Understanding and Overcoming Children's Pr0cessing Deficits

ABSTRACT - Previous work has established the existence of young children's processing deficits in a variety of consumer tasks. The purpose of this paper is to suggest strategies for alleviating children's deficits. Considered first are the mechanisms responsible for children's deficits and the task factors affecting children's processing abilities. This is followed by a discussion of methods for reducing children's deficits.


Deborah L. Roedder (1982) ,"Understanding and Overcoming Children's Pr0cessing Deficits", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 148-152.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 148-152


Deborah L. Roedder, University of California, Los Angeles


Previous work has established the existence of young children's processing deficits in a variety of consumer tasks. The purpose of this paper is to suggest strategies for alleviating children's deficits. Considered first are the mechanisms responsible for children's deficits and the task factors affecting children's processing abilities. This is followed by a discussion of methods for reducing children's deficits.


During the past decade, considerable attention has been directed toward children's limited cognitive abilities in a variety of consumer tasks. Based upon evidence that children of different ages display different levels of cognitive skills, investigators have focused on young children's limited abilities relative to those of older children and adults. Evidence has accumulated supporting the view that young children exhibit deficits in understanding advertising, evaluating product claims, and comparing products in making choices (for a review, see Adler, et al., 1980).

While the existence of young children's deficits is well-established, the explanation for these limitations is less unequivocal. One view is that young children are inherently incapable of certain processing skills. Proponents of this viewpoint cite Piaget's extensive demonstrations of young children's difficulties in a variety of situations. In Piagetian research, young children are seldom able to solve problems that require the utilization of logical rules, comparative skills, and causal reasoning. For example, young children perform poorly in comparing groups of items in terms of number (Piaget, 1952), classifying objects into categories (Inhelder and Piaget, 1964), and comparing the motives and consequences of other people's behavior in making moral judgments (Piaget, 1948).

An alternative viewpoint describes the existence of young children's deficits as contingent upon the processing demands of the task. According to this interpretation, young children have difficulty in situations that require a great deal of processing effort. Advocates of this position cite young children's abilities in Piagetian tasks when given special training, less complex stimuli, or information formats that render processing less difficult (Gelman, 1978). For example, young children can compare the physical attributes of objects if they are given small object sets (Baron, Lawson, and Siegel, 1975), can make comparative judgments if they are given help in remembering object pairings (Bryant and Trabasso, 1971), and can make moral judgments based upon people's motives if motive information is made salient (Feldman, et al.. 1975).

Despite the importance of this distinction, little effort has been directed toward examining the source of young children's deficits and assessing children's abilities under different task conditions in consumer settings. Past efforts have investigated children's responses to marketing stimuli without considering the potential influence of task factors such as the quantity of information involved and the way in which information is presented. The focus has been on demonstrating young children's limitations rather than exploring ways to facilitate their abilities.

The purpose of this paper is to clarify the causes of young children's deficits and suggest strategies for overcoming these deficits. In pursuing these aims, the mechanisms responsible for children's processing deficits are considered first. The next section identifies factors that influence children's processing deficits by affecting the processing demands of tasks. Based upon this discussion, the final section suggests strategies for alleviating children's deficits and facilitating their processing abilities.


Evidence from a number of developmental investigations points to memorial factors as the source of young children's deficits (Brown, 1975). Young children exhibit limitations in several memory functions -- in organizing, interpreting, integrating, and retaining information. Because many learning and problem-solving situations depend upon these memory functions, young children do not display the same skills as do older children and adults.

Despite a common focus on memorial deficits, researchers disagree regarding which aspect of memory is most responsible for children's limitations. Primary emphasis is typically given to either procedural knowledge or declarative knowledge. Procedural knowledge consists of information regarding strategies for encoding, grouping, and retrieving information. Declarative knowledge consists of information regarding facts, concepts, and relationships between concepts. Both are discussed in more detail below.

