Compared to their younger selves, tweens show signs of a lot of cognitive development. In particular, your tween will think more quickly, remember more information and pay attention more efficiently than she ever could before. As a result, you'll see her begin to thrive academically, socially and emotionally.
One sign of cognitive development during the tween years is an improvement in long-term memory, or the ability to store factual and personal information for longer than a few minutes. Tweens’ long-term memory improves due to expertise and strategies. Expertise means having a deep set of knowledge in one topic. For instance, your child might be an expert on a particular video games, Harry Potter, or Seventeen magazine. That expertise enables him to remember even more information on that topic. Tweens also use memory strategies better than younger children do. For example, tweens use mental imagery – like visually imagining objects they need to remember to bring to school – and often link new information to their personal experiences. Both of these strategies help them remember more information for longer periods of time.
A major cognitive development of the tween years is an increase in logic. Around 6 years of age, children enter the concrete operational stage of cognitive development -- which basically means that children begin to think like scientists. They become able to test out various scenarios in a systematic way, and they use their senses to give them trustworthy information. This means that your tween draws fewer far-flung, irrational conclusions than he or she did as a young child. Nonetheless, young tweens still lack the ability to think abstractly. They can only reason about things that are tangible and in front of them, which is why Piaget named the stage “concrete.”
Realistic Thinking Develops
Compared to their earlier years, tweens are more grounded in reality. This may make your pre-teen seem a bit less “fun” than she used to be, but this grounding will help her academically, especially in math and science. Tweens do particularly well with inductive logic, which allows them to form a general principle from one specific example. They don’t do well with the reverse, called deductive logic; they have difficulty using general principles to figure out what will happen in a specific situation. For example, their science teacher might tell them that objects always drop to the ground at the same speed, regardless of weight (a general principle), yet a tween probably can't predict what will happen when a marble and a tennis ball are dropped at the same time (a specific example).
Attention Becomes More Focused
Tweens also have better selective attention compared to young children. This allows your child to decipher what’s important in a situation and focus only on that information. Selective attention is useful in social situations, such as when tweens are in a crowded cafeteria and need to pay attention to only what their best friend is saying. It also is necessary for succeeding in school in situations, for instance, where they need to solve a complicated math word problem that involves extraneous information. With this focus, tweens can also perform skills that have been practiced repeatedly – such as kicking a ball while running or sustaining a conversation – without paying intense attention to those tasks. This frees their mind up to process other information.
Thinking Happens Faster
Partly due to attention changes, tweens think much more quickly and fluidly than younger children do. This gives them the a new-found ability to multi-task. In other words, they probably really are listening to you while they are playing a computer game, have music on, and are keeping in mind what they need to do for homework! There are real biological reasons for this change in tweens. In particular, neurons of the brain are becoming increasingly covered in a fatty material called myelin, which allows neurons to fire more quickly. The more myelin, the quicker a tween can take in and process information. But the build up of myelin takes time. So if there are days when your 10-year-old seems grown-up and quick-witted, don't be surprised if the following day he needs more support and patience. Remember that your child's brain is still developing and the process doesn't happen all at once.
Berger, Kathleen. The Developing Person Through the Lifespan. 2008. 7th Edition. New York: Worth.
Santrock, PhD, John. Children. 2009. 11th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.