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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."
How It Works at Home
When it comes to our children getting through daily tasks, Drucker says that communication is key: "Get the kid's full attention, get them to focus, and learn to read their communication. Within each learning modality, it is important to have a check-in. Have the kid (repeat) what they heard, so not only have they heard you, they have repeated the action and there's a better chance that they will remember."
Auditory learners take in info very well when they hear it, says Drucker, so they actually do well with verbal directions—both the things you say to them and the things that they talk themselves through. Want them to clean up their room? "Make sure that you are very clear with words. Not just 'pick up your clothes' but go through the list. 'Pick your socks, pick up the blocks, etc.' This will help them retain the information," says Drucker.
Visual learners tend to benefit from a list, and, if they're young, you might draw images to help prompt them and satisfy their preference or need for seeing things.
With the kinesthetic learner, you may need to get involved in the activity yourself. "It's best to show them, walk them through it. 'First, let's pick up socks together, then blocks, etc.' This gives them the experience, so that next time their motor memory might kick in and they will retain it better," she says.
Getting Through Homework
Homework, as any parent knows, can be complicated territory, and each child approaches it differently. Meredith Brothers, a special education teacher in Connecticut and mother of two, sees evidence of this in her two kids. "My daughter Hunter, a 6th grader, is very artistic and learns well through writing or illustrating her thoughts. She's a visual learner."
"Math is the hardest subject for her," Brothers adds, "and she needs extra paper so we can draw out the problems and solve them with the visuals she needs." Her son Heath (a 3rd grader), on the other hand, is an auditory learner. "He cannot have background noise for any homework; he is very easily distracted and needs quiet and concentration. He gets very easily frustrated if he gets interrupted when he's thinking, so I have learned to sit back and wait for him to ask for help. If we are doing something that requires him to answer questions, he will read them out loud to me, or I will read them to him, so he can hear the information to process it."
When it comes to homework, Drucker's advice, across learning modalities, is to review. Most kids, especially the younger ones, really benefit by talking about the evening's tasks. "For the auditory learner, this is especially good because they get to reiterate it. For the visual learner, go over their notes and make sure they know what to do." She says that even the brightest of kids may need some help translating. With the kinesthetic child, offer them breaks in between subjects. "Don't try to do all in one sitting. They may need physical activity beforehand, or in the middle."
A Final Note on Learning Styles
To help your children with bouts of frustration, Drucker suggests that parents share their own history. "Let them know that no one can do everything easily, and that everyone has areas where they are stronger or weaker. We all struggle through things. Give them this self awareness."
No matter what your child's learning tendencies are, be an observant parent and talk with the teachers. Share what you know, but also ask what they have noticed about your child. Together, see how you can create a road map for success.