When it comes to building IQ, nurture makes a significant difference, research finds

by Freya Lucas

January 13, 2021

Preschoolers who live in impoverished communities, but who have access to a nurturing home environment have significantly higher intelligence quotient (IQ) scores in adolescence compared to those raised without nurturing care, a new international study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) has found. 

 

Researchers examined data from more than 1600 children from Brazil and South Africa who were followed from birth through their teenage years using data from long-running studies to assess whether children exposed to early adversities (such as extreme poverty, low birth weight, or preterm birth) could reach their full learning potential by experiencing responsive caregiving and opportunities to learn in their home. 

 

In undertaking the research, academics found that prenatal and early life adversities continue to impact throughout life. 

 

Adolescents who had been exposed to multiple adversities early in life had lower IQ scores, were more likely to have difficulties adjusting socially and psychologically, and achieved a lower physical height compared to adolescents exposed to fewer adversities. 

 

They also found that being raised in a nurturing environment could significantly counteract the detrimental effect of early adversities on IQ and help children achieve their full intellectual potential.

 

On average adolescents who were raised in nurturing environments had IQ scores that were on average six points higher than those who were not. 

 

“This is a striking difference that has profound implications by increasing the intelligence of entire communities,” corresponding author Professor Maureen Black said. 

 

“A nurturing environment also led to better growth and fewer psycho-social difficulties in adolescence, but it did not mitigate the effects of early adversities on growth and psycho-social difficulties.”

 

Around the world more than 250 million children younger than five years are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential because of adversities that co-occur early in life and accumulate with age. 

 

In the U.S, almost one in five children are raised in poverty and 15 percent do not complete high school, with higher rates for children in black and hispanic families. Exposing these children to a nurturing environment, whether at home or in daycare or pre-school settings, can lead to cognitive benefits that last into adolescence and beyond, researchers said.

 

The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and highlights the importance of nurturing caregivers, both at home and in education and care settings to help children lead more productive lives as adults.

 

The results were published this week in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal and may be accessed here

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