Six ways to enhance your kids' cognitive ability

by Sally Blundell / 29 July, 2016
University of Otago professor Jim Flynn suggests six tips.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

A Google search on how to raise your or your child’s IQ yields more than a million results. Some are supported by science: physical activity, curiosity, social connections, meditation or mindfulness, sleep, a reduction in stress. Others, such as juggling, controlled breathing, affirmations and playing Mozart, have no scientific validity. To enhance cognitive ability in your family, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago Jim Flynn suggests:

1. Be a good role model: If parents read widely, are well informed, talk, challenge and react to the world with intelligent criticism, their children tend to take it for granted that that’s how a person should be.

2. Make reading a lifelong habit: Read to your babies and children. As you read, elaborate, make connections, elicit know­ledge or ideas: “Who do you know that has a black dog? What do birds eat? Why did she do that? Which one do you like best?

3. Talk aloud: Expose children to the full range of your vocabulary and interests, chat with them at mealtimes, tell them how to do something rather than just showing them.

4. Choose schools well: Class size does matter. Although the improvement varies depending on the subject, children in smaller classes do better on standardised achievement tests. Find a new-entrant teacher who shows good emotional support and sympathy as much as instructional technique.

5. Make homework automatic: Praise children for their hard work rather than for their intelligence. Encourage them much more than you reprimand them.

6. Don’t seek perfection: Driving yourself into a frenzy trying to raise the bar won’t benefit anyone. Don’t push in the face of resistance and destroy the pleasures your life and child should give you.

And screen time? The jury’s still out. Some studies show computer games such as SimCity, Civilization and Minecraft teach logic, decision-making and analytical skills and that computer use in general increases the speed at which people can shift focus between icons. This “visual-spatial intelligence” allows us to keep track of myriad rapidly changing signals and is also related to higher-order cognitive processes such as abstract vocabulary, problem-solving, critical thinking and imagination.

But writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, US writer Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argues that the sheer multiplicity of online content affects our ability to retain information. People who read text studded with links, he writes, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages. We remember less from busy multimedia presentations than we do from information that is presented to us in a more focused manner.

The constant distraction of emails, updates and other messages impedes our concentration and understanding. When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, writes Carr, “our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.”

Certainly the ability to absorb information by scanning and browsing is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively (most of us skim articles to get the gist of a piece of writing), but what’s disturbing, writes Carr, is when that skimming becomes our dominant mode of thought.

Susan Greenfield, a senior research fellow at Oxford University agrees. Reliance on search engines and surfing the internet may foster superficial mental processing, she wrote in the British Medical Journal in 2015, but this comes “at the expense of deep knowledge and understanding”.

The debate over the risk and merits of online activity continues, but time spent on mobile devices and computers is time not spent on physical exercise, exploring the world, interacting with friends and family, reading, daydreaming and sleeping. Research has found that teens in the US now spend about nine hours a day using digital media for enjoyment; in Britain, teens are using screen technologies for an average of 10.75 hours a day.

Given the changes in brain structure and function in response to any experience, it would be surprising, concludes Greenfield, if many hours of internet use or gaming each day did not influence this neuroplasticity.

Read more: How much sway do our genes really hold over our IQ?

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