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How to develop your child’s innate abilities

Kate Southam looks at the role parents can play in identifying and developing their children’s instinctive talents and abilities beyond the school curriculum.

Louise and John first noticed there was something different about their daughter when she was five and wanted to learn to read. They took her to the library to find suitable books and purchased a computer-based reading program. Within two weeks she was reading at the level of a first grader. The couple’s then four-year-old son wanted to tag along on this new adventure and also learned to read within weeks. “We didn’t think too much of it, as children develop at different rates,” says Louise.

“When you know what your children are good at, you can advocate for them,” she says. “For example, we enrolled both children in private music lessons, but a lot of teachers wouldn’t take them so young because they presumed they wouldn’t be able to learn how to read music, which wasn’t the case.”

Identify your child’s natural talents

Identifying your child’s natural talents can help children of all abilities and temperaments be successful in life, and also help parents make the most of the resources available to them.

Professor of Education Psychology at the University of NSW Andrew Martin says children may inherit a certain range of temperaments and abilities through genes. “The environment they grow up in will then determine where on that range of potential the child will form particular interests and levels of achievement,” he says.

An environment “rich with opportunities to learn” gives children the best chance of developing to their full potential. Prof Martin stresses that ‘rich’ does not have to mean expensive. Making full use of libraries and community-run events and facilities, and having parents engage with their children in learning activities, will help identify and develop their natural talents.

William and Noriko started their three children on 15-minute piano lessons from the age of five and team sports from six. Jessica, 13, and Oliver, nine, both play piano beautifully and have excelled at sport from the get-go. Katie however, wasn’t a fan of piano lessons, but won her first art prize at six. At nine she discovered tennis and won a competition in her second season. “Identifying where your children’s enjoyment and natural abilities intersect helps you budget your time and family finances,” says William.

Between the children’s grandparents and William’s two sisters, the children also started attending plays, art museums, music concerts and outdoor pursuits.

“We don’t over-think it, but have kept them involved in sports and the arts as well as teaching them about the importance of doing well at school,” says William.

Home-based internet access is important to learning

Working with disadvantaged families across Australia, The Smith Family’s head of research and advocacy Anne Hampshire says children who do not get an opportunity to take part in extracurricular activities to develop their abilities may fall behind their peers physically, socially, cognitively and emotionally. The organisation has also identified home-based internet access as important to learning and development and runs a program to provide access to extracurricular activities and home internet to 34,000 families who would otherwise go without.

In its report Sports, Culture and the Internet released in June 2013, The Smith Family found children taking part in extracurricular activities had higher levels of social competence, self-control and wellbeing than non-participating peers.

Anne says, “If a child does well in one area of their life, they’re more likely to think they will do well in another area.” Prof Martin agrees. “Being a participatory child builds skills, mindsets, attitudes and orientations that are useful to other parts of their life.”

Prof Martin led University Of Sydney research that found a strong link between a child’s participation in the arts with higher levels of academic achievement and personal wellbeing. The research tracked the performance of more than 600 primary-school children from 15 Australian schools over a full academic year.

“While the strongest results came from children taking part in the arts at school, there is an important role for parents to play,” says Prof Martin. “Children from homes where parents are engaged as well do even better.”

“This could be just talking about a book or a film at home or going to the library to choose a book together,” he says. “The activity does not have to cost a lot of money to have a positive impact.”

Extracurricular activities and academic results are linked

Both experts say developing a child’s interests outside academic studies is sometimes seen as ‘nice to have, not essential to have’ and taking time away from ‘more-valuable’ scholastic pursuits. However, their separate research shows extracurricular activities and academic results are linked.

For some parents, putting the brakes on a child’s ambition is their greatest challenge. Just like adults, children can be perfectionists and suffer high levels of anxiety. However, Prof Martin says an over-striving child can be a healthy, happy child too.

The goal is to help children develop their self worth as an individual and not tie it to whether they win or come first. Parents must also ensure they are not tying their own self worth to their child’s success.

Look at these 8 ideas to work on your child’s innate abilities.