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Understanding — Intelligence

Intelligence Issues in Childhood

Child using tangram shapes to solve a puzzle.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 02 Mar 2022

What is Intelligence in Childhood?

Intelligence in childhood is a child’s overall ability to understand, reason, and problem-solve.

“Cognitive ability is synonymous with intelligence and measures innate thinking, computing, comprehending, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.”

The cognitive skills measured on an IQ test include verbal, nonverbal, and fluid reasoning abilities. Processing speed and working memory are also involved. These different areas of ability combine to form the construct we call intelligence.

Generally speaking, intellectual skills are ‘use it or lose it.’ That is, people who use their brains more will have increased cognitive capacity. For example, people who play cards and do puzzles show higher intelligence and problem-solving abilities as they age than their peers.

The estimated age that intelligence stabilizes is age seven or eight. Many parents still seek an intelligence assessment earlier as a predictor of academic performance. Some parents may want to determine whether to seek gifted education programs for their children.

“In our clinical experience, the highest IQ estimates are achieved by children at four and a half years old. One potential hypothesis is that these higher scores are due to the environmental enrichments that some preschoolers have as compared to those in the standardization sample of children across the country. Researchers know that IQ scores tend to go down during early elementary school and level off at about third grade. This tendency may be due to the fact that most children have had similar educational experiences after three to four years of elementary school.”

The concept of multiple intelligences was introduced by psychologist Howard Gardner. He proposed that cognitive ability in spatial concepts, music, kinesthetics, and art are important forms of intelligence. However, these diverse types of intelligence are generally not measured in standard IQ tests. Examples of standard tests include the Weschler intelligence tests, Stanford Binet, Kaufman, and Woodcock-Johnson assessments.

Symptoms of Intelligence Challenges in Childhood 

Symptoms of intelligence challenges in childhood are sometimes called deficits in cognitive ability.

  • Developmental delay: general development that seems to be universally behind classmates or same-age peers in any or all areas of intelligence
  • Marked delay in verbal or non-verbal ability: clear delays in any type of verbal communication OR clear delay in spatial reasoning or problem-solving. In young children, the verbal delay will often stand out and indicate to a parent that it is time to seek help
  • Difficulty with solving problems or thinking logically: struggles with understanding different concepts and ideas 
  • Academic problems: difficulty learning new letters or words, understanding math concepts, or following along with a class discussion
  • Not on grade level: falling behind academically even with support and intervention
  • Feeling lost at school: challenges comprehending school concepts; difficulties  in several subjects, struggling more than peers
What’s the point of intelligence or IQ testing in childhood? This short video explains how the results can help your child’s teacher understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Causes of Deficits in Intelligence in Childhood

Cognitive ability, or intelligence, measures innate ability in thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. Cognition is another name for smarts. These skills are somewhat innate. To a degree, we are born with it. However, other factors can be in play if your child’s cognitive abilities are impaired. See below for a list of potential issues that may be impacting your child’s intellectual development.

Three factors that can cause deficits in intelligence in childhood 

  • External events or environmental factors: Sometimes, our abilities change in response to an event. For example, birth trauma, metabolic conditions, or head injuries may affect the working of the brain. Our brains also change in response to exposure. Children from educationally enriching homes tend to score higher on IQ tests [1]. Prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol can have an impact on intelligence.
  • DNA or genetics: Cognitive differences can be genetic. Some children’s minds are endowed with different types of skills and abilities simply as a result of DNA. Genetic disorders, genetic deletions, or mutations can impact intelligence.
  • Problem-solving issues or executive functioning issues: Problems with cognitive ability tend to impact how children understand concepts and ideas. They may have difficulties solving problems or thinking logically. Often, academic problems are the result. A child might have difficulty learning new letters or words. In math class, understanding concepts can be challenging. Following along with a class discussion could be a struggle.

What to Do About Intelligence in Childhood

An IQ test can help identify your child’s specific areas of strength in intelligence and their specific areas of weakness. Most often, children have areas that are stronger and areas that are weaker. Understanding this balance can help a parent encourage learning in areas of strength. Parents can figure out how to accommodate for or support a child’s weaknesses. 

At Cadey, we believe in a growth mindset. Some aspects of intelligence are highly heritable like fluid reasoning. Yet, other areas, like verbal comprehension, are impacted significantly by our environment. The language we use, books we read, and exposure to different learning experiences make a difference for our children. There are also other types of intelligence like emotional intelligence that do not relate to traditional IQ.

DO seek an IQ test if you are wondering about your child’s intelligence or if your child has unexplained learning challenges. The most commonly used IQ test is the Wechsler intelligence scale. Many schools may have a psychologist who can administer this without you visiting a private psychologist. This test can tell you what your child’s overall skills look like and provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses.

Please note: It is important to be aware that IQ scores do not tend to stabilize, meaning stay the same, until around age 7 or 8 (around the third grade). Therefore, if your child is tested in pre-school or early elementary school, the score may not remain stable through grade school.

What to do if your child’s IQ test scores are very high (125-130+) 

Very high (125-130+): If your child’s scores are at or above the 95th percentile, they may be identified as Gifted and Talented (GT). Children with scores over 130 are in the Very Superior range of intelligence and generally qualify as Gifted. Scores over 140 are considered Highly Gifted [8], and scores over 160 are considered Profoundly Gifted [8].

