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What parents need to know about their child's learning style

Have you ever wondered how your child learns? Does he respond best when you tell him something? Or do you find yourself leaving notes for him all over the house?

“When your child hasn’t heard you the last eight times you asked him to pick up his socks, chances are good that he’s not an auditory learner,” says Katie Johnson, a first-grade teacher at Shoreline School District’s Brookside Elementary School in Lake Forest Park.

It’s helpful to understand your child’s learning style, Johnson says.

But there’s a danger if parents peg their child as a certain kind of learner — and then feel everything in the child’s life has to come through that channel, she notes. “As a teacher, it’s my job to expand children. If they’re auditory learners, I also try to teach them to be visual.”

Although educators have been aware for decades that people process information in different ways, Howard Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, transformed the way teachers view children and how they learn.

Gardner, a Harvard University professor, described seven (later expanded to eight) different kinds of intelligences: linguistic (word smart); logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart); musical (music smart); spatial (picture smart); bodily-kinesthetic (body smart); interpersonal (people smart); intrapersonal (self smart); and naturalist (nature smart).

In the last 30 years, the idea that children learn in different ways has become mainstream, and teacher training programs incorporate that knowledge into their curricula. Erin Vickers, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at St. Joseph School in Seattle, graduated in 2006 from Seattle University’s master in teaching program. “They pushed us to meet the needs of all students who learn in different ways,” says Vickers.

Gini Stimpson, a research associate at the University of Washington’s college of education, works with school systems to improve teaching and learning in mathematics. “I always tell teachers that it’s important when you say things to students, to also write it on the board, and to design activities with some variation,” she says. “To just say the same thing over and over, louder and slower, is not helpful.”

Teachers look at the whole child, identify his strengths and weaknesses, and then tailor instruction that will help that child learn best, says Patti Weber, the Mercer Island School District’s director of curriculum and professional development. “It’s a huge challenge.”

Don Braman, who teaches history and English at Issaquah’s Skyline High School, knows all about that challenge. In one class, he and a colleague teach 60 students who meet together for two hours. “I have four or five different ways of presenting the material,” says Braman.

Don’t categorize learning styles

Educators agree that knowing a child’s learning strengths and weaknesses ahead of time can be useful. But while parents can offer insights to teachers about their child’s learning style, not all instruction will be tailored to that strength.

“All kids benefit from being taught in all modalities. They need to be as strong in as many as possible,” says Carita Polin, a first-grade teacher at Salmon Bay, a K-8 Seattle public alternative school. “You have to be careful about limiting a child.”

While every child has his or her own abilities, it’s a mistake to categorize those abilities, says Johnson. “Any child whose bent is to move first and think later can still become mesmerized by a piece of clay for two hours.”

Parent-teacher communication is important — up to a point, says Vickers. “You cross the line if you’re pushing the student too hard or hand-holding too much,” she says. “We can teach to a learning style, but if you have a child who is a kinesthetic learner, you have to look at what the norms are in the workplace. You would hope that child will grow up and get a job that focuses on the kinesthetic, but it might not happen. And that child is going to have to learn to adapt.”

When children reach high school, they often advocate for themselves, rather than have their parents do it for them. “It’s helpful for kids to know how they learn so they can communicate that,” says Stimpson. But while they benefit from knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, it can be a handicap if they feel that’s the only way they can learn, she says.

Know your child

Understanding your child’s learning style can be useful in classroom placement. “We gather lots of input from parents. And they know their kids better than anybody,” says Scott Whitbeck, principal of Edison Elementary School in the Tacoma School District.

Stimpson agrees. “It’s helpful to tell the principal, ‘My child struggles with such and such.’ It will be taken into consideration when a child is placed in a class.”

You don’t need to know the academic jargon, notes Aviva Bomsztyk, a sixth-grade science teacher at Chinook Middle School in Bellevue. “If you tell me, ‘He moves a lot,’ I can figure out that he’s a kinesthetic learner,” she says.

How can you tell what kind of learner your child is? You can read books on the subject (see sidebar below). You can also simply observe your child, according to educators.

Pay attention to the way your kids play — and what they enjoy doing. “That will tell you what intelligence they favor,” says Jackie Puppe Wotipka, owner of M.I. (Multiple Intelligences) Learning Center, a preschool serving the Edmonds-Mukilteo area. In other words, if your kids love bugs and field trips, chances are they’re nature-smart and body-smart. If they love to sing and dance, you can bet they’re musical.

And take a good look at your own learning style, says Cindy Tingstad, former coordinator of the infant/toddler program at Bates Technical College in Tacoma. “If a parent realizes that her learning style is different than her child’s, she can avoid difficulties.” Everyone’s brain is wired its own way, says Tingstad. “It helps to figure out who you live with and how they see the world.”

Parental observation is key, she says. “If a child at age 2 knows the names of all the other toddlers in the classroom, that’s rare. That child is very socially aware. When he grows up, chances are he’ll be the one who knows the birthdays of everyone in the office.” Her own son was fascinated with mathematics before the age of 3. “He wanted to know the value of coins; now he’s a CPA,” she says, laughing.

Weber thinks parents “figure it out pretty early on” and instinctively adapt to a child’s learning style. A parent who knows her child can’t follow instructions, for example, might ask the child to repeat the instructions out loud or write them down, says Weber.

Testing can limit teaching

Today’s emphasis upon standardized testing in schools works against teachers trying to teach to different styles, says Polin. “It’s sending the pendulum back again towards academic modalities: sit still, listen, copy off the board.” Interactive and hands-on activities get sidelined, she says. “For young children, play is the way they learn best, and it’s being squeezed out of their lives.”

Katie Johnson agrees. “The width of possibilities for accommodating different styles narrows every day because of the emphasis on standards,” she says. “When you’re trying to get through identical stuff, there’s nothing extra or personalized.” Like Polin, she decries the loss of play and notes, “Recess is even being squeezed out of some schools.”

At Tacoma’s Edison Elementary, the staff works to meet the kinesthetic needs of the kids, Whitbeck says. “Children are physically active; they can’t sit still for six hours. They need recess as much as we need them to have it.”

Sometimes, it all boils down to instinct and experience.

In the best of worlds, parents and teachers work together to ensure that children with different learning styles, different strengths and different ways of looking at the world can all succeed. “The entire world of education knows about learning styles and intelligences,” says Johnson, speaking from the perspective of 40 years as an educator. “But when you’re actually facing 26 6-year-olds, it’s very hard to aim those well-understood theoretical arrows. Experience is more intuitive than all the labels. It’s about trusting the teachers to know what they’re doing.”

Breck Longstreth is a Mercer Island–based writer with a special interest in education.

This article was originally published in the 2007 issue of LearningMap.

Resources for parents

Web sites:

  • www.businessballs.com is based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Click on Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory and Model. This site also outlines a teaching and development concept for young children, Fantasticat.

  • www.familyeducation.com has questionnaires based on each of the intelligences. After clicking on the traits that apply to the child, the viewer is directed to a results page that outlines the child’s strengths and talents.


  • Unlocking Your Child’s Learning Potential by Cheri Fuller

  • Talkers, Watchers and Doers: Unlocking Your Child’s Unique Learning Style by Cheri Fuller.

  • Discover Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Willis and Victoria Hodson

  • In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences by Thomas Armstrong

  • A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Gussin Paley

  • The Scientist and the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl

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