works of Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson. From what is known, students entering Kindergarten in the United States (at around age five) are transitioning into a psychosocial crisis of industry versus inferiority in which students wish to receive praise for their increased ability to accomplish tasks and basically avoid any feelings of inferiority. When children are around seven years of age, there is a cognitive transition that a exhibits not only a departure of what is called the preoperational stage but, at the same time, a development of the aptly named concrete operational stage. This cognitive transition is observed as a child's extreme egocentrism observed in games of pretend and non-empathetic reactions to social relationships begin to fade and be replaced with a developing awareness of a more "concrete" cause-and-effect perspective that seeks to understand themselves and the world around them.

During my years as a third-grade teacher, I was able to tap into this idea of cognitive transition and work with my first and second grade colleagues in observing particular behaviors across grade levels. There was a clear need to recognize this idea that the majority of third graders will likely have already begun a critical cognitive transition, if not a year or two prior. From second to third grade, there is such a sudden increase in this cognitive transition that behaviors can be actively observed and hold more introspective discussions with students than only a year or two prior. This transition looks different for each individual student, and occurs at different rates and at different times, but typically involves some rate of departure from the imaginative and pretend-based activities often celebrated in the K-2 grade levels and, throughout this departure, slowly develop a stronger sense of cause-and-effect reasoning in both academic and behavioral development. It is important to note that some students did begin this transition earlier than third grade while some students struggled with this transition into fourth, and a few even into the fifth, grade levels.

Understanding this transition also supports the idea behind systems for behavior incentives in the K-2 grade levels. The rationale behind students' emotional responses is at an extremely basic level at these early elementary grade levels. Because of this, relatively simple systems of incentives for behavior (i.e. Rules, Rewards and Punishments) can have amazing positive effects on student behavior in the classroom as part of a whole school culture. It is reasonable for administrators, teachers, and parents to support the more "pretend"-based world of songs, games, and incentives for behaviors that often include unrealistic or hyperbolic causes and effects that target students' developing control over their emotions. Joy through praise and fear through (reasonable) consequences provide an environment that understands the motivation for basic emotions such as joy, frustration, sadness, fear, and disgust. Cultivating this development of emotional control in the K-2 grade levels can then be utilized to cue and monitor cognitive development as students begin to exhibit an ability to rationalize these systems of incentives for behavior to the point of internalizing the value behind the systems.

As students, one at a time, begin to slowly transition into this more concrete state of reasoning about their experiences, a metaphorical structural formation (i.e. executive functioning through which students' emotional responses begin to be filtered) is constructed through experience and self-reflection. There may be a few students by the end of First Grade (around age 6) and even more students at the end of Second Grade (around age 7) that may be observed showing signs of this development of reason. It is in the Third Grade classroom (around age 8) that nearly all students exhibit signs of this development of reasoning and rationale regarding social behaviors and internalizing personal responsibility. By the end of Fourth Grade, students are now exercising about two full years of experience and reflection, metaphorically building their structure for executive functioning, filtering their emotional responses and defining for themselves their beliefs toward behaviors as right or wrong in various contexts. By the end of Fifth Grade, much of their experiences and rationale for behavior expectations has created such a metaphorical structure for executive functioning that now filters their emotional responses in such ways that core beliefs about themselves and the world around them are independently serving to make sense of new experiences. Cognitive stasis does not last long at this point as students begin the next transition into what is called the Formal Operational stage, beginning around age 11 and lasting throughout adulthood. This cognitive transition/development begins as students exhibit concrete rationale for hypothetical situations as students begin to explore more abstract concepts. These cognitive stages all occur at different times and at different rates for all students beginning around the age they start Kindergarten throughout the Elementary grade levels and into Middle School.

As students cognitively transition through Elementary grade levels and Middle School, things become more complex as you consider the next psychosocial crisis of Identify versus Role Confusion, developing in the ages leading up to and around age 13, in which students wish to receive praise from their peers and define themselves in relation to the social structures being created at school, at home, and in extracurricular activities.

The majority of my third-grade students seemed to embrace the belief systems I put in place as I instilled in my students concepts of self-directed learning. My students, at the end of the year, celebrated their ability to read, discuss, and explain the third grade academic material and decide for themselves how, and with whom, they were going to learn the material they needed to learn at the levels of proficiency expected to be met for each skill. This is a very important realization as I am now teaching fifth grade and realizing that the time between third and fifth grade is critical for instilling and maintaining a belief system that develops in students a world-view not only of their own self, the manner in which their community views them, but also their perspective toward rules, rewards, and punishments within a system of governance and their place within that system. During these upper-Elementary grade levels, students can develop a state of mind that prepares them for the cognitive and psychosocial transitions that await them in their Middle and High School years.

Having also spent years teaching sixth and seventh grade students and recognizing the similarities between Middle School and Elementary grade levels, I have noticed that a psychosocial transition does begin for some fifth grade students in which they begin working through concerns about their place among their peers and begin forming preferences for social structures. The importance of this realization is in recognizing my time as a fifth grade teacher must be focused not only on student academic success but equally in developing coping strategies that support an awareness and ability for self-management in handling emotionally-charged desires for acceptance and social discourse. By front-loading these strategies in fifth grade students that have not yet entered that psychosocial transition, their ability to identify and manage changes in their self, social, and societal awareness may be strengthened. This not only provides them with the tools to work through a developmentally difficult time in their lives but also provide their peers with a support system that may potentially anticipate and prevent personal and social confrontations.

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