Declarative Knowledge

Because learning is viewed as a constructive process, what has been learned in the past directly affects what can be learned in the future. The extent and organization of prior knowledge influences the interpretation, retention, and integration of new information with previously stored information. Declarative knowledge can also affect the retrieval of information by providing cues for searching memory (Ceci and Howe, 1978). Because young children have not yet accumulated an extensive knowledge base, they face limitations in a variety of processing situations (Chi, 1976, 1978).

The importance of declarative knowledge in understanding children's deficits has been demonstrated in several recent studies comparing the learning abilities of children and adults. Both age groups are typically presented with two sets of stimuli to remember. One set has been selected to be most familiar to adults, whereas the other set has been selected to be most familiar to children. For example, the stimulus materials might consist of categorized word lists, with some word categories more familiar to adults and some more familiar to children (see Lindberg, 1980). When participants are asked to recall the stimuli, children exhibit better recall than adults with child-oriented materials. The opposite effect occurs with adult-oriented material. In addition, the pattern of recall is much more organized or clustered for adults remembering adult-oriented material and for children remembering child-oriented material.

Procedural Knowledge

Young children fail to use a variety of procedures aimed at promoting information processing. Strategies for encoding and grouping information facilitate the permanent storage of incoming information. Strategies for searching permanent memory facilitate the retrieval of previously stored information. Younger children are at a disadvantage because they have not yet acquired these strategies (Hagen, Jongeward, and Kail, 1975), do not yet know how to apply these strategies (Paris, 1978), or do not recognize that a particular situation warrants the use of these strategies (Flavell and Wellman, 1977). Limitations with respect to strategy utilization can be further identified as production or mediational deficits. A production deficit exists when a child does not spontaneously produce a strategy but can use the strategy to improve performance when prompted to do so. Children with mediational deficits can also use a strategy when prompted but the strategy fails to enhance performance. Mediational deficits are common in preschoolers, whereas production deficits are more characteristic of children in the early elementary school grades (Flavell, 1970).

Both types of deficits have been demonstrated with a number of mnemonic strategies (Brown, 1975). Examinations of children's rehearsal abilities provide a good example of this approach. Children are typically presented with lists of words or other stimuli, one word or stimulus at a time. Children are given either specific rehearsal instructions (practice each word with as many preceding words as possible) or no special instructions. After presentation of the material, children are asked to recall as much information as possible.

In studies such as these, only older children spontaneously use a rehearsal strategy; therefore, they exhibit better recall than younger children. With instructions to rehearse, younger children with a production deficit also use a rehearsal strategy, resulting in levels of recall similar to those of older children (see Ornstein, Naus, and Stone, 1977). However, rehearsal instructions fail to enhance the poor performance of children with mediational deficits (see Naus, Ornstein, and Aivano, 1977).

Declarative Knowledge v. Procedural Knowledge

The evidence reported here supports the role of limitations in declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge as contributors to young children's processing deficits. Declarative knowledge provides conceptual and contextual guidelines for processing, whereas procedural knowledge provides strategic guidance.

At issue is which type of limitation is most important in explaining children's deficits. The available evidence indicates different relative importances in different situations. Procedural knowledge limitations totally explain young children's deficits in some situations (Ornstein, Naus, and Stone, 1977) but not in others (Butterfield, Wambold, and Belmont, 1973). Declarative knowledge limitations totally account for young children's deficits in some situations (Lindberg, 1980) but not in others (Kobasigawa, 1977).


Young children's deficits have been traced to limitations in declarative knowledge regarding facts and conceptual relationships and procedural knowledge regarding the use of memory strategies. Limited procedural knowledge affects children's abilities to execute plans for encoding, organizing, and retrieving information. These deficiencies are heightened by the possibility that young children may have little declarative knowledge needed to guide the encoding, organization, and retrieval of information.

However, the emergence of these deficits is not invariant across all situations or all tasks. The extent to which young children exhibit deficits depends on the processing demands of the task. The more difficult the task, the more likely it is to overwhelm children's limited processing abilities.

