What measuring early-life intelligence (and other things) can tell us

As a psychologist who uses intelligence tests, I am always interested in what research tells us about what can and can’t be predicted reliably from them. I find most parents are interested, too, while many teachers pay them less attention. New research keeps changing the picture: the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (DMHDS) has recently come up with some new findings.

I was amazed to see that DMHDS has shown that biological age at 38 seems to be predicted by IQ (even at 3). Looking at bit more closely the study actually found that IQ correlated strongly with how old your face looks, using a 10-biomarker algorithm, and with heart age; it didn’t correlate quite so well with another important sign of age, telomere length. So lower IQ is likely to mean you will look older in middle age, and you may be ageing more generally.

I was less surprised to see that DMHDS found self-control, which is not part of IQ testing, was also really important, even at 3. Children with poor self-control in early life, for example lacking persistence, difficulty waiting in line for their turn, deferred gratification (waiting longer for a bigger reward), were 3 times more likely to become poor, addicted, single parents, or to experience multiple health problems than those with good self-control.

The Dunedin study also reinforced the well-established finding that good early childhood education is one of the most valuable interventions. But it also enables us to better identify children who need more early help. Their findings suggest that self-control is not an entirely fixed quality – some young children markedly improve their self-control as they grow. It points the way towards further studies to identify what can really make a difference in learning to improve self-control.

This means that the teachers are probably wise not to pay too much attention to IQ figures: personal qualities like self-control are really important; and, we can sometimes teach children to become better self-regulators. DMHDS perhaps helps us identify the ones that need the most care and attention.

Written by:

Dr Tim Bunn

Consultant Educational Psychologist

SACAC Counselling

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