goldilocks principle and cognitive skillsResearch on cognitive skills gives powerful insight into what we should generally expect from children behaviorally, emotionally and academically at every age. Scientists from University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine Brain Behavior Lab evaluated nearly 10,000 children ages 8 to 21. They began with fMRI scans and then moved to an online assessment to analyze brain development at every age. Their data is fascinating.

What We’ve Known About Cognitive Skills

We’ve know for a long time that childhood is a period of rapid brain development.

It is important that students shouldn’t be coasting and they shouldn’t be stretched too far beyond their comfort zone. In other words, they should be working in a state of “desirable difficulties” according to Dr. Robert A. Bjork.

What’s News About Cognitive Skills from the Brain Behavior Lab

  1. It’s a lot easier to learn when we are younger. Cognitive skills change most from ages 0 to 10. While we can learn at any age, the more students can learn during their primary school years the better. Reading and numeracy are fundamental. The goal is to fully develop these skills early so children have a strong foundation for all future learning.
  2. Breadth of experiences can be more valuable than depth early on. Memory has the sharpest growth in elementary school. While young children might not understand everything they see and hear, the more they experience at a young age the easier it will be to connect memories as they grow. Elementary school might be best spent building a broad foundation of memories and experiences, since the brain might not have yet developed the in-depth complex reasoning skills for deeper learning.
  3. Emphasize social-emotional maturity before high school. We now know that social-emotional skills are far more important to life success than previously recognized (see the World Economic Forum report). Social-emotional skills should be nurtured in elementary school and mostly developed before students reach high school. Unstructured play is one important way to learn these skills, though not the only way.
  4. Coach cognitive flexibility.  Flexible thinking, or the ability to take feedback and adapt in social situations and in school is a key life skill. While we might think of tweens and teens as stubborn and self-absorbed, the science tells us something different. They have near adult capacity to empathize, listen and adapt. While social-emotional skills can’t be taught the same way we teach long division, there’s no doubt that these cognitive skills can be coached and will improve with adult support.
  5. Be patient with “late bloomers”. There’s a lot of variability in maturation of complex reasoning skills. While it’s important that students begin to exercise higher order reasoning skills in middle school, don’t get discouraged if students still have difficulty “connecting the dots” as adolescents. Some students need more time than others. They might just not quite understand it– YET.
  6. It might not all come together by senior year. Attention and other executive functions develop last. In some cases they grow well into early adulthood. The implication? It’s okay to continue to help kids stay organized as long as they are trying their best. If they have trouble focusing, provide a helping hand by reminding them to take breaks or bringing a snack. If they try hard to remember their homework and still forget, it might be okay to bring it to school. Every child and every situation is different, but the research suggests adults might want to give some leeway.




While most children follow these patterns, there is truth to the saying that no two children are alike. If you would like to understand more about an individual child’s skills and maturity you can have them take the same test that the Penn researchers used in their NIH study of 10,000 children. 

Take the Assessment here.