7 Secrets to Raising Smart Kids

A guest post article by Tina Barseghian and Jessica Kelmon.

It doesn't take a genius to help a child reach her intellectual potential – just a loving, involved parent. Here are fun and easy ways to encourage your little smarty pants.

1. Feed the brain. We've always heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it's especially true when it comes to your child's developing brain. Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast perform better in attention and memory tests than those who don't.

Why? Food absorbed by our bodies is converted to glucose that powers the body – and the brain. Your child wakes up with an empty tank that needs to be refueled. "Your child's brain needs glucose to function well. Without it, she may have difficulty understanding new information and won't remember things as well," says Terrill Bravender, chief of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital, and professor of clinical pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Research bears this out. Harvard Medical School psychologist J. Michael Murphy and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital re-analyzed the data of a USDA school breakfast pilot project that examined the impact of a universal free breakfast program of 4,000 elementary school students. Murphy’s analysis found that regular breakfast skipping was associated with poorer school attendance and tardiness, less verbal fluency, and more parent- and teacher-related behavior problems.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, agrees with Murphy. "I know principals who keep snacks in their drawers for children with discipline problems. Many times, those kids never ate breakfast," she says.

But don't pull out the sugary cereals just yet. The type of food a child eats is just as important as whether she eats at all. Highly sweetened breakfast cereals can give kids a short-lived sugar high, resulting in the inevitable crash.

Protein- and fiber-rich breakfasts, on the other hand, give the brain sustained go-power. In a study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, children who ate oatmeal for breakfast performed 20 percent better on a map-memorization test than their sugary-cereal-munching counterparts.

"Eating something with complex carbs and protein gives your child's brain a constant, slow infusion of glucose for better brain function," says Bravender. That said, Bravender stresses that when it comes to breakfast something is better than nothing, so make sure your child gets a morning meal.

2. Know your child's learning style. Knowing how your child likes to learn and process information is an invaluable tool that you can use to help your child do better in school and develop a love of learning. Education experts have identified three main types of learners – auditory learners, physical learners, and visual learners.

Auditory learners absorb information best by hearing it through verbal instructions. Physical learners like to use their hands to make discoveries. And visual learners operate best by observing – either in print or with pictures.

When learning a new math concept, for example, a visual learner will grasp the material more quickly by watching his teacher solve a problem on the blackboard or seeing a picture of the problem. An auditory learner will understand the concept if he can listen to the teacher explain it and answer his questions. A physical learner (also called tactual-kinesthetic) may need to use blocks, an abacus, or other counting materials to practice the new concept.

The three learning styles aren't just theoretical. Several studies have shown that accommodating a child's learning style can significantly increase his performance at school.

Many of these studies were based on a specific learning styles program developed by Rita Dunn, director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John's University in Jamaica, New York, and the evidence is compelling. Two elementary schools in North Carolina increased the achievement test scores of students from the 30th percentile to the 83rd percentile over a three-year period by accommodating different learning styles. And in 1992, the U.S. Department of Education found that attending to a child's learning style was one of the few strategies that improved achievement of special education students on national tests.

3. Learn a language. Kids who learn a foreign language communicate better, don't become frustrated as easily, and seek different ways of solving problems, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"There's a lot of research that shows kids who learn a foreign language show amazing growth in cognitive skills, creativity, English, math, and science," says Ingrid Pufahl, a linguist and research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. "They're also better problem solvers, and can think out of the box, because they've been exposed to different points of view and different languages."

Pufahl adds that you don't have to be fluent in a language to see the brain boost. "Even after studying a foreign language for a short time, you can start seeing benefits," she says.

4. Play music. Hearing a child play "Für Elise" would make any parent beam, but the benefits of learning music go far beyond parental pride. Multiple studies show that kids who have learned how to play an instrument perform better in tests associated with literacy, verbal memory, math, and IQ than those without music lessons.

"The areas of the brain called upon when your child learns music may enhance the regions of the brain that involve reading, math, problem solving, and spatial reasoning," says Joseph Piro, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Long Island University.

A study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, compared a group of second graders who took piano lessons for three consecutive years to a group who didn't learn music. At the end of the third year, the budding Beethovens did significantly better than their non-music-learning counterparts in a battery of vocabulary and verbal sequencing tests.

"Learning music isn't going to take your child from average to a genius, but it can help her be a better learner," says Laurel Trainor, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at McMaster University and director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind in Ontario, Canada. Learning how to play music actually has an effect on how the brain gets wired when it comes to memory and attention, says Trainor.

Trainor points out that learning to play an instrument can be complicated for a young child. If you're learning the violin, for instance, you have to have to figure out how to hold two different things properly, pay attention to the teacher, and try to reproduce the sounds the teacher makes. Your brain is getting a real workout that will help it become stronger and primed to learn other things.

Trainor adds that the benefit of music for your child goes far beyond test scores. She points to the social and emotional perks. "Music brings people together and just makes you feel good," she says.

5. Read! Reading to children promotes everything from language skills to longer attention spans to active imaginations. And it's never too early to start.

According to researchers at the University of Chicago, reading to a baby creates valuable brain cell connections that will remain in place for the rest of their lives.

Research has shown that children who are read to at home as preschoolers are much better able to learn how to read when they get formal instruction in school. Reading exposes children to print, letters, and new vocabulary. It also teaches children that ideas and stories can come from the printed page -- in other words, that books are sources of information.

6. Explore the globe. You don't have to be a globe-trotting jet-setter to teach your child about different cultures and customs.

7. Get creative. There's a reason painting, drawing, and crafts are such a big part of preschool curricula: Research suggests that art makes you smart!

"Arts enhance the process of learning," says Eric Jensen, a researcher and author of Arts with the Brain in Mind. Kids who are taught art perform stronger academically, are able to retain information longer, have more confidence and better-developed independent-thinking skills, says Jensen.

~ Courtesy of Baby Center


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