Processing demands are affected by a number of quantitative and qualitative factors. Quantitative factors affect the amount of task-related information to be processed. Qualitative factors affect the effort required to process task-related information. Both types are discussed in more detail below.

Quantitative Factors

Quantitative factors can reduce processing demands by reducing the amount of task-related information that needs to be processed. This is typically achieved by reducing the total amount of information in a task (see Case, 1978). Reducing the total amount of information increases children's abilities in a variety of situations such as problem-solving (Baron, Lawson, and Siegel, 1975) and choice (Capon and Kuhn. 1980).

Processing demands can also be reduced by reducing the amount of information that must be processed at one point in time. A processing task is separated into its component parts and the information relevant to each part is presented sequentially. This approach appears to be particularly successful in problem-solving tasks (Bryant and Trabasso, 1971).

Qualitative Factors

Qualitative factors can reduce processing demands by reducing the effort required to process task-related information. Encoding, organization, and retrieval operations can be facilitated in three different ways -by varying stimulus familiarity, information format, and instruction set.

Stimulus Familiarity. Familiarity with stimulus materials affects the ease with which children can encode and organize information (Chi, 1978; Lindberg, 1980). As a result, children exhibit greater abilities when faced with familiar stimuli. With familiar stimuli on familiar topics, children remember more information (Lindberg, 1980; Ornstein and Corsale, 1979), can better understand other people's feelings and emotions (Rothenberg, 1970), and are more able to construct causal explanations (Berzonsky, 1971).

Information Format. The manner in which information is presented also influences the effort required to process information (Bettman, 1979). Among those format factors that might be considered, organization and mode of presentation appear to have the strongest and most consistent effects on children's processing abilities.

Mode of presentation can facilitate processing by promoting multiple associations to single items of information in memory (Kieras, 1978). Children remember information conveyed in a pictorial form better than written (Cole, Frankel, and Sharp, 1971) or spoken words (Kee, 1976). The addition of pictures to spoken words enables children to remember more information than words presented alone (Kee, Bell, and Davis, 1981; Nelson, 1980). Mode effects are also evident in narratives. The addition of pictures to written texts increases recall over that obtained with the written text alone (Rusted and Coltheart, 1979).

Information organization, in contrast to presentation mode. facilitates processing by promoting associations between discrete items in memory. Children remember related pieces of information far better than unrelated pieces. In particular, children can recall more material when information is organized according to taxonomic categories (Cole, Frankel, and Sharp, 1971; Yoshimura, Moely, and Shapiro, 1971) or, in the case of narratives,. Organized with respect to temporal order (Brown and

Murphy, 1975; Collins. et al.. 1978).

Instruction Set. Instruction sets can reduce processing demand by reducing the effort required to use certain mnemonic strategies. Instructions can be used to inform children when to use a strategy, how to use a strategy, or both. As such, instructions can reduce the amount of processing effort that might otherwise be needed in deciding what strategy to use or in producing the correct strategy.

Two types of instructions have proven useful in guiding the encoding and storage of incoming information: rehearsal instructions and imagery instructions. Rehearsal instructions, which typically involve telling children to practice sequentially-presented pieces of information together, enhance young children's ability to remember information (Bray, et al., 1977; Hagen, Hargrave, and Ross 1973; Ornstein, Naus, and Stone, 1977). Imagery instructions, which typically entail asking children to create mental pictures or to imagine how objects "go together," also have a facilitating effect on young children's memory for information (Jusczyk, Kemler, and Bubis, 1975; Kemler and Jusczyk, 1975; Yarmey and Bowen, 1972).

Instructions can also be useful in guiding the organization of incoming information. Children are typically told to sort items into groups of items that are similar. Instructions to sort in this manner are thought to be helpful because young children may otherwise fail to use their knowledge of relationships as a means for organizing incoming information. By increasing the saliency of organizational strategies, sorting instructions do increase young children's ability to remember information (Bjorklund, Ornstein, and Haig, 1977; Lange and Griffith, 1977; Worden, 1975).


