45-Year Long Study Reveals the Secrets to Raising a Child Genius

Every parent sees a genius in their child. The key is recognizing a truly gifted child’s potential and helping to foster them on a path of lifelong learning. According to a 45-year study of more than 5,000 genius children, there are a number of things parents and educators can do to set children on the path to brilliance.

In 1968, Julian Stanley, a professor in psychometrics — the study of cognitive performance — at John Hopkins University, came across a 12-year-old boy who was taking a computer science course at the university. The boy was far ahead of other children his age and most of the other adults in the class. Inspired by the gifted child, Stanley convinced the school’s dean to let him launch a long-running study that would track the lives and careers of young geniuses.

Starting in 1971 and continuing on for 45 years, Stanley studied some 5,000 children through a program known as the “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth,” or SMPY. The children in the study were the smartest in the United States, the top 1%, 0.1%, and even 0.01% of all students. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin were just a few of the bright young minds that passed through the study, and many of the participants would go on to shape our world as politicians, Fortune 500 CEOs and scientific innovators. “Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,” Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program which collaborates with the Hopkins centre, told Nature.

As for what separates the child geniuses from the rest of society and how parents can go about nurturing their precociously gifted kid, here’s what Stanley found throughout those 45 years.

Child geniuses have outstanding analytical reasoning and spatial skills

Yes, they score off the charts in the math portion of the SATs, but essentially they’re brilliant at identifying and breaking down problems. While many of the kids scored well above the admissions cut-off for the country’s most elite schools, they were also able to solve math problems they hadn’t previously encountered in their studies with ease.

Stanley and his team found child geniuses were also especially gifted at pattern thinking or spatial ability — the capacity to understand and remember spatial relationships between objects. “Students who are only marginally impressive in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability often make exceptional engineers, architects and surgeons,” said David Lubinski, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University and protégé of Stanley’s. “And yet, no admissions directors I know of are looking at this, and it’s generally overlooked in school-based assessments.”

They often don’t get enough attention in class

The one-size-fits-all lesson curriculum can result in a stunting of a gifted child’s potential. What can often happen is that educators may feel pressure from school administrators and parents to focus on bringing underperforming children up to speed, and believe that gifted children have already met their potential. This is a common result of the United States’ educational system through programs like No Child Left Behind, and thus, places a gifted child’s chances of accelerating largely in the hands of their parents.

SMPY researchers found that a majority of teachers’ time was spent helping low-performing children catch up in class and recommended for more “individualized lesson plans.”

Not surprisingly, parents play a huge role in gifted children’s success

Stanley’s study backed up just how huge of a part parents play in a gifted child’s success. The data collected through SMPY supported the idea of boosting fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades. In a comparison of gifted children who were allowed to skip a grade, compared with a control group of similarly smart children who did not grade jump, those who skipped a grade were 60% more likely to earn doctorates or patents. They were also found to be more than twice as likely to get a Ph.D. in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field. Psychologist Alison Gopnik recommended that gifted children simply have earlier access to programs and curriculums that are already available to older kids.

Perhaps the most important for stimulating genius children — or any child, for that matter — is helping them to develop a “growth mindset.” SMPY found that the most successful people viewed themselves as being fluid, constantly changing and learning, as opposed to having a fixed mindset. Children should be encouraged to take intellectual risks and be provided with opportunities to develop their interests. At the same time, SMPY stresses that parents and educators beware of labels like “gifted” because of the pressure it can put on children.