TIME Parenting

For Success at School, Personality May Beat Brains

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Intelligence isn't everything, says new study

When it comes to success in school, being smart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Personality may have a lot more to do with academic success than just sheer intelligence, according to a new study.

Arthur Poropat, a lecturer in psychology at Australia’s Griffith University conducted the largest ever review of personality and academic performance. Porporat found that an individual’s personality traits are better indicators of academic success than a high score on an intelligence test, for students at both high school and college. Specifically, he suggests, students who are conscientious, open and emotionally stable have the best likelihood of succeeding at their studies.

“Conscientiousness reflects things like making and carrying out plans, striving to achieve, and self-control, and is linked with a factor of childhood temperament called Effort Regulation,” says Porporat. “But I found that two other personality factors were also important: Openness (also called openness to experience and intellect), encompassing being imaginative, curious, and artistic; and Emotional Stability, covering calmness and emotional adjustment (as opposed to being anxious, fearful or unstable).”

Students who had those traits were able to compete more effectively in an academic setting. “A student with the most helpful personality will score a full grade higher than an average student in this regard,” says Porporat, whose results have been published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences. “In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether the students are smart.” (Interestingly, Porporat published a separate report on elementary students and found the effects are even stronger, although intelligence has a much bigger impact in primary education.)

How did he arrive at this counterintuitive conclusion? “My research was actually a series of meta-analyses, using similar procedures to those used in medical research,” says Poropat. (Meta analysis is a process of analyzing a wide swath of results of other studies, and correcting for errors).

So far he has completed two analyses: the first included nearly 140 studies and over 70,000 participants, and the most recent, which he spent the last eight years working on, looked at 22 studies with 5,514 participants and focused on links between personality traits and academic performance in secondary education.

Porporat examined five distinct personality traits (conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion) and found that conscientiousness and openness have the biggest influence on academic success. His results fall in line with similar work by well-regarded educationalists such as Paul Tough, who regards “grit” as the most important quality in a student.

Could this could mean that intelligence tests are not as useful as they’ve been made out to be? “Intelligence tests have always been closely linked with education and grades and therefore relied upon to predict who would do well,” Porporat says. “The impact of personality on study is genuinely surprising for educational researchers, and for anyone who thinks they did well at school because they are ‘smart.'”

So how do educators measure and cultivate these personality traits? Well, they can’t just ask students if they have them; Porporat found that self-assessment only was only about as useful for predicting university success as intelligence tests. But when he had people who knew the students well assess their personality traits, the results were nearly four times more accurate for predicting grades.

“What I found was that when someone who knows the student well provides the personality rating, the correlation with academic performance is much stronger than if the student rates their own personality,” said Porporat. “In the case of conscientiousness, it is nearly four times as strong, but the effect for emotional stability is comparatively greater. Apparently, students don’t rate their levels of anxiousness at all accurately— not exactly surprising but the consequence is important.”

In the classroom, this could mean that teachers can assess a student’s personality and match educational activities to their dispositions. Porporat believes that understanding how personality affects academic achievement is vital to helping students reach future success.

This is good news for many parents and students. While intelligence can’t be taught, per se, conscientiousness and openness can be learned. “Personality does change, and some educators have trained aspects of students’ conscientiousness and openness, leading to greater learning capacity,” said Porporat. “By contrast, there is little evidence that intelligence can be ‘taught,’ despite the popularity of brain-training apps.”

Don’t rule the intelligence test out completely however; Porporat admits that the best students will be both bright and conscientiousness, open and emotionally stable.

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TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

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Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

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TIME

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

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The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–“It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,'” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

TIME child development

Babies Identify Emotions by Looking at the Whites of Our Eyes

Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Study shows the unique response of human babies to eye expressions

Babies, as anyone who has had one might have noticed, are not that good at stuff. They can’t talk to you, they suck on everything no matter what it’s supposed to be used for, they can’t run errands, they soil themselves. But they can recognize different facial expressions just from looking at someone’s eyes, apparently as early as seven months. How? It’s all to do with the whites of the eyes.

A new study out of the University of Virginia and that Max Planck Institute that was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that babies respond differently to eyes alone, if the eyes were showing different expressions. “Their brains clearly responded to social cues conveyed through the eyes,” said Tobias Grossmann, one of the study’s authors, “indicating that even without conscious awareness, human infants are able to detect subtle social cues.”

