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Teaching parents about how the brain works

In 1921, Lewis Terman, the creator of the IQ (intelligence quotient) test, armed with a large grant from the Commonwealth Foundation, put together a team of field workers and sent them out into the state of California’s elementary schools.

All the students were given an IQ test, and those who emerged in the top 10 percent were given a second test. Those who scored above 130 on that test were given a third test, and those who were able to hurdle that were selected by Terman as the best and brightest.

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In the end, Terman and his team sorted through the records of some 250,000 elementary and high school students and found 1,470 children whose IQ averaged from 140 to as high as 200.

These children were called the “Termites.” When they became adults, Terman examined the records of 720 of the men and divided them into three groups. In Group A was the top 20 percent, about 150 of them. They were the success stories—physicians, lawyers, engineers, professors, writers.

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The middle 60 percent was called Group B, or those who were doing “satisfactorily.” The bottom 150 made up Group C. They were assessed by Terman to have done the least with their superior intelligence—the postal workers, bookkeepers, and men without a regular job.

One-third of Group C dropped out of college; a quarter had only a high school diploma. In this group of superior IQ, only eight had graduate

degrees.

What was the difference between the As and the Cs? Terman studied every angle of their physical and mental health, hobbies, and vocational interests. He compared the ages when they started talking and walking. He also noted their precise IQ scores in grade school and high school. After all the critical analyses, Terman found that the common dominator of the successful As, or the top 20 percent, was their family.

The vast majority of children in the A group came from middle- and upper-class families. About 50 percent of the fathers of the As had college or postgraduate degrees in an era when universities were not that many. What is striking, too, is that their homes were filled with books.

Why am I telling you these details and statistics? My hope is for our policymakers and educators to put more effort, resources, and money on parent education, and not on passing tests and landing among the top 10 in national board examinations.

“The greatest capital that you can invest in is human capital, and of that, the most important component is the mother.” That’s from “Principles of Economics” by Alfred Marshall.

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With this idea from Marshall, we can boost the IQ and performance of children from poor families by providing them with an enriched and stimulated environment. We can add also new research ideas like teaching parents how the brain works to better boost intelligence.

The earliest we should do this is when the mother is pregnant and during the first 12 to 36 months of her child’s life. During this time, the brain is growing most rapidly. When the child reaches the age of three, brain growth dramatically slows down to the adult rate.

The most common belief is that education from grade school to college is the passport to career performance. This belief should be challenged. There is another pathway, and a better one.

It is boosting the brain as early as possible, from the fetal period to the first 12 to 36 months of life. Studies done by James Heckman, the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 2000, have shown that disadvantaged children’s brains can be helped dramatically, with results that can persist until adulthood.

In a study done with a control group, Heckman found that if children of poor parents are exposed to an enriched environment as early as eight weeks old and tracked until they are about eight years old, their IQ can be boosted and maintained until they reach 21. The improvement in IQ can be seen in both sexes.

How much difference do we expect to get in improving a child’s IQ?

In one project, Heckman showed that from four to five IQ points can be achieved. This difference can mean boosting subnormal to normal mentality.

With the Heckman studies and the conclusion made by Marshall, we will best serve our children by putting more effort, resources, and money on parent education. Parents should learn how the brain works as well as noncognitive skills like persistence so they can use these for the proper care of children in their preschool years.

In the Philippines, educating parents can be best done by primary care physicians, rural health nurses, and midwives.

Dr. Leonardo L. Leonidas (nonieleonidas68@ gmail.com) is a 1968 graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. He retired in 2008 as assistant clinical professor in pediatrics from Boston’s Tufts University School of Medicine, where he was recognized with a Distinguished Career Teaching Award in 2009. He now spends part of his time in the province of Aklan.

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TAGS: column, intelligence quotient, IQ, learning, Leonardo L. Leonidas, parent education
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