When do children start to think ahead? Depends on what they’re thinking about.

Although I have my concerns about the Frontiers line of journals, one of the benefits of their peer-review process is that once it is complete (and undue influence is no longer a concern), the peer reviewers of a published article are identified — held accountable for their comments and ultimate approval of publishing this research. Which means that I am “out” as a reviewer of a Frontiers in Psychology report about, essentially, figuring out when children start thinking ahead.

This research builds on two studies I have previously mentioned on the blog. The first showed, through the fascinating use of pupil measurements to determine when children were thinking harder (when their pupils were more dilated), that 3-year-olds do not seem to anticipate future events. Told that if — and only if — they see Blue (from Blue’s Clues) followed by a watermelon, they should press a special button, 3-year-olds do not seem to recognize that the moment Blue appears there’s the potential for something interesting to happen, and they might start planning what response they have to make. Instead, they wait until the watermelon appears, and then think back to whether Blue was right before it; only then do their pupils dilate, indicating mental effort. This is called a reactive pattern of response, waiting until a prompt and then retrieving the information they need. In contrast, 8-year-olds (and adults) do start getting ready, pupils dilating, when they see Blue, which is a proactive pattern of response, or just plain thinking ahead.

The second study was my own research showing that thinking ahead isn’t always it’s cracked up to be. We figured that 6-year-olds would be nicely in the middle of that window between 3- and 8-year-olds, with some children thinking proactively and some still thinking reactively. The children who showed themselves to be more proactive had some advantages on cognitive tasks, like responding faster and switching between rules more easily, but at least one major disadvantage – seeming to fall apart when they were deliberately distracted and the usual thinking-ahead strategies like talking to yourself in your head weren’t possible.

The new study from Frontiers also looked at the big gap and change between 3- and 8-years-old, and wondered just when the shift from childish reactivity to more mature proactivity might happen. (At this point it should be clear why I was one of the ones asked to review it). They pinpointed a slightly younger age for the key transition, thinking it might happen around 5-years-old to 6-years-old. With a modified version of the Blue-likes-watermelons game, now presenting pairs of animals in a race and special buttons that should be pressed only if, say, a frog outraced a donkey, they found that the 6-year-olds were indeed fairly proactive. The 5-year-olds, on the other hand, seemed to be in transition: some were proactive, but some were reactive, as shown by the distinct patterns of errors they would make if a frog outraced a chicken (only proactive children would mistakenly respond, having been anticipating the appearance of the second-place donkey) or a cat outraced the donkey (only reactive children would mistakenly respond, having forgotten who it was that outraced the donkey).

The most interesting feature of this finding, to me, is how it contradicts my own: I found that 6-year-olds were split between proactive and reactive, but this study found that 6-year-olds were consistently proactive and 5-year-olds were split. This is the moment where I thank the teachers who trained me as a scientist, because I am not concerned that I have been “disproved” in any way, merely curious about how we can explain the difference.

The most likely explanation I can see is that being proactive or reactive is not an all-or-nothing way of thinking. Adults are not even consistently proactive; just think of the last time that you failed to correctly anticipate something you should have known was coming. (The only concrete example I have in my mind is one of my own that I’m not willing to admit to. I trust it’s a common enough occurrence for everyone to supply their own). In the same vein, children in transition may be able and willing to use proactive control for some tasks, but not for others.

The tasks I used in my research were deceptively boring. I remember well the slightly accusing glances of 6-year-olds as they were repeatedly told rules for matching silly pictures of big red cats and small blue fish….and how they would go on to press entirely the wrong button. Or they would be asked to remember that they just saw a square. Where’s the challenge in that? It could be very easy for some of those 6-year-olds to give up on the effort demanded to think ahead, deciding they wouldn’t need it. On the other hand, in a fast-paced race game with a dozen different combinations of animals coming past the finish line, the 6-year-olds might more readily recognize that they need their minds in full gear to get a high score. In that case, it’s the 5-year-olds who are either unable to think ahead, or to recognize that thinking ahead would be the right strategy to adopt.

So the question is not really when do children learn to think ahead, but in what situations do children recognize that they might need to think ahead. And, of course, in what situations is that a good idea, or a not-so-good idea. It started out as one seemingly straightforward question of development, but upon inspection we have brand new questions and enough work for several teams of researchers. All of us staring into the child’s mind….and trying to come up with new games to keep the interested while we do it.

Lucenet, J., & Blaye, A. (2014). Age-related changes in the temporal dynamics of executive control: a study in 5- and 6-year-old children. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00831

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