Humans, it turns out, are the only primates in which the whites of the eye are visible. The amount of sclera, as the white is known, is often an indicator of the emotions of a person. Wide open eyes, with a lot of visible white, express surprise or fear. When people smile, on the other hand, their eyes often narrow, hiding the whites. Fellow humans use the eyes a lot to detect what a person is really feeling, which is why movie villains, prison guards, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour wear mirrored or dark glasses even inside and on overcast days. If people can’t see the whites of each other’s eyes, they’re not really communicating.

The sociologists were trying to establish how consciously or unconsciously humans respond to eye expressions, whether it’s learned behavior or innate to the human condition. So they hooked the babies up to shower cap like EEG devices that measure brain activity and showed them pictures of eyes for 50 milliseconds—way too short a time for the conscious brain of a baby of that age to have any idea of what was going on. Some of the eyes were wide open showing a lot of white, some were narrowly opened, some looked straight ahead, and some had an averted gaze.

The babies’ brains responded differently to each type. “This demonstrates that, like adults, infants are sensitive to eye expressions of fear and direction of focus, and that these responses operate without conscious awareness,” Grossmann said. “The existence of such brain mechanisms in infants likely provides a vital foundation for the development of social interactive skills in humans.”

The moral of the story is: you may want to ditch the mirrored sunglasses when playing with your baby. He or she would probably just suck on them anyway.

TIME Developmental Disorders

How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

Researchers say playing a series of sounds when infants are four months old could speed up the way babies process language and make them linguistic stars when they’re older. How babies respond to the sounds can also predict which infants will have trouble with language as well

The first few months of a baby’s life come with a flurry of challenges on a still-developing brain. Sights, sounds, smells and touches as well as other emotional experiences flood in, waiting to be processed and filed away as the foundation for everything from language to emotions and how to socialize with others. What happens if things are not finding their right place in the brain during these critical months? Some research suggests it results in developmental delays later on—and that’s just what neuroscientist April Benasich and her colleagues from Rutgers University found in a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Previous studies done by both Benasich and others show that the brains of children who learn to speak later or who develop reading disorders like dyslexia showed differences in detecting small differences in speech, such as the difference between da and ba, when they were infants. Other research has come to similar conclusions.

Genetic factors certainly play a role, but up to 10% of the babies Benasich has studied had no family history of developmental problems, yet still showed language trouble when they started talking. That’s why she turned to studying the brain maps of healthy babies before they learned to speak. These routes show how infants detect and respond to sounds in their environment—from words spoken to them to the humming of a dishwasher. In these early months, their brains are primed to sort out this cacophony of auditory stimuli and start making more refined distinctions between them. Doing so requires distinguishing between tiny differences, both in the sounds themselves as well as in frequencies. “Babies do this naturally; this is their job, since they want to be able to pick sounds out quickly and figure out whether they need to pay attention to them,” says Benasich.

For the babies in this study, she adorned them with skull caps studded with electronic sensors that would draw a map of their EEGs as they were presented with different, non-linguistic tones. Some of the babies were played sounds that changed ever so slightly, such as in their tone or frequency, and whenever there was a change, a small video in the corner of a screen they were looking at popped up. The babies naturally turned to watch the video, so the scientists used these eye turns as a signal that the babies had heard and recognized the transition in sounds, and were expecting to see the video. Another group of babies were played the same sounds but without the video training, and a control group didn’t hear the sounds at all.

MORE: Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

It wasn’t the sounds themselves that were important, but the changes in them that were key to priming the babies’ brains. Those who were trained to pay attention to the changes in the sounds, for example, showed more robust mapping of language sounds later on when they started to babble; by 18 months, these infants showed brain mapping patterns similar to those in two year olds. They were faster at discriminating different sounds, and quicker to pay attention to even tiny differences in inflection or frequency compared to babies who weren’t given the sounds. The babies who only listened to the sounds without the training fell somewhere between these two groups when it came to their language mapping networks.