What to do: Gifted students generally require more enrichment in the areas where they are gifted. Some examples of enrichment include gifted programs at school, after-school clubs, and summer camps [3, 4]. An ‘Advanced Learning Plan’ should be developed for the school to address how your child’s gifted needs will be met. Emotionally, gifted kids need greater support. 

What to do if your child’s IQ test scores are high-average (111-124) 

High-average (111-124):  If your child scores in the high average range, they are likely to have strong academic skills. These students are often the highest achieving of all. Children of high average intelligence have the advantage that most topics come fairly easy to them. They also may not share some of the challenges that gifted kids do.

What to do: Children with high average performance on a Full-Scale IQ score sometimes qualify for gifted programs. The logic there is that often children will be gifted in some areas, even if the overall IQ score is below a certain ‘cut-off.’ Children with high average scores can generally handle rigorous programs and advanced curricula.

What to do if your child’s IQ test scores are average (90-110) 

Average (90-110): If your child’s scores are in the average range, in most ways, this information is good news. Generally, instruction in school is geared toward individuals with your child’s abilities. Also, with adequate effort, school and career endeavors will generally not be too difficult to grasp or master.

What to do: In a very educationally driven family, a child with an average IQ may stand out. Children with average intelligence tend to struggle in gifted schools and advanced programs. School may be challenging when the child has high skills in one area (Verbal IQ, for example) and low skills in another (Non-Verbal IQ, for example). If your child has average intelligence and is struggling in school, tutoring or a homework club at school may be helpful.

What to do if your child’s IQ test scores are low average (80-89) 

Low average (80-89): Children with low average scores tend to struggle in at least one subject academically. It may be that the child scores in the average range on the Nonverbal Index but quite a bit lower on the Verbal Comprehension Index. In this case, the child may do okay in math but is likely to fall behind in reading and writing.

What to do: As the subjects get harder in upper elementary school, your child may require lots of support at home for homework. They may need tutoring to keep up with the pace of instruction. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be necessary. Your child will likely need support at school in the more challenging areas.

What to do if your child’s IQ test scores are very low (79 or lower) 

Very low (79 or lower): With scores at this level, your child’s FSIQ score is in the Borderline, Very Low, or Extremely Low range. There are concerns with how your child’s brain processes and understands information. These concerns may limit certain opportunities.

What to do: Allow your child to pursue exploration and enrichment at their own pace. Your child’s brain is still learning and developing all the time. However, pushing too hard in extremely challenging areas can be detrimental to your child’s self-esteem and happiness.

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) with associated academic services is very likely required to meet your child’s educational needs. Further, your child will likely need accommodations at school. For example, abstract concepts should be paired with clear and concrete explanations. Tasks should be broken down step by step. Direct academic support should be provided in the areas where your child is struggling.

When to Seek Help for Deficits in Intelligence 

The most important sign that it is time to seek help is when your child is consistently struggling academically across several content areas.  

As a parent, discovering that your child may have cognitive limitations is a very painful experience. It takes a great deal of courage to start asking questions about why your child is struggling. 

This author has met many brave parents who are questioning if their child may have autism, a developmental disability, or a learning concern. As parents, you know you will love your child either way. That is not the hard part. The hard part is wondering if your expectations for your child are appropriate. 

Seek help for cognitive skills when your child is having these difficulties.

  • Often lost in school
  • Frustrated due to working slower than classmates
  • Thinking of great ideas but still falling behind in school
  • Frequently confused when introduced to new concepts
  • Having extreme difficulties with homework
  • Not on grade level in spite of support and intervention
  • Having a hard time in several subjects 

Similar Conditions Related to Challenges with Intelligence 

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: demonstrating deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. Some children with ASD also have intellectual disabilities
  • Gifted and talented (GT): demonstrating a Full-Scale IQ or Index score at or above 95th percentile. Giftedness is not a disability; however, a gifted child is likely to require additional supports and enrichment opportunities
  • Intellectual disability (ID): demonstrating a Full-Scale IQ score below 70 and Vineland Adaptive (Daily Living) Scores below 70. Both IQ and Adaptive skills must be low to qualify as having an intellectual disability
  • Learning disability: demonstrating learning problems in reading, writing, or math
  • Depression: depressed individuals score lower on IQ tests, particularly in processing speed. Motoric slowing (moving slow or working slow on schoolwork and assessments) is a common symptom of depression

Professional Resources for Intelligence in Childhood

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context, can complete an evaluation of intelligence or a more comprehensive evaluation also considering emotional and behavioral functioning
  • School psychologist: to potentially test IQ or to consider academic issues (generally only in the context of an IEP evaluation – parents cannot necessarily request an IQ test from the school psychologist)
  • Physical therapist and/or occupational therapist (OT): to look at fine and gross motor skills if these challenges are part of your child’s areas of weakness
  • Speech-language pathologist (SLP): to assess issues with receptive or expressive language and work on improving vocabulary and communication
  • Tutoring or special education supports: to address areas of weakness academically. Your child may benefit from extra tutoring, working in a small group, having hard concepts reviewed and retaught  

Book Resources on Intelligence In Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Eide & Eide (2006). The mislabeled child: Looking beyond behavior to find the true sources—and solutions—for children’s learning challenges. Hyperion, NY.

Carroll, J.B. (1997). Psychometrics, intelligence, and public perception. Intelligence, 24, 25-52; p. 44

Sattler (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc, La Mesa, CA.

Trail (2011). Twice exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.