Can You Boost Your Child’s Intelligence?

What makes a smart kid may surprise you

Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, MPH, JD on June 01, 2007

Aside from genetics, what influences your child's IQ? Clearly, good nutrition, protection from toxins, and plenty of playtime and exercise can nurture a child's intelligence. But can you really build a smarter child?

Many child development experts now focus less on measuring a child's IQ than on helping children reach their full intellectual potential -- but without adding too much pressure.

WebMD talked with pediatric experts about how a child's intelligence develops. None is touting the flashiest toys, computer programs, or latest Baby Mozart video. In fact, you may find that their insights help your child's IQ far more than any fad.

A Child's IQ: How Does a Child's Brain Develop?

Before birth to age 4, an child's brain grows explosively. In fact, your child's brain has reached 90% of its adult size before kindergarten. This period of great growth provides an ideal window of opportunity for learning.

But the brain doesn't stop developing at age 4. The young brain continues to organize and restructure throughout childhood -- even into early adult life -- as it becomes more complex. Unfortunately, knowing about the brain's early growth has prompted many parents to panic about their child's IQ or push their kids into "primo preschools."

"It's a classic American concern -- how to accelerate learning," says Ross A. Thompson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. "Many parents believe that if their children learn fast early, they will remain accelerated. But children learn best at a natural rate. Those who show early advances settle out by the time they reach grade school. Others catch up."

The early years do matter, says Thompson. "But lower circuits in the brain must be built before higher circuits, and advanced skills must be based on basic skills," he says.

Your Child's IQ: Emotion Drives Learning

One of these basic skills involves creating a template for close relationships -- usually through early attachment to parents and caregivers. Critical to emotional and social development, attachment also helps build a smart child.

Being attuned to your child's inner mental life helps a developing brain become integrated, says Daniel J. Siegel, MD, director of the Center for Human Development at the UCLA School of Medicine, writing in Infant Mental Health Journal. That connection also provides a kind of "safety net" for your child's brain, adds Siegel, who studies how relationships affect learning.

"Close, affectionate relationships throughout childhood are important, but especially when a child is little," says Pat Wolfe, EdD, educational consultant and co-author of Building the Reading Brain. One way to attune to your child is to listen closely and make eye contact. "If you only pretend to listen because you're distracted, kids pick up on that really fast," she says. Other ways to connect? With your facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and other nonverbal signals. When your child is older, one of the best things you can do is to talk about the day, she says.

Connecting with you helps a child's brain develop, says Thompson, because neurons get connected through social connection and language. Childhood learning is also often motivated by close relationships. "Kids become interested in learning because learning is valuable to the people who matter," she says.

By contrast, when children don't feel safe and secure, it impacts their ability to learn.

The amygdala is a structure in the brain that regulates emotion. When children feel threatened, the amygdala creates a fight-or-flight response -- a chain reaction that allows emotion to overrule rational thought by "shutting down" the thinking parts of the brain. Early or long-term stress in a child's life can lead to changes in this part of the brain, making that child more susceptible to stress and less susceptible to learning. But close, loving relationships can protect against this barrier to early learning.

Your Child's IQ: Experience Sculpts the Brain

"The brain is the only organ in the body that sculpts itself through experience," says Wolfe. She adds that we now know experiences actually change and reorganize a child's brain structure and physiology.

Instead of seeing a child's intelligence as a dynamic process, parents too often think of the brain as a vessel that can be simply filled up with knowledge, says Thompson. But that's not the way becoming intelligent works, especially for young children.

"The best learning occurs through active engagement," he says. "A child is thrilled to be counting peas in the context of gardening, measuring ingredients in the context of working with a recipe, or sorting nails in the context of building a birdhouse."

Wolfe agrees: a variety of learning experiences in the real world are good for a child's intelligence. Even at the grocery store, children learn a lot by weighing foods, reading labels, and counting change.

Although eliminating TV and video games may not be entirely realistic, Wolfe says that too much time with media like these puts children in a receptive mode. And that keeps them from a rich, natural interaction with the real world - so important for a child's brain development.

Your Child's IQ: Do You Need Fancy Toys?

At the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, Lisa Oakes, PhD, a professor of psychology and specialist in infant cognition, studies another aspect of childhood intelligence. She examines how infants categorize and make sense of the visual world -- research that makes her question the push by parents to boost a child's IQ with fancy toys.

"We know that stimulation is good for the development of the brain," says Oakes. You probably know that infants need different colors and textures and experiences. "But it doesn't all need to come in one toy," she says.

From her research, she's learned that infants are more interested in the action of a toy than the outcome it produces -- so babies don't need expensive gadgets with lots of "bells and whistles" to learn. But if a certain toy is fun for a parent, it may still have a benefit, she says. That's because babies learn through their parents' reactions, too.

Your Child's IQ: Effort and Mindset

Carol Dweck, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has studied yet another key to making a smart child. Through 20 years of research, she's found that differences in children's mindsets affect their motivation to learn and ultimately their performance in school.

Dweck learned that middle school students who believed intelligence was fixed tried to preserve their self-image by only doing what they -- as smart kids -- already knew how to do well. "They didn't want to risk their precious label -- being smart," says Dweck. Their fixed mindset, ultimately, could limit intelligence growth.

By contrast, kids with a "growth mindset" were attracted to challenges even if they failed at first. These kids thought about what they would do differently next time, such as how they would study harder to score higher on a test. When asked what they would do differently, kids with a "fixed mindset" said they would study less or even consider cheating.

"After all, if you think intelligence is fixed and you do poorly, what are your choices?" says Dweck.

So she took her work further. She began to teach kids that the brain is like a muscle, it gets stronger with use, it makes new connections and this can make you smarter over time. When she re-tested these students who had learned to have a "growth mindset," their grades and study habits improved considerably after only two months.

A Child's IQ: Praise the Effort

Dweck began her research after seeing parents put too much emphasis on praising "intelligence" and pushing their kids. She learned early on that certain kinds of praise actually backfire.

Praising only intelligence can send the message that being smart is a natural gift and thus out of a child's control, she says. Instead, give kids the idea that hard work is always needed for achievement.

If you want to praise, she says, praise your child's process, commitment, the strategies that work. Focus on the learning, not just the grades. Do you tell your child, "Easy A, wow, you're smart!" Or, do you ask, "What did you learn in that class?"

Children praised lavishly for their past high performance may be harmed even more than kids who have typically done less well, says Dweck. "The high performers think it's beneath them to try hard -- that it's just for dummies. There's a false promise here: You're so smart, it will just come to you." And when academic success doesn't just happen, some kids may worry that they're no longer the whiz kids they once thought they were and lose their motivation to study.

Of course, we all come with certain natural abilities, says Dweck. "But just because some have a more natural ability doesn't mean others can't learn the skill, too."

"Parents need to value learning, progress, effort, resilience," she says. "Their children will take that with them and enjoy it for a lifetime."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Siegel, D. Infant Mental Health Journal, 2001; vol 22: pp 67-94. Ross A. Thompson, PhD, professor, department of psychology, University of California, Davis. Pat Wolfe, EdD, educational consultant; former teacher; author of Building the Reading Brain, Corwin Press, 2004. Lisa Oakes, PhD, professor of psychology, Center for Mind and Brain, University of California, Davis. Carol Dweck, PhD, professor of psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California; author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2006.

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