Anyone with school-age children knows that, even at the best schools, parents play a big role in their children’s education. From choices about school to homework help to preparing a child for the day, parents are important partners. Understanding your child’s learning style can help you support your child in navigating academia as well as help you when it’s your turn to teach your child things like sports, hobbies, and even household chores.
The concept of learning styles has been well established for decades, according to Liliana Sacarin, Psy.D., who has worked for decades with children who face learning challenges and who runs the Sacarin Listening, Movement, and Development Center in Seattle. Learning style theories take into account a person’s strengths, talents, disposition and preferences. Everyone has a unique style composed of various aptitudes, preferences, interests and dispositions. Does your child learn best by watching? Is he better at listening? Does he need to put his hands on something to understand it? Does she learn best in the morning? In the afternoon? Is she a linear thinker or more of a creative spirit? Does your child prefer to work in groups or solo?
Taking the time at home to complete a learning assessment inventory (see sidebar of resources) can help you understand your child’s learning style and answer these questions and more.
Not another test!
Don’t worry! With a learning style assessment there is no bad answer or bad result.
“The nice thing about learning styles is that while there are a variety of learning styles, research tells us that children with different learning styles all seem to succeed,” Sacarin says. And don’t assume that you and your child have the same style. “We are actually likely to see more differences in learning styles between siblings and parents than similarities.”
Bill DeMartini, middle school teacher and instructional coach at Tyee Middle School in Bellevue, says that one of the challenges parents face in supporting their kids academically is that how a parent learned may not be how their student learned. "And it may not be how things are taught now,” he says. Even teachers have similar challenges.
“Teachers tend to teach from their own experience and their own beliefs about what it means to learn well. I remember clearly my first year as a teacher probably doing too much direct instruction because it was my frame of reference,” DeMartini says. He encourages parents to approach understanding their children’s strengths with an open mind and coaches teachers to consider expanding their repertoire of teaching methods to reach more kids.
Once you understand your child’s learning style, Sacarin says, “pay close attention without judgment. You will learn that now you have access to things you can pull out of a tool box to help your child. Parents are the experts in observing and resonating with their own children. They are best suited to notice these things.”
“Gradually and over time, introducing children to their own learning styles will help them to know themselves and craft their own learning plans as well as make choices about their own education. It can make them aware that there are a variety of ways of learning and what you notice what their strengths are," Sacarin says. "We sometimes don’t choose to follow our own styles innately. Sometimes we need to be more creative in looking at the way we learn so we can enhance our learning. You can even help enhance your child’s self-esteem through understanding your child’s strengths and helping your child feel empowered to choose study habits that are more successful.”
So, if you have a child who learns best by doing something though the kinesthetic modality — which involves movement as a method for learning — and that child is trying to study for a test by sitting still and listening, you might help her shift her study strategies to something like writing, drawing or games with whole-body movement like throwing a ball back and forth while reciting the facts she is trying to learn. Likewise, if you have a child who learns best through the auditory modality, having him throw a ball while reciting facts may distract him. An audiobook would be a far better choice for such a child.
Vicki Pettiross, Washington State certified teacher and K–6 private tutor based in Lake Forest Park, suggests that when a child learns about his or her best ways of learning, the child can be his or her own advocate in a classroom or tutoring setting.
“I worked with a student who is in third grade who received a diagnosis of dyslexia,”Pettiross says. “When she understood that, she started advocating for herself in learning situations. She just started asking for things that she knew would help her learn.” This student’s progress improved and thus her confidence improved.
Knowing how a child best learns can help that child become his or her own advocate in the classroom. DeMartini encourages parents to help introduce their children to teachers — including discussing their learning styles and other learning issues — in ways that are supportive of the realities of a classroom teacher. DeMartini says he trusts that when he gets information like this from a parent, it’s not a criticism of his teaching, but rather an effort to provide him with information he can use to do his best possible job. He encourage parents to approach teachers with the intent of sharing and enhancing the relationship.
“Without question, parents are partners in the kids’ educational experience. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from what parent have to say about what they have observed at home and what they have seen,” DeMartini says. In his classroom, he regularly asks parents during curriculum night to share things about their children to help him get to know the kids and better connect with them for teaching purposes.
“I once had a student in class whose parent put together an email to all of her teachers with background on her special needs, her strengths, what they appreciate about her, and what they are proud of in her. The parent was clearly trying to paint a picture of her as a human being. That was very helpful and was the beginning of a good relationship with that parent in supporting that student.”
What about weaknesses?
Applying learning styles is mostly about using one’s strengths to enhance one’s learning. And yet children will have to cope with a variety of different learning expectations that don’t necessarily cater to their optimal learning styles. Not to mention, there is often a need to improve in areas of weakness.
“Kids will experience so many teaching styles. It could be hard for a student whose learning style doesn’t match a teacher. Parents should advocate for their student in a way that helps a student," DeMartini says. "At the same time, there is something to be said for learning from someone who teaches differently. Coping with different styles can work well in an environment of mutual respect.”
Scientists consider some of the elements of learning styles and aptitudes to be developmental and some more biological — a mix of “nature” and “nurture” according to Sacarin. She encourages parents to remember that there is a lot you can do with some nurturing.
“I don’t want to put limits on nurture because of nature,” she says. “That discourages parents. You can nurture so much. There are abilities that can be improved. Capabilities can evolve. You can reach beyond the boundaries that biology may have handed you. Don’t believe so soon that there is nothing to be done.”
Using your child’s learning styles to help nurture learning can be a great way to start.