It’s the age-old question: Nature or nurture?

Is your child’s intelligence predetermined by genetics, or is it a product of life experiences and environment?

Developmental specialists today agree it’s a combination of both, and while we can’t alter our genetic makeup, it’s important to know that parents can have an effect on their children's ability to learn.

“Our brains have plasticity and are ready to learn throughout life, but we now know there are critical periods of learning when it is easier to intake information,” said Dr. Julie Markant, assistant professor in the Tulane University Department of Psychology and a member of the multidisciplinary team of professionals at Tulane’s Brain Institute.

“Infancy and puberty are two of those critical phases, and because learning is cumulative, it’s important to stimulate the brain with new experiences and open certain neural pathways," Markant said. "The brain, in infancy, is looking for novelty and exploration, and the ability for active trial and error through play.”

“In order for the brain to function at optimal levels, while it’s absorbing information, it’s mandatory that all infants and toddlers have good nutrition, adequate sleep and are nurtured and engaged, even if it’s through baby talk," Markant said. "Technically it’s called infant-directed speech, where we raise our voices, and slow our speech down. Babies love it, and it captures their attention."

However, it’s important that we do more than utter infantile sounds, he said. Content does matter.

"Language development is based strongly on how many words per day a child hears," Markant explained. "So, consider a stroller that faces in toward you, as it encourages interaction.”

Success in school

Preparing children for school can mean helping them with what's now called "executive function."

“Although we administer IQ tests as part of our admissions, it’s only a piece of the total picture of the child, and just a snapshot of their development to that point," said Amy White, director of admissions for Metairie Park Country Day School.

"But, just as important to long-term successes are the other intangibles like the abilities to plan, organize, and break things down: the executive functions. Once we know a student’s strengths and weaknesses, we can provide structures that will help.”

Apart from planning and organizing, the other key executive functions include impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring and task initiation.

A child who has poor self-monitoring, for example, may be surprised by a bad grade or negative feedback.

Outside the books

“These sorts of skills are critical at every juncture in school, and most importantly in middle and upper school,” said Jenny Rious, a teacher and therapist who has been at Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans since 2002.

“These are the sorts of skills that prepare anyone for college,” said Rious, “and without them, it’s much more difficult to excel."

Important brain skills show up in surprising places, Markent said.

“There is strong evidence that studying music supports executive functions, in being able to have a working memory and the ability to plan," he said. "And as we age, it’s related to meditation and breathing, which are both part of focusing.”

All of the experts agree that it’s important to focus not just on outcomes, but to praise your child for the strategies that they’ve used to get to a solution.

“Our goals are to teach the self-sustaining tools kids need to succeed, in an environment where it’s safe to ask questions,” said White.

“As a student you won’t always succeed, but there are lessons in that, as well. You learn how to pick yourself up and move on. We try very hard to keep kids motivated to learn.”

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EXERCISES TO IMPROVE YOUR CHILD’S EXECUTIVE FUNCTION

To improve flexible thinking 

Ask your child to get a map and find a new route to school.

To improve emotional control 

Teach your child to count to three, or take a few deep breaths, before lashing out at someone in anger.

To boost memory 

Play card games like Crazy Eights. Your child has to remember what cards he has, and which ones others have played.

To teach impulse control and practice delaying gratification 

Reward your child’s good behavior with tokens. After a certain amount of tokens are collected, have a preset reward of the child’s choosing.