Health & Science

What Kids’ Brains Are Typically Good At (and Not So Good At)—At Every Age

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Kids’ brains go through enormous growth and changes throughout childhood. It’s no wonder that sometimes their behavior can seem like a real mystery!

But learning a bit about what their brains are really good at (and not so good at) during different developmental stages can really help parents connect and empathize with their kids. 

Understanding, for example, that a toddler literally can’t access the logical part of their brains while they’re overwhelmed with emotions helps explain why they’re unable to answer the question “What’s wrong?” or respond to a request to calm down during a tantrum, which can help parents be a bit more patient. SImilarly, it’s frustrating to have to remind your teen a million times not to leave their shoes by the door—it seems like they’re just not listening to you or don’t care. But when you learn that their brains just aren’t fully connected yet in so many areas of executive function (like organization, self control, and paying attention) you realize their behavior is actually developmentally appropriate, which makes it easier to take a deep breath and remind them again.

Use the information below to get an idea of your child’s strengths and areas where they still have more growth to do, and learn ways to support them every step of the way.

Toddlers/Preschoolers

Toddlers and preschoolers are at such an exciting age—and their brains agree! From ages 2-5, little kids’ brains are growing at an astonishing speed, as you can probably tell from their constant curiosity, enthusiasm, chattering, and bouncing around!

Of course, this age also comes with plenty of emotional and behavioral challenges. Understanding the way little ones’ brains work, though, can help a lot with figuring out how to respond during those difficult moments.

Below, find out what toddlers’ and preschoolers’ brains can and can’t do—and what you can do to support them on this fast-paced journey.

Toddlers’ and preschoolers’ brains are typically good at:

  • Learning patterns very quickly—in language, music, art, numbers, everyday tasks, etc.
  • Constantly tapping into their imaginations
  • Being fully present in the moment
  • Having a strong sense of self
  • Expressing their wants and interests with no “filter”
  • Understanding language in a literal sense

Toddlers’ and preschoolers’ brains are typically NOT so good at:

  • Understanding that others may have different feelings and perspectives than they do
  • Controlling their impulses and waiting
  • Knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate ways to express their emotions
  • Grasping abstract concepts like time
  • Maintaining focus on a single activity for more than 5-15 minutes
  • Multitasking
  • Understanding sarcasm or insincere tones

Ways you can support them:

  • Give them LOTS of opportunities to learn new things—their brains are growing fast and want to absorb as much as they can! While you’re at it, encourage a general enthusiasm for learning and putting in effort, rather than focusing on their performance.
  • Point out differences in others’ perspectives, such as, “Your brother really likes carrots, and you really like cucumbers. Not everyone likes the same foods, right?” This lays the foundation for their development of empathy.
  • Keep a daily routine so that certain activities and tasks are done in about the same order each day. This gives toddlers and preschoolers a stronger sense of security so that they can use their brains to explore and learn within that structure.
  • Frequently use time words like “yesterday,” “this afternoon,” and “in five minutes,” and show them a calendar of upcoming events on certain days, to help young kids begin to grasp how time fits together.
  • Talk about emotions frequently so they can learn the words. Show them that it is normal to feel many different emotions throughout the day, and model and practice appropriate ways to express those emotions.
  • Limit screen time and allow for plenty of active, unstructured, creative, and hands-on play. Build in frequent breaks between activities and tasks.
  • Give children one thing to do at a time so they can focus and build confidence. If they are given too many directions or too many steps at once, their brains will be overloaded and they won’t be able to complete any of the tasks.
  • Use sarcasm sparingly, and don’t expect little kids to understand your tone or find it funny at all.

Schoolagers/Big Kids

Once they’ve reached elementary school age, kids gradually start to become more independent and more understanding, which may come as a relief to parents who are still reeling from the intense first five years of raising a small child.

But we still need to remember that just because they can read, ride a bike, and go on a sleepover doesn’t mean they’re fully grown! Their brains can handle more complexity now, but not nearly as much as an adult’s.

Knowing some of the typical strengths and weaknesses of a child’s brain around ages 6-10 can help you figure out how to support them better—and how to enjoy the ride more.

