How does your child learn?

By ERIN ANDERSEN / Lincoln Journal Star

Friday, January 13, 2006

Today marks the end of first semester at Lincoln Public Schools. If your child is one of those three to five kids in every classroom who always gets A’s, you need read no further. But if you are among the hundreds of parents who wonder what to do with your distracted, disorganized, not-performing-to-potential, rather-doodle-than-take-notes kid who day after day comes home with a planner devoid of writing and “ouch” notes from teachers because she once again has not turned in her homework — (which you know is completed) … perhaps what you have is a “unique learner.”

This is not psychobabble or “feel good” terminology to explain away real academic issues, says Mariaemma Willis, co-author of “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style: Children Learn in Unique Ways — Here’s the Key to Every Child’s Learning Success.”

It’s real science. From the moment of birth, kids have their own personalities and dispositions.

It doesn’t go away when they start school, Willis said.

For decades, educators, researchers and scientists have identified the different “intelligences” and learning styles that appear to be hardwired at birth.

Some — like our perfect A students — are “producers,” typically visual learners who comprehend and work best by reading, writing, taking notes and organizing.

Which is the way most schools and teachers teach, Willis says .
“They have fit the prescription for the magic learning style combination,” Willis said. “The way the information is being presented … completely fits the learning styles of those three to five kids.”

Unfortunately, approximately 90 percent of kids don’t learn best that way, said Victoria Kindle Hodson, co-author of “Discover Your Child’s Learning Styles” and co-founder of Learning Success Institute.

Sixty percent are the inventing/thinking/creating learners (hands-on, always moving, out-of-the box, logic-defying kids); 5 percent to 8 percent are performing learners (i.e. the class clowns); and 25 percent are relating/inspiring learners (the chatty girls, the mother hens, the kids who need order and harmony), Hodson said.

Many of these kids struggle academically and behaviorally in school, not because they want to misbehave, but because they can’t learn in the traditional way, Hodson said.

“If things were presented in the way that fits their learning style, it would be magical,” Willis said.

But often it’s not. And as early as kindergarten these kids see themselves as different or even damaged goods, Willis said.

By fourth grade when school rigors and expectations increase, these kids “think they are kind of bright, but they feel really stupid,” said Joan Jacobs, Lincoln Public Schools gifted program supervisor.

School can be hard, or worse — boring. They are not necessarily flunking — but could be. They may be disruptive because they can’t stop moving, fiddling, fidgeting and talking. They may be disorganized, with desks, notebooks and backpacks that look like remnants of a tornado rather than that day’s assignment. They may have notes and planners filled with drawings of “Grimlens,” “Curlytwirlleys” and funny pictures of friends rather than words, equations and essays.

It drives parents — and more than a few teachers — nuts.

It’s because we see what they are doing as all wrong, Willis said.

We fail to recognize and acknowledge that their unique way of learning, understanding and creating things could result in the next Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs — all inventors who had these other learning styles, Willis said.

Parents need to nurture their children’s learning styles, she said. They need to find methods that allow kids to learn, think and express what they know through different modes, be it building a robot before writing a how-to essay for English; acting out a science demonstration; or creating a piece of artwork to show how a math problem can be solved.

Disciplining, punishing and taking away the things kids love until they fill out their planners, sit in a silent room to read their textbook or be glued to the kitchen table until they write that research paper not only doesn’t work — but further damages their self-esteem, Willis said.

“They need to shine where they shine, or they will have nothing,” Willis said. “No one has ever gone to reach their potential in an area by feeling guilt, shame, worry and fear.”

Parents — and teachers — need to realize that Johnny needs to move in order to learn; that Stephanie needs time to think through her reading before discussing it; and that doodling David is paying attention and understanding everything being said even if he is drawing pictures of mutant hot dogs and big yellow trucks, Hodson said.

If you force kids to learn in a way they cannot, school and homework become torture, Willis said. Curiosity and passion for learning are destroyed, said Hodson.

But, if children can use their learning style to demonstrate their talents and abilities, they can shine as bright or brighter than those perfect A students, Willis said.

All it takes is some creativity at home. And a partnership with teachers to try something new.

Help the sketcher/doodler turn drawings into usable study notes, Willis said.

“A sketching learner really is listening when he doodles. It’s like knitting, you can take in everything going on and process it because your hands are busy,” Willis said.

Forcing tactile learners to write spelling words 100 times will never work. But turn that spelling word into a picture or create a cute song to help remember the order of letters, and you will most likely have success.

“Allowing kids to do something that fits their learning style will pump them up,” Willis said.

Before coming to LPS, Jacobs taught English in a California high school. She learned early on that open-ended assignments that gave her students options, were highly successful — and didn’t create an unwieldy amount of extra work.

Following a lesson on “Macbeth,” she gave students choices to demonstrate their understanding. Some wrote a traditional report. Others selected a test. But one presented a videotape of himself acting as a journalist and reporting from outside of Macbeth’s castle. Another made a poster.

“When it’s open-ended it gives kids equal opportunities to demonstrate what they learned. In my opinion, when we were done with “Macbeth” all the students showed they knew it, but not all of them might have gotten an A on a multiple choice test,” Jacobs said.

Options allow students to do the same work but in ways more suited to their unique abilities.

She uses as an example the visual-spatial kid who hates to write anything. Parents need to find out their motivation. Do they hate composing? Or do they hate the physical act of writing with pen on paper and making sure the handwriting is “pretty.”

If it’s the latter, Jacobs suggests letting students dictate their reports or type them on computer. Because the goal for most papers or reports is not handwriting, but composition, research and understanding.

“If the lesson is fun, engaging and interesting, they will find the rewriting (editing) more fun and engaging,” Jacobs said.

And eventually, these students will learn to overcome or tolerate writing with pen on paper.

It’s not dumbing down education. It’s not special treatment. It’s options for achieving the singular goal of developing a passion for education, Jacobs said.

Said Hodson: “It’s not for us to say what makes other people successful in their learning.”

Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or

Tips for parents

OK, now you understand your child has a different learning style.

So what do you do to address it?

* Have a heart-to-heart talk with your child.

Acknowledge their learning style and then work together to come up with ideas for using that learning style to meet academic needs in the classroom.

Sketcher/doodlers can take notes through drawings; auditory learners can repeat important information out loud (very quietly) in order to remember and understand; spatial/tactile learners may need to build and create before they can put their understanding into words on paper or in presentations.

* Talk to your child’s teachers. Have your child complete a learning profile and then show the results to the teachers. Once everyone understands how your child learns, it will be easier to come up with ways that make learning more meaningful and productive.

* Look at your child’s motivations. If he “hates writing,” what part does he hate — using pen and paper, grammar, the thinking, the organizing, the good penmanship issue? Get specific so you can address the hardest parts and find a way to accomplish the expectation to everyone’s satisfaction.

* Think about what you have tried in the past and didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? Once you know the answer, it will be easier to see alternative solutions.

* Allow them to do something that fits their learning style, so they can feel success and feel good about themselves.

* Acknowledge there is nothing “wrong” with your child, he or she simply has a different learning style, which is a gift.

Sources: Joan Jacobs, Lincoln Public Schools supervisor of gifted education, and Mariaemma Willis, co-founder of Learning Success Institute, Ventura, Calif.

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