When Noha Al-Sahrawi, the mother of three young children aged eight, seven and five, was told her first newborn had Down’s Syndrome, she decided she would not give up. Initial shock soon gave way to an inner wealth of energy and persistence that turned Al-Sahrawi herself into a special mother.
She abandoned a career in journalism and went to the US to study brain development at the Glenn Doman Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, and applied what she learned there to her own three children. Her Down’s Syndrome daughter is now aged eight, and, thanks to such techniques, she is integrated into a mainstream school.
“People are born with eight sorts of intelligence, and each sort has special techniques that a mother can use to boost it in the first years of a child’s life.” That’s the message Al-Sahrawi tries to convey to all ambitious mothers and not just those of children with special needs.
As an ardent believer in the idea that a mother can help make a future genius, Al-Sahrawi has turned her home into a haven for techniques that may yield a potential Beethoven-to-be, a budding Da Vinci or a would-be Einstein.
Smelling fresh paint coming out of Al-Sahrawi’s home, passers-by could be surprised to find out that the workers at the helm are her own small kids, helping out with making new plans for their rooms and painting them as part of a technique to develop their visual and spatial intelligence.
Pass by Al-Sahrawi’s home, and you may well be treated to the sound of Mozart, or other composers of classical music, and the recitation of the Quran as both have been found to help develop the mathematical and musical intelligence of children and develop the auditory pathways in the brain.
Go inside, and you might be heralded with a set of colourful blocks of different shapes and sizes dotting the reception area where the children are asked to match them with others placed in their bedrooms — yet another technique to help them boost their spatial and visual intelligence.
It’s time for bed, and Al-Sahrawi starts telling stories to her kids, asking them “what if so and so had happened instead” in an attempt to boost their critical thinking.
“Sometimes I let the children relax in the open air and contemplate the sky or invite them to look at different paintings and identify the differences in what they see,” Al-Sahrawi says with a smile. “They may end up as artists, designers or engineers. Who knows?”
She adds that her five-year-old son has, for instance, already memorised a whole chapter of the Quranin three months without a mentor. “All I did was to make him listen to the tape every night during the first hour of his sleep when the brain is said to be still functioning,” she said. “Now he knows it off by heart.”
SCIENTIFIC FINDINGS: Although the question of whether it is possible to raise a child’s intelligence using such techniques has been a controversial one among experts, the good news is that there is almost a consensus among scientists that parents can at least help to boost their children’s mental abilities or help them reach their maximum mental potential by following a set of simple techniques and strategies.
US neurologist and author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten David Perlmutter insists that a child has the opportunity to acquire up to 30 IQ points from birth until age three.
Scientists agree that newborns are born with about 100 billion brain cells. Each brain cell sends and receives electrical signals and creates connections among them that through repetition turn into networks. “These networks (often called wiring or circuitry) allow a child to think and learn. By the third birthday, your toddler’s brain will have formed about 1,000 trillion connections,” write experts at the website babycentre.com.
The worrying point is that these connections can either become permanent if used repeatedly or can be left to wither if they are neglected. “Everything you do with your toddler, from playing to eating, walking, reading and singing helps jump-start his brain,” advise experts at babycentre.com. “As you expose your toddler to new sights, sounds and sensations, you open his mind up to a bigger, more exciting world.”
Perlmutter also insists that it is up to parents to ensure that their child actually gets extra IQ points in the first three years of his or her life “by following simple advice, such as breastfeeding for at least a year, limiting early television exposure and investing in musical training for young kids.”
Other experts also suggest that it is during the first 10 years of a child’s life that the brain continues to form trillions of connections when it is the most malleable it will ever be.
“With each new skill _ whether it’s playing the violin or learning Mandarin — the brain develops important connections that influence other abilities, like maths and verbal skills or the ability to empathise with other kids,” suggest experts at babycentre.com.
The good news for parents is that it doesn’t necessarily “take a genius to help a child reach her intellectual potential — just a loving, involved parent,” according to babycentre.com.
FEEDING THE BRAIN: Experts also agree that proper nutrition not only helps to develop the body, but can also help to feed the brain. The World Health Organisation, for instance, has published studies suggesting that breastfeeding helps boost a baby’s intelligence.
A recent study also found that breakfast was essential for school children and that “regular breakfast-skipping was associated with poorer school attendance and tardiness, less verbal fluency, and more parent- and teacher-related behaviour problems.”
“Children’s brains need glucose to function well, and food is usually converted into glucose that powers their brains and enhances their memory skills and scholastic achievements,” the study explained.
But the type of food the children get is also important. Experts at babycentre.com advise mothers to avoid highly sweetened breakfast cereals, for instance, because they give kids “a short-lived sugar high, resulting in the inevitable crash.” Instead, they advise a “breakfast meal containing complex carbohydrates and protein, which gives the brain a slow infusion of glucose for better brain function.”
