Monday, June 18, 2012

Middle Childhood: Biosocial Milestones

Between ages 7 and 11, baby will be almost invincible. These years are the healthiest period in her entire life. In these fortunate years, fatal illnesses are rare and mortal injures unusual. Baby's rate of growth slows down by age 6 and now she can settle into her own skin: awkward adolescence is a few years away. Children in middle childhood (aged 7 to 11) can make their own lunch, walk themselves to school, brush their own teeth, etc. Children this age can master plenty of skills with a little motivation and a lot of practice. The "just right" phenomenon has faded away, allowing for plenty of opportunity to try new things.

Medical care has improved drastically over the last 30 years and it is obvious in children. In 1978, 30% of children age 5 to 10 had elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream whereas in 2001 only 1% had elevated levels. Most school-age children take good care of their own teeth these days as well, 75% of kids age 6 to 11 have no untreated cavities in the US. Dentists help kids learn good oral care and at this age, they are likely to heed the advice. If parents are diligent in providing preventative care now relating to such things are oral health, eye health, and immunizations, many adult health problems can be avoided. These years are the foundation for adulthood. If they learn good health, they be less likely to lash out as adolescents in harmful ways.

Children at this age completely immerse themselves in play and it is important for them to get a lot of healthy, physical activity. Benefits of good physical activity in childhood play into later years: they have better health, less obesity, they are more cooperative, better problem solvers, and have more respect for their peers. There are also hazards such as time taken away from academia, kids who play for teams can suffer from low self-esteem if they are criticized by coaches, and injuries.

Neighborhood play is great for kids this age. They are free to improvise, the play is interactive, and hopefully there are other children in the same age group to play with. Unfortunately, an explosion in urbanization in recent years means fewer parks, fewer safe open areas, and more "stranger danger." Many parents prefer to keep their children indoors - which can lead to a lot of television and a high risk of obesity. Physical Education at school has taken a hit due to pressure to increase math and reading scores. Time given to recess and P.E. has declined and policy makers fail to realize that physical activity can improve academic achievement. Athletic clubs can be a great way to get baby out of the house and on a field, but many children get left out in organized sports. Children aged 6 to 11 from low-income families particularly benefit from organized sports in grades, relationships, and they have a smaller chance of becoming delinquents, but parents don't always have time to take them to games and practices or the money to pay fees.

While school-age children are generally much healthier than any other time in their lives, there are a few conditions that get worse in these years. Tourette syndrome, stuttering, and asthma get worse and can make children self-conscious. Children naturally have less body fat than any other time in life (5-year-olds have the lowest), but childhood obesity numbers are getting very high. In the US in 2008, 32% of children and adolescents were overweight, 16% were obese and 11% were extremely obese. Eating habits are getting worse and overweight adults overfeed their children. They are also less likely to exercise or go out with them, increasing the chances of obesity in their children. This isn't only a problem in the US, but China and India have also seen increases in childhood obesity. Children with obesity are more likely to have asthma, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and are more likely to die of diabetes, stroke, or liver or heart disease before they reach old age. Asthma rates are also increasing among children, about twice as many children under the age of 18 are affected by it now as there were in 1980. Improved transit systems in Atlanta, Georgia that were added for the Olympic games had the unintended consequence of cutting asthma attacks in half - air pollution is a huge problem for asthmatics.

By age 7 or 8, myelination has the brain coordinated and interconnected. Reaction times improve progressively until about age 16. School-age children get better at self-control and are able to plan for their own futures, analyzing situations for the first time. Around age 7 you should notice that baby can pick and choose what to pay attention to, which is crucial for school. Selective attention helps her listen to the teacher, even when other kids are whispering or passing notes around her. Another very useful improvement that happens around this time is called automatization - repeated sequences of thoughts and actions become routines and baby can do it without thinking about it.

As good research on the brain is expensive and hard to analyze, most of what we know about baby's mental process comes from tests. An achievement test measures what a person has already learned; these are the types of tests you take in school at the end of a chapter. An aptitude test measures potential to master a skill or body of knowledge and perhaps the most well-known of these is the IQ test.

IQ tests used to be measured more simply, figuring the "intelligence quotient" through a basic equation to get the quotient. Mental age divided by chronological age times 100 equals IQ. Nowadays it is measured a bit differently, but the principle is the same. The test measures intellectual age against actual age to determine where they are in development. A score of 85-115 is considered average and about two-thirds of people fall in this category. 96% of people have a score between 70 and 130 (which extremes are considered slow learner and superior, respectively). 

The IQ test has received a lot of criticism over the years, and is now considered to measure academic intelligence rather than overall. Other types of intelligence identified by Robert Sternberg include creative - imaginative endeavors - and practical - problem solving ability. A different multiple intelligence theory postulated by Howard Gardner identifies seven intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. He has since added naturalistic and existential.

Slowness, impulsiveness, or clumsiness at the school-age can be indicators of special needs or learning disabilities. Many of these are not apparent until children enter elementary school. The spectrum can include autism, bipolar disorder, anxiety, Asperger syndrome, clinical depression, etc. Developmental psychopathology is the field that studies these types of disorders and starts with a few simple lessons: most children act weird - abnormality doesn't mean special needs, disability changes all the time either for better or worse, adulthood can be better or worse, and diagnosis depends on social context.

Attention-deficit disorder affects about 10% of young children and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder about 5%. Both disorders are indicated by a lack of ability to pay attention, the latter accompanied by a need to be continually active. More boys than girls are diagnosed and more European American than Latinos. Often children with ADHD are also diagnosed with another disorder, this phenomenon is called comorbidity. Treatment usually calls for medication, psychotherapy, and special training for parents and teachers.

Learning disabilities are signified by a delay in areas of learning. Dyslexia, difficulty with reading, is a common learning disability. It can originate with listening and speech problems - if around age 3 baby doesn't speak clearly or go through the naming explosion, she might have dyslexia later on. Speech therapy may help early on, but a diagnosis can slow her down, so you should be careful in deciding to do therapy.

Autism is characterized by poor social skills. It used to be a very rare disorder but has become much more common. Children who develop slowly but are not so withdrawn as autistic children are said to have an autism spectrum disorder. Asperger syndrome is a high-functioning part of the spectrum, characterized by unusually high intelligence in one area and speech is generally normal. Numbers of children with an autism spectrum disorder tripled during the 1990s. Part of this could be expanded definitions of what can be considered, but there are many possibilities.

Special needs in children are usually spotted by teachers. Professionals should put together an individual education plan (IEP) for each child based on their needs. Some parents want the help but others fear the social stigma tied to special needs. There are a few different options: one act in 1975 mandated that children be places in the least-restrictive environment. Many were simply mainstreamed as a result, left in the regular classroom to fend for themselves. Some schools reacted with a resource room, pulling out children with special needs to spend individual time with a teacher there, but pull-out programs undermines friendships. Inclusion is an approach where children with special needs are in the regular classroom with special help from a trained teacher. Treatments are still evolving in this field, but hopefully if needed, you will be able to discuss the options with teachers and professionals.

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