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Seven smart ways to help your children boost their intelligence

David Didau delves into psychology, cognitive science, school and home life in his new book, Making Kids Cleverer, as Lisa Salmon learns

Smart approach: a school where everyone is happy is better for kids
Smart approach: a school where everyone is happy is better for kids

Unless you're the parent of a genius, chances are you'd love to help your child become smarter. But where do you start, and is it even possible?

Former teacher David Didau believes it is, and he's outlined his take on the key factors in his new book, Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap.

This isn't just about piling more pressure on kids to be academically excellent, however.

Didau delves into psychology, sociology, philosophy and cognitive science, drawing on research, as well as his own years of experience in education, to reveal the strategies and environmental factors that seem to play a significant role in making children cleverer.

His aim is to help youngsters "live happier, healthier and more secure lives".

He believes intelligence is partly fluid and partly crystallised, basing this claim on a 1971 theory from psychologist Raymond B Cattell, who split intelligence into these categories.

Fluid intelligence relates to our ability to reason and solve problems, while crystallised intelligence is what we know - the knowledge we hold in our memories - and the ability to apply this to new problems.

For Didau, improving crystallised intelligence is "relatively straightforward".

"Intelligence is influenced by genes," he says. "Some children are born with a greater potential for cleverness than others.

"However, there's good reason to believe that we are already getting cleverer in some respects as we become more knowledgeable, and by concentrating on environmental factors that can be changed, we might be able to make all children cleverer."

While fluid intelligence increases during childhood development, peaks in our mid-20s and then gently declines, Didau says crystallised intelligence can continue accumulating throughout our lives.

"Given the choice, who wouldn't want to be cleverer?" he asks. "If you're cleverer, not only will you do better in school, but you'll also be more creative, demonstrate better leadership skills, earn more, be happier and live longer."

Wondering what some of Didau's top tips are? Here are seven to consider...

1. Don't overestimate what you can actually do

"One of the most troubling findings of research into raising intelligence is that parents have far less impact than is commonly supposed," stresses Didau.

He says a pair of identical twins reared in the same home aren't much more alike than twins reared in separate homes, and explains: "What tends to make us like our parents isn't their parenting, but their genes.

"The effects of parenting on IQ seem particularly conclusive. There's nothing anyone can do about their genes, so our power to shape children's environments is all we have - and perhaps all we need."

2. Read to them

Didau says that while reading to children won't necessarily pass on the habit of reading, or even have a permanent effect on their intelligence, their memory of what you read to them is likely to persist, so read them stories that take them out of their familiar environment.

3. Broaden their minds through experiences

Take every opportunity to enrich children's experiences and try to take them to museums and galleries, advises Didau.

"Even though our influence on our offspring will wane, their memory of experiences will, in part, be retained," he says.

"You can't influence your children's personalities by the time they're adults, but you can give them advantages during childhood that make a difference to how well they understand the world."

4. Talk to them

Tell children about different times and places, discuss current affairs and explain to them how the world works.

"This lodges somewhere in their memories and helps them make sense of the unfamiliar and abstract concepts they encounter in school," says Didau.

5. Never underestimate peer power

Unlike the effects of parenting, peer influences seem to have a more lasting impact on children's attitudes, insists Didau.

"Whatever their group values is what they'll value," he adds. "It's very hard for anyone, especially a teenager, to set themselves apart from the aspirations and antipathies of their peers."

This can also affect intelligence, because if a child's friends don't appreciate the benefits of hard work and persistence, the child won't either.

"If a child's peer group values hard work and good behaviour, individuals in the group will learn more," says Didau. "If the group thinks school is for geeks and trying hard is for losers, individuals will learn less.

"What starts as a different attitude to school work might well end up as a difference in average IQ."

6. Choose a school for its pupils

One of the most important variables for determining children's educational success is the peer culture at their school.

Didau argues against parents selecting schools based on academic success, because research has shown this has little effect on achievement.

Instead, he advises parents to choose a school where children will be happy and where the majority of pupils have a positive attitude towards education.

"This is far easier said than done, but it's the thing most likely to have a long-lasting positive effect on your children," he says.

"Do what you can to send them to a school where it's cool to be cleverer and work hard."

7. Don't believe the hype

There are many supposed ways to increase intelligence, but Didau insists that many don't make any difference.

He says playing brain-training games simply makes you better at brain-training games, nothing else, and although listening to Mozart may help you appreciate classical music, it won't make you cleverer.

Likewise, while playing chess might be challenging and worthwhile, "don't bother if you think it will help raise your intelligence".

Didau adds: "There's a whole industry that exists to sell stuff that we're told will make us cleverer, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

"Here's a useful rule of thumb: doing one thing is unlikely to make you better at something else."

Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap by David Didau is published by Crown House Publishing

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