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How is your child smart?

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

The way your child misbehaves might just show you how he is smart.

Some years ago I taught a class of nine and ten year olds so naughty they kept me awake at night.

It mattered to me as a teacher that I got to know and understand the children in my class because I needed to manage that class. But what I discovered, reading Kathy Koch’s 8 Great Smarts was so much more than behavioural: The children were misbehaving in a way that was revealing their extraordinary intelligence.

When Lilah got excited, which she often did, she asked incessant questions. Not, mind you, from where she sat at her seat in the third row having put her hand up in a calm fashion but from suddenly right in front of me in the front of the class. “You need to stay in your seat, Lilah” I heard myself say for the umpteenth time. It was just maddening until I realised it was an indicator of how she was smart.

Lilah was both logic and movement smart:

her questions NEEDED to be answered and her body NEEDED to move while she processed.

Attidashe, on the other hand, rarely seemed very excited. He sat quietly at his spot two rows from the back observing the chaos around him. I laboured at drawing him out and he seemed frankly arrogant in his silence: as if he was surrounded by children and I was one of them. When I did manage to urge his reluctant comments they were considered, deep and rich. Atti wasn’t rude: he was self-smart.

Ethan simply couldn’t sit still. I walked past his chair, touching his shoulder for the third time that day, he looked up surprised that the whole class was staring at him. He hadn’t noticed that he had been drumming his pencil animatedly on his wooden desk during the test. I ask him if he could maybe just drum on his legs under the table. Ethan was movement smart and I didn’t ask him to stop drumming -that would have been asking him to stop thinking.

Conrad was clearly very able academically but I felt frustrated. I wanted to see his writing fly but every suggestion from me was questioned and argued with. He simply HAD to have a reason that made sense to him for every instruction I gave. I thought him stubborn: Turned out he was just logic smart.

If I think back to my own childhood I cannot think of one report I received in all the years that didn’t say ‘Eloise talks too much’. What would have happened if a teacher said instead: ‘Eloise is word smart which explains why she gets so talkative when she’s excited’. What a difference that would have made!

We don’t need to point out how kids are smart because its a nice thing to do. We need to find and point out our children’s raw abilities for them to develop into actual strengths.

“Smart is a power word.” Explains Kathy Koch “Everyone wants to be smart”.

I have no doubt that my incessant verbal processing was frustrating to teachers (and my family). I still needed to learn when to listen and not talk. I needed to learn self control and appropriate communication. To this day I must intentionally choose to draw people out in conversation rather than think of them as a captive audience to my material! But I wonder how a shift in message from ‘you talk too much’ to ‘you are word smart’ would have done to my young selfs motivation to develop that strength.

How is your child smart?

“Do they talk too much? Word smart. Move more than is appropriate and touch everything? Body smart. Manipulate people—even you? People smart. Think they must have reasons for everything before they obey? Logic smart.” Koch explains

I am convinced that one of our greatest tasks and most exciting opportunities as parents is to study our children and identify strengths in them. As the adults who love them most it is up to us to see in them what they are too immature to notice and unlikely to put words to as ’smarts’ . As we shift to being our kids biggest fan everything is material for understanding them: we catch them saying something deeply perceptive or doing some wonderfully considerate and we point it out, we even look at their misbehaviour as evidence of raw smarts.

Koch, who bases her teaching of many strengths on Dr Howard Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences, explains “Nature and nurture together determine which intelligences will interest your child. That’s where strengths always start—with interest. Some smarts will become strengths, some may not develop much at all, and some will plateau at a point in between.

Your positive response to a ‘raw’ smart, or an interest may be the first step to abilities emerging and being developed. Smarts are like muscles, they start merely as a talent but for them to become strengths they must be given opportunities to practice and grow.

In my experience children are surprised when you point out behaviour and call it SMART! “I never imagined that kind of information was easy for me to process because I was smart. I thought the material was easy.” Koch quotes a young woman who’s picture smarts made her able to visualise and remember great works of arts and artist.

Kids are especially surprised when their smarts lie in areas not traditionally celebrated in school.

