Achievement Gap & Behavior Problems in Middle Childhood

Week Four: Parenting Middle Childhood
BEHS343: Parenting Today
Instructor: Xiaofang (Bethanie) Wang Lanterman, Ph.D., M.Ed., M.S., LGMFT

Welcome to Week Four of Parenting Today. This week, we turn our attention to parenting children in middle childhood.

Parenting Middle Childhood
Middle Childhood –5/6-12 years – “school aged”

Middle childhood lasts from about 6 to 12 years of age, but the ending of this stage is dictated partially by the start of middle school and by the beginning of puberty, so there is some variability here.

Role of parents across age groups
Promote Physical Development
Promote Intellectual Development
Promote Emotional Development
Promote Autonomy

Remember from last week that the role of parents across age groups is the same throughout childhood.
Parents must promote physical development – remember we talked last week about safety, health, nutrition, and sleep –
and they must promote intellectual development . In infants, intellectual development includes providing proper stimulation for the growth of skills like language.
Parents must also foster emotional development, including continuing to strengthen attachment bonds throughout childhood.
Finally, parents are responsible for promoting autonomy. While autonomy is not much of an issue for infants, by the time children are 2, they begin to see themselves as separate from parents, and from this point on, parents slowly give up more and more power and autonomy to the child. Remember the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise responsible and competent adults. By the time a child reaches adulthood, they should be more or less fully autonomous, though some might argue that children depend on their parents – at least emotionally – throughout life.

Development of 6-12 year olds (School-aged)

Now let’s take a closer look at school aged children from 6 to 12 years of age.

School-aged: 6-12 years
Major tasks for child:
School adaptation
Peer group membership
Close friendships

Parental role:
Open communication
Indirect monitoring

As children work their way through elementary school,
the major tasks for the child change a bit.
They become “really good” at school and settle into a routine and habits based around being students
And as they become more competent, they grow in self-confidence
This is the time when children strongly identify with their peer group
And they begin to form their first truly close friendships. This is when most children can identify a best friend.
Parents during this stage must be able to exhibit certain qualities in order to be effective.
They must encourage open communication with their children and make an effort to know what children are learning in school.
They must show acceptance and encouragement for the growing independence of their children
And supervision becomes a little more indirect, monitoring from a distance rather than closely supervising every move. Here we see children becoming their own people, and while they are still emotionally connected to their parents, they are beginning to make their own decisions out of the parents’ immediate view.


Physical development
No differences in stature between boys and girls
Age 5: average height = 42”, weight 40-45 lbs
Age 10: average height = 52”,weight 75-80 lbs
Good coordination
Gross and fine motor skills reached by age 7
Gross motor skills: bigger movements using large muscles
Fine motor skills: small movements using small muscles

In terms of physical development, as in the preschool years, there are no differences in stature between boys and girls
At the age of 5, average height is 42” and weight is 40-45 pounds.
By the age of 10, average height is 52” – a full 10” taller – and weight nearly doubles to about 75-80 pounds
Children become very coordinated
With gross and fine motor skills being very solid by the age of 7.

Intellectual development
3 new milestones
General reasoning ability – observation of objective properties, beginning of abstract reasoning
Independent ability to organize information
Learn within a structured setting (school) – beginning of evaluated performance

In terms of intellectual development, school aged children achieve 3 important milestones
First, their general reasoning ability improves and they begin to show evidence of abstract reasoning. That is, they can draw conclusions based on facts or information that are not visible or concrete.
Second, the ability to abstract allows children of this age to organize information on their own – they don’t need mom, dad or teacher to provide them with explicit instructions.
Finally, children learn within a structured setting – that is, school. In school, children for maybe the first time begin to have their performance evaluated in the form of tests, assignments, and report cards. Because of this, the intellectual development of children begins to be shaped according to the expectations of a social institution.

Structures daytime hours and evening hours for children and parents
Foundation for later life – higher education, work, income, social skills
Can protect against risk factors in later childhood (drug use, crime)
Can be a place of rejection and low self-esteem

School is a very important factor in childhood development.
It structures the day for children. They get into the routine of going to school in the daytime and spending time with family in the evening.
School is the foundation for later life. How well a child navigates the demands of school dictates whether they can expect to get a college education, it dictates the kinds of jobs and income children can expect to get and it helps to build the social skills children need to function as adults.
The lessons learned in school can help to protect children against risk factors in later childhood. For example, drug education, sex education, civics class and so on all provide valuable information about how personal conduct intersects with societal laws.
School can also be a place where children learn bad habits or form bad associations which set them up for failure. For some, it can be a place of rejection and low self-esteem.

