November 12, 2019 // by Laura Malone
Intelligence is a person’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills using their brain. A healthy brain can stay focused for age-appropriate amounts of time, connect the dots quickly, easily recall memories and facts, read, write and speak well, execute strong muscle coordination and appropriate emotional responses. If the brain is not functioning at its optimum level, then everything it controls is compromised, including intelligence and performance in school.
As parents, one of our goals is to help our children be great students in school. When we see our child struggling, we often make them work harder or longer to grasp the new information, but it could be making the problem worse. It’s important to get to the root of the problem.
Why Are They Struggling?
If your child is suffering from focusing problems, performing below their potential in school or getting easily frustrated during school or homework time (or at anytime), it’s likely due to their brain not being in tip-top shape. It could be overloaded, congested or simply weak from not enough mental exercise. This is usually due to typical things we all face in our daily lives – contact with environmental toxins, poor food choices, lack of exercise, too much screen time, excess weight, stress and inadequate sleep.
What Can Parents Do?
So, what can parents do to help create a healthy brain in their child so they can live up to their potential in school? Can we actually do something to improve their intelligence?
Scientists say, YES! It has recently been discovered that the human brain is malleable. Research shows that there are steps we can take to improve our child’s brain function so they can be more successful in school which decreases frustration and allows them to experience the excitement of learning. These steps can also help them better control their emotions, which is a win for Mom as well!
In 2012, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that genetic factors account for only 24% of the change in intelligence from childhood to adulthood and the largest impact on intelligence comes from environmental factors. For this post I’ll call these environmental factors “Brain Boosters”.
So, what are a few Brain Boosters that we can incorporate into our child’s life that have been proven to give children a healthier brain – a brain that connects the dots and responds quickly, has improved memory recall, focus, clarity, ease at multitasking and enhanced creativity as well as diminished meltdowns and increased confidence in their learning?
Aerobic exercise, super foods, adequate hydration and sleep, Brain Connection Activities and Neurobics are a few proven methods of creating a healthier brain in children. These typically have quick results so it’s wise to incorporate them into the child’s school day (if possible) at strategic times, when you know they get mentally exhausted and frustrated. Then you can see each one’s impact on their learning and attitude. If your child is not homeschooled, you can teach them the importance of each of these Brain Boosters and have them brainstorm ways they can include as many of them as possible during their day in class and the rest you can do with them at home.
This is the most beneficial activity that can be done to improve your child’s brain function and performance in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages four and under get at least 60 minutes of aerobic activity per day. Children age five and over are encouraged to exercise greater than 60 minutes.
Aerobic exercise, such as running, jumping, dancing, playing soccer or basketball brings blood and oxygen to brain cells quickly, enabling the brain to create a larger network of blood vessels to transport information through the neural pathways. Healthy neural pathways improve memory, focus, attention and decision making, especially directly after exercise. This is why it’s great to give kids plenty of opportunities to get up, move around and get their heart rate up between subjects or any time you sense frustration. Their brains can get overloaded and may need more oxygen and clear pathways for the information to take root and make sense.
The hippocampus is the control center in the brain that forms new memories, aids learning and helps children make appropriate emotional responses and exercise makes this region 12% larger in children that are fit and get regular exercise. Regular exercise has also been proven to enhance brain function better than medication in children.
2. Super Foods
This basic necessity has the power to reshape the brain positively or negatively. Let’s look at what food elements have been proven to grow the human brain and make positive impacts on learning.
This is an omega-3 fatty acid that is crucial for healthy brain development in childhood and has been proven to enhance learning. It improves short-term memory and processing speed. It is so powerful, it positively affects the brain immediately after it has been eaten.
DHA can be found in fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring and oysters. It’s recommended that your child get at least one serving of fish per week. Scientists found that students that ate at least one serving of fish per week had 15% higher grades in school. If fish is not a favorite, they can take a cod liver oil supplement like this one for ages six and under or this one for kids older than four years. It’s offered in different flavors, but if your child still isn’t a fan, mix it with their favorite juice.
Flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts also have high levels of DHA. Sprinkle them into oatmeal, smoothies or yogurt or bake them in blueberry muffins for an extra brain boost.
These plant pigments are the reason fruits and veggies have vibrant colors and are well-known for being some of the healthiest foods. Flavonoids activate mitochondria which is the energy source of the cell. They protect the brain from harmful toxins and create higher levels of BDNF (brain fertilizer).
