Scientists followed 5,000 genius kids for 45 years — here’s what they learned about success

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Lucille Barrett
Lucille Barrett
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Follow thousands of super-bright kids for four and a half decades, and you learn a thing or two about how to raise a high-achiever.

Albert Einstein

One of the biggest takeaways is that even kids with genius-level IQs need teachers to help them reach their full potential.

Since it began in 1971, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth(SMPY) has tracked 5,000 of the smartest children in America — the top 1%, 0.1%, and even 0.01% of all students. It is the longest-running study of gifted children in history.

Set against an education system that often prioritizes lifting up the lowest-performing kids, SMPY’s findings present another claim: Don’t forget about the kids at the tippy-top.

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“Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,” Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, recently told Nature. “The kids who test in the top 1% tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators, and billionaires.”

Unfortunately, much of the research from SMPY (pronounced simply) indicates that kids who show an early aptitude for subjects like science and math tend not to receive the help they need. Teachers who see their brightest students mastering the material and getting straight As choose instead to devote most of their attention to under-achieving kids.

As a result, the kids who may have gone on to invent life-changing medical devices or sit in the United Nations can fall into less influential roles Media Focus.

SMPY reveals that assuming the smartest kids can achieve their full potential without being pushed is misguided. One of the many follow-up reviews in the study’s 45-year run showed that grade-skipping can play a vital role in kids’ development.

When researchers compared a control group of gifted students who didn’t skip a grade to those who did, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn patents and doctorates and more than twice as likely to get a Ph.D. in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).

Even at the upper limits of intelligence, in other words, kids can still slip through the cracks.

But teachers and parents can also read that finding with optimism. If they notice a child is gifted, the best evidence suggests they should never stop supplying that child with tougher and tougher work. They should see where their limits are and make sure they’re intellectually stimulated as often as possible.

SMPY has also found that teachers and parents can help high-achieving students recognize what kinds of intelligence they possess. Many gifted children, for instance, tend to have exceptional spatial reasoning skills. Over time, those strengths can develop into the abilities needed to succeed as engineers, architects, or surgeons.

No matter how teachers and parents challenge kids to develop these abilities, 45 years’ worth of data suggests they must do. The future of the world could depend on it.

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