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A new meta-analysis of gold-standard, randomized controlled trials has found there are reliable ways to boost a child’s IQ by age 5, including supplements and interactive reading. “Genes are the most important part, but that doesn’t mean intelligence can’t be changed,” says John Protzko, a doctoral candidate in psychology at New York University, author of the study published in Perspectives of Psychological Science. “You’re not going to be creating superhumans,” he says. “It’s going to give your kids a leg up.” For young children, here’s what works and what doesn’t.

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FISH OIL: Protzko found evidence that supplementing pregnant women’s diets and baby formula with the fatty acids known as docosahexaenoic (DHA) – found in fish oil – can boost the intelligence of young children by more than 3.5 points by age 3 to 5. Mothers-to-be were generally given more than 1,000 mgs a day and formulas included 0.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent of the nutrient. These fatty acids are an essential resource in brain development; one theory is that DHA helps infants develop their prefrontal cortex. In the study that retested its subjects at 7, it appears the IQ effects faded. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “We know if we put people in an intervention that raises their physical fitness, they’ll get in better shape, but if they stop afterward, they’ll go back to where they were beforehand. I don’t think that discredits the idea of physical fitness.”

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EARLY HELP: Kids from low socio-economic-status families whose parents get early access to intense parenting training and educational resources can gain more than seven IQ points, Protzko found. “These studies take children from poverty and restructure their entire lives, sometimes from birth. And many of them are the most intense programs you can think of – trying to recreate the cognitive environment of an upper-middle-class lifestyle.” Amid the good news, though, is the fact that such interventions remain theoretical for most. “They’re not necessarily practical; a mother can’t do this on their own. It’s a massive restructuring.” Protzko says the more complex the programs, the better. And programs that included visits to learning centres boosted the effects further. While not as relevant to middle- and upper-middle-class parents, the findings are useful for policy-makers.

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PRESCHOOL: While the preschool studies Protzko examined only focused on the gains made by kids living in poverty, he says the results could be applicable to any preschool children. One theory is that preschool offers novel stimuli, and opportunities to practise problem solving and navigate social interactions – activities that may increase underlying intelligence. “What seems to be happening is that the child’s intelligence seems to be adapting to the new demands placed on it.” Preschools that focus on language development are even more successful, showing gains of more than four IQ points. It’s possible, he writes, that these gains are due to kids being exposed to the kinds of things that get tested. “Young children cannot define a word that they have not encountered, nor can they identify a picture of an item that they have never seen. Therefore, preschool may raise intelligence test performance merely by exposing young children to the information and vocabulary works included on these tests,” he writes.

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INTERACTIVE READING: Of all Protzko’s findings, this is the one that parents can immediately try to implement at home with kids three and half and younger. And there could be more than six IQ points in it. We all know reading is important. But it’s not enough to have shelves of books and perform a monologue at bedtime. It’s all about “dialogic reading,” which involves asking kids questions while they’re reading, asking them to think and extrapolate. It’s not clear why this style of reading works so well. There could be a specific cognitive benefit to all that outside-the-pages work. Or it could just play a role in speeding up language development, which is a known pathway to higher IQs.

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MUSIC: If you pride yourself on blaring Mozart or taking your young kids to concerts, don’t expect an IQ boost just yet. Protzko found only one high-quality study on the topic, and it found no effect on intelligence. “It was about musical appreciation and the idea was to listen to music and see if involvement in the musical arts … would have any lasting effect on intelligence. And it doesn’t.” However, as his research moves into its next phase, which will focus on school-age children, he expects the finding may shift as children learn to play instruments themselves.

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