Benasich says that the training lays the foundation in babies’ brains to become more efficient in processing language sounds, including very tiny variations among them. Their brains are setting up different neural routes for each sound, like a well-organized airport with separate runways designated for northbound and southbound flights. Other babies were less adept at this, essentially routing every sound through the same neural network, akin to sending every plane off the same runway, leading to delays as some have to bank and redirect in the opposite direction. In similar ways, says Benasich, in language, this cruder processing of sounds could result in delays in reading or speaking or language acquisition, and toddlers end up having to “manually” process the sounds in a more tedious and less automatic process. “Instead of automatically discriminating sounds without pausing, they have to stop and think and what that sound might be, and that leads them to hesitate a little,” she says. “That small hesitation makes a huge difference in how well they learn and process language.”

The training, she says, was minimal – the babies’ parents brought them in for six to eight minute sessions once a week for about six weeks. Yet she was “surprised by how robust the effects are for the babies.”

The study involved healthy babies who did not have risk factors for language disorders, so the training only helped them to enhance their later language learning. But the team is currently studying a group of babies at higher risk of having language deficits, either because of genetic risk factors or by having siblings affected by such disorders. If these babies show different brain patterns compared to those not at risk, then it’s possible that EEG patterns in response to sounds could predict which infants are at risk of developing language problems even before they start to talk.

Benasich is also working on developing her test into a parent-friendly toy that parents can buy and use with their babies; if their babies are developing normally, then the training can only accelerate and enhance their language skills later on, while for those who are struggling, the training could help them to avoid learning disabilities when they start school. It’s not possible to screen every baby, but if parents and doctors are able to take advantage of such a tool, then she hopes that more language-based disorders might be avoided. “Babies naturally do this, but for those who are having trouble, we are guiding them to pay more attention to things that are important in their environment, such as language-based sounds,“ she says. “We think we could make a huge difference in the number of kids who end up with learning problems.”

TIME child development

Health of Mom Key Factor in Baby Size, Study Says

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Alex Mares—Asia Images RM/MantonGetty Images

And not race or ethnicity, researchers find

The size of a baby at birth has a significant impact on its future health, and a far-reaching new study shows that the greatest disparities in infant size worldwide are due to mothers’ health, not their race or ethnicity.

The large study, led by Oxford University researchers, looked at 60,000 pregnancies in urban areas in Brazil, China, India, Italy, Oman, Kenya, the U.K. and the U.S. During women’s pregnancies, the researchers used ultrasounds to measure the babies’ bone growth in the womb. When the babies were born, they measured their length and head circumference. They found that the babies’ growth in the womb and their size at birth were very similar across countries, if their mothers were healthy and well-educated.

The study debunks the belief that race or ethnicity are the primary factors for a baby’s size at birth. The good news is that the findings suggest if a mother is educated, healthy and well-nourished, her child has an equal shot at good health in the womb and beyond. But the bad news is that women in less fortunate circumstances are already at a disadvantage when it comes to raising a healthy child.

“Currently we are not all equal at birth. But we can be,” lead study author Jose Villar, a professor in the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at University of Oxford said in a statement. “Don’t tell us nothing can be done. Don’t say that women in some parts of the world have small children because they are predestined to do so. It’s simply not true.”

The researchers argue that all mothers can have a similar start if they can be educated and nourished and have access to infection treatments and adequate antenatal care.

The ultimate goal of the study is to create international standards for babies’ optimal growth.

TIME

Preschoolers’ Innate Knowledge Means They Can Probably Do Algebra

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Imgorthand—Getty Images/Vetta

Child development specialists are uncovering evidence that toddlers may understand much more than we think

Give a three-year old a smartphone and she’ll likely figure out how to turn it on and operate a few simple functions. But confront her with an algebra problem and ask her to solve for x? Not likely.

For decades, child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget convinced us that young, undeveloped minds couldn’t handle complex concepts because they simply weren’t experienced or mature enough yet. Piaget, in fact, believed that toddlers could not understand cause and effect, that they couldn’t think logically, and that they also couldn’t handle abstract ideas.

That’s because, he argued, children learn to develop these higher skills through trial and error. But child development specialists are finding out that preschoolers without any formal education may have the capacity to understand more complex concepts than we give them credit for, such as complicated rules for operating a toy or even solving for an unknown in algebra. Some of this is due to their ability to be more open and flexible about their world than adults. But beyond that, toddlers may have the innate ability to understand abstract concepts like quantities and causality, and that’s fueling an exciting stream of experiments that reveal just how sophisticated preschoolers’ brains might be.

MORE: The Brain: What Do Babies Know?

