Understanding Learning Styles By Lainna Callentine, MD, MEd

Every child has a unique learning style. Parents can help their children succeed in school by understanding their learning styles.

Training Up a Child

Parenting is one of the hardest tasks we’ll ever face, yet it’s one of the most rewarding callings in life. As a pediatrician, one of the most common questions I am asked by parents directly and indirectly is “am I doing a good job as a parent?” Nothing strikes more fear in our hearts when we are handed these little life forms who depend on us in every way. And, we receive our children without any instructions or warranties. Yet somehow, we are supposed to navigate parenting to ultimately produce a healthy, God-honoring, and productive human being. Parents can help their children by understanding learning styles and identifying which ones apply to their kids.

We are reminded of this task in Deuteronomy 6:5-7: “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home or away when you lie down or get up.” In other words, as parents we are to train our children in the way they should go.

Helping Kids Navigate Education

One of the many responsibilities included in training up our children is helping them navigate the gauntlets of their educational experiences. Regardless of the educational environment—from the traditional classroom to home schooling—it’s our duty and privilege to help our children to learn. That job seems a little easier with some children than others and this could be for several reasons. For example, some children are strong-willed, and school is not a priority for them. Other children may be dealing with a learning difficulty. On the other hand, there are several different learning styles. For many kids, they may have a learning style that doesn’t match the teaching methodology they’re encountering. Parents can help their children succeed in school by recognizing that there are several different learning styles that affect the way they learn.

In the 1970s, Dr. David Kolb outlined a theory of learning styles, describing these styles as ways that a person approaches learning new tasks. He believed that learning styles were based on genetics, life experiences and environment.

Traditional Learners

Some children seem uniquely equipped for classroom learning and encounter few if any problems. These traditional learners can thrive in a traditional classroom, with teacher-centered methods of communicating information. 

Traditional learners can stay engaged by learning from textbooks. They show that they can learn and digest information in a linear fashion.   In addition, these learners understand “modules” of information that build sequentially upon previous “modules”. Therefore, traditional learners can compete fairly easily in school.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for all children. Many kids enter the classroom and realize immediately “this is not my style.” Consequently, they may struggle to learn and can easily become disengaged. And for a lot of kids it’s not because they are incapable of learning. They may just have a different learning style.

Gardner’s Theory of Learning

Dr. Howard Gardner attempted to unravel the learning process further with his theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. He challenged the notion of evaluating and describing intelligence based on IQ testing, asserting that this was far too limiting. Furthermore, his proposal said that humans had a broader capacity to learn based on various learning “modalities” or styles.

Gardner identified several different learning styles: visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, kinesthetic (physical), mathematical (logical), interpersonal (social), and intrapersonal (solitary). Many educational curriculums have emerged over the last few decades. These are designed to meet the needs of these different types of learners.

More Recent Thoughts About Learning Styles

In recent years, however, there has been some controversy around these theories of learning. Some researchers claim that the theory that there are several different learning styles isn’t supported by the current science. Certainly, additional studies need to be done to determine long term outcomes for students who are taught according to their determined learning style.

Likewise, we need to be cautious not to label a student as a single type of learner. No student is one dimensional, and learning is a fluid and complex process. Nevertheless, these theories give educators a scaffold to build upon. Parents can help their children succeed in school by helping teachers understand how their child learns best.

Several Different Learning Styles

There are characteristics that most people share when learning. Our brains are social tools. We learn best in a positive supportive environment where fear and stress do not hamper learning. However, when it comes to learning styles, we’re not all the same.

One learning style does not define any child. Actually, children typically possess a blend of types with one being more dominant. Prior to 6 and 7 years of age, most children will be predominantly kinesthetic and visual. Then, at about 6 or 7, a child’s learning style begins to emerge and really takes strong root by the middle school years.

