Now that your child’s in fourth grade you can see the end of elementary school right up ahead, but your child’s still developing mentally. And at a rapid pace!

What are fourth graders capable of understanding? Jean Piaget, the psychologist credited with forming the theory of cognitive development in the late 1920s, created a list of of what can be expected at each stage, and it's still in heavy use today. Here's what had to say about kids in this age range:

  • Fourth graders can classify objects according to their many features, as well as classify them in a series according to one feature. For example, a fourth grader can organize toy cars from smallest to tallest, while at the same time grouping any similar colors together.
  • Children of this age can comprehend multiple features in a problem, even while they're solving it. That means that even though a math problem has both addition and multiplication, they won't get confused by having more than one part to solve. This is also important in dealing with literature since they can understand why a villain could steal jewels, but also why it's wrong.
  • Fourth graders are no longer egocentric. They finally understand that not everyone sees the world as they see it.
  • Fourth graders should be able to reverse their thinking. This means that they can go through their mental steps backwards and check their conclusion. Whereas when they were younger, they could not recognize that they were wrong, even when the flaws in their argument were pointed out, by fourth grade this is no longer the case. Now they can recognize an error in judgment when someone points out a flaw in one of their steps.
  • A fourth grader is able to recognize difference when comparing the physics of two objects. For example, they can see the difference between areas, and tell you that four one-inch square pieces take up the same amount of room whether put together or spreed apart.

Understanding what fourth graders are capable of comprehending is the first step. Another psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, took things further. In the 1950s, he led a group of researchers in creating a cognitive learning guide that illustrated several levels of understanding. According to Bloom, all children go through a steadily deepening process of comprehension, and in the same order. But children vary in how long it takes them to reach each level.

Each level is based on the one in front of it, similar to a staircase. Once you have a sense of what your child is capable of comprehending, you can use Bloom's levels of learning as a guide for helping your son or daughter reach the next step of understanding. The levels of learning are:

  • Level 1: Knowledge. This is when a child has already been taught a concept and just needs to remember it. For example, at this level he can recite a poem he memorized
  • Level 2: Comprehension. The child understands what the concept means. Now she can tell you the main point of the poem.
  • Application. At this point your child can come up with examples of how the concept can be used. She can draw lessons from the story and determine how they can be utilized in real life. He can describe what type of mood people should be for this poem to have a good affect on them, since if someone’s upset a sad poem probably won’t make them happy. But he won't actually go out and read the poem to people.
  • Level 4: Analysis. The child can break down each idea and think of it in ways that weren't introduced. Now she can look through the poem and search for themes. For example, she can determine that the color red symbolizes passion.
  • Level 5: Synthesis. At this stage, a child will be able to apply the concept to new situations. He might mention the poem and what it means to people outside his classroom, at appropriate moments.
  • Level 6: Evaluation. The child thinks about what she's been taught and weighs the pros and cons. She determines its merit. For example, she might decide if the poem was effective in creating a mood.

Keep in mind that Piaget and Bloom offer their own yardsticks, but no hard and fast rules. Still, taking a look at their guidelines can help you help your child. By giving your child a new concept that's not beyond her fourth grade mental limitations, you can watch her progress through the levels of learning. You can help her progress faster by asking questions that require not just knowledge or comprehension, but evaluation. For example, after reading a poem, you might ask your child, "How would you write a poem to express the same emotions and themes in this one?" rather than, "What's this poem about?" The second question requires only comprehension, but the first one makes your son or daughter think about what the poem contains, how well it expresses everything, and how he could make it better.