Working memory, attention to detail, prominent in child prodigies

What separates excellent from average? Is it IQ? Genetics? Skill-specific, natural giftedness? Practice? A personality trait? Of course, no one variable provides a complete answer. However, one recent study suggests that above-average doses of common skills may play a role in stellar achievement.

Last year two researchers published an article in the journal Intelligence, based on their study of 8 child prodigies. Joanna Ruthsatz, lead author of the study, is assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus. Collaborator Jourdan Urbach of Yale University, is himself a “violin virtuoso compared to Paganini,” reported Yale News, who has also “won more than two dozen awards and scholarships in recognition of his humanitarian leadership.” They undertook their study to discern commonalities among the prodigies. When their research was released, most media outlets tended to focus on the disproportionate representation of autistic traits among the prodigies, minus the deficits often associated with the disorder. While definitely both fascinating and also encouraging to families dealing with autism, two garden-variety traits emerged as even more prominent among the standout performers.

The online weekly newsletter SmartPlanet.com published an interview with Ruthsatz. In it she recounts the prodigies falling into the 99th percentile for working memory, describing the trait as “the ability to hold information in your mind and then manipulate it and recite it in a different order.” She gives examples of its role in classifying and categorizing. IQ level was not even a close second as a commonality among the study standouts. Instead, Ruthsatz describes acute attention to detail as another common denominator in the group.

Not every child will be a prodigy, but virtually every child—and adult—can improve memory skills and attention to detail. The Parent-Provider Partnerships web site, created as an online resource to reach parents through childcare providers, offers an excellent description, authored by Jandy Jeppson with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE, of how classification skills develop in young children and why they’re important. Workbooks, e-activities, and apps for preschoolers and kindergartners that include exercises in identifying “same or different” help preschoolers build sorting and classifying skills. Apps can also deliver take-anywhere activities that sharpen focus and stimulate memory skills for both kids and adults.