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Education experts reveal secret to raising happy, productive kids

Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster on nurturing kids’ creativity and intelligence

In addition to stimulation, children also need time for reflection and unstructured play, the authors say (photo by Simply CVR)

Living in a fast-paced world leads to a long list of stresses and distractions for both adults and kids.

To make the juggling act easier for parents, education experts and OISE alumnae Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster recently published Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. (Visit their website.) 

Matthews taught courses in educational psychology and gifted education at OISE from 1991 to 2003 and Foster has taught in the Initial Teacher Education program at OISE for the past 12 years.

They spoke with writer Liz Do about how best to nurture a child’s intelligence and unique gifts – and how to set kids on a path to be happily productive, lifelong learners both inside and outside the classroom. (This interview has been shortened and condensed.)

Your book is titled Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. What are some of these secrets?
Beyond Intelligence is full of secrets for parents who are raising children – from infancy through childhood and the teen years. Our secrets have to do with various dimensions of children’s well-being, including intelligence, creativity, academics, and social/emotional development. Three of the secrets that underpin many of our recommendations concern being attuned, offering multi-sensory stimulation, and finding balance.

Being attuned means listening actively and observing carefully, paying close attention to children’s needs, enthusiasms and concerns, and then responding appropriately.

Providing multi-sensory stimulation involves giving kids opportunities to experience many different kinds of activities that engage all the senses, along with lots of reading, listening and talking. In addition to stimulation, children also need time for reflection and unstructured play.

It’s all about balance. Quiet times give kids a chance to consolidate their learning, and free play lets them explore boundaries and possibilities, and extend social learning and self-discovery.

How did this book come about?
In our work with families and schools about issues relating to gifted [students'] development, we were getting increasing numbers of requests for recommendations that went beyond intelligence. Hence the focus of this book is on helping parents raise children who are not only intelligent, but also creative, resilient, and happily productive.

We shared early drafts of the manuscript with parents. We then shaped the book into an easily navigated format that enables busy parents to make best use of the up-to-the-minute information about child development, education and brain science. We incorporate quizzes, checklists, anecdotes, chapter summaries, and practical strategies to help children and adolescents succeed.

What is today’s biggest challenge for parents and teachers in raising happy, productive kids?
We’re living in an increasingly fast-paced world, where adults are feeling stressed in a number of ways, including life/work balance, overcrowded schedules, and concerns about careers and finances. This pace is reflected in children’s lives in pressures to do well academically as well as in extracurricular areas.

One of the best ways to deal with the stress that some children experience is to support them in developing what [renowned psychologist] Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset.’ That means understanding that children’s knowledge and abilities develop one step at a time, and that failures and setbacks are opportunities to discover where more learning is needed.

Parents and teachers who hold growth mindsets themselves are far more effective at helping kids cope effectively with challenges. Other good ways to reduce stress and support resilience include encouraging a healthy balance of activities in children’s lives, including lots of time for free play (preferably outdoors), reflection, and pared-down schedules.

In your book, you talk about the different kinds of intelligence and how to nurture it.
Children can be academically capable – the traditional approach to understanding intelligence –or physically, musically, or socially intelligent, or capable in another domain entirely. In Beyond Intelligence, we describe Picasso as an example of someone who was exceptionally capable in visual/spatial and artistically creative ways, but who was considered a slow learner by his school teachers.

We see intelligence as malleable, as building over time, with the right kinds of supports and learning opportunities at the right times in a person’s life. This includes abilities assessed by measures such as IQ scores and academic achievement, and also much more broadly. There are many different capacities that contribute to adapting successfully to the challenges and changes a person experiences across a lifetime.

Parents can nurture a child’s unique kind of intelligence by (1) exposing them to a wide range of experiences, (2) showing an appreciation of and respect for their interests and strengths, and (3) providing what they need to develop their abilities or talents, including the instruments, supplies, lessons, and whatever else they need to  progress.

Parents should be available for ongoing communication about goal-setting, skill development, and practice, emphasizing the role of effort in the development of all abilities. By helping a child build his resilience, parents can support his capacity to handle the setbacks that he’ll inevitably experience as he takes his abilities to higher levels. And finally, parents who actively pursue their own abilities – and enjoy doing that – are setting the stage for their kids to do likewise.

As teacher education instructors, what strategies and skills are you teaching the next generation of educators?
We emphasize that intelligence is not fixed, but rather develops over time with appropriately targeted opportunities to learn. A growth mindset not only benefits people in their own lives and teaching, but provides great modeling for students. It leads to a flexible responsivity to children’s individual intelligences, personalities, and developmental trajectories.

We encourage our students to respect individual developmental diversity. Everyone has a unique combination of abilities, strengths and challenges, and these are always in flux.  We help teacher candidates learn to support their students in developing their intelligence, creativity, resilience, self-confidence, perseverance and character.

Collegiality is enormously important to teachers’ effectiveness. We ask our aspiring educators to work in partnership with parents, colleagues, and students, toward the common goals of enhancing children’s abilities, and increasing their chances for enjoying happily productive lives.

How would parents measure the success of raising a productive, happy kid?
We’ve spent many years working in various capacities in the fields of education and psychology, researching and writing books, and co-authoring Beyond Intelligence, and we believe that the best measure of success as a parent is whether or not children thrive as they grow, and as adults. That means experiencing health and well-being in every aspect of life that matters to the individual, including academics, social and emotional domains, careers, and other dimensions of personal fulfillment. 

Liz Do writes about education for U of T News.