Intelligence in children:
Can we make our kids smarter?
© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Intelligence-boosting products are big business: Books, toys, DVDs,
software, games, and educational programs designed to make your child
into an intellectual prodigy.
Many of these products come with claims--explicit or implicit--that their usefulness is supported by scientific evidence. Are they really?
Sometimes. For instance, scientific studies suggest that
But many “brainy” products are ineffective. As I note in this blog post, a controlled experiment has failed to show that infants learn to read from media-based instructional programs (Neuman et al 2014). And the evidence suggests that very young children don't learn to talk by watching TV. Instead, babies learn language by listening to and interacting with live human beings
Then there are misconceptions and folk beliefs, like the idea
that praising kids for their intelligence will raise self-esteem and
improve their academic performance.
An impressive series of experiments suggests that the opposite is true. Praising kids for being smart tends to make them act dumb.
Even more interesting--at least to me--is the discovery that our beliefs about intelligence can hamper the learning
process. People who are convinced that intelligence is a fixed, unchanging trait are
less likely to learn from their mistakes and less likely to succeed in school.
Moreover, experiments suggest that your child's awareness of
stereotypes about intelligence and achievement (e.g., "girls have
stronger language skills," or "Asian kids are math prodigies") can
undermine his academic performance.
So here I present my guide to the “good bets”—evidence-based information
about the ways that parents can nurture their children’s intelligence. I will be adding more articles over time.
Exercise and intelligence
It’s both intriguing and unexpected: Aerobic exercise stimulates
brain growth and enhances our ability to learn. Studies also suggest
that exercise helps kids focus attention in school. But there’s a catch: To reap full benefits, exercise must be voluntary.
Click here for the whole story.
Free play promotes better learning, memory, and growth of the
cerebral cortex. It also enhances the development of language, spatial
intelligence, counterfactual reasoning, and mathematical skills. For more information,
see this article about the cognitive benefits of play.
Working memory: The new IQ?
New research indicates that working memory capacity--that mental
notepad that we use to think thoughts and solve problems--is a better
predictor of school achievement than IQ. Read more about
working memory and the evidence that you can improve it with training.
There's also good evidence that gesturing with your hands
improves your ability to remember and learn. Cognitive psychologist
Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues have conducted a series of
experiments showing that kids are more likely to remember words, events,
and even math lessons when they gesture with their hands.
For the details, see this article on the science of gestures.
Parental sensitivity, attachment security, and intelligence
Researchers have noted a correlation between child IQ scores and
attachment status. For instance, one study of 36 middle-class mothers
and their three-year-olds found that securely-attached children scored
12 points higher on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test than did
insecurely attached children (Crandell and Hobson 1999).
What’s responsible for this correlation? It’s possible that more
intelligent children have an easier time forming secure attachments. For
instance, more intelligent kids are probably better at interpreting
their parents’ behavior and selecting the most appropriate response
(Waters and Valenzuela 1999).
But there is also evidence suggesting that
responsive parenting—which promotes secure attachments—contributes to
In experiments with families at high risk for poor child outcomes, researchers randomly assigned some mothers to
receive training in responsive parenting techniques. The infants of
trained mothers showed greater growth in cognitive skills than did the
infants of control moms (Landry et al 2003; 2006).
The results are consistent with a recent study that attributes the cognitive advantages of breastfed babies to sensitive, responsive parenting (Gibbs and Forste 2014).
Mindsets for failure: Beliefs that hold your child back
Does your child believe that intelligence is a fixed trait?
Fascinating experiments indicate that what we believe about intelligence can impede our ability to learn.
People who believe that intelligence is a fixed, stable trait are
more likely to avoid challenges. They are also less likely to learn
from their mistakes--and the difference shows up in bran scans. Read more about this phenomenon and how it affects kids.
Does your child believe that “people like me” don’t do well academically?
If so, her beliefs might be undermining her performance in school.
Sound like politically correct propaganda? There is actually a lot of
solid experimental evidence confirming the existence of “stereotype
Learn more about this research and what you can do to counteract its effects.
