Cognitive Development in 11-13 Year Olds

Children become increasingly competent at adult-style thinking during the "tween" years. Learn more.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Cognitive Development in 11-13 Year Olds

Around the age of 11 or 12, children learn to think about abstract concepts. They complete what Piaget termed the concrete operational period and enter the formal operation period. The hallmark achievements of concrete operations is that children display logical thinking, can seriate (arrange in a series) without trial and error, are able to conserve number, mass, and volume, and demonstrate a more strategic and methodical approach to problems. 

During the formal operations period, which continues into adulthood, children develop logical thought, deductive reasoning abilities, and improved memory and executive function skills. Suggest some tough deductive problems. While not all people, and not all cultures, achieve formal operations, children become increasingly competent at adult-style thinking as they advance. During the course of formal operations, children learn to use deductive logic, meaning they can be given a general principle which they can apply to a specific situation. For example, if told that objects drop to the ground at the same rate, they will be able to predict the outcome of a marble and tennis ball being dropped. See if your child can use the principals of tic, tac, toe with a 3-D board. Hypothetical reasoning like this allows children to move beyond concrete experiences and begin to think abstractly, reason logically, and draw conclusions. Children in formal operations are able to think like a scientist, devise plans and systematically test solutions. 

Children this age are able to demonstrate abstract thinking. For example, they can understand shades of gray, wrestle with abstract concepts like love or justice, and formulate values based on thinking and analyzing as opposed to only by feeling or experiencing. They are able to classify items by many different features, such as organizing books by height while also grouping them by topic. To foster your child’s logical thinking and categorization abilities, ask her to try this online game.

During the early teen years, adolescent egocentrism emerges. Adolescent egocentrism is the belief that others are highly invested in and attentive to their appearance and actions (imaginary audience) and that their experiences and emotions are unique and known only to and by them (personal fable). Egocentrism at this age is the root of self-consciousness, and it also fuels the teen’s sense of themselves as uniquely powerful and invincible. While a tween or teen realizes other people have different points of view (in contrast to the preschooler who displays egocentrism), he uses that knowledge to become preoccupied with other people’s perceptions of him. To help balance your child’s sense of being “the only one in the world,” have him spend some time on this site.

The reasons cited for these changes are many-fold, but recent research from studies at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) points to the surge of production of gray matter in the brain before puberty. The majority of the changes take place in the frontal lobe, which is “control center” for executive functions, including the ability to think, plan, maintain short-term memory, organize thoughts, control impulses, problem solve, and execute tasks (try this for more on the role of executive function skills on impulse control). Along with these changes, are changes in the way the brain processes rewards and pleasure, intensifying the feeling associated with each. An unfortunate by-product to this shift is an increase in risky, sensation seeking behaviors over the teen years.

Mental development seems to drop off during the teen years, suggesting that less new skill are learned as children integrate what has already been learned. For example, further development of executive function skills mitigates risk-taking behaviors in teens, but such developments occur gradually and are not complete until children are in their mid-20’s. During this time, the pleasure seeking system and the impulse regulation system learn to work together to better coordinate feeling with thinking, allowing better long-term impulse control. 

Memory abilities increase with the onset of formal operations, which is believed to be a result of unproved executive functions and increased experience with particular strategies. For example, if a child successfully uses mental imagery (e.g., visually recalling a book they need to bring to school), the strategy and the experience are linked in long-term memory to be utilized in various situations across time. Similarly, children will use their developing selective attention skills to perform better in important environments, such as school. Being able to focus attention allows children to ignore unimportant information. For example, discarding misleading information in a math problem, or ignoring other conversations while chatting in the cafeteria. Children this age learn to multitask (e.g., talking to someone while playing a video game, kicking a ball while running), a skill that stems from the automaticity of certain skills freeing up the mind to process other information. To practice selective attention abilities, have your child try these online experiments: the Interactive Stroop Effect Experiment, the Interactive "Directional Stroop" Effect Experiment, or the Switchball game. What allows this selective attention to develop? In specific, myelination of the neurons of the brain allows them to fire more quickly, allowing children to more rapidly take in and process information. However, this process, like all others, is a slow one and children may show inconsistent skill over the time it takes to develop. 

Tweens and teens also display strong metacognition skills. Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. Children display this ability through an awareness of knowledge (children understand what they know and what they still need to learn), an awareness of thinking (they understand the task being tried and are able to select strategies to succeed), and an awareness of thinking strategies (they are able to self-assess, ask themselves questions, revise their thinking, and direct their own learning). Support this development by modeling your own thinking and problem solving aloud! Scaffold their thinking by helping them to notice their own strategies and discovering together if they used words or did not, if they are worth retaining or if new strategies are necessary. Facilitate your child’s metacognitive skills by providing her low risk situations for her to notice her own thinking. Ask your child what strategy she uses to accomplish simple tasks, and then harder tasks. The goal is that she sees similar strategies with more complex tasks. Use this free app to talk about and develop strategy (and metalinguistic thinking) in your child.



Stages & Milestones
Cognitive Skills
Age 13
Age 12
Age 11
Child Development and Behavior
Middle School
Learning and Cognitive Development