Identifying your child’s learning style

Babies learn from the time they come out of the womb; they take in the sights, smells and sensations around them. They may track light with their eyes, reach with their hands to grasp their parents’ hair or fingers or test their lungs and vocal chords by screaming or crying. Each of these activities teaches babies something about life, and can be a start on the path of life-long learning.
A Chinese proverb says, “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” But when children have a bad learning experience, the negative emotions and feelings of defeat may also follow the children everywhere. This is why it is so important to identify how best your child learns, and when the child starts to have trouble, to figure out a way to incorporate his or her preferred learning style and the subject matter.
Archaeologist and author Sir John Lubbock said, “The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught as that every child should be given the wish to learn.” While learning is in some ways instinctual from infanthood on, wishing to learn specific subjects isn’t always. At the start of her book Talkers, Watchers, & Doers, Cheri Fuller writes about a very hands-on learner named Karen who had problems learning conceptual things like the letters of the alphabet and simple math. Because Karen’s mother knew that her daughter learned best when she could touch things with her hands and do active things during the learning, she created two-foot high tactile letters for her daughter to play with, and taught her math in the kitchen through the making of recipes.
Karen is what is referred to by educators, child psychologists and doctors as a kinesthetic or tactile sensory learner. Kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. These are the children who take things apart to see how they work, who always have their hands into things, who sometimes have a hard time sitting still and listening to a teacher or reading a book. They prefer to jump into projects and figure things out as they go along. They are sometimes labeled at school as having a learning disability or attention deficit disorder, mostly because, as pediatrician Mel Levine says, they are misunderstood by adults who don’t understand their “wiring”.
 Another sensory learning style is called auditory, and these are sometimes thought of as “prize pupils” in our academic systems because auditory learners consume information by hearing. These children sometimes have what seem like photographic memories as they can repeat things back that they’ve just heard word-for-word, they can play a simple piece of music on a piano after hearing it once or twice, they understand concepts with a verbal description and they can follow verbal instructions, even multi-step directions, with no problems at all.
The third main sensory learning style, another that often does immediately well sitting in a desk all day in school, is called visual, which means these children absorb information by seeing or writing. Educator Cheri Fuller calls these learners “watchers” and she explains that watchers want to read all about something they are interested in or when they want to figure out how the thing works. They are not interested in hands-on experiments-such as biology or chemistry labs because, a watcher child who was quoted in Fuller’s book said, “They take too much time.” Watchers tend to have wide ranging interests and as children can often be found holed up somewhere with a book or a computer reading, reading, reading. Visual learners best remember things, such as phone numbers and people’s names, when they write them down or can visualize a written version in their minds.
While two of these learning styles do better in traditional classroom settings than the other, none of these sensory learning styles is better than the other. Levine, who has dedicated his practice and his life to “helping children find success”, writes in A Mind at a Time, “Parents have a special responsibility and joy as they get to know well and to cultivate their children’s individual minds…Some minds are wired to create symphonies and sonnets, while others are fitted out to build bridges, highways and computers; design airplanes and roadway systems; drive trucks and taxicabs; or seek cures for breast cancer and hypertension.” And it starts with the nurturing of children’s specific learning styles.
One of the first educational pioneers to realize this was Maria Montessori, who set up preschool and elementary school program designed to help children learn in a way that came natural to them and at their own paces. Montessori said, “We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life,” said Maria Montessori. 
And one way to help children open to life is to nurture their learning so it becomes a joy and not a burden, that lifelong learning becomes their wish.


Jill Ferguson is a freelance writer from San Carlos, CA.

For Further Reading:

• The Big What Now Book of Learning Styles: A Fresh and Demystifying Approach by Carol Barnier (Emerald Books, 2009)
• Discover Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Willis M.S. and Victoria Kindle Hodson M.A. (Crown Publishing Group, 1999)
• How Your Child Learns Best: Brain-Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child’s Learning and Increase School Success by Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. (Sourcebooks, 2008)
• Learning Styles by Marlene D. LeFever (David C. Cook, 1995)
• So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences by Harvey F. Silver, Richard W. Strong and Matthew J. Perini (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000)