Learning Styles

Children learn and process information in a variety of ways. Understanding your child's styles -- and customizing instructions and the environment to meet those styles -- can be the key to successful learning.
Is your child a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner? For descriptions of each style, read on.

Learning styles describe the various ways people gather as well as process information. What feels right and makes sense to one learner can seem slipshod -- or nitpicky -- to another.

Each of us has a propensity for looking, listening, or touching: Some read the instructions for Monopoly, others ask to hear the rules explained, still others get the dice rolling and learn as they play. Furthermore, we each have our own best times of day, favorite chairs to sit in, and other environmental factors that help us concentrate or feel energized.

Classroom teachers note learning styles to determine how students will likely find success: Working in groups or alone? Following step-by-step instructions or open-ended assignments? Reading a chapter, talking it over, or experimenting hands-on?

Parents, likewise, can use learning styles at home to discover what makes your children tick. Recognizing learning styles can help you understand your children's individuality, and help kids succeed in completing household and homework routines.

Watch your child at play to determine his or her visual, auditory, or kinesthetic strengths. You should also discover whether your child tends to analyze or see the big picture, and what environmental factors help or hinder mental processing.

Keep in mind that most of us are quite capable of using more than one style, but we tend to use one method most of the time. That does not mean we are limited to a single way of learning, but working outside the preferred style for extended periods can be stressful for most of us.

Does your child "see" the banana?

"Visual" learners gather information best by looking, reading, and watching. About 65 percent of us are visual learners, who may tune out spoken directions and favor illustrated explanations or charts. If, as your child examines something new, she moves in closer and scrutinizes it visually, she's likely a visual learner.

Strategies for visual learners Visual learners "see" ideas in the mind's eye, remembering visual details from places they've visited. When giving instructions, draw a chart. Try colored folders and baskets to help them organize visually. Tired of repeating yourself? Use self-stick notes or write notes.

Two Processing Styles

How does your child process information?

Besides visual, auditory, or kinesthetic strength, people lean toward one of two styles for processing information: analytic (those individuals who organize) and global (those individuals who make one big pile).

Analytic learners examine information by breaking it down bit by bit and arranging logically. A girl who packs a tidy suitcase shows her bent for order and sequence, as does her penchant for lists and punctuality. As an analytic learner, she's happiest when her life marches forward predictably, when she can follow a plan, know the rules. Analytic learners are able to see the trees through the forest, which helps keep them (and those around them) rooted and productive.

Global learners, on the other hand, may miss a few trees, but they know a good forest when they see one. They organize by clustering information into wholes, with broad, sweeping strokes. A global outlook surfaces in how this child packs (or, rather, piles): his focus is drawn to the larger ideas underpinning details. Global thinkers can appear disorganized because of their impatience with minutiae and their willingness to jump between ideas in random ways. They'll bend rules -- including schedules and deadlines -- to fit what they see as a greater purpose. Such spontaneity can at times lead to galloping creativity or, at other times, unbridled chaos.

When is your child most alert?

A third dimension of learning style is environmental preferences, including time of day, lighting, and setting. Some children need frequent breaks; others can't tolerate interruptions. One may like supervision, and another will cringe if you peek over his shoulder.

Anita Ferdenzi, a learning-styles specialist from Whitestone, New York, would like her son to do his homework right after school. But his energy is highest after dinner. Given the choice between standing sentinel as her son pokes along through his books at 4 p.m. or postponing study time until after dinner, Anita chooses the latter. By adjusting to her son's style, Anita says, "I'm spared the frustration and negative energy that plague parents on a routine basis."

Watch for conditions under which your children find success. Ask them to describe how they learn best; experiment to discover what works:

  • When are they most cheerful? Most alert?
  • Are your children more responsive with the lights dimmed?
  • Do they work better with a snack to nibble on?
  • Does being part of a large or small groups improve or hinder your child's performance?
Does your child "hear" the word banana?

"Auditory" learners are the listeners (and the talkers). Cynthia Tobias, author of The Way They Learn (published by Tyndale House, 1996), explains that this 30 percent of the population may need to repeat instructions, even silently, to mentally "hear" information as they commit it to memory. They learn well by discussing ideas. If your child carries on dialogue with stuffed animals, she's likely an auditory learner.

Strategies for auditory learners: Easily distracted by noises, auditory learners often like background music to muffle interrupting sounds. Make up a ditty as a way of giving instructions. Ask them to restate instructions aloud. In the car, auditory kids like word games as a way of passing time.

Does your child "see" a banana by touching it?

"Kinesthetic" learners gather meaning through touch and movement. All young children depend heavily on this strength, which is why it's so hard to walk through an art gallery with a small child who wants to "see" by touching. About 5 percent of the population hold onto this style throughout their adult lives, continuing to learn best through physical interaction. If your child prefers sitting on the floor or moving frequently, she's likely a kinesthetic learner.

Strategies for kinesthetic learners: To get them started on a cleaning chore, hand them the broom. Hang a basketball hoop above the clothes hamper for your kinesthetic kid. For sequential reinforcement, touch each finger of a child's hand as you break a job into steps: 1) Skip to the bathroom. 2) Find your toothbrush. 3) Brush your teeth. 4) Rinse your mouth. 5) Run back for a kiss.


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