A Breakdown of Several Different Learning Styles

Learning StylesDescriptionExamples of Types of Activities that May Be Helpful
Logical- MathematicalConceptually and abstractly process informationLogic Games Puzzles Brainteasers Enjoy discovering and examining patterns Mnemonics
Visual-SpatialSee and think through pictures and images. View the world in imaginative ways and conceptualize through spatial relationships.Animation Collages Dioramas Diagrams Role playing
Verbal-LinguisticThese are our wordsmiths. They have exceptional verbal skills and excel at processing verbal communication. Learn through talking and listening.Blogs Advertisements Diaries/ Journals Posters Flash Cards Puppet Show
Body KinestheticTend to be the squirmy kids. Movement and touch are the greatest ways they experience the world. The younger the child, the more likely they are to fall into this category.Charades Dramas Construct a board game Use of manipulatives Experiments Engage the five senses
InterpersonalAre very in tune with others. They sense other’s moods and respond accordingly. They are the kids who are flattered that the teacher moves their seating around the room—giving them a chance to meet everyone in the class.Read biographies Reteach the lesson as a teacher Role playing
IntrapersonalAre more self-aware. They can decipher their own weaknesses and strengths. Independent and have a strong sense of who they are. Have a great capacity to work and play alone.Goal setting Personal action plan Mnemonics Observations Hero stories
Musical-RhythmicSeem to have the ability to understand the relationship between sound and feelings. Natural musicians who keep rhythm, sing, and pick up instruments.Jingles Match concepts to music Jump rope to rhythm while reciting a concept
ExistentialistThese are your old souls. Think deeply about questions like life and death, curious about philosophical positions and ideasRead biographies of deep thinkers Journals
NaturalistLove to be outdoors, love to explore the nature world whether from rocks, animals and caring for pets.Nature walks Examine things under microscopes Collections: rocks, leaves, bugs, etc. Nature observations Stargazing

Children with different styles employ different learning strategies. Therefore, observing the way, a child approaches a task, or a learning challenge can tell a lot about how they acquire new information. Parents can help when they understand their child’s unique ways of learning.

A Single Teaching Approach Doesn’t Work for Every Child

Learning best happens when an assortment of opportunities is given to process, share thoughts and ideas through games, technology, and creative outlets. When I was a child, I attended a traditional school. I always had an overwhelming need to doodle when listening to instructions and explanations of my lessons. Because of this, I was regularly reprimanded by many of my teachers for not listening. To them, listening meant your pencil was down, your feet were on the floor, and you were seated and looking up at the teacher with your mouth closed. So, even though I was not distracting my classmates, my learning style was considered a problem.

But for me it wasn’t a problem. It was just the way I was put together. I found that I saw the world in pictures. When I heard words, an image would come to mind and I would need to draw in order to process the information I was receiving. If you were to ask me to simply sit and listen, I could only recall a few limited facts. On the other hand, if I could draw, I was able to process and make better sense of what I heard. Of the several different learning styles, I am a classic example of a visual/ kinesthetic learner.

Learning Styles vs. Learning Disabilities

Sometimes classroom difficulties result from teaching methods and expectations not matching well with a child’s learning styles. At other times, though, the problem is not learning style but a learning disability. Parents can help when they determine whether a child’s academic challenges stem from one or the other. Children develop at their own rates, and some just take a little longer than others to reach their normal academic potential. There are, however, signs that may indicate a learning disability.

As a pediatrician, I see children in my practice many times over the first three years of life to monitor growth, health and development. Each age and stage have important developmental milestones to be met. A few examples of red flags that might indicate a learning disability can be seen across the gamut of skill acquisition for language, cognition, motor, and social skills. The list below applies
to a child in elementary school. https://www.youtube.com/embed/_3ONz6TaKIk?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.focusonthefamily.com

Language, Cognition, Motor, and Social Skills

Language Skills

  • Begins to talk late and has difficulty in speaking words or forming sentences
  • Difficulty in following one-step directions
  • Greatly challenged in understanding questions
  • Demonstrates a lack of interest in storytelling
  • Inability to recognize or learn the alphabet
  • Cannot make the connection between sounds and letters

Cognitive Skills

  • Can’t remember the days of the week or the order of the alphabet
  • Difficulty in mastering basic concepts such as colors and shapes

Motor Skills

  • Demonstrates poor balance; clumsiness
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills or manipulating small objects with their hands
  • Delayed gross motor skill development; behind their peers with climbing, jumping and running
  • May have low muscle tone and appear to be floppy in their movements

Social Skills

  • Child is in constant conflict with other children and plays alone
  • Limited tolerance in learning a task and becomes frustrated easily
  • Temper tantrums
  • If you notice any of these signs, talk with your child’s doctor. If your child does
  • have a learning disability, your local school district may be able to provide direction and assistance. Learning challenges may be daunting bit help is available.

Helping Your Child Adjust

Learning should be a joyful process of discovery and delight. But it is often an experience that is
fraught with failure and discouragement. Since there are several different learning styles, becoming aware of your child’s particular learning style(s) can make his or her pathway to learning smoother. Also, remember that each child has unique gifts and talents. If parents can help their children learn about the world around them, they can witness God’s handiwork in the order and the beauty of His creation. That type of learning is always in style.

©2019 Focus on the Family

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