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California Berkeley and her team devised a way to test how well young kids understand the abstract concept of multiple causality — the idea that there may be more than one cause for a single effect. They pitted 32 preschoolers around 4 years old against 143 undergrads. The study centered around a toy that could be turned on by placing a single blue-colored block on the toy’s tray, but could also be activated if two blocks of different colors – orange and purple – were placed on the tray. Both the kids and the undergraduates were shown how the toy worked and then asked which blocks activated the toy.

The preschoolers were adept at figuring out that the blue blocks turned on the toy, as did the purple and orange ones, but that the purple and orange ones needed to be paired together. The Berkeley undergraduates, however, had a harder time accepting the scenario. Their previous experience in the world, which tends to work in a single-cause-equals-single-effect way, hampered their ability to accept the unusual rules that activated they toy; they wanted to believe that it was activated either by a single color or by a combination of colors, but not both. “The training didn’t seem to give them a hint that the world might work in different ways,” says Gopnik, who published her work in the journal Cognition.

The preschoolers’ lack of bias about causality likely contributed to their ability to learn the multiple ways to activate the toy, but the results also suggest that preschoolers really can think logically and in more complicated ways. Just because they can’t express themselves or aren’t as adept at demonstrating such knowledge, doesn’t mean they don’t have it.

MORE: Developmental Psychology: Baby Monitor

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, for example, found a similar effect among preschoolers when it came to math. Previous studies showed that if you present infants with eight objects over and over until they got bored, and then showed them 16, they suddenly regained interest and sensed that things changed. Even before they are taught about numbers or amounts, then, infants seem to have a grasp on quantity. “All the evidence so far leads us to believe that this is something that babies come into the world with,” says Melissa Kibbe, co-author of that study.

MORE: High Anxiety: How Worrying About Math Hurts Your Brain

She and her colleague Lisa Feigenson wondered if that innate sense of quantity might translate into an understanding of numbers and higher math functions, including solving for unknowns — one of the foundations of algebra — which often isn’t taught until seventh or eighth grades. So they conducted a series of experiments using a cup with a fixed amount of objects that substituted for x in the equation 5 + x = 17.

To divert the four- and six-year olds’ attention away from Arabic numerals to quantities instead, the researchers used a puppet and a “magic” cup that contained 12 buttons. In one of the experiments, the children saw five buttons on the table. After watching the researchers add the 12 buttons from the cup, they were told there were 17 buttons on the table. In another test, the youngsters saw three piles of objects — buttons, coins or small toys — in varying amounts, and observed the researchers adding the fixed number of contents of the puppet’s cup to each.

After training the kids on how the cup worked, the researchers tried to confuse them with another cup containing fewer (such as four) or more (such as 24) objects. However, the kids understood intuitively that the decoy cup contained the wrong amount of items and that a specific amount — x, the “magic” cup amount — had to be added to reach the sum.

When the children were presented with the straight algebraic equation on a card, 5 + _ = 17, and asked to fill in the blank, their answers were no better than chance; that’s because they were simply guessing. In the puppet and cup scenarios, however, which did not involve numerals, they were able to accurately identify the correct amount, increasing their accuracy dramatically, to between 59% to 79%.

MORE: Study: Employers Assume Women Are Worse At Math

That suggested that the preschoolers had some concept of quantity, and the appropriate amount that they needed to get from a small quantity (five) to a larger one (17). What surprised Kibbe was not just that preschoolers understood the concept of adding “more,” but that they could also calibrate how much more was needed to fill in the unknown quantity.

“These kids had very little formal schooling so far, but what we are finding is that when we tap into their gut sense, something we call the Approximate Number Sense (ANS), kids are able to do much more complex calculations than if we gave them numbers and letters,” says Kibbe of her results, which were reported in the journal Developmental Science. And there doesn’t seem to be any gender differences in this innate ability, at least not among the girls and boys Kibbe studied.

MORE: Your Brain On Sesame Street: Big Bird Helps Researchers See How the Brain Learns

There’s also precedent for such innate pre-learning in reading, says Jon Star, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. To improve reading skills, some teachers have tapped into children’s memorization skills to make the connection between words and meaning more efficient.

Kibbe’s and Gopnik’s recent work may have broader implications for education, since current math curricula in schools, which focuses on teaching Arabic numerals and on solving equations, may not be ideal for nurturing the number sense that kids are born with. “There’s an exciting movement in psychology over the past decade, as we learn that students bring certain capabilities, or innate knowledge that we hadn’t thought they had before,” says Star.

