Teaching Kids About Cause and Effect

Well before kids can even understand the concept, parents start talking to them in terms of cause and effect. We say things like, "Once you eat all of your food, you can have some dessert," and "We need to brush your teeth or they'll get rotten and you'll get cavities." These comments help them start learning that for every cause, there is ​a related effect.

Cause and effect is a theme that also comes up time and time again in learning in just about every subject. In math, it's a way to make sense of concepts like the order of operations or regrouping. In reading and writing, understanding cause and effect can help your child learn to read more critically and to write stories with captivating plots and fascinating characters. In science, it will help your child understand the scientific method; in history, it provides perspective for how a historical event is a culmination in the chain of a series of causes and events; and in social relationships, cause and effect is a key way of learning to engage more appropriately.

Here's a great activity to help teach kids about cause and effect.

Activity Goals

Image: Amanda Morin created in Easelly

The goal of this activity is that your child will learn about the relationship between cause and effect, recognize "clue words" that indicate cause and effect, understand that sometimes a cause can also be an effect (and vice versa), and see that these relationships can be found in all aspects of life.

Skills Targeted

The skills this activity are intended to target include:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Reading and verbal comprehension ("word clues")
  • The ability to understand that the outcomes are determined by prior actions or reactions

Activity: Teaching Kids About Cause and Effect

  1. Begin by reading a story together or doing a science experiment with a clear cause-effect outcome (like the Dancing Raisin Experiment). Then discuss the concept of cause and effect with your child. Ask her if she has ever heard the phrase before and, if so, see if she can explain what it means.
  2. Continue your discussion by talking about how events are connected to each other and that the cause is the thing that makes something happen, while the effect is the thing that happens (the reaction).
  3. Ask your child to provide you with an example of a cause and effect from the book you read or the experiment you did. Then see if she can provide one from real life as well. Ask: Do things always happen in pairs of cause and effect and then stop? Are there times when something is caused by more than one thing or that the first reaction is the cause of another reaction?
  4. Provide a simple example of an event that is a series of cause-effect relationships, either verbally or in pictures. You can sing a song like, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” in which each thing the old lady swallows compels her to swallow something else which triggers another reaction and so forth, or you could simply pull up a picture of a Rube Goldberg Machine to show how each action of a piece of the machine causes a reaction of another piece.

Recommended Reading for Younger Children

Laura Numeroff’s "If You Give..." series of books (including If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Take a Mouse to School, etc.). Even though each consequence or effect is more ridiculous than the next, these brilliantly illustrated books walk children step-by-step through cause and effect relationships, one sentence at a time.

Cause and Effect Clue Words

Once you and your child have talked about and read stories that deal with cause and effect, your child might have started to notice a pattern of words that indicate cause and effect. Ask her if she can list some of the “clue words” that she can use when she writes or look for when she reads that indicate cause and effect. For example:

  • As a result
  • Because
  • Consequently
  • Due to
  • Nevertheless
  • Since
  • So
  • The reason that/the reason for
  • Therefore
  • Thus

Extend the Learning

Now that he knows some clue words, ask your child to use some of these clue words to write a paragraph describing a cause and effect event that happened in his own life.

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