Seven Critical Thinking Skills Every Child Needs and How Parents and Teachers Strengthen Them

Middle School student sitting in their desk, smiles into camera

If you want your child to succeed in school, your child needs critical thinking skills.  If you want your child to run the family business successfully someday, or maybe become a professional in a STEM industry field, or healthcare, finance, real estate, management, law, government, the military, or education.  If you want your child to gain the independence as an adult to solve problems and make their own well-informed decisions. To do any of these things, your child needs to develop their critical thinking skills.

This is why educators emphasize the value critical thinking contributes to deep learning in every subject field.  Teachers know to embrace active learning activities like hands-on labs, group problem-solving projects, and debates to strengthen students’ critical thinking.

Employers know the value of high-ability employees. This is why they search for employees with critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and scientific and technological skills to build their businesses. And why in his address to The Economic Club of Indiana, Eli Lilly and Co. Chairman and CEO David Ricks called for investment in educational programs that produce graduates who are strong in critical thinking.

What are the critical thinking skills every child needs to be successful in school?

Critical thinking is the process of purposeful reasoned judgment. It focuses on what to believe or what to do, which is why it is essentially a form of problem-solving and decision-making.  Making a good decision relies on solid evidence, the application of reasonable criteria, and the fair-minded evaluation of alternative points of view. That’s critical thinking in a nutshell as described in the expert consensus reported in the landmark study known as The Delphi Report.

Let’s break it down to its essential skills.  These are the critical thinking skills that children can apply to any kind of problem. 

What is important is that these are the reasoning skills that enable children to solve a problem on the playground, a problem at home, a problem in a school subject, or a problem in a hobby, sport, or the arts. Certainly not every problem. Some are too complex or beyond the child’s level of knowledge or control. But when a problem does fall within the range of what the child knows and can manage to do, then critical thinking is the tool that leads the child to decide how to address that problem.  Here are the skills the child uses and are measured by the Educate Insight K-12 Series:

  1. Analysis — Whether it’s a math problem or a problem, a reading comprehension problem, or a problem with a bully at school, the child uses analytical skills to get the problem right. A child may try to express in words what the difficulty is. Try asking the child more about the problem they are facing and how they will know when the problem is fixed. The child will try to identify and describe as best they can what the basic parts of the problem are and how they relate to each other.
  2. Interpretation – Children are interpreting when they will try to figure out what things mean. The child will endeavor to make sense of other people’s responses to questions, emotional expressions, tones of voice, body language, etc. The child will be interpreting and ascribing meaning to events and actions, not just to words. Interpretation includes making sense of the question in the homework assignment or the material the teacher assigned to be read. You can ask the child what did the other person mean when they said that? Is there any other way to understand what they meant?
  3. Inference — The child uses inference to anticipate consequences and to draw reasonable conclusions. The child may express their inferences by saying what they think is likely to happen or not happen if different approaches or options are used to solve the problem. The child will be concluding the facts from context as the child understands them. If those are the facts, what does the child think will happen next? What conclusion can we draw from this information?
  4. Evaluation — The child uses evaluation when trying to figure out if a person is trustworthy and credible. The child will be asking whether to believe this or that adult, another child, social media post, or text message. The child will be evaluating whether the arguments pro or con make sense. The child will measure the things people post or claim against other things which the child takes to be true. Ask the child if we should believe what that person said? Is that comparison relevant? Does the child agree with the reasons they gave?
  5. Explanation – The child will answer “Why?” questions by giving reasons for what they decided to think or decided to do. The quality of the child’s explanations will depend on many things, including the child’s willingness to share their reasoning and the readiness of others, in particular adults who are important to the child, to listen. Why questions are important. As the child what led them to the decision? Can they tell you more about their reasons for making that choice?
  6. Reflection – The child will think about their own thinking. The child may find that they forgot something important or that they trusted a source that was not credible. The child may think of new options or new implications and decide to change their decision. Taking a moment to self-correct, if needed, can lead to better outcomes and children learn the value of this often by making mistakes and then thinking about what went wrong. Ask the child to remember all the options they had mentioned before. Are they sure that none of those are better?  Do they think we should maybe check our facts again before going ahead?
  7. Numeracy – As the child grows and develops through elementary and middle school ages, the child learns to apply all those same skills to quantitative information. Reasoning with quantitative information embedded in written materials, spoken conversations, and infographics is a fact of life for a school-aged child. The child must analyze that information, make meaning out of it, draw conclusions from it, explain it, evaluate it, and double-check to be sure that the judgments they are making are correct.  Have the child practice by tell you what a chart telling us?  What do those colors, icons, shapes, and lines mean? Is any important information missing?

Learn what the data are telling us about what cultivating strong numeracy in younger children predicts about their academic success in higher grade levels: What We Are Learning About K-12 Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Interested in evaluating the critical thinking of students in your school? Contact us about the Educate Insight series of K-12 reasoning skills and thinking mindset online assessments.

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