Flavonoids are found in green tea, apple skins, beets, blueberries, caffeine, citrus fruits, cocoa, pecans, pistachios, red grapes, spinach and tomatoes just to name a few.
Vitamins B-12, C, D & E
Studies have found that people that ingest higher levels of these vitamins have larger brains and perform better on memory tests.
Foods that contain these vitamins are eggs, milk, salmon, yogurt, broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, red, green or yellow pepper, sweet potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes, tuna, salmon, sunflower seeds, almonds, avacados, spinach and olive oil.
Get a printable Brain Booster Grocery List here.
3. Brain Connection Activities
These are any kind of body movements that cross the child’s midline on his body, either from left to right or top to bottom. These activities force the right and left hemispheres of the brain to communicate with each other. When this is done repeatedly, it forms new neural pathways between the hemispheres and strengthens them. This improves focus as well as reading, writing and speaking skills, helps children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and improves coordination, balance and impulse control.
The one we use most in our family is the Cross Crawl. It is simply standing with feet shoulder width apart and then lifting the right knee to touch it to your left elbow or hand and then returning to the original standing position. Then repeat, lifting the left knee to touch it to your right elbow or hand and returning to the original standing position. This activity should be done slowly so it can activate the hippocampus.
Another effective Brain Connection Activity is the Toe Touch. Standing with legs shoulder-width apart again, lift both hands up forming an X with your body and then slowly bend the torso over to touch the right hand to the left foot and raise back up to the X position. Repeat with the other side, touching the left hand to the right foot. This activity crosses the midline at the waist and again stimulates both sides of the brain and forces them to work together, strengthening neural pathways.
The term was coined by Dr. Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin to describe brain exercises that improve memory and the ability to learn new information. Neurobics are activities that do one of three things: Break one of your routines to do it differently, dull one of your senses to force the other senses to kick in or involve your emotions by doing something exciting or unusual. Here are a few examples to give you an idea, but you should think about your child’s schedule and activities and get creative. The point is to make a few changes that are fun and force your child’s brain to think and experience situations differently than they usually do.
Examples: Have your child try a new hobby, eat their lunch or snack outside without the TV, do their schoolwork/homework on the floor instead of their usual desk, recite math facts while jumping on the trampoline, narrate what they learned instead of writing a report (if you’re the teacher), audio record them spelling their spelling words out loud and they can play it back as they study for the test, flip their bed to the other side of the room or say their prayers on their knees instead of lying in bed.
5. Adequate Sleep
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that school-age children sleep 9-12 hours a night and teens sleep 8-10 hours a night for optimal health. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure this one out. Lack of sleep causes irritability, stress, and problems in school because sleep enables adequate brain development and function. Lack of sleep effects emotional regulation and cause symptoms of ADHD.
To make sure your child is getting the rest he/she needs, schedule a regular bedtime and wake time. It’s important that the child gets uninterrupted sleep. If they are consistently waking in the middle of the night, it’s a good idea to find out why. Maybe they’re watching TV too close to bedtime, having allergy problems (coughing or stuffy nose), hearing the neighbor’s car door slam after getting off their night job or they could be drinking caffeine or eating chocolate too close to bedtime.
6. Drink Plenty of Water
The recommended daily amount of water for children ages 5-8 years old is 5 glasses, 9-12 years old is 7 glasses and teens are recommended to drink 8-10 glasses a day. When their brain is fully hydrated, your child will have better concentration and mental alertness. Blood and oxygen will flow easily among blood vessels and enable necessary mental connections. Lack of water causes brain fog and spaciness.
Make sure your child is drinking a glass before he/she begins their schoolwork and if they are homeschooled, they can easily keep a refill within reach to sip on throughout the day. If they go to school, teach them the importance of drinking plenty of water and encourage them to ask the teacher if they can go to the water fountain, especially if they’ve been concentrating and sitting for a long period of time. Walking to the fountain will get their blood flowing again as an added benefit. Here’s a little chart I created that can help your child visually understand their water goals for each day.
These 6 tips can improve your child’s intelligence and performance in school by creating a healthier brain. Pick a couple you want to try this week and after some consistency you should see a difference in your child’s speed and ability to make connections, recall memories, maintain attention and achieve controlled emotional responses.
Have questions? I’d love to help. If you enjoyed this post and would like additional information or Brain Booster Recipes, let me know in the comments.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you use them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. I link to these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases.