“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 8-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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 8-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.

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, smartphones, and computers. Studies indicate that screens overstimulate 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.

More resources for delving into the third grade brain:

The Developing Brain: Birth to Age Eight, by Marilee Sprenger

Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence, by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D

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