How praise can undermine your child’s capacity to learn
Praise can be a great motivator. But it can also make kids focus on
the wrong goals. Research shows that the wrong kinds of praise can
actually undermine motivation and leave kids feeling helpless when they
fail. For more information, see
this article about the perils of praising kids for being smart.
Sleep and intelligence
Sleep and learning
There is a convincing body of evidence to suggest that we are
more likely to retain what we’ve learned-and more likely to achieve new
insights—if we go to sleep shortly after our studies (Gais et al 2006;
Wagner et al 2004).
People don’t need to sleep all night for the effect to work. Naps
as short as 60 minutes may be just as effective, as long as they
include slow-wave (non-REM) sleep (Mednick et al 2003; Alger et al
The effect has been demonstrated on kids as well as adults
(Backhaus et al 2008; Kurdziel et al 2013). So it seems to make sense
for kids to schedule their studies before naps and bedtime.
Unfortunately, institutionalized learning doesn’t make room for
study-naps! It would appear that home-schoolers, and other kids with
flexible academic schedules, are at a distinct advantage.
Sleep and cognitive development
It’s also possible that chronic sleep restriction has a lasting effect on cognitive performance.
In a study tracking Canadian kids from age 2.5 to 6 years,
researchers found that kids who were poor sleepers as toddlers performed
more poorly on neurodevelopmental tests when they were 6 years old
(Touchette et al 2007).
This was true even for kids whose sleep improved after age 3. The
researchers speculate that there may be a “critical period” in early
childhood, when the effects of sleep restriction are especially harmful
(Touchette et al 2007).
Math, logic, and critical thinking
Stanislaus Dehaene is a cognitive scientist and expert on the mathematical brain.
He argues that many kids have poor math skills because they are discouraged from developing an intuitive sense of number.
For more information, check out this article about number sense.
In addition, see this article about the way that some board games can help preschoolers develop their math skills.
And what about logic? Experimental studies suggest that
instruction in critical thinking--including lessons in basic logic,
hypothesis testing, and scientific reasoning--can raise a child's IQ.
Unfortunately, such lessons are not yet a common part of most high
school--let alone middle school curricula. Even worse, I suspect that
the media and other influences are training our kids to think with
blinders on. To see what I mean, read this article on critical thinking in children.
Spatial skills are crucial for success in a variety of fields,
ranging from physics and engineering to architecture and the visual
arts. Your child's performance on spatial tasks has a hereditary
component, but it's clear that educational experiences can also have a
Read more about it in my evidence-based overview, "Spatial intelligence in children: Why training matters."
And for research-based activities that may boost your child's spatial skills, see this article.
Kids show greater motivation and perform better when they get to choose what they do (Iyengar and Lepper 1999).
Well—that’s true for some American kids, anyway. It turns out
that the effect is culture-specific. One study compared Anglo-American
and Asian American kids. While the Anglo-Americans preferred tasks they
had chosen for themselves, the Asian Americans showed more motivation
when their choices were made for them by trusted authority figures or
peers (Iyengar and Lepper 1999).
The upshot? There may be no “one size fits all” approach to
classroom learning. Some kids may thrive when teachers give them
choices. Others might find this approach to be disconcerting.
Toys and games that boost cognitive skills
Although there is evidence that action video games improve spatial
skills and may even help dyslexic children learn to read, some of the most important developmental toys and games are
the most old-fashioned.
For instance, research suggests that toy blocks may enhance spatial, math, problem-solving, and verbal skills. Find evidence-based information about blocks and other toys in these Parenting Science pages.
References: Nurturing intelligence and promoting achievement in kids
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Backhaus J, Hoeckesfeld R, Born J, and Jung. 2008. Immediate as
well as delayed post learning sleep but not wakefulness enhances
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Crandell LE and Hobson RP. 1999. Individual differences in young
children's IQ: a social-developmental perspective. J Child Psychol
Gais S, Lucas B, and Born J. 2006. Sleep after learning aids memory recall. Learning and Memory 13: 259-262.
Iyengar SS and Lepper MR. 1999. Rethinking the value of choice: a
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Kurdziel L, Duclos K, and Spencer R. 2013. Sleep spindles in
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Content last modified 3/14