Though it may be too early to translate such findings to the classroom, the results lay the groundwork for studying similar innate skills and how they might be better understood. ANS, for example, is one of many so-called cognitive primitives, or constructs that young children may have that could enhance their learning but that current curricula aren’t exploiting. Developmental experts are still trying to figure out how malleable these constructs are, and how much of an impact they can have on future learning. For instance, do kids who hone their ANS skills become better at algebra and calculus in high school? “We still need to figure out which constructs matter most, and which are most amenable to interventions to help children improve their learning,” says Star.

MORE: How To Make Your Kids Smarter: 10 Steps Backed By Science

“The hard part is, educationally, how do you build up and upon this intuitive knowledge in a way that allows a child to capture the complexity but not hold them back,” says Tina Grotzer, associate professor of education at Harvard. Tapping into a child’s still developing sense of numbers and quantities is one thing, but overloading it with too many new constructs about algebra, unknowns, and problem solving may just gum up the working memory and end up adversely affecting his learning and academic performance. “As soon as concepts get big and complex, there are all sorts of perceptual, attentional, and cognitive costs and challenges involved,” she says.

Still, that doesn’t mean that these innate skills shouldn’t be explored and possibly exploited in the classroom. Preschoolers may be smarter than we think, but we still have to figure out how to give them the right opportunities in the classroom so they know what to do with that knowledge.

TIME Family & Parenting

Don’t Text While Parenting — It Will Make You Cranky

Texting
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A new study from Boston Medical Center reveals that parents who get absorbed by email, games or other apps have more negative interactions with their children, making them feel like they're competing for attention with their parents' gadgets

It’s hard to avoid the lure of the smartphone — so many apps! — and if you’re a parent with rambunctious kids, you may not want to. But a fascinating study of the dynamic between parents, kids and smartphones paints a sobering picture of what the devices are doing to the parent-child relationship.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental-and-behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, specializes in counseling parents about developmental and behavioral issues with their children. So she was naturally curious about how the ubiquity of smartphones, and their distracting allure, might affect the quality of time that parents and their children spent together. Previous studies showed that TVs, even if they are only on in the background, can inhibit children’s creativity and siphon their concentrating and focusing powers.

(MORE: We’re All Doomed: Using Your Smartphone Before Bed Can Cause Cell-Phone ‘Hangover’)

To study the effect of smartphones, Radesky and her colleagues sent in undercover investigators to surreptitiously observe any adult-child grouping with more than one youngster as they ate at a fast-food restaurant. The observers recorded the behavior of both the adults and the children in 55 such groupings, as well as how frequently the adults used their smartphones.

The data provided an unvarnished look at how absorbed many parents were by their devices. One child reached over in an attempt to lift his mother’s face while she looked down at a tablet, but to no avail. Another mother kicked her child under the table in response to the child’s various attempts to get her attention while she looked at her phone. A father responded in curt and irritated tones to his children’s escalating efforts to tear him away from his device.

“What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids,” she says. While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were “a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction” between the adults and the children. “That’s simply unfair to the children,” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog.

(MORE: The Smartphone App Wars Are Over, and Apple Won)

In light of the data, Radesky is working with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop some guidelines for the smart smartphone use in front of the kids — just as the academy has advice for parents on TV viewing (none for toddlers younger than 2). She and her group also plan to expand the studies with videotapes of the interactions, to better understand how parents absorbed by their phones engage with and respond to their kids, as well as the kids’ reactions to having their parents or caregivers having their attention diverted by the devices. Part of the broader work will also include a more detailed analysis of what parents are doing on their phones, to determine if there are better and worse things to do while in the company of youngsters.

In the meantime, setting aside devices during specific times, such as meal, story and bed times, can help to minimize any potentially distracting effects that smartphones have on parent-child interactions. Using the phone, says Swanson, “is not recommended at the dinner table — a time that we think is valuable to fostering cohesion.”

Also, recognizing that responding to email or scanning Facebook while your kids are waiting or attempting to get your attention isn’t fair to them and could change the nature of your relationship with your kids if they don’t feel they are as important as the device. “These data are a wake-up call for we parents in that we really need to think about how these enticing devices not only distract us but potentially change who we are as parents,” says Swanson.