Our little collaboration of homeschoolers is full of particularly nature smart kids. Three siblings come to mind that are so intuitive and able in their classification of mosses, mushrooms, birds and trees in our region that I often come back from a nature walk feeling a little schooled by little 5-year-old Gus identifying the oblong hole in the path as that of a scorpion or the feather as that of a lilac breasted roller.

“Children’s smarts are a combination of nature and nurture.” Koch explains – these siblings come from a family that enjoys nature with ardent enthusiasm.

What is important is that we call my little friends what they clearly are: SMART.

The siblings happen to be dyslexic and will walk a long road of doubting themselves because they struggle with many of the skills so highly valued by school. “I must not let my weaknesses win. I must lead with my strengths!” Kathy Koch urges kids. It’s nothing short of a revolution you and I are in, to urge our kids to know and lean into their gifts and not define themselves by their weaknesses.

Just yesterday my funny child (not her real name) displayed her incredible people smarts. Often it unnerves me how she can read my face like a brown paper bag – even when I feel I’ve got a poker one. We’ve had guests for a couple of weeks and I’ve been hustling to create meaningful connections with them and my own kids while also cooking decent meals, managing mountains of washing and still writing and recording a worthwhile thing or two. It’s been such a joy and I’ve been determined not to show being frazzled. But my sweet daughter had me pegged and when I headed out to run three errands just before lunch she got to work.

I arrived home to homemade burgers in a beautiful clean kitchen with fresh flowers on the table and dreamy French music on Spotify.

She wasn’t simply sweet: she was smart and I told her that. She’d read me, and then she’d acted on what she discerned. It’s not hard to imagine the contribution that kind of smart can have to the world around her.

What to do today:

Remember all smarts start as interests or inclinations. They only become true strengths if encouraged and developed. So here are two things you can do today if you suspect your child is:

Word Smart

  • Read aloud to them! If they are also logic smart they will enjoy non fiction. If they they are also picture smart a good story will captivate! Try different books and see what engages them

  • Give them real reasons to write for REAL purposes: Write a mail to their favourite author, a letter to the headmaster about letting teenagers start school later, a petition to a local grocery store about using less plastic bags

Logic Smart

  • Watch out for curiosity in your son and then take advantage of the computers in each of our pockets: nothing like a google answer at just the right time

  • Don’t always feel you must answer the many questions your logic smart daughter asks. Instead ask questions of the questions and encourage the process of deducing answers and solutions.

Picture smart

  • Read to them! Like me you may have a picture smart child that is not a very good reader. The irony is he is one of the best readers I know in that he can visualise stories so well. When you read to your kids you take away the disadvantage of weaker reading skills for a child who loves story.

  • Introduce your picture smart child to history: The action will come alive for him

Music smart

  • Watch out for those frequent reprimands to “Stop that noise!” or “Be quiet!” which can paralyse this intelligence – instead find an opportunity to learn an instrument or join a choir

  • Teach the names and spellings of countries of the world, capitals and even times tables with rhymes and jingles

Body smart

  • Your child needs freedom and space to move – you may need to advocate for that! Can they study and read in a rocking chair or sit on an exercise ball when at a desk?

  • Point out that he is not just athletic but smart and help him think broadly of activities that need movement: sculpting, craftsmanship, drama etc

Nature Smart

  • Kathy wisely says: “Some children who struggle with logic-smart sciences like chemistry and physics can be very successful at nature-smart sciences like biology, earth science, and oceanography. That’s why we shouldn’t allow children to believe or say they’re not good at science. That’s too general a statement.”

  • Nature smarts isn’t just about nature: its an ability to see design elements, similarities and differences. Point out to your child when you spot them seeing in this way and call it SMART.

People smart

  • Remind your people smart kid to have device free spaces and times: We must look up and at people for this gift to grow.

  • It’s possible to be people smart but be an introvert: Your people smart introvert might need your help: Encourage her to see her smart as a gift but also to create habits of being alone to maximise that gift.

Self Smart

  • Your self smart child won’t always feel a need to share what she knows. She needs to realise how much others can benefit from her conclusions, and develop the courage to share those ideas.

  • “Children with self-smart strengths may greatly appreciate texting and communicating through social media. These don’t require the same social intensity as face-to-face communication.” says Koch.

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