Wait — you don’t know what the eight cognitive skills are? You’re so out of the loop. Just kidding, we didn’t either until we researched them! It turns out most parents don’t. Can you blame us? I mean, we have a lot on our mind. So what are they, you ask? It’s all about thinking.
Nurturing this skill set early in life can reward children well into adulthood. Stronger cognitive abilities have been linked to increased social skills, emotional intelligence, and problem-solving.
Are you interested, but don't know where to start? Fortunately, learning the eight cognitive skills is a lot easier than you think! Our guide will give you exactly what you need to recognize and encourage these skills in your little ones.
1. Staying focused...
The first skill to recognize is attention — the ability to focus on a task for a sustained period of time. (Unfortunately, TV doesn't count.)
Sustained attention is concerned with tasks where learning or thinking is taking place. It applies to the classroom, but it's also exercised outside of school all the time. A child engaged in almost any kind of play is practicing sustained attention.
Children who have difficulty with this will often leave activities unfinished and jump from project to project quickly. One way to strengthen this skill is to gently discourage the child from moving to a new task until the current one is finished.
2. ...Even with distractions
This second type of attention is the ability to remain focused on a task despite interruptions.
When a distraction arises, children often want to stop their activity and investigate. The situation presents them with a choice to either remain and finish what they're working on, or abandon it in favor of something new and possibly fun.
Making the choice to stay put and finish the task indicates a higher level of selective attention. A great way to practice this skill is to encourage group activities with other children. A child is less likely to quit an activity if they're doing it with others.
Multitasking is the skill to do two or more things at once without making too many mistakes. If you’re reading this, you probably have multiple tabs open on your computer or phone — so you’re already a multitasking pro! Poor multitasking ability results in confusion and inability to complete one or both tasks.
If this sounds like too much for a child, don't worry! It's not. When we talk about young children multitasking, we're referring to activities such as eating and walking at the same time, or coloring and talking.
This skill can be nurtured by speaking to the child while they're engaged in an activity, or starting a new task together while you keep up a conversation.
4. Short-term memory
In children, this is the skill to remember how to do something while you are doing it. It shows that they can retain more complex information for short periods.
There are many ways to encourage this skill. One is for an adult to ask the child to teach them how to do the task at hand. Teaching someone else helps to store the information more permanently in their memory.
And, of course, reading! Reading to your child, and encouraging them to read alone, will naturally and gradually improve their short-term memory.
5. Long-term memory
Our little ones' brains are constantly processing a huge amount of information, so their long-term memory doesn't need to be perfect to show that they're using this skill.
If a child can answer what you saw last week at the zoo, or whose house you went to for the holidays, they're already doing well.
One way to improve this skill is by practicing! After you finish an activity, engage your child in listing out everything you did today. Go through the list again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next week. Repetition flexes the memory muscles and makes them stronger.
6. Reasoning skills
This skill is all about making connections between objects, people, events, and actions. For example, if you give your child the dog's food and bowl, they should understand it's Spot's dinnertime. If they can fill the bowl and call the dog without instruction, that's good reasoning!
To encourage this skill from an early age, you can talk about your daily routine with your child and introduce them to the basic concept of time. For example, lunch comes before a nap, and then TV time is after that. Holidays like Thanksgiving only happen once a year.
Encourage your child to notice the patterns and relationships between each event — it’s November, so Thanksgiving is this month. They'll practice their reasoning skills without even realizing.
7. Processing what you see and hear
It's not about whether your child has good eyes and ears, but what they do with the information they take in through their senses.
When they see or hear something, do they process and interpret it? Or do they notice things passively and move on? Again, it's all about the brain making connections.
Any type of multi-step activity will nurture this skill, but we recommend something with a concrete final product, like cooking together. It allows children to see the ingredients and hear the instructions all converging to produce the final result. Yum!
8. Processing speed
As your child makes all of these connections, their processing speed is how quickly it comes together in the brain.
Children with a slower processing speed will have more trouble making decisions, even simple ones. They may also have difficulty remembering information.
It's important to note that slow processing speed is not related to intelligence. It's due to normal differences in brain structures between individuals. And like all cognitive skills, processing speed can improve over time.
With children, the best way to help is to be gentle, understanding, and encouraging. Don't tell them to hurry up. Ask them questions to help move them along. Let them approach things at their own pace, and they'll develop these skills on their own.
The Bottom line about cognitive skills
It's helpful to be aware of the eight cognitive skills and to encourage them when you can. However, children are excellent at practicing them on their own! Every time your child plays is asked a question or interacts with others, they're flexing those muscles.