When it comes to learning, kids have their own style. Maybe your son is more visual and loves puzzles, while your daughter is more auditory and makes up songs to learn concepts. Perhaps you have a kinesthetic learner whose instructions need to be hands-on.
“There are so many variations on learning styles; it is something that has been looked at since the dawn of psychology, but generally, there are three basic categories: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic,” says Steffany Cressey, an elementary school teacher at the Laurel School in Atherton, Calif.
Most children are a combination of the three, but understanding their learning tendencies can lead to better life at school and at home.
Visual learners, as the name implies, need to see things in order to process the information. “Picture books, words, films—anything that is eye-catching. They do quite well in elementary school, where there is so much visual material, like phonetics cards,” says Cressey.
Auditory learners are all about language and sound. “They process language quickly and tend to be articulate at a young age. They also do well in school because so much is auditory. These kids remember things because they hear it and can say it,” she adds.
Kinesthetic learners, rather than watching or listening, take in and absorb information through doing. “These kids tend to be the wigglers,” says Cressey. They benefit when their learning is more hands-on.
Not sure what type of kid you have?
“You might not be able to tell. Most of us are a mixed bag," Cressey says, but adds that parents need to know there is no one learning style and that no matter what their tendency, kids need balance. It's also important to note that learning styles can change over the course of a child’s life—another good reason not to generalize.
Jennifer Birmingham—a Manhattan, N.Y., mother of three, ages 7 to 21—says that each of her children has a different learning style. “All three draw on all of their senses to process information, and one approach would not work for any of them. My two oldest are visual learners, and they process information graphically. For Nkili, it's by reading and writing, making lists and literally drawing/sketching connections. Aidan absorbs new ideas primarily through dissecting words. Not surprisingly, he is a phonetic reader. My youngest, Miles, is a kinesthetic learner and needs lots of room to investigate and literally construct his understanding of the world. If made to sit in a desk and learn via traditional instruction (e.g., talk and chalk), he would literally shut down,” says Birmingham.
Jan Drucker, professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College and consultant to the school's Early Childhood Center Lab School, emphasizes that categories are approximations. “They are a way that educators and psychologists think about how kids process the world. But kids don’t come in boxes of one style or another, and in fact most of us, both children and adults, have a reasonable degree of ability to take in information across the board.”
“My concern about the approach is that it might not be helpful to identify one strong area and only play to that," says Drucker. "You want their experiences to touch on all of the modalities.”