Elementary-aged kids’ brains are typically good at:

  • Learning about things outside of their own “bubble”
  • Knowing that not everyone shares the same feelings and perspectives as themselves
  • Beginning to learn, read, and work more independently
  • Using language to socialize, and paying attention to social norms
  • Making up their own games with complicated rules
  • Appreciating humor, puns, riddles, and tricks
  • Developing an understanding of time and other abstract concepts

Elementary-aged kids’ brains are typically NOT so good at:

  • Maintaining focus on a single activity for more than about 15-30 minutes
  • Expressing complicated emotions
  • Managing stressful situations
  • Self-motivating without frequent encouragement, or after a setback
  • Remembering multi-step instructions while working on a problem or project

Ways you can support them:

  • Give them plenty of opportunities to learn about the wider world—like through maps and globes, books about how things are made, and songs and dances from different cultures.
  • Continue to limit screen time so that kids are getting in plenty of active play, which promotes brain development.
  • Build in lots of movement breaks and allow for outdoor exercise to help your child concentrate better on school work.
  • Teach them that their brains are constantly growing and changing, so they can always learn and improve through effort and practice. 
  • Model and practice ways to deal with stressful or overwhelming situations. For example: taking stretching or movement breaks, doodling and drawing, taking deep breaths, or using encouraging self-talk.
  • Give them important roles at home such as taking charge of certain household tasks, helping with cooking and meal planning, or leading the way on family walks. This gives them a sense of belonging that helps build their resilience and self-confidence.
  • When giving complex instructions, provide them in a series of shorter steps, and ask kids to repeat back each set of directions before they start working on something to make sure they are ready to start.
  • When using sarcasm or exposing them to sarcastic humor, be prepared to help your child read the tone and context, and figure out the intent behind the words. “Getting” sarcasm actually helps with future problem-solving abilities, so it’s a skill to practice (respectfully) rather than something to avoid altogether!

Tweens/Teens

If you find yourself frequently throwing your hands up when you try to understand WHAT the heck your teen or tween was thinking… it’s because teens and tweens actually think with a different part of the brain than adults do!

From roughly age 11 and up, tweens and teens may seem increasingly independent and act like they don’t need you anymore, but the truth is that their brains are still in development and they can benefit a lot from maintaining a strong connection with their parents.

Sometimes their behavior might seem frustrating—forgetting to do chores, leaving books at school, dropping their shoes by the door instead of putting them away despite the fact that you’ve reminded them a billion times… It might seem like they don’t listen to you or don’t care, but when you start to understand what their brains are good at (and not so good at) during these years, it can help explain a lot.

Use the info below about how the typical adolescent brain works to find new ways to work with older kids instead of butting heads all the time.

Teens’ and tweens’ brains are typically good at:

  • Letting emotions guide their behavior
  • Forming strong relationships with people outside of their family
  • Learning and memorizing more quickly than adults can
  • Analyzing and solving complex problems using logic
  • Multitasking
  • Understanding and using sarcastic humor
  • Forming and voicing strong opinions

Teens’ and tweens’ brains are typically NOT so good at:

  • Planning ahead
  • Impulse control and risk avoidance
  • Resisting harmful influences
  • Moderating activities that they find pleasurable
  • Using logical problem-solving skills while feeling strong emotions

Ways you can support them:

  • Don’t always make kids turn off music or stop doodling to listen to you. Teens may actually be better at multitasking than adults, and can benefit from the distraction so as not to be overloaded by the pressure of your request.
  • Talk to teens about the serious effects of drugs and alcohol on their still-developing brains, and research the facts together (rather than making moral judgments about what they or their peers are doing). The longer they delay trying binge-drinking or drugs, the better off their brains will be for life.
  • Keep an open line of communication to talk to kids about their political beliefs, online activities, relationships, and more. Teens and tweens are more likely to get swept into something that their peers or online friends are into because of how their brains are wired. So make sure they know they can come to you with any questions, mistakes, and problems (and not be judged).
  • Take teens’ and tweens’ opinions seriously—and ask them for their opinions frequently. Too often kids this age are ignored because they don’t have a lot of life experience, but their perspectives are important, and expressing them helps their verbal communication, self-confidence, self-expression, and critical thinking skills.
  • Let upset adolescents cool down before attempting important conversations, since they can access the logical part of their brains more readily when calm.
  • Continue to set boundaries, such as rules for appropriate hours to use phones and devices, to help kids find a healthy balance. As they get older, let them have a say in negotiating those rules, but be sure to stick to important limits when their (or anyone else’s) health and safety are on the line.
  • When older kids make sarcastic remarks, embrace it as an important way for them to experiment with more complex language and self-expression. But if the sarcastic comments get too mean and hurtful, be sure to discuss with them what the appropriate boundaries of their budding humor and snark should be and why.

Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.




Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.