The degree to which young children exhibit processing deficits depends upon a variety of task factors. Deficits are less apparent under task conditions which reduce the processing demands placed upon children -conditions which either simplify or facilitate the processing of task-related information.

These findings suggests general strategies for alleviating children's deficits. The amount of task-related information can be reduced. Information can be presented in the context of familiar situations with familiar characters. Information can be presented in an organized manner or with the aid of pictorial stimuli. Or, instructional guidance with respect to the use of memory strategies can be Provided.

These general strategies can be tailored to fit particular tasks. For example, specific strategies can be developed to alleviate children's deficits in a number of consumer tasks. The usefulness of this approach is illustrated below for two consumer tasks: processing advertising messages and selecting products.

Advertising Strategies

Young children exhibit deficits in comprehending several aspects of commercial messages and remembering product-related information (Adler, 1980). Both comprehension and retention can be important for product evaluation.

Comprehension of advertising claims is a necessary prerequisite for evaluating the merits of new products. Retention of product-related information facilitates the comparison of alternative products on important attributes.

Several strategies are available to advertisers for enhancing children's processing of advertising messages. The first is to reduce the amount of information included in the commercial message. This can be easily achieved by reducing the amount of attribute information. Presentation of a limited amount of information is particularly important in the case of externally-paced media such as television and radio.

Processing can also be furthered by varying the way in which information is presented. The simplest method is to present attribute or product-related information in words accompanied by pictorial stimuli. Particular care must be exercised in implementing this strategy to insure that the pictorial stimuli communicates the same information as the written or spoken text. Otherwise, the pictorial stimuli will increase the total amount of commercial information or will distract attention from the written or spoken text.

The organizational structure of the message can be varied to promote children's processing. Because children are particularly sensitive to temporal order, information should be presented in the proper time sequence. For example, a product demonstration should present the steps in using the product in logical order. Techniques such as flashbacks and quick cuts should be avoided.

The final strategy for advertisers is to present product information in concepts and language familiar to children. For example, product disclosures such as "requires assembly" could be framed in terms more familiar to children -"you have to put it together." In addition to familiar concepts and terminology, children's processing might also be furthered by using familiar characters (in terms of age/sex) in familiar situations.

Choice Strategies

Young children exhibit deficits in choice situations as a result of limited comparative skills. These children experience difficulties in comparing multiple objects on the basis of multiple criteria (Capon and Kuhn, 1980). Young children tend to make judgments and choices based upon a single attribute or few salient attributes (Wartella, et al., 1979).

The obvious strategy for facilitating children's comparative skills is to reduce the quantity of information by reducing the number of products or number of attributes to be considered. This approach is likely to be effective but unlikely to be practical. Neither advertisers, educators, nor regulators have control over the products and attributes children elect to consider in making a choice.

The only alternative is to teach children strategies for simplifying the choice situation. One way to achieve this is teaching children to break the selection process into several steps. For example, a choice situation could be broken into the following steps: (l) selecting all products that are "acceptable" (2) rating or ranking each of the acceptable products (3) selecting the best of these products. Partitioning the selection process into its component parts should reduce the amount of information to be considered at a particular time.

In addition to partitioning the selection process, children might also be taught choice strategies that simplify the selection process. Lexicographic, conjunctive, and disjunctive rules are representative of the strategies often used to simplify choices. Although simplifying rules may not provide children with the means to make "optimal" choices, their use can reduce the scope of the comparative task to one within the capability of younger children.


Young children exhibit deficits as a result of limitations in procedural and declarative knowledge. Deficits are more or less evident depending upon the processing demands of tasks. Processing demands, in turn, depend upon a variety of factors such as the quantity of information and the manner in which information is presented. Children's deficits can be alleviated by devising strategies to reduce the amount of information to be processed or the effort required to process a particular amount of information.


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Deborah L. Roedder, University of California, Los Angeles


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

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