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How To Raise Smart Kids, According To A 45-Year-Long Study

by Melissa Bell
4 minutes read

A long-running research of exceptional children reveals what it takes to produce the scientists who will lead the twenty-first century. After a 45-year investigation of 5,000 talented young individuals with over 400 papers and several books produced, a study shows that raising a child to become a “genius” just requires being a good parent.

Simply put, good parenting is the best way to ensure a child’s future is bright, even if they are not considered “bright.”

On a summer day in 1968, professor Julian Stanley met a brilliant but bored 12-year-old named Joseph Bates. The Baltimore student was so far ahead of his classmates in mathematics that his parents had arranged for him to take a computer-science course at Johns Hopkins University, where Stanley taught. Even that wasn’t enough. Having leapfrogged ahead of the adults in the class, the child kept himself busy by teaching the FORTRAN programming language to graduate students.

Unsure of what to do with Bates, his computer instructor introduced him to Stanley, a researcher well known for his work in psychometrics — the study of cognitive performance. To discover more about the young prodigy’s talent, Stanley gave Bates a battery of tests that included the SAT college-admissions exam, normally taken by university-bound 16- to 18-year-olds in the United States.

Bates’s score was well above the threshold for admission to Johns Hopkins, and prompted Stanley to search for a local high school that would let the child take advanced mathematics and science classes. When that plan failed, Stanley convinced a dean at Johns Hopkins to let Bates, then 13, enrol as an undergraduate.

Stanley would affectionately refer to Bates as “student zero” of his Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which would transform how gifted children are identified and supported by the US education system. As the longest-running current longitudinal survey of intellectually talented children, SMPY has for 45 years tracked the careers and accomplishments of some 5,000 individuals, many of whom have gone on to become high-achieving scientists. The study’s ever-growing data set has generated more than 400 papers and several books, and provided key insights into how to spot and develop talent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and beyond.

“What Julian wanted to know was, how do you find the kids with the highest potential for excellence in what we now call STEM, and how do you boost the chance that they’ll reach that potential,” says Camilla Benbow, a protégé of Stanley’s who is now dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But Stanley wasn’t interested in just studying bright children; he wanted to nurture their intellect and enhance the odds that they would change the world. His motto, he told his graduate students, was “no more dry bones methodology”.

Long-term study of gifted children

Source: K. Ferriman Robertson et al. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 19, 346–351 (2010).

And now that the SMPY recruits are at the peak of their successful careers, results show that their unique cognitive abilities were discovered and supported in their early years by allowing them to be challenged through opportunities like skipping grades. Although practice and environmental factors are said to have the most effect on achievement, SMPY emphasizes nurturing precocious children and on the other hand not undermining “ungifted” children through labeling and constant, often daunting, assessments such as standardized testing.

Additionally, if a child does not excel in STEM, there is still hope in other areas such as spatial ability, which is an “untapped source of human potential,” according to Benbow’s husband David Lubiniski, a psychologist and co-director of the study.  Students with average mathematical and verbal abilities yet exceptional spatial abilities tend to go on to become engineers, architects and even surgeons.

“And yet, no admissions directors I know of are looking at this, and it’s generally overlooked in school-based assessments,” said Lubiniski.

It’s not about forcing a child to be the next Einstein, it’s about encouraging achievement and happiness. Benbow and her colleagues suggest exposing children to diverse experiences, providing opportunities for children when they show strong interest or talent in something, supporting a child’s intellectual and emotional needs, praising a child’s effort over ability, allowing and encouraging children to take intellectual risks and learning from their failures, not labeling them (“gifted,” “ungifted”),  working with a child’s teachers to meet their needs, and testing a child’s abilities.

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