Parts of the school system

We can think of the school system as an intersecting set of systems that all impact the child. This is reminiscent of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of nested social systems. In the figure you see, there are multiple elements that are embedded within a larger community, represented by the dark background. The child is positioned in the center, and his or her success in school depends on a variety of factors, represented by the other circles. Of course, parents play an important role in making sure that children are prepared and present in school. Teachers become a secondary parental figure in the elementary school years. They spend so much time with children that they come to know them very well and can identify potential barriers to success. These teachers are supported by other personnel like school administrators, librarians, technology specialists, and counselors who might be called upon to provide resources that support the child. And finally, the behavior of peers can be influential in a child’s success in school.

Roles of interested parties
Involvement predicts achievement
Calm and positive encouragement
Clear, fair, realistic expectations
Advocates for child when necessary
Teachers are strong attachment figures
Clear, fair, realistic expectations
Provide instructional and emotional support
Identify high risk students

Research on the role of parents during these years suggests that involvement in the home predicts achievement in school. Calm and positive encouragement and setting clear, fair, and realistic expectations with homework, building study skills, or discussing frustrations of the day can help to empower children, but when this is not enough, being an advocate for children when necessary is a parent’s responsibility. For example, when homework demands are constantly unreasonable, parents need to speak up.

Schools have responsibilities for helping children to develop as well.
Primarily this is the responsibility of teachers, who become strong attachment figures for children
Like parents, teachers must set clear, fair, and realistic expectations of children and
Provide instructional and emotional support as needed
Teachers must also be vigilant in identifying students who are at risk for learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and emotional difficulties and work with parents and professionals to develop a plan of action.


Roles of interested parties
Sources of intellectual, social and cultural information
Practice skills
Emotional support
Sometimes negative and traumatic

Peers, as I mentioned earlier, can be highly influential. Most children form close highly bonded friendships with other children. Peers can be sources of intellectual, social and cultural information. They help one another out and practice skills on one another. They also provide emotional support. On the other hand, some children might be scapegoated and bullied, and once this starts, the impact on children can be traumatic and long term. Peer relationships, both positive and negative, can profoundly impact success in school.


State of US Schools
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – triennial assessment
In 2015, United States ranked 38thout of 71 countries in math and 24th in science despite spending $115K per child
In 2015, US was 20th in reading, 19th in science and 31st in math out of 35 OECD member countries
In mathematics, the United States performed below the OECD average and fell significantly from between 2012 and 2015

2015 PISA:

Pew Research Center:
The top ten countries were:
Hong Kong
South Korea
20th in reading
19th in science
31st for Math

As always, I try to move beyond the parent-child dyad and examine the larger picture. In terms of education, you might wonder how we measure up compared to the rest of the world. Certainly, parents in the US ought to be concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving. After all, the US pays about $115,000 per student, one of the highest rates in the world. Unfortunately, this high price tag does not appear to be yielding very good results.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) measures the performance of 15 year olds in 76 economically developed countries every year. In 2015, the US was ranked 28th overall.
The Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA is another global academic performance indicator. The PISA is a triennial survey of 15 year olds. The last one that we have results for was in 2012 – US was 26/34 countries; 17th in reading, 20th in science, and 27th in math.
SES is a major explanatory factor, meaning that there is a significant relationship between socioeconomic status and how children perform on academic measures.

2015 PISA Results -The Top 30 Countries in Each subject: Reading

You might be wondering who did well. Well, this flag is a hint. Can you guess which school system is #1 in the world?
According to the OEDC the answer is Singapore!

Here is the top 30 countries in reading. You can see that the top 5 performing countries are Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Canada, Finland, and Ireland in that order, while U.S. ranked 24th.


2015 PISA Results -The Top 30 Countries in Each subject: Science

In Science, The top 5 performing countries are Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, and Finland in that order, while U.S. ranked 25th.

