Preadolescence is a time of dramatic change for children. This period, roughly between ages 10-12, marks the end of childhood and the beginning of puberty. The changes it brings span the range of developmental areas including emotional, intellectual, physiological, and social. In this paper, I will discuss the developmental aspects of preadolescence across the spectrum of developmental areas and some of the implications for these developmental changes on the classroom. I will specifically direct the discussion to the fifth grade school year because that is both the year I intend to teach and the year of maximum preadolescent transition.
In the second of two middle childhood growth spurts, “the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex become the focus of developmental processes (van der Molen & Molenaar, 1994)” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 93). This spurt, occurring between ages 10-12, results in dramatic improvement in logic and planning as well as memory function (Bee & Boyd, p. 93). It is important to note that by this age, a prior growth spurt has taken place, improving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills (Bee & Boyd, p. 93). Likewise, lateralization and corpus callosum growth have already resulted in improved spatial perception and relative right-left orientation (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 98). Myelination and synaptic development continue steadily throughout childhood. In particular, myelination of the association areas completes during this period, giving children increased information processing speed (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 97). In spite of these many advances in preadolescence, the neural growth spurts of adolescence have yet to occur. The improvements in abstract thinking and meta-cognition and the second round of improvements in logic and planning still lie in their future (Bee & Boyd, p. 94).
Girls will, on average, experience a physical growth spurt during this period as well, potentially growing three to six inches in a year (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 100). For most boys, this physical growth will still lie in the future. Many children’s hands and feet will reach full adult size during this time even though the rest of their bodies are still growing (Bee & Boyd, p. 100).
At a hormonal level, both boys and girls will experience continuing increases in their adrenal androgen levels. At around 11 years old, girls will dramatically increase their production of the estrogen estradiol, amongst others (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 106). Likewise, boys around 11 years old will begin producing larger quantities of testosterone (Bee & Boyd, p. 106). While many girls will begin showing the effects of puberty during this period, few boys will. Still, for the vast majority of girls, menarche will remain in the future (Bee & Boyd, p. 108).
Regardless of which cognitive developmental philosophy is examined, children in this age group are reaching the end of a developmental stage. In Freud’s analysis, preadolescents are in the latency stage of their psychosexual development. In this stage, the superego is well developed and children are beginning to develop ego defense mechanisms (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 262). Sexually, preadolescents are in a peaceful time with no sexual fixations and their sexual drives are sublimated into other areas like intellectual pursuits and social interactions (“Latency stage”, 2010). Sexual energy is channeled into “the development of social and communication skills and self-confidence” (About.com, 2010, para. 2). The superego has developed to the point where the child is now capable of “complex feelings like shame, guilt and disgust” (“Latency stage”, 2010, para. 1).
In Erikson’s psychosocial theory, this is the fourth stage: “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Children in this stage “are becoming more aware of themselves as individuals” (“Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development”, 2010). Erikson believed that the child in this phase was “faced with the need to win approval by developing specific competences—learning to read, to do math, and to succeed at other school skills” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 264). Children who “rise to this challenge gain a sense of industry; those that do not feel inferior” (Psychology Glossary, n.d.).
For Piaget, children of this age are in what he calls the concrete operational phase. Children in this phase have access to inductive logic, reasoning from details to general principles. A child in the concrete operational stage is “good at dealing with things he knows or can see and physically manipulate—that is, he is good with concrete, or actual things; he does not do well with mentally manipulating ideas or possibilities” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 165). Children in this stage have a variety of new abilities; seriation, transitivity, classification, decentering, reversibility, conservation, and elimination of egocentrism (“Theory of cognitive development”, 2010).
In keeping with Freud’s idea of latency and the general idea that this is the last period of childhood, preadolescence is the calm before the storm of adolescence. Attachment to parents remains powerful for preadolescent children. There may be fewer stressful situations to trigger attachment behaviors as elementary school progresses in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, the attachment and need for occasional support remains fully in place (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 309). However, in this period, children will begin many of the struggles that will be so tempestuous in the years soon to come. Identity and individuation will begin to cast a shadow.
In addition, some children will physically mature ahead of schedule. In particular, girls who mature early “show consistently more negative body images, such as thinking they are too fat (Sweeting & West, 2002)” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 108). Likewise, behavioral issues normally associated with adolescence can creep into this preadolescent period for early bloomers. Trouble at school or at home or peer groups can occur, as can depression, eating disorders and high-risk behavior (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 108). Nevertheless, preadolescence is generally the last period of relative emotional calm until adulthood.
Fifth graders understand gradations of friendship. They are beginning to consider intimacy as a quality of friendship and have moved far towards exhibiting and expecting loyalty and commitment (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 354). Most are developing fluency in moral discernment and are capable of operating at Kohlberg’s Third Stage of Moral Development, believing what is moral is what pleases other people (Bee & Boyd, p. 351; “Kohlberg’s stages of moral development”, 2010). However, a significant majority alternate between stage three behavior and stage two behavior, doing whatever gets them what they want in the moment (Bee & Boyd, p. 353).
The main relationships remain single sex relationships. However, like all aspects of this period, some adolescent behavior begins to occur. The beginnings of mating behavior can be seen, as can the beginnings of cliquishness (Howe, 1993)
Most preadolescents have developed the cognitive capacity to distinguish ethnicity as an identifying and separating characteristic. One study even shows 10-12 year olds identifying ethnicity from speaking accents alone (Nesdale & Rooney, 1996). Thus, to the extent that multicultural issues exist in a community, those issues will exist for the preadolescents as well.
Implications for the classroom
Preadolescence is a time of vulnerability. According to Freud, the children have developed the ability to feel shame and according to Erikson, this period is about finding competence. At the same time, both the high school-like demands of middle school and the emotional and identity turbulence of adolescence loom. The most important job of a fifth grade teacher is to build the students’ sense of competence while also building their actual competence for the challenges ahead.
Actual competence takes several forms. One is the skills necessary to complete the obligations of middle school. This includes academic and, importantly, organizational skills. Fortunately for both the teacher and the students, the concrete operational stage the students have reached facilitates organized behavior. Another area requiring skill building at this age is the preparation for the emotional and identity-related challenges to come. I like to think that this is where the various arts are essential. There is a great body of literature that can provide guidance and comfort to the children as they grow, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and the assorted works of Shakespeare. Likewise, the history and inspiration of fine art and music can provide a sense of perspective during a period known for its loss of perspective.
At the same time the teacher is challenging the students with a heavy and difficult workload, it is equally essential for the teacher to guide them to success. The tremendous vulnerability of this developmental stage demands that each child be led to areas and outcomes of competence. Reinforcement needs to be positive and setbacks need to be portrayed as surmountable. If the teacher gives each student nothing else during fifth grade, it should be a sense of their own unique capability. Not every student is equally adept at academic pursuits and this quest for competence should not be limited to school work. Ideally, all children leaving fifth grade should have a sense of their own unique competencies.
Preadolescence is part of childhood. The full effects of adolescence are still in the future. At the same time, the shadow of adolescence is increasingly visible as graduation from fifth grade approaches. For these children, across the spectrum of developmental, emotional, social, and physiological literature, a stage of life is coming to an end and a new and very challenging stage awaits. In this way and many others, fifth grade is a very special time. It is also a time of wonderful opportunity for these children and for their teachers. I value the ability and the sweetness of the children of this age. I take as a grave responsibility the opportunity to use this time of relative calm and capability to prepare them for the academic and emotional challenges to come.
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 However, eye tracking skill (also called “smooth pursuit eye tracking”) in preadolescents remains inferior to those of adolescents and adults (Katsanis, 1998).