Intelligence isn’t fixed. We aren’t born with a concrete amount of intellgence that fixes our intellectual destiny. It can go up, it can go down – particularly in childhood and adolescence.
It all depends on what you do with the wonderful brain you have. How you approach life, plus opportunities and experiences can make a difference – to your actual brain structure.
Take one example: London cabbies. Research from University College London1 (2011) showed that parts of the brains of trainee cabbies related to memory grew when they were working towards The Knowledge, the test that shows they know how to get to the thousands of streets that make up the maze that is London. And Spanish research from 2019 shows even people in their 90s are still producing new brain cells.2
And then there is the issue of Nobel prize winners. They don’t generally emerge as super-bright children; they develop over time. A major study of 1,470 Californian children3 who came top in an ability test at 13 managed to miss two future Nobel science prize winners: Luis Alvarez and William Shockley.4 They were rejected from the study because the test suggested they weren’t smart enough.
What this research proves is that exceptional intelligence (the capacity to do well at school) is not a particularly strong component of exceptional performance. It depends on what you do – or don’t do – with the intelligence your genes have made possible.5
If traits that research connects to good performance at school such as curiosity, motivation and focus6 are modelled in the family and at school, then pretty much any child (who is not learning-impaired) can grow their intelligence and do well in class. And a parent can have a bigger impact than any school: research has proved that, too.7
Here are 5 things you can do to encourage your children’s intelligence to grow:
1. Stay curious
Curiosity is the superhero of learning and intelligence. If you are curious, your children probably will be too. When they are tiny and deluge you with questions, answer them, or eventually they will stop asking and stop learning. Research shows children’s questions quickly dry up when they get to school because there is often no time to answer them.8 Get into the habit of asking, “I wonder why…?” about things when you are with your family, and your children may too.
2. Keep motivated
Motivation helps us learn but we need to be able to motivate ourselves. Bribes to make children do their homework or get good grades don’t work long term because that is extrinsic motivation: you’re motivated by a reward. What you are looking to grow in your children is intrinsic motivation: you are motivated to do something by your own interest in it. You can model that yourself, whether it’s cooking or gardening or running or whatever else you love to do.
3. Encourage competence
How do you encourage that personal motivation? By encouraging your child to have feelings of competence, a can-do attitude. Humans are known to need to build skills and feel effective to do well. Support your child in acquiring those skills, whether it’s reading, riding a bike, painting or understanding the sky at night.
4. Nurture resilience
To build intelligence, you need a positive mindset that allows you to understand that mistakes or difficulties in learning something are only obstacles that you need to work through – and not evidence of the limit of your abilities. Help your child get organised so they have strategies to work through problems, so that they see a problem as an opportunity to learn, not as a dead end. Model this strategy yourself, too: giving up on putting up that shelf in the kitchen because you are “rubbish at it: is modelling a negative mindset; looking up a YouTube video which shows you how you could do it is modelling a positive mindset.
5. Take an interest
If your child is interested in something, take an interest in it, too. Encourage them to talk to you about it, so they are learning by the very art of teaching you. Give them opportunities to take the interest further. This is not about being pushy: keep it pretty light touch. And share your own interests to encourage theirs. When you feel supported and cared for by others, you learn better.
About our expert, Wendy Berliner
Wendy Berliner is a former award-winning senior Guardian journalist specialising in education. She has also edited the Times Educational Supplement, worked on the Independent and as joint CEO of the Education Media Centre. She has also worked in Dubai where she was Director of Parental Engagement for one of the world’s largest international school groups. She is co-author of Great Minds and How to Grow to Grow Them, a best-selling book for parents on high performance learning published, and How to Succeed at School: Separating Fact from Fiction (Routledge, 2020)
1. Acquiring ‘the Knowledge’ of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain Changes. Woollett K & Maguire EA, (2011) Current Biology. Vol. 21. Issue 24. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.018
2. Adult hippocampal neurogenesis is abundant in neurologically healthy subjects and drops sharply in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Moreno-Jiménez P et al (2019), Nature Medicine, Vol 25, pages 554 to 560. doi.org/10.1038/s41591-019-0375-9
3. The Terman Genetic Studies of Genius Terman, L (1926). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
4. Recognising Spatial Intelligence. Park, G et al. Scientific American, Nov 1 2010.
5 Genome-wide association meta-analysis of 78,308 individuals identifies new loci and genes influencing human intelligence. Sniekers, S et al. (2017) Nature Genetics, Vol 49, pp. 1107 to 1112. doi: 10.1038/ng.3869; Genome-wide association meta-analysis in 269,867 individuals identifies new genetic and functional links to intelligence. Savage, JE et al. (2018) Nature Genetics, Vol 50, pp. 912 to 919. doi: 10.1038/s41588-018-0152-6
6. Early childhood curiosity and kindergarten reading and math academic achievement. Shah, PE et al (2018). Pediatric Research. doi:10.1038/s41390–41018–0039–0033
7. The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment. Desforges, C with Abouchaar, A (2003) Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills.
8. The Hungry Mind. Engel, S (2015). Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press; Children’s need to know: curiosity in school. Engel S (2011) Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 81, No 4, pp. 625 to 645. doi: 10.17763/haer.81.4.h054131316473115