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Parenting for Intelligence and Success

Educational psychology provides 18 ideas to help kids thrive at school and life.

The American Psychological Association recently published a review of the top 20 principles from the psychological research, concepts with proven effectiveness in the teaching/learning process. Eighteen of these principles apply to parenting for academic success and intellectual development, from the early years and right into college.

  1. Model and teach a growth mindset. Show your child that intelligence isn’t something she’s born with more or less of, but instead that ability develops over time, with opportunities to learn. Welcome your failures and mistakes and hers as learning opportunities, showing the way to growth in every area.
  2. Start with what your child knows now. All learning builds on prior knowledge. When helping your child acquire a new skill (from sweeping the floor to mastering mathematics), check out his current beliefs and abilities, and build on that. Start by addressing any misconceptions or bad habits, and help him figure out how to do it right, one small step at a time.
  3. Each child’s developmental trajectory is unique. Contrary to popular misconception, children grow at different rates in different areas, and in different sequences. Give your child the challenges she needs and wants, no matter whether others see her as too old or too young for that learning or skill.
  4. Learning happens in a context. Your child can’t automatically transfer his learning in one area (learning at school about the relative nutritional values of different foods, say) to another (like making healthy food choices), even if the application appears totally obvious to you. He can learn to apply his knowledge in one area to another, but he will need your help.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Even if your child learns very quickly, she’ll need to practice what she knows already if she’s going to get better. Good practice habits include frequent assessments, practice problems, hands-on activities, and applying what she knows already to new contexts.
  6. Provide clear, specific, and timely feedback. If you want to motivate your child to continue learning in an area he finds valuable and interesting, make sure he’s getting frequent and meaningful feedback about how he’s doing, whether that’s from you or from a teacher/mentor.
  7. Foster self-regulation. Focused attention, organization, self-control, planning skills, and memory strategies are all important components of learning. You can teach these self-regulation skills by modelling them in your own life, and explaining what you’re doing (and why) to your child.
  8. Nurture creativity. You can help your child acquire habits of mind that lead to creativity. These include welcoming alternative perspectives and solutions, encouraging him to analyze and advocate for his own ideas, seeing fresh new possibilities through his eyes, and helping him learn how to take sensible risks.
  9. Encourage intrinsic motivators. Your child’s interest in learning will be sustained longer and her understandings will be deeper if she feels a personal desire to learn, rather than working for grades, rewards, awards, or approval. Help her discover her own enthusiasms, and support her in exploring them further, making sure you don’t take over. You want her to own the learning experience.
  10. Support mastery goals. Help your child experience the pleasure of persisting toward mastery—increasing his skills and knowledge as far as he can go—rather than achieving an endpoint of performance set by a teacher, parent, coach, or test. Learning for its own sake feels more satisfying, and motivates much higher achievement in the end.
  11. Communicate high expectations. Demonstrate faith in your child’s ability to accomplish her own highest objectives by a positive attitude, and by providing her the tools and supports she needs to do that. She will achieve more if you believe she’s capable of it.
  12. Set short-term, specific, and realistic goals. It’s great to have lofty long-term goals like making the world a better place, but in order to achieve them, your child needs help formulating shorter term goals that are specific and realistic. As he experiences the satisfaction of realizing manageable goals, he’ll be motivated and empowered to develop more challenging and larger goals.
  13. Consider all relevant contexts and cultures. This includes home, classroom, school, neighbourhood, extended family, cultural and religious groups, local and national affiliations, media, and more. Be inclusive, and help her consider and come to terms with conflicting values and attitudes.
  14. Interpersonal relationships are at the heart of all learning. Your child learns best when he knows that you care more about him—his hopes, dreams, preferences, and problems—than about his achievements. By being present to him with your whole heart, you enhance his ability to learn and achieve in the long run.
  15. Overall well-being matters most. Learning, achievement, and happy productivity follow naturally from healthy self-esteem. To foster well-being, listen to your child’s concerns and enthusiasms; ensure lots of free unstructured play time; spend time outdoors; value do-nothing times; and encourage an attitude of gratitude.
  16. Support good behaviour. In almost every case, a difficult child can learn to behave in socially acceptable ways. Start by giving him a healthy dose of your full loving attention several times a day. Bathe him in your unconditional positive regard. Help him find what he wants to know more about or do better, and help him find ways to accomplish it. Take it slowly. Be patient with yourself and with him.
  17. Create a success-conducive culture in your home. By combining solid expectations, a nurturing attitude, and dependable support, you enhance your child’s ability to take on meaningful challenges.
  18. Give your child evidence of progress. Help him recognize his achievement, by helping him see what he was doing recently, and how it’s different now. Also, help him look back over a longer period and think about how well he’s achieving his longer-term goals. These evidence-of-progress principles apply to every area, from getting himself ready for school in the morning, to academic achievement.

For more on these topics:

Ten Steps toward Parenting for Happy Productivity,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Too Busy to Play? Six Ways to Push Back for Healthy Balance,’ by Dona Matthews

‘What Drives Children’s Creativity,’ by Joanne Foster and Rina Gottesman

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

'These Psychological Principles Will Help Your Students Learn More Effectively,' the article by Nancy Fenton that inspired this one

'Top Twenty Principles for Pre-K to 12 Education,' the article from the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (CPSE), a group of psychologists and psychology teachers within American Psychological Association: