FRESH IDEAS: Students can exert control over their intellect

As a parent launching young children through the U.S. education system, it's hard not to worry. And, as a parent launching young children through the Nevada education system, it's hard not to panic.

U.S. youth achievement scores fall behind many other Westernized countries, and Nevada appears to be resting soundly in its 49th state ranking for quality of education. Most teachers are deeply concerned that they are "teaching to the test" rather than "teaching." Nevada's education system is now expected to operate with even less money.

I felt better after reading Dr. Richard Nisbett's new book, "Intelligence and How to Get It." It has commonly been believed that intelligence is genetically inherited from your parents. Nisbett's research and writing suggests that educating children about how they can affect their intelligence and exposing youth to enriching environments can affect intelligence scores by 10, 20 or even

30 points.

Nisbett states, "Some of the things that work are very cheap. Convincing junior-high kids that intelligence is under their control " you could argue that that should be in the junior-high curriculum right now."

By this he means that recent studies show interventions that educate junior-high school students about how the brains works and how they can shape their own intelligence with effort, leads students to work harder and to get better grades. This is particularly true with girls and math: Once girls learn their brains work the same as boys they tend to get better math grades.

Social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aranson replicated this research with African American and Hispanic youth. Many students from these groups incorrectly assume they aren't as smart as white students and therefore won't get as good of grades. When informed their brain works the same as white students', ethnic students dramatically improved their achievement scores.

Here are some other proven interventions that increase intellect and achievement: Limit reprimands and praise curiosity; curious and self-confident children learn more. Teach children to delay gratification. Talk with children about a variety of topics. Use big words; this will increase their vocabulary. Praise effort more than achievement; this teaches kids to love learning and they won't be tempted to cram for grades, quickly forgetting information once the grade is achieved. Don't punish or reward for grades; when you do you take ownership of students' achievements. Instead, ask children what their goals and values are. If children aren't meeting their goals, help them contemplate if their daily choices are helping them meet their goals, and whether the friends they choose support them in their values.

This is, of course, no substitute for the most important research finding related to intelligence and achievement: quality education. Yet, as our country sorts through how to better educate our children these interventions give us tools to help.

- Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.

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