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Nancy Coolidge | Smart is a relative term

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Every day one of my students will proudly tell me how smart he is. He’s heard this from his parents for years.

I look at his grades. I listen to what other teachers say about his attitude and his behavior. I watch year after year when he doesn’t pass his End of Course or his High School Proficiency Exam. I can’t help wondering why he thinks he’s so smart.

Now I’ve been around kids long enough to know that they seldom make connections between what is real and what isn’t … especially when it comes to grades. I know kids will try to cover up their struggles with bluster and bravado. I have seen them deliberately finish a test in “record time” so when they don’t do well they can count on our saying, “But you didn’t spend any time on it,” instead of saying, “You can’t read.”

Whether or not this student is “smart” really isn’t the issue. An IQ is a measure of our potential to learn and apply concepts. It is not a guarantee for academic success.

So what can we do as parents to help our children academically? First, if you’re going to talk about IQ at all, do it in the context of effort and attitude. They need to learn the habits that allow them to succeed in school.

Make sure you are reminding your student that good grades are important for future endeavors and help them to consistently complete homework and projects on time and well.

Provide enrichment at home. There are tons of resources that have fun projects that kids can do in their own kitchen or back yard. Invest in a microscope, a garden, an atlas.

Read good literature. Do not excuse them because “school is too easy” and they are not challenged. Establish the expectation that you want to see good grades and high performance. All these things will help with intellectual growth.

Now you need to work on the social growth. Make sure they are part of a team. It doesn’t have to be sports, although the benefits of physical competition and development are well known. It can be a chess team or a book club. The idea is to work with others to reach some sort of joint goal.

Get involved in scouting as a means to setting goals and achieving them. The intellectual and social diversity in a group like Girl Scouts will help your child learn to interact well with everyone, be tolerant of differences, and develop leadership skills, as well as learning to follow a leader less “smart” than he/she.

Make sure he is around kids his age in an informal setting — slumber parties, swim lessons, barbecues.

Finally, don’t tell him all the time how smart he is. Compliment actions and results. There is a famous study where 60 students were divided into 2 groups, one with very high IQs, one with low IQs. The teachers of the high-IQ class were told that the students were borderline intellectually and the teachers of the low-IQ class were told the kids were super smart. The results after a year are stunning, although not surprising. The high-IQ kids were unaccomplished, undisciplined, and generally unhappy about learning. Their IQs actually dropped. The other group was high achievers, eager students, hungry to learn. Their IQs actually increased.

The message about expectations is another topic for another time. The point for now is that “smart” is certainly a relative term.

Wenatchee resident Nancy Coolidge is a classroom teacher, radio personality and director of several Sylvan Learning Centers. You can ask her a question by posting a comment on her Good Habits, Great Grades blog at or by emailing