Developmental vs. Chronological Age: What’s the difference?

A psychologist at my first internship rotation hammered into all the students who would cross her path the concepts of developmental age and chronological age. She emphasized how important they would be in all of our future careers—she was right.

background-84678_1280But how are they important to parents?

Chronological age is pretty straightforward: it is simply how physically old your child is. When a small child holds up her fingers and says, “I’m this many old,” she is telling us her chronological age (if she’s right, of course).

Determining a child’s developmental age is trickier.

Developmental age measures someone’s behavioral, cognitive and physical development in contrast to the typical person in the same age range. Consider behaviors and learning tasks that a typical 1st grader displays: learning to read, basic addition, cooperative play and taking turns. If a person’s developmental and chronological ages match, we tend to not notice because it’s expected.

However, it can be a problem when the two don’t match.

Stevie and his different “ages”

Recognizing that a child’s developmental and chronological ages can be different is an important first step.

Let’s consider 10-year-old “Stevie,” who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. While he has the vocabulary and memory of a typical 10-year-old, his ability to read body language and control impulses (such as interrupting people or angry outbursts) is more typical for a 6-year-old. Stevie is going to have a challenging time in school and in making friends.

child-929935_1280Often, adults and other kids expect Stevie to “act his age” because they see a 10-year-old and expect 10-year-old behavior. This potentially creates a problematic cycle:

  • Adults expect 10-year-old behavior when he legitimately cannot give it in all ways

  • They get angry at him for not meeting that expectation

  • Stevie gets frustrated that, despite his attempts, he continues to fail and get punished

  • Stevie starts viewing himself as “broken” or “dumb” and stops trying

  • Adults get more angry as his skills continue to fall behind

What can parents do? Think in different domains.

Parents and professionals should work together to identify what areas correlate to the child’s chronological and developmental ages. I often coach parents on how to think about their child’s developmental age in different domains.

For Stevie, his parents can expect him to use the language of a 10-year-old. Their behavior should reinforce, challenge and support his behavior in that domain. However, they shouldn’t expect a 10-year-old’s emotional or behavioral control.

An important clarification is this adjustment of expectations is not done to convince them that Stevie cannot succeed in the future. Quite the opposite, in fact. It can help parents have realistic expectations of where his challenges are right now, in order to help build foundational skills for future success.  If they are looking for him to master typical 6-year-old skills, they can praise them instead of being frustrated at Stevie’s lack of “obvious” skills. Ironically, this lowering of (certain) expectations can lead to the increase of skills that parents are seeking.


R BoccamazzoR. Boccamazzo, PsyD, LMHCA

Dr. Boccamazzo is a doctor of clinical psychology and social skills coach with Aspiring Youth. In addition, he is the clinical director of TakeThis.org, a national nonprofit focused on mental health and the gamer community, runs a private psychology practice in Bellevue offering individual therapy and psychological assessment to adolescents and adults, and provides parent and clinician trainings on technology in psychology. Much of his work focuses on high functioning autism, problematic technology usage, social anxiety, trauma and games. In his spare time, he enjoys acting, cooking, board games and video games.

Changing behavior: The ABCs

Understanding behaviors can be… challenging. We often hear from parents and teachers:

“She won’t stop doing it, even though I’ve asked her to stop.”

wood-cube-473703_640“It doesn’t matter what punishment I give. He still does it.”

To truly understand the behavior and how to change it, we need to know exactly what the challenging behavior looks like, what “triggers it”, and what happens after.

The ABCs of Behavior

  • The antecedent (what happens right before)

  • The behavior (what the child is actually doing)

  • The consequence (what happens immediately after)

When we understand the consequence, we often understand the function, the “why.”

There are four main functions that maintain behavior:

  • Escape. The child is doing something to escape or avoid doing an activity. Picture this: Every day, after a teacher finishes the social studies lesson, she moves on to math. The child has a melt down and is sent to the principal. Can you guess what he’s trying to avoid?

  • Attention. Some kids do things so they can get attention from their peers or adults. A girl consistently makes inappropriate jokes and her classmates laugh, reinforcing her behavior. What can be less obvious is when the attention is negative. After one joke, the teacher asks her to step in the hall so they can talk. Despite being punished, she’s still getting attention for her behavior.

  • 2105532204_3eacd04af5_zTangible. Things obtained can also maintain behavior. This could be a physical object or a preferred activity. A 13-year-old boy argues with his mom and is sent to his room after dinner for the rest of the evening, where he plays video games. Normally after dinner is electronic-free family time. He is inadvertently being rewarded for his behavior.

  • Self-stimulatory. This can be the most difficult function to address. It’s when a child likes the sensory or stimulatory sensation the behavior provides. A boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is constantly getting out of his seat during teacher instruction. Regardless of the punishment, getting up and moving around provides a stimulatory reinforcer.

 So what can we do?

Once we understand why the child is doing the behavior, we can better understand what to do to change it. Recognize though that it’s not always straightforward. Sometimes multiple functions of the behavior make looking at the antecedent vital.

8081866129_45189a1250_zIf a child has a melt down before each math lesson and is sent to the principal, the antecedent might tell us that he is escaping math. But the child also likes the one-on-one attention he gets from the principal. Now there are two functions of the behavior.

The goal is to let the child have his or her needs met in a positive way. One possible option might be that the child does 8 out of 12 math problems and then gets to spend 10 minutes with the teacher, eventually increasing the math problems and having the attention switch from the principal to the teacher.

So next time you’re struggling to change the behavior of your kid, think about the ABCs and get creative about ways to have your children’s needs met when they’re doing the appropriate behaviors.


Breea M. Rosas, B.A., Ed. S. Candidate

Breea graduated from Central Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2013. Her undergraduate major was Psychology, with a minor in Family Studies. She completed the coursework for an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology in Spring 2015, with an anticipated graduation date of Spring 2016 upon the completion of an internship with the Franklin Pierce School District. Professionally, Breea has worked with Aspiring Youth as a lead facilitator for summer camp and served on the curriculum development team. Additionally, Breea has experience working with adults of varying abilities, including autism spectrum disorder, as well youth in the school setting. She is interested in social emotional learning, educational implications of social/emotional and behavioral disorders, supporting youth with behavioral disorders, and the trajectory of students with disabilities post-high school. In her spare time, she likes to read, particularly historical fiction and non-fiction, bake, and spend time with her family.

Photo credits: Child screaming; Girl in class