2015 PISA Results -The Top 30 Countries in Each subject: Math

In math, the top 5 performing countries in math are all from Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Macao (China), Taiwan, and Japan in that order, while U.S. outside of the top 30 list (US: 31st in math out of 35 OECD member countries.)

In summary, the top 5 performing countries are most from Asia. Finland, a country with a very different approach to education, was ranked #4 in reading and #5 in science in 2015.

The poor showing of the United States in education mirrors the poor showing in terms of health care. We are paying a lot of money for both, but not getting great results. Should parents and the nation be concerned? Absolutely. The underperformance of US children impacts the job market, economic development, and national security. And parents who want their children to be upwardly mobile and to do better than the generation that came before may find that a subpar educational system makes this all but (nearly) impossible.

Emotional Development
Identity development
Gender identity
Racial/Ethnic identity
Sexual orientation
Prosocial development
Moral development

We’ve talked about physical and intellectual development of school aged children. Now let’s take a look at emotional development. Freud called this age period the “latent” phase, because on the face of it, it appears that children are not doing anything other than going to school and learning new skills. As it happens, this is a very busy time for emotional development, and it has to do with the fact that children spend a lot of time in social environments. As a result, they inevitably make comparisons between themselves and their peers.
The end result is the consolidation of several forms of identity
This includes self-esteem – which is how people feel about themselves (for example, low self-esteem means that people don’t particularly like themselves) –
and self-concept, which is a collection of beliefs that people hold about who they are
This can include perceptions about gender, or what we call gender identity – am I a boy or a girl?
And racial or ethnic identity which can include ideas about race, national origin and so forth
We’ll talk more about sexual orientation in the adolescent phase, but know that this is yet another form of self-identity that develops in childhood.
Understanding who you are is an important aspect of emotional development. You can imagine that being confused about any of these identities can lead to feelings of uncertainty and isolation.
Another important part of emotional development in children is prosocial development –all this word means is that children need to learn how to get along in socially acceptable ways.
During the school years we also see the development of moral identity and as it happens, children develop morality in predictable ways as we’ll explore in a moment.
Finally, emotional development during this age period requires children to become increasingly self-regulated. They must learn to control themselves in order to be a functioning member of society. So we can see that the school aged years are not just about learning reading, writing and arithmetic, emotional development is tied very closely to how students learn to get along with others. Obviously, parents must play a key role in helping children to understand which customs, traditions, and values to embrace in order to have a healthy sense of self that blends well with the world outside the home.

Linked to two factors:
Feelings of competence where it matters
Physical appearance
Social acceptance
What else?
Amount of social support

Image source:

Self-esteem is linked to 2 factors.
First, self-esteem is about feeling competent in areas that are important to you, so
If you place a lot of stock in your physical appearance and that’s important to you, your self-esteem will hinge on how good you think you look.
If you place a lot of stock in being socially accepted, your self-esteem will hinge on how well others accept or include you.
I’m sure there are other dimensions of self that you can think of that might be important to your self-esteem. Things like intelligence, academic achievement, service, faith, money. The list goes on and on. Basically, anything that makes you feel potentially good or bad about yourself is what we’re talking about here.
The second factor linked to self-esteem is the amount of social support you receive for the qualities that are important to you. So, if your self-esteem hinges on being physically fit, the positive support of others telling you that you look great will boost your self-esteem. On the other hand, if you think you look good, but no one else comments, your self-esteem can take a hit. In the case of children, the approval of adults, particularly parents, is essential in building a strong sense of self and self-worth. If you’ve ever seen babies ham it up (overact) for an audience, you know that they love the attention, but even more, they are looking for approval.

Development of self-identity
Children with high self-esteem like to explore, adapt more easily to frustration
Children with poor self-esteem:
Mothers often more cold and angry
Sensitive to negative feedback
Generalize the negative feedback from mothers to others (e.g. “If mom doesn’t like me, then no one likes me” )

It’s important for parents to build self-esteem in their children. I know some would argue that building self-esteem too much is the same as spoiling, but there is evidence that children with high self-esteem are more likely to explore and adapt more easily to frustration. Both of these qualities lead to children who do well in school.
In contrast, children who have poor self-esteem
tend to have mothers who are more cold and angry in their parenting style.
Perhaps as a result of this, children with low self-esteem are hypersensitive to negative feedback.
And they will generalize any negative feedback from mother to others. So for example, they may tell themselves, if mom doesn’t like me, then no one must like me. Again, another instance of the importance of parents in helping children to develop well.