Establishing no-device rules at certain times of day or places in the home can also help. That not only can improve relations between young children and their parents, but also teach the children about how to properly engage with people during conversations or interactions as they grow older. “My concern is that if the device use becomes really excessive, and it replaces our day-to-day interactions, then kids won’t get much practice with having conversations, reading social cues and responding sensitively to something that the other person expresses,” she says. Kids learn by watching and participating, and if parents aren’t engaging with their children, then the young ones could start to lose their social role models. And who wants a generation of people who text each other while sitting at the same table?

TIME mental health

More Bad News for Older Dads: Higher Risk of Kids With Mental Illness

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The effect of paternal age on autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD may be greater than previously thought

For so long, mothers – particularly older moms — bore the brunt of responsibility for genetic disorders in their children. And for good reason. Eggs are stockpiled from birth, not made anew with each monthly reproductive cycle, so eggs stored for decades until childbearing can develop genetic mutations. The older the mother, the greater the chance of abnormalities that can contribute to conditions such as Down syndrome, especially after age 35. Fathers, on the other hand, constantly make sperm, so their reproductive contribution was supposed to be fresher and free of accumulated DNA damage.

That may not actually be the case, however, according to the latest study in JAMA Psychiatry investigating how advanced paternal age can affect rates of mental illness and school performance in children. After a groundbreaking genetic analysis in 2012 highlighted the surprising number of spontaneous mutations that can occur in the sperm of older men, scientists have been delving into the relationship to better quantify and describe the risk. While some studies confirmed the connection, others failed to find a link.

MORE: Older Fathers Linked to Kids’ Autism and Schizophrenia Risk

In the latest research, Brian D’Onofrio, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, and his colleagues attempted to address one of the biggest problems with studying the trend. Most of the previous investigations compared younger fathers and their children to different older fathers and their offspring. “That’s comparing apples and oranges,” says D’Onofrio. “We know young fathers and old fathers vary on many things.”

So his team turned to birth registry data from Sweden and compared children born to the same fathers, evaluating the siblings on various mental health and academic measures. The study included 2.6 million children born to 1.4 million fathers.

What they found surprised them – so much so that they spent about two months re-evaluating the data to make sure their numbers were correct. While the previous genetic study found that an older father’s DNA may account for about 15% of autism cases, D’Onofrio’s group found that the increased risk for children of fathers older than 45 years soared to 3.5 times compared to that of younger fathers. Children of older fathers also showed a 13 fold higher risk of developing attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a 25 times greater chance of getting bipolar disorder, and twice the risk of developing a psychosis. These kids also had doubled risk of having a substance abuse problem and a 60% higher likelihood of getting failing grades in school compared with those with younger fathers.

MORE: Too Old to Be a Dad?

“What this study suggests is that the specific effect of older paternal age may actually be worse than we originally thought,” says D’Onofrio.

The scientists controlled for some of the well-known factors that can account for poor grades and psychoses and mental illnesses, such as the child’s birth order, the mother’s age, the mother’s and father’s education level, their history of psychiatric problems, and their history of criminality. Even after adjusting for these possible effects, they still found a strong correlation between higher rates of mental illness among younger siblings compared with their older ones.

The 2012 genetic study pointed to a possible reason for the higher rates of mental illnesses – because genetic mutations tend to accumulate each time a cell divides, older men may build up more spontaneous, or de novo, changes each time the sperm’s DNA is copied. While a 25-year-old father may pass on an average of 25 mutations to his child, a 40-year-old dad may bequeath each offspring as many as 65; the researchers calculated that the de novo mutation rate doubled with every 16.5 years of the father’s age. In contrast, regardless of her age, a mother tends to pass on about 15 mutations via her eggs.

The findings still need to be repeated by other groups, but the large sample size and the careful way that the researchers designed the study – to analyze the same fathers over time – suggest that the association is significant and worth considering for those who put off having a family. “This study suggests that paternal age does need to be considered as one of many risk factors associated with children’s mental health,” says D’Onofrio.

MORE: Fewer Drugs Being Prescribed to Treat Mental Illness Among Kids

Whether it gains the same amount of weight that maternal age does in family planning decisions isn’t clear yet, but even if it is confirmed, he notes that the correlation doesn’t predict that every child born to an older father will develop a mental illness. Older parents also have protective factors against these disorders, including more maturity and financial and social stability, that can offset some of the effect.

