Nurturing Intelligence, Understanding Your Child's Strengths and Weaknesses

by local writer April Schweitzer

You may have noticed it growing up. Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses. Your brother was the athletic one – the jock who hated math. Your sister was the artist. And you were the bookworm who had a heart for animals. Everyone remembers the subjects they loved in school and the hobbies that they were obsessed with. Hidden somewhere are the memories of the class you dreaded or those lessons you suffered through. All children have their own individual likes and dislikes when it comes to school and hobbies. Staying aware of a child’s strengths and weaknesses is one of the most important jobs a parent can do.

Schools and teachers work hard to recognize and develop a child’s potential. Your child’s particular interests, though, might not be a part of the regular curriculum, or their abilities in a subject might exceed what can be challenged and developed in a classroom situation.

That’s where parents come in. “All parents should be attuned to or watch for their child’s strengths and encourage them even if they’re not going to be a genius at it,” said Curry School of Education professor Carolyn Callahan. “Maybe your son is not going to be Van Gogh, but he loves to draw, so let him develop that talent.”

The idea that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses might seem just to be a matter of individual preferences. But according to Harvard professor and research psychologist Howard Gardner, there is something more to your child’s talents than just after-school hobbies.

In his 1983 book, Frames of Mind, Gardner introduced the theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner proposed that intelligence is not just “book” or “math smarts,” but that there are seven different intelligences (he later added an eighth) each based in brain physiology and valued in society. While traditional IQ tests look primarily at language and math/logic aptitude, Gardner believes that there are six other intelligences that should be given equal footing with verbal and math skills. Gardner’s eight intelligences are linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist.

Linguistic intelligence is defined as an ability in written and spoken language. Children with strong linguistic intelligence love hearing, telling and creating stories. They remember information well and have strong vocabularies. They might enjoy telling jokes or debating.

Logical/mathematical intelligence is a facility for numbers, computation, patterns and logic. These children are curious. They ask questions, love to experiment, and enjoy finding patterns in the world around them. They are great problem solvers, like to find out how things work, and enjoy puzzles or number games.

Spatial intelligence is the ability to visualize and create mental and concrete pictures and images. Children with well-developed spatial intelligence love to draw, paint, sculpt and build. They have a good sense of direction and understand maps, charts and graphs.

Musical intelligence is ability to create and appreciate music. Musically inclined children love to sing and make noise. They may play an instrument well, be sensitive to sounds in the environment, or easily remember lyrics to songs.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to control and understand the body’s movements. A child who is strong in this area is coordinated, has a good sense of balance, and may enjoy dancing, sports, or pantomime.

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to relate and work well with others. Children with this aptitude are good team players, they are concerned about the feelings of others, and they may seem to be natural leaders.

Intrapersonal intelligence is the insight into your own feelings and well-being. Children with strong intrapersonal intelligence may enjoy playing by themselves, may show little concern for social conventions, and may hold strong opinions. These children may keep a journal, be vivid daydreamers, and express their emotions clearly.

Naturalist intelligence is a skill in recognizing, remembering, and putting to use information about the environment. Naturalist intelligence is seen when a child develops a strong interest in caring for pets, discovering the differences between different plants or animals, or eagerly looks for constellations in the nighttime sky.

Gardner said that there is not “one form of cognition which cuts across human thinking,” but these eight intelligences exist independently of each other. A child who loves to read and write stories has verbal/linguistic intelligence, but may have no sense of rhythm or pitch. And a gifted musician may not do well in traditional academic subjects. Everyone is born with all of the eight intelligences, but each person develops a different set of talents and aptitudes that produce different levels of potential in each intelligence. “Every normal individual possesses varying degrees of each of these intelligences, but the ways in which these intelligences combine and blend are as varied as the faces and the personalities of individuals,” Gardner wrote in Frames of Mind.

Gardner believes that incorporating all of the intelligences into the classroom and placing equal importance on each intelligence will identify giftedness and encourage success in students who might have otherwise been considered low-achieving. Schools around the country, and right here in Albemarle County, are using Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences to restructure what and how they teach.

While Gardner and his advocates push schools to incorporate all of his eight identified intelligences into their curriculum, critics believe there is good reason why all of Gardner’s intelligences should not be given an equal footing in the schools. Critics say there is no neurological evidence for the existence of the eight intelligences. They believe giving all of the intelligences equal attention would distract from academic progress in the key areas of reading, writing and math.