Development of Self-Identity
Toddlers learn through exploration that they are separate from parents
Preschool children begin to see themselves in dichotomous terms (good-bad, pretty-ugly) that relate to behavior
School aged children view themselves in more general terms (characteristics) rather than their behaviors
More balanced view of abilities
Evaluate their own behavior

If we trace the development of self-identity, we can see that it actually begins in toddlerhood, when toddlers begin to see themselves as separate from their parents. That is, they begin to recognize that they have an independent “self.”
When children enter the preschool years, they see themselves in dichotomous terms, for example, good versus bad, pretty versus ugly. Usually they learn these words from parents and often these terms are linked with behavior. These ideas are simple abstractions, so we shouldn’t be surprised that young children, who have trouble with abstraction – are black and white in their thinking.
By the time children are school aged, they can view themselves in terms of more general characteristics that are separate from behavior.
And they have a more balanced view of their abilities (for example, not good or bad, but somewhere in the middle) and they
Have the ability to evaluate and correct their own behavior.
This is a good time for children to get involved in activities that build skills because they are eager to learn and are mature enough to know how to make improvements. This can include sports, music lessons, art lessons, and so on.

Promoting self-identity
Parents’ Role:
Allow children to make more choices as they grow
Sensitivity and responsivity
Model confidence and flexibility

Image source:

How do parents help to promote self-identity?
Well, remember that parents need to slowly relinquish power over time. Part of this is allowing children to make more choices as they grow. With toddlers, this can include letting children pick out their clothing for the day. If the clothes don’t match, parents can encourage children to change their minds, but if they don’t, it’s ok. Giving a toddler a greater sense of responsibility and empowerment is far more important than whether they match! As kids get older, parents might suggest that they choose an extracurricular activity to pursue. Extracurriculars are a good way for children to learn new skills, persistence, and frustration tolerance. Parents should help to structure the child’s practice and encourage them not to give up.
Of course, parents need to be sensitive and responsive. If it seems like children are involved in activities that are not a good fit, they need to know how to change course without damaging the child’s self-esteem.
The more parents can model confidence and flexibility in the face of challenges, the more likely the child is to adopt those same qualities.

Gender Identity
“an individual’s personal experience of what it means to be a boy or girl, man or woman”
Continues throughout life
Shaped by biology, culture, child-rearing practices, social norms, etc.

Cuddy, Crotty, Chong, & Norton (2010). Men as Cultural Ideals: How Culture Shapes Gender Stereotypes.

Another form of identity that develops in early childhood is that of gender identity,
which is defined as “an individual’s personal experience of what it means to be a boy or girl, man or woman.”
Believe or not, this identity is continually revisited and refined throughout life and
is shaped by several factors including biology, culture, child-rearing practices, and social norms.
For example, three studies have shown how culture shapes the contents of gender stereotypes, such that men are perceived as possessing more of whatever traits are culturally valued. In Study 1, Americans rated men as less interdependent than women; Koreans, however, showed the opposite pattern, rating men as more interdependent than women, deviating from the “universal” gender stereotype of male independence. In Study 2, bi-cultural Korean American participants rated men as less interdependent if they completed a survey in English, but as more interdependent if they completed the survey in Korean, demonstrating how cultural frames influence the contents of gender stereotypes. In Study 3, American college students rated a male student as higher on whichever trait – ambitiousness or sociability – they were told was the most important cultural value at their university, establishing that cultural values causally impact the contents of gender stereotypes. (Cuddy, Crotty, Chong, & Norton, 2010).
Gender roles also change over time. A survey of 3,500 Americans in 2009 found that young men and women alike are challenging traditional gender roles and expecting to share in paid work as well as tending the household and children (Lewis, K, 2018).


Gender Identity
2 years – gender identification occurs
3-5 years – gender is stable across time
5-7 years – gender is consistent (regardless of appearance)

“Gender schema” – an organized set of thoughts and beliefs about what it means to be a boy or a girl, male or female

Gender identification begins at age 2 and becomes stable between 3 and 5 years of age. When gender identity is stable, children know that they identify as a boy or a girl and that this is not going to change. Between 5 and 7 years of age, gender identity becomes consistent, meaning that children recognize that being a girl or boy isn’t altered by changes to appearance, so if a girl cuts her hair and dresses in boy’s clothes, she is still a girl.

Part of developing gender identity is forming a gender schema, an organized set of thoughts and beliefs about what it means to be a boy or a girl, or a male or a female. This schema may include gender stereotypes like the fact that pink means girl and blue means boy, or that boys are strong and tough while girls are delicate and soft. These stereotypes are deeply rooted in our socialization process.


Socializing gender roles
Parents teach children about gender roles:
Model gender behaviors directly
Stimulate gender-stereotyped behaviors in their interactions with children
Often subtle
Mothers more responsive to irritable infant sons, talk more to daughters
Infant boys tossed in the air more than infant girls
Toddler boys given more autonomy than girls 1

Leaper, 2002

How do children learn these gender schema? Through parents, of course!
Parents teach gender roles by modeling gender behaviors directly (mom cooks, dad mows the lawn)
And they stimulate gender stereotyped behaviors through their interactions with their children.
These behaviors can be very subtle. For example,
One study showed that mothers are more responsive to irritable infant sons, but they talk more to infant daughters. I’m sure if you asked these mothers, you’d find that they weren’t even aware of the differences in their behaviors.
Another study showed that when you dress an infant in boy clothes, they are tossed higher in the air than if you dress the same baby in girl clothes. Clearly, there is a belief that girls are more fragile and boys are more tough.
And yet another study showed that when you ask parents about what they allow their toddlers to do, toddler boys are given more autonomy than girls.

Gender differences
No major differences in behaviors until 18 months
2 years
Boys more active, like building things
Girls like arts, crafts, and reading
3 years
Same gender peer groups form
Boys more aggressive and active
Girls more helpful and sometimes fearful

And these differences in parental behavior result in changes in infant behavior that show up around 18 months of age – about the time that children become really mobile
At 2 years of age,
studies have found that boys are more active and like building things, while
Girls are more likely to like art, crafts, and reading – quieter activities
By 3 years,
Boys and girls start to prefer same gender peer groups. You can see this in pre-K and in play groups.
At 3, boys are more aggressive and active than girls, while
Girls are more helpful and sometimes express fear in response to the aggression of boys.


Ethnic identity
“A psychological attachment to a group sharing a common ancestral heritage based on nationality, language, and culture.”

Image source:

Another form of identity that I mentioned is ethnic identity, which is “a psychological attachment to a group sharing a common ancestral heritage based on nationality, language, and culture.” Ethnicity is more salient for some families than others. Children of families that are of different racial and religious backgrounds, or come from a different country of origin (i.e. immigrants) are more likely to develop a salient ethnic identity than children who are born into a mainstream family.

Ethnic identity
Age 3 – recognize ethnic identity if based on easily recognized characteristic (e.g. physical appearance)
Age 5 – recognize ethnic identity if based on less obvious characteristics (e.g. religion)
Age 7 – realize ethnicity is stable

Like gender identity, children develop an ethnic identity early on.
By the age of 3, children can recognize their ethnic identity if the are easily recognized through a physical characteristic. For example, children from a different racial group will notice that they are different from the mainstream group at around 3 years of age.
By the age of 5, children will recognize that they are ethnically different along characteristics that are less obvious. For example, a child born into a Jewish family may not be physically different looking from his mainstream peers, but the child will know by the age of 5 that he is Jewish because of what he learns from his parents.
By the age of 7, children know that their ethnicity is stable and lifelong.


Socializing Ethnic identity
Exposure to customs, rituals, dress and cuisine reinforce pride in ethnicity
Can be the source of shame if child faces negative reaction from peers
Positive identity is achieved through affirmation by parents, relatives, friends

Image source:

How do children know about their ethnicity?
From birth, they are exposed to the customs, rituals, dress and cuisine of their ethnic background. Generally speaking, these reinforce pride in being ethnically different, however,
as children move into the school aged years, ethnicity can also be a source of shame if the child encounters negative reactions from peers. In some cases, children from different ethnic backgrounds can be mocked or bullied for being …

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