Inside the third grader's brain

What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a third grader?

By Hank Pellissier

The third grader's brain

"Is this good? It's not good? You didn't say it was good right away, so you think it's bad. Now I hate it and have to do it over again!"

Many eight-year-olds are hypercritical, particularly of themselves and their efforts. Their judgmental self-loathing seems to indicate pitiful self-esteem, and mommies and daddies might worry, but . . . don't! Self-flagellating third-graders are just passing through a brain development stage known as learning "evaluation." They'll inflict this new cognitive skill on themselves, and also on you! Third-graders enjoy catching parents and teachers making mistakes, but they'll also beg for praise to alleviate shame in their own perceived flaws.

Here's a flurry of contradictory adjectives that can describe a third grader: exuberant, self-deprecating, gregarious, obnoxious, friendly, secretive, silly, bossy, dramatic, defiant, cheerful, affectionate, curious, resistant, helpful, rude, know-it-all, insecure, easy-going, impatient. This tangle of at-odds traits is due to the young brain's evolving — and confusing — abilities. Here's what’s happening in your third grader's smart, jumbled, and often very funny mind, and how you can help your child along:

Photo credit: andy white

Brighter brain

Third-grade brains' myelin-coated "white matter" now usually exceeds their non-myelinated "grey matter." This means that their interconnecting brain has greatly strengthened the ability for high-level thinking, planning, problem solving, and information processing. You can help your child by guiding her towards "memory strategies" so your child can quickly file away the immense quantities of data that schooling requires. One great outcome of all this white matter development: Third graders can be significantly less forgetful than second graders.

Photo credit: The Right Brain Initiative

Deep reading

With its quickened memory, the third grader's brain no longer needs to overly focus on "decoding" words in reading, but can instead concentrate on substance. "Learning to read" is replaced by "reading to learn." Parents can help by providing a rich language environment. Encourage reading out loud and quiz your child afterwards on her reading. Also, include your child in adult conversations with high-level vocabulary, give her instructions with multi-step directions, ask her to describe involved accounts of past events, and guide her (without doing it yourself!) in homework projects and book reports.

Photo credit: annamariahorner

Subjective chaos

The third-grader's noggin is getting sculpted and pruned into an individualized "designer brain," with billions of specific neural pathways creating a unique individual. Your child is becoming aware that his points-of-view are subjective and not the one-and-only opinion. This can be upsetting because children this age generally see things in "black and white." You can help your child through this disorienting phase by encouraging him try to see things from different perspectives. Plus, let them know that although all humans have wildly separate thoughts and opinions, we all share precisely the same half-dozen primary emotions. This commonality can be reassuring.

Photo credit: schimkesusan

Inside of me

The growing third grade brain is developing a strong concept of "self." This can mean they're often obsessed with their inner experience and outward appearance, and frequently feel inadequate. To cushion this often touchy period, temper your criticisms, encourage your child to articulate emotions, and support your child's hobbies and projects with enthusiasm. Third graders are also intensely interested in "right and wrong" and will benefit from your patient and thoughtful answers to their ethical questions.

Photo credit: wheeler_sias

Muscle and mind

Your third grader will thrive best by running and playing at least 30 minutes a day. In 2010, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign research indicated that aerobic fitness enhances preadolescent hippocampal volume, leading to superior relational memory. According to John Ratey MD, author of Spark, exercise elevates a chemical Ratey dubs "Miracle-Gro for the brain" because it builds the brain’s infrastructure. Team sports are ideal for social interaction, and this age range enjoys relay races, hula hoops, and Frisbee. Advice for parents: Keep a careful eye on your child. Third graders are often accident-prone due to hyperactivity and over-confidence.

Photo credit: zhurnaly

Be gentle in third grade

Use encouragement and positive discipline to shepherd and protect your third grader, instead of employing punishment to make your child feel bad. At Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers using MRI scanners discovered that the basal ganglia – clusters of brain cells at the brain’s base that are affiliated with movement – of this age group "responded strongly" to positive feedback. Conversely, when children received harsher, negative feedback, the cognitive control areas scarcely responded at all! This explains why kids this age get that "blank look" when scolded. To support a third grader's confidence and education, parents and other important adults should give loving, encouraging feedback. Minimize scolding and threats, and don't shout or spank for discipline.

Photo credit: yucaree

Tuning up in third grade

This is the ideal age to expose your child to music. Play structured melodic music for them, sing songs, and, if they demonstrate an interest in playing, get started with lessons and an instrument. A Portuguese study published in the March 2009 issue of Cerebral Cortex indicates that eight-year-old children with just eight weeks of musical training differed from a control group in their cortical event-related potentials (ERPs). Another study comparing 8-year-old children with musical training to those who did not found that the "musicians" outperformed the control group in both math and language tests.

Photo credit: wyo92

Focus now

A third-grader's attention span ranges from eight to 30 minutes, with boys usually having shorter spans than girls. To strengthen concentration, encourage activities like meditation and attention and strategy games, like checkers and chess. Emphasize that doing well in school and other mind-intense activities depends on paying attention, and reward your child for hard work. Also limit "screen time" of TV, video games, consoles, and computers. Studies indicate that screens over-stimulate developing neurology, resulting in abbreviated attention. Why? Some researchers believe TV viewing wastefully releases high quantities of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a key regulator of focus.

Photo credit: davidking

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.