UVa. professor and noted educational specialist E.D. Hirsch is among Gardner’s critics. Hirsch, author of The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, says that “every theorist of education has recognized at least to some degree the importance of individual difference; every good teacher tries to nurture students’ talents and strengthen their weaknesses.”

The difference between what Hirsch considers good teaching and Gardner’s theory is the equality that Gardner places on the eight intelligences. The danger of multiple intelligences theory, Hirsch warns, is that it bases achievement more on the idea “that everyone is good at something” rather than on competency goals that would “give all children the knowledge and skills that they need to become politically functional, economically successful and autonomous citizens.”

Curry School professor Callahan believes that parents could misinterpret the theory of multiple intelligences and place too much stress on an area of particular talent while ignoring other intelligences in a child. She said parents should try to encourage a range of intelligences. “A sculptor who wants to sell his work had better be able to talk to people, and he needs to be able to make the most out of his money. Most people who are accomplished use some of all of the intelligences.”

How can parents develop their children’s intelligences? Regardless of how much a parent tries to apply from the theory of multiple intelligences, experts agree the most important thing parents can do is listen to their children. What a parent chooses to do needs to stem from “listening to their children and finding out how strong their interest is,” said Bev Catlin, a gifted student expert with the Charlottesville City Schools. “There needs to be a balance between exposing and overexposing a child to an area that interests them.”

Callahan agreed, “Parents tend to say right away, ‘we’re going to get lessons,’ but that might not be the right first stage. The first stage of developing a talent is engaging in the play part of learning. Get involved with the interest as a family, and do it in a fun way that’s not too structured. Expose a child to it, but not in the adult way.” For example, she said, a five-year-old who loves listening to the radio will probably fall asleep at a symphony, but will love playing with her own set of maracas or keyboard.

Callahan said parents need to be aware of opportunities around them to introduce their children to new ideas and experiences that will develop all of their intelligences. “When a child doesn’t seem to have a strength,” she said, “there might not be a lot of opportunities at home to get engaged in a certain area. Parents need to be alert to what is available at home and in our community as it fits in with what a child shows an interest in.”

“Part of some of the best learning occurs through play,” Callahan added. “A lot of interest will grow out of play. Parents should take advantage of whatever opportunities there are to capitalize on an interest without making it into work.”

Local treasures such as the Virginia Discovery Museum and the Shenandoah National Park are just two of the many resources in the community that offer opportunities for your child to engage their intelligences and develop interests through play. A child admiring the museum’s new hermit crabs or playing games on the museum’s computer doesn’t think about the fact that he is developing his naturalist and mathematical intelligences. And a child hiking through the mountains or drawing pictures of trees along a favorite path doesn’t think about her bodily-kinesthetic or spatial intelligence. She just does it because it’s fun.

Having fun together as a family is a cornerstone of the Kindermusik experience, said local instructor Pam Evans. Parents might remember suffering through violin or piano lessons, but Kindermusik, which incorporates the theory of multiple intelligences into its curriculum, strives to “teach in a way that is really fun, so it doesn’t seem like work,” Evans said.

“As a teacher,” she said, “it is a curriculum that takes a while to get comfortable with, because it is about following the children.” The children learn through creating music, playing with instruments and moving to rhythms. “When people push music really hard on young children, they can get frustrated and upset.” The Kindermusik curriculum, which is for children from birth to age seven, teaches everything from rhythm to reading music and playing instruments in an age-appropriate and fun way. Evans suggested that parents keep a special basket of musical instruments and set aside time each week for playing instruments and singing together.

Evans’ idea of a special music time and special toys could be adapted to the other intelligences as well. Keep an art box and draw together with your child, play board games to develop interpersonal skills or do puzzles to develop logic skills, read and make up stories together or go for a hike outdoors.

Being aware of the various intelligences helps parents nurture their child’s strengths and help their child overcome weaknesses. Having fun with your child while showing curiosity and a willingness to learn something new will set the example that will help your child develop their potential to become a healthy intelligent adult.

Visit the Tool Room at www.NewHorizons.org for more information on Multiple Intelligences and other educational theories. This site includes reading lists, links to articles, and recent research.

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