TIME Drugs

Tylenol During Pregnancy Linked to Higher Risk of ADHD

Moms-to-be who relieve pain with acetaminophen may be setting their children up for hyperactivity

Pregnancy is already a fraught time for expectant moms, as more research shows how quickly the foods that women eat, the air they breathe and the compounds to which they are exposed can traverse the placenta and affect their growing child. Now there’s another thing to add to the growing list of agents — including tobacco from cigarettes, mercury from fish, and alcohol — that may affect their babies’ development.

In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, an international group of researchers led by Dr. Jorn Olsen, at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark, found a strong correlation between acetaminophen (found in common painkillers like Tylenol) use among pregnant women and the rate of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses and prescriptions for ADHD medications in their children. Overall, moms who used the pain reliever to treat things like headaches or to reduce fevers saw a 37% increased risk in their kids receiving an ADHD diagnosis and a 29% increased risk in the chances that their kids needed ADHD medications compared with moms who didn’t use the over-the-counter medication at all.

(MORE: Majority of Doctors Do Not Follow Treatment Guidelines for ADHD)

Even after the team accounted for factors that could explain the connection, like why the mom needed to take the drug in the first place, the link remained strong, suggesting that there is something specific about the drug, and how it affects fetal development, that might explain the higher risk of behavioral issues.

The findings are especially troubling since more than half of the 64,322 women in the study reported using acetaminophen in the three months prior to the survey. The participants included mothers and singleton children born in Denmark between 1996 and 2002 and registered in the Danish National Birth Cohort, so it included a diverse group of mothers from different social and environmental backgrounds. The study also evaluated hyperactivity on three different levels — from symptom reports by mothers or caregivers, hospital diagnoses and prescriptions to treat ADHD. Higher acetaminophen use among mothers was linked to higher rates of all three outcomes in their children.

(MORE: Men Diagnosed With Childhood ADHD Struggle More With Jobs, Relationships)

“[The results] are worrisome because more than 50% of the women took acetaminophen; it’s an over-the-counter drug and they can freely buy, and use it at their discretion,” says Dr. Beate Ritz, one of the co-authors and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “It’s considered relatively safe, and maybe it’s not.”

Previous studies have raised concerns about acetaminophen; both animal and human works have shown that the drug can interfere with hormone systems, so prenatal exposure may adversely affect development of the brain. Some studies showed the drug hampers the ability of the testes to descend during development as well. “Pregnancy is a very special period,” says Ritz. “Acetaminophen may not harm adults in any other way, but fetal development is special.”

(MORE: New ADHD Guidelines Include Kids as Young as 4)

The latest investigations from the neuroscientists studying developmental and behavioral disorders like autism and ADHD suggest that problems in the connection between different brain regions may contribute to the symptoms of these conditions, and hormone disruptions in utero, triggered by acetaminophen, may unbalance the brain enough to make certain children more vulnerable to autism or hyperactivity later in life.

The results are likely to launch waves of questions about how safe the drug is for pregnant women to take. Kate Langley, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, in Wales, who wrote an accompanying editorial for the study, cautions that the findings only suggest an association, and do not establish that acetaminophen causes ADHD. “This is an interesting research paper, but it is way too early for it to inform our clinical practice at the moment,” she says.

Some women have a medical need to take acetaminophen, and they should continue to talk to their doctors about this latest risk. But for those who turn to the over-the-counter remedy for less medically urgent needs, such as relieving a headache or the pain of sore muscles, they should have a different kind of discussion with their doctors about the possible risks that the drug poses for their unborn child.

(MORE: Common Painkiller Use May Be Linked to Miscarriage Risk)

Ritz says more studies are needed using different sets of data to confirm and replicate what she and her colleagues found. But she appreciates how difficult it might be for expectant moms, or women who plan on having children soon, to wait for those studies to be completed. “As a scientist, I never want to be alarmist and use one study [to make clinical decisions],” she says. “But as a woman, when I see something like that, I would be worried, and wouldn’t take Tylenol during pregnancy any more.”

She says that women who need to take a pain reliever or need to control their fever should consider other alternatives, such as getting more rest or even gritting through the episode if they are especially worried about what their developing child might be exposed to. If more studies verify the potential harms on developing brains, it might also fall to regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration to rethink the label of acetaminophen and warn users to avoid the medication during pregnancy.

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