The advice is based on a study published in the US journal Physiology and Behaviour, which found that children who ate oatmeal for breakfast performed 20 per cent better on a map-memorisation test than their sugary-cereal-munching counterparts.
It was also found that better-nourished children generally function more effectively on a cognitive level. Children should get a nutritional balance of foods that provide a high yield of vitamins and minerals.
Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, which contain vitamin C are advised to improve memory and performance; eggs are high in a memory-building vitamin called choline; fish contains important brain-building fats; vegetables and fruit in general are rich in antioxidants that can help protect brain cells against damage, as well as potassium which helps prevent mental fatigue; lean meats (beef and poultry) are high in iron, the deficiency of which impairs learning and memory; whole-grain and iron-fortified cereals are excellent sources of carbohydrates, which are required for sharp mental performance.
Experts also advise parents to avoid highly processed foods that are high in sugar and fat because studies suggest that these can affect the mental performance of children.
“In a well-publicised study of one million schoolchildren enrolled in the New York City school system, IQ scores improved by 14 per cent after additives, dyes, artificial flavourings and colour were removed from their lunches,” writes babycentre.com
MUSIC AND READING: Recent research also suggests that music can help enhance children’s cognitive abilities.
“The areas of the brain called upon when your child learns music may enhance the regions of the brain that involve reading, maths, problem-solving and spatial reasoning,” says Joseph Piro, an associate professor at Long Island University in the US, in a study published on babycentre.com.
Studies suggest that learning music can help children become better learners by helping the brain get efficiently wired when it comes to memory and attention.
A so-called “Mozart effect” also suggests that any kind of music may boost certain types of cognitive performance. Al-Sahrawi says recent studies have suggested that listening to classical music, or the recitation of the Holy Quran, have been found to stimulate creativity in children and to boost their musical intelligence.
Experts agree that reading to children promotes everything from language skills to longer attention spans to active imaginations. And it’s never too early to start. “According to researchers at the University of Chicago,” says babycentre.com, “reading to a baby creates valuable brain cell connections that will remain in place for the rest of their lives.”
Research has shown that children who are read to at home as preschoolers are better able to learn how to read when they get formal instruction in school. Reading exposes children to print, letters, and new vocabulary. It also teaches children that ideas and stories can come from the printed page — in other words, that books are sources of information, according to babycentre.com.
In general, the research suggests that early introduction to different arts and crafts can help to boost children’s creativity and learning abilities.
“The arts enhance the process of learning,” says Eric Jensen, a researcher and author of Arts with the Brain in Mind. “Kids who are taught art perform stronger academically, are able to retain information longer, have more confidence and better-developed independent-thinking skills,” Jensen says.
PLAYING SPORTS: It’s a well-known fact that having a sound body can entail having a sound mind.
Physical activity in general boosts blood flow to all parts of the body, including the brain. When the brain is supplied with more freshly oxygenated blood, concentration, thinking speed and complex reasoning are all enhanced. Some studies even suggest that aerobic exercise stimulates brain growth and enhances children’s attention and ability to learn.
“Children who are physically active perform better in school — a finding that has been confirmed by more than 50 years of research,” concludes babycentre.com.
But it is not just organised sports that help. It has also been found that free play promotes better learning, memory, and the growth of the cerebral cortex. Research suggests that free play also enhances the development of language, spatial intelligence and mathematical skills.
Toys can be instrumental in developing the mental abilities of children, and the good news is that many of the most old-fashioned and least-expensive toys have been found to be among the best developmental toys that can help kids exercise their creativity and explore cause-and-effect relations in the physical world.
Research suggests that playing with blocks enhances spatial skills, maths skills, problem-solving ability, and verbal skills, for example. Chess and crossword puzzles have also been found to be among the developmental games that help improve powers of concentration, perception and reasoning.
In his book It’s just my Imagination, American psychologist Rich Keeling even encourages children to depend on the kind of “simple props” that can be found in their homes to entertain themselves and to use their minds to create and imagine what is possible.
“The child uses these props to dream about his future,” Keeling writes. “Perhaps he will grow up to be an author holding a book signing, an astronaut, or a famous musician. The possibilities are both more practical and more expansive than the more limited video-game scenarios.”
EXPLORING THE WORLD: Another technique is to travel to new places, including local museums, and to introduce your child to different cultures through reading stories and cooking different recipes at home.
Al-Sahrawi engages her children in planning their trips and in general discussions, and she does not hesitate to use dinner time as an opportunity for mental stimulation.
“All this helps children on the cognitive level, and engaging them in discussions helps them develop emotional intelligence, gain confidence and grow as better problem-solvers,” she advises.