Translating Cognitive Science strategies to teach young children

Ever wondered how young children develop their sense of self? How they learn to understand what they read, and express their ideas in writing? How they develop abstract knowledge of mathematical concepts?

Deans For Impact explored these questions and more in their latest publication, The Science of Early Learning, which investigates how young children acquire vital skills such as self-awareness, literacy and numeracy.

So, let’s unpack the key findings of this report and the insights it gives into how children develop control over their own behaviour, learn to read and write proficiently and start to think mathematically.

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What are cognitive strategies for children?

Cognitive strategies are mental processes or techniques used to help acquire, understand and remember information. For young children, these strategies can encompass a range of skills, from developing self-awareness to understanding abstract concepts like numeracy and literacy.

Research shows that these cognitive strategies can significantly impact a child's learning trajectory. They can be categorised into several types, including:

  • Rehearsal – Repeating information to reinforce memory.
  • Elaboration – Making connections between new and existing knowledge.
  • Organisation – Structuring information in a meaningful way.

By consciously incorporating these cognitive strategies into your teaching approach, you can equip your students with the mental tools they need for optimum learning outcomes and performance. This sets the stage for them to become lifelong learners, capable of understanding and mastering new information effectively throughout their educational journey.

How do you teach cognitive skills to children?

Teaching cognitive skills to children might seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. The Science of Early Learning report summarises current Cognitive Science research related to how students develop these skills and suggests ways in which teachers can incorporate this into their classrooms.

Here are the key findings…

How do young children develop a sense of self?

A child's journey of self-discovery is gradual and shaped by secure attachments and emotionally responsive care. Strong relationships play a vital role in nurturing this growth, while disruptions can hinder the child's development. By age two, children begin linking attributes like hair colour and height to their identity, and a robust self-concept instils confidence in children as they navigate their early years.

For teachers, it’s suggested that creating a stable environment, responding to cues, establishing routines and integrating self-reflective practices are crucial. The classroom should also reflect the diverse cultures of the child’s community.

How do young children begin to respect others?

Children develop respect for others by recognising emotions, which aids in emotional regulation and perspective-taking. Their empathy matures over time, fostering positive social behaviours like sharing, and teachers can encourage this by discussing feelings, promoting imaginary play for perspective-taking and using story time to explore characters' viewpoints.

Building a classroom community, reflecting diversity and avoiding inappropriate expectations are crucial. Activities that cultivate empathy, such as caring for living things or creating get-well cards, can further enhance respect for others.

How do young children learn to self-regulate their behaviour?

Self-regulation is vital for children. It involves remembering goals, suppressing impulses and adjusting responses. This skill rapidly develops in early childhood and can be enhanced by imagining what a more skilled person would do.

The report suggests that teachers can support this by maintaining consistency, planning the day with students, helping them envisage scenarios and integrating learning into playful experiences. Long waiting times between activities should be avoided or filled with educational games to help maintain self-regulation.

How do young children develop independence?

To foster independence in children, it's essential to provide choices and opportunities for your students to pursue initiatives. This includes experiences that require effort but are achievable with support. Beliefs about their own intelligence also affect children’s learning approaches.

Teachers can aid this by offering decision making opportunities and allowing for self-correction. Instruction should be brief with room for playful practice. The report suggests avoiding incentives that hinder independence, as well as refraining from assigning expectations based on gender, age, race or culture.

How do young children learn the meaning of the alphabet?

Learning to read and write requires children to understand the alphabet, where each letter represents a spoken sound or phoneme. This isn't a natural process and needs explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Alongside this, children should develop phonemic awareness, recognising individual sounds in words and linking them to letters.

The report suggests teaching should progress from simple to complex graphemes and involve both reading and writing, as well as introduce high-frequency sight words with complex spelling patterns, focusing on sequence and unusual spellings.

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How do young children become fluent readers?

Becoming fluent readers requires children to understand the basics of print, decode words and build reading speed. This process is supported by lots of practice with varied texts and explicit instruction on word parts.

Teachers can help by pointing to text during reading, providing morphology instruction and encouraging repeated reading for fluency. While having books readily available is beneficial, independent reading should complement (not replace) guided instruction. Encouraging intrinsic motivation to read is also key for long-term reading habits.

How do young children learn to understand what they read?

To cultivate children's reading comprehension, interactivity is key: asking questions, making predictions and analysing text while reading aloud. Children need to understand the vocabulary, concepts and content related to what they're reading to infer meaning.

Enriched vocabularies enable them to understand a wider range of complex texts, while reading various materials on the same topic can help develop content knowledge. While comprehension strategies are useful, they shouldn’t replace vocabulary or content understanding. The report suggests modelling these strategies without overdoing it and encourage reading texts rich in content.

How do young children learn to express their ideas in writing?

Children's journey to expressing ideas in writing starts with fine motor control and drawing, evolving into handwriting. Systematic instruction in letter formation aids clear handwriting development. To write stories, children need to master handling a writing device, generating and elaborating ideas and connecting them coherently. This is cultivated through scaffolded play, storytelling, writing practice and conversations.

It’s suggested teachers should model letter formation, provide frequent, short writing practice opportunities, encourage story retelling and engage in playtime to develop complex stories.

How do young children learn to count?

Children first learn to count procedurally by reciting the sequence of numbers. They need to understand one-to-one correspondence, matching count sequence to actual objects and grasp the Cardinality Principle – which states that the last number said is the item quantity. Understanding quantity also involves recognising numerical symbols.

The report suggests teachers incorporate counting in daily activities, show different representations of numbers and guide children in understanding various concepts like adding to a set, comparing sets and subitising. Games involving counting, like Snakes and Ladders, can further enhance their numerical understanding.

How do young children develop abstract knowledge of mathematical concepts?

Children's understanding of abstract mathematical concepts begins with concrete representations, transitioning gradually to visual, then abstract concepts. Manipulatives like physical objects aid in understanding mathematical problems when used in a structured manner. As children progress, these manipulatives should become more complex and varied.

Teachers can assist this transition by connecting different representations. Understanding that symbols represent quantity is crucial, especially for understanding place value. Effective manipulatives include Unifix cubes, progressing to more complex objects over time.

How do young children learn arithmetic?

Children learn arithmetic by building on existing knowledge. Starting with basic strategies like finger counting, they progress towards solving problems from memory. Fluency in basic arithmetic facts is vital for tackling complex problems. Understanding numerical magnitude aids arithmetic learning, with help from tools like number lines.

The report suggests that teachers should encourage the use of fingers for early arithmetic learning, promote strategic thinking and ensure practice for fluency. Activities involving number lines and estimation can help children accurately understand number relationships.

What should an effective Maths learning environment for young children include?

An effective Maths learning environment for young children should be anxiety-free, as Maths anxiety can negatively impact learning. It’s suggested that teachers should avoid expressing negative feelings about Maths and debunk stereotypes about "Maths people" or gender-based abilities.

Offering engaging Maths materials in your classroom can help foster enthusiasm. Understanding that Maths anxiety isn't necessarily linked to skill is important, as is holding all children to high expectations in Maths. Varied teaching methods and individual support can also help struggling students improve.

Final thoughts

Translating Cognitive Science strategies into practical teaching methods can be a game-changer in early childhood education. By understanding and implementing these techniques, you can provide a rich learning environment that supports the cognitive development of your students.

We really encourage you to read the full The Science of Early Learning report by Deans For Impact here for a deeper dive into translating Cognitive Science strategies to teach young children.

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