How to Raise Your Child's Intelligence before Kindergarten

We parents spend a lot of time, energy, and money to advance our children's intelligence. Researchers have just made that job a lot easier by identifying the four most effective things we can do before kindergarten to give our children the best start on their intellectual development.

Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of the focus on "intelligence." It is too narrow a concept--the tests for it are culturally biased in favor of White middle class kids, there are many ways to be intelligent and successful that the tests don't measure, it is not predictive of life success, and social and emotional skills are just as important as intellectual ability. That said, in the right hands an intelligence test can be a useful diagnostic tool, and the term intelligence  offers one way to talk about intellectual, or I prefer the broader term "cognitive," skills. But I admit, I couldn't help but peek at this research if even to compare it against how I nurtured these qualities in my own children. A common theme jumped out at me, which I'll get to.

New York University researchers John Protzko, Joshua Aronson, and Clancy Blair looked at 74 interventions that were designed to raise children's intelligence from the prenatal period to kindergarten with the goal of uncovering the most effective ones. They included only studies that met the gold standard of research design--the randomized control study--and they published their findings in the January issue of of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

What did they discover? Four significant building blocks of intelligence in early childhood:

1. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) supplements for pregnant mothers and newborns - IQ gains of more than three and a half points.

Pregnant mothers are encouraged to take many kinds of supplements but only LC-PUFA--found in foods rich in Omega-3s--raised young children't IQs, either when pregnant mothers were given the supplement or it was added to infant formula. The fatty acids are thought to be essential building blocks for nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex--and the body can't produce them on its own. One study showed that very young children who received the supplements for 8 weeks showed more activation in the prefrontal cortex than those who did not.

2. Cognitive complexity and language-rich environments – IQ gains of more than seven points.

Exposure to cognitively rich activities—books, puzzles, interesting verbal interactions—was found to raise young children’s IQs by more than seven points. These activities were particularly effective for children from economically disadvantaged homes who attended specially designed day care centers that offered these opportunities. Parents at home can also be trained to offer the same kinds of stimulating activities. Not all intellectual stimulation is the same, though: Music, computerized games of attention skills, and nonverbal reasoning tasks did not raise IQ.

For decades, we’ve known that when adults talk with young children it stimulates cognitive development. These analyses showed that one unique style of conversation, in which the adult encourages a child to reminisce about or narrate her experiences, is especially effective. In one study of 20-month-olds, mothers were trained to draw out a child’s stories with open-ended questions, to listen well, and to encourage the child’s interests. The result? Compared to a control group, the children had a six point rise in IQ.

3. Interactive reading, especially before age 4 – IQ gains over six points.

Close up of story time

Again, we’ve known for some time that reading to children enhances their cognitive development. This analysis showed that it’s the interactive nature of the reading process that’s most helpful. When parents help children learn to read, when they ask open-ended questions, when they follow the child’s interests in the story, children benefit. It’s the active participation of both parties that fosters the deeper thinking skills.

 4. Attending a quality preschool, especially those that emphasize language development – IQ gains over seven points.

Sending children to preschool alone made a four-point IQ gain, but preschools with a focus on language skills created a seven-point gain, again especially for economically disadvantaged children. Language-rich programs expose children to new ideas, labels for concepts, and new problem-solving opportunities, all important early intellectual skills. Shorter programs were just as effective as longer programs.

So what does this mean?

The authors take care to say that this study is not the final word on children’s intelligence and that more work needs to be done. They’re in the process of creating a large Database of Raising Intelligence to sort out strategies that work from those that don’t, and to determine the sensitive periods, or windows of opportunity, for various intelligence-raising interventions for children who need them.  For example, it didn’t seem to matter whether economically disadvantaged children received an earlier center-based intervention or one that took place a little later.

Many parents believe that the more they stimulate a child, the farther ahead a child will be. The common thread I see in this research, and something that developmental psychologists already know, is that the best environments for children are ones in which an adult is interested in and enjoys a child. (My grown daughters fondly remember their dad’s science demonstrations in the fireplace.) Psychologists say that relationships are “developmental delivery vehicles.” That is, an adult’s genuine interest translates naturally into language-rich interactions that sensitively and joyfully teach children on multiple levels simultaneously, and the physical and emotional closeness and undivided attention convey security and help focus a child’s learning.

And don’t forget the fish oil.