Ultimate Parents Guide to Learning Styles in Children
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TLDR: Get a Handy PDF Infographic with the Guide Highlights at the end of this article!
In this guide to understanding learning styles for effective learning, we explore:
- What are Learning Styles?
- Is it Important to Know my Child's Learning Style?
- Types of Learning Styles
- The Parent's Role: How Can Parents Help Children Best Use Their Preferred Learning Style for Success?
- Wrapping Up
Learning styles are the different ways in which a child prefers to receive information or learning input.
All children learn differently, and by understanding how your child prefers to get their learning inputs, we can better plan their learning strategy for them to best absorb, understand, connect and apply their learning.
While all effective learners need to have these 6 abilities, each child will use their preferred learning styles as a part of their learning strategy, to get there.
In the context of effective learning, being aware of and leveraging one’s preferred learning style can make a difference to the student’s learning and performance outcomes. But it is also one of the most under-utilized or even mis-utilized aspects of learning effectively.
For example, parents often wrongly assume that their children have the same learning style as they do. Worse, schools often assume that all children learn the same way, and should have similar learning outcomes when taught in the same way (which we know from personal experience is not true!).
Perhaps the most self-defeating of all is not even acknowledging the idea of learning style and its role in the child’s learning process, or force-slotting a child into a particular learning style without letting them explore their preferred mix.
In this all-in ultimate guide to children’s learning styles, we explore everything parents need to know about their child’s learning style - such as what they are, different types of learning styles, why they matter; as well as how parents can work with their school-going children, tweens and teens to understand, and effectively harness learning style as a key component of the overall effective learning strategy.
What are Learning Styles?
Learning styles are the ways in which individuals prefer to receive new learning information, and the way they tend to learn best.
There are many different learning style theories, but the two most common ones you've probably encountered are the VARK (Visual-Auditory-Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic) learning style theory coined by Neil Fleming in 1987, and Psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, coined around 1983.
Let's take a more detailed look into these and other learning styles a little later in this guide. But first, here are a few things to keep in mind as we learn about learning styles in children:
- No one theory or style is perfect for any one child. Each one of us uses a combination of various learning styles. No child can be neatly labeled into a particular learning style.
- Our learning style is always evolving. Everyone tends to develop a unique and dynamic learning strategy, and styles are a part of that process.
- We may prefer different learning styles in different learning contexts or situations. We may have more than one preferred learning style or create our own hybrid versions.
- It's okay for children to want to change their learning approach without feeling like they are going against their ‘learning style’. Labels in general are not helpful.
- Learning styles do not operate in isolation. There are many variables impacting learning outcomes: leveraging our learning style is one of them. It is best to look at learning style as a key component of an effective learning strategy, and connect it to the other components such as learning mindset, learning skills, learning techniques; and the learning environment.
- It is important for me to share that there are equally vocal experts who believe that learning styles have no impact on a child’s learning outcomes, and have debunked some of the more popular learning style theories.
I would suggest, as a parent, do not get too caught up in the technicalities and theories of it. Follow your instinct and take what is useful to co-create with your child. Arming yourself with the information in this guide will help you and your child to become aware of the subject, try things and figure out what is working, and what isn’t.
Now that I have put all those disclaimers out there(!) I must also share that as a parent, and someone who spends a lot of time learning about my children’s learning journey, I have found that being aware of the many different learning styles helps my and my children consciously choose different learning approaches for different learning contexts. It’s just something that's evolved over the years, and continues to evolve.
The important thing is when we as parents have this information - that such a thing as a ‘preferred way to receive learning input’ exists, we can better help our children become effective learners. Either way, learning style(s) is just one element in a large mix as you can see in this comprehensive effective learning framework.
Let me remind you of how I define effective learning again: the ability to absorb, understand, connect, remember, apply and improve what we have learnt in concrete situations - or the 6 abilities of an effective learner.
Effective learning occurs when we use the right combination of learning mindset, skills, techniques, styles and environment - or a conscious learning strategy to meet our learning goals. But the messy truth about learning styles is that while it is great to try and understand more about how our child prefers to learn, it is not as simple as identifying one’s learning style will magically turn them into strong, lifelong learners! Wish it were that simple, right?!
Why is it important to know your child's learning style?
Knowing more about learning styles is important because it can have a positive impact on how our child learns, and the longer-term learning process in general.
When learners use and work with, rather than ignore or work against their natural styles, they can learn more, learn more quickly, and with less frustration than when trying to work with a learning style that doesn't come naturally to them.
For example, when it comes to learning math, I am very much an observational learner - I like to watch someone else do the entire solution before attempting the sum myself. I also ask a lot of why questions to help me understand the reason behind a particular step. Others may prefer to jump into solving the sum themselves given a set of steps, and may not care about the logic behind the steps as long as they know the application of the problem.
But this is not just about solving problems.
As Polymath Parents, our goal is to help our children unleash their learning to learn superpowers. Equipping them to be aware of their own learning style or preferred style helps them make more informed choices when it comes to choosing the learning skills and learning techniques as they build out their unique effective learning strategy.
One of the most important skills of an effective learner is being able to take responsibility and ownership for one’s own learning. When children are aware of their own learning preferences and feel empowered to use them to their advantage, they become better and more confident lifelong learners.
They end up relying less on others to tell them how to learn (although the ‘what’ to learn may still be dictated by the curriculum!)
Understanding the different ways children can learn also lets us, as parents, explore the wide variety of tools and approaches available to support more effective learning, and create the best and most conducive learning environment at home.
Types of Learning Styles
In this section, I’m listing some of the ‘learning styles’ I have encountered in all my own research. This is not an exhaustive list - I am sure there are many scattered around the internet. However, the idea of sharing this is not to provide a convenient list for you to slot your child based on a few characteristics. It is to make you and your child aware of the idea of styles and preferences for effective learning.
The 10 Types Learning Styles
1. Visual or Spatial Learning Styles
Such learners tend to prefer learning with visual aids such as pictures, videos, diagrams, or flow charts.
2. Auditory Learning Styles
Such learners tend to learn best when they can listen to information, whether that’s from a lecture, podcast, audiobook, or song.
3. Reading/Writing Learning Styles
As the names suggest, this learning approach or style is all about reading and writing the traditional way - taking notes, making their own lists, and reading detailed explanations of concepts.
4. Kinesthetic or Physical Learning Styles
Such learners get the most out of physical activity (like hands-on training) and other forms of touch or movement. They are also called Tactile (touch and feel) or Sensory Learners
5. Verbal & Linguistic Learners
Prefer to talk, discuss, and listen in order to best process what they are learning.
6. Logical/ Rational Learners
Like to understand the cause and effect, preferred structured learning environments and explanations, and tend to create logical patterns and deploy reasoning to better understand what they are learning
7. Conceptual/ Abstract Learners
Like explanations that are not necessarily concrete or having a physical form. They like to put information into context of key concepts and bigger, central ideas rather than see things as stand alone topics. May also use metaphors and visualizations to understand the concept.
8. Social Learning Style Theories
Popular theories such as Interpersonal (learning socially acceptable behaviors by observing others), Intrapersonal (learning through self-reflection and self-awareness), and Naturalist style (learning through observation of nature and natural phenomena) are also interesting possibilities, especially in group learning settings, for parents to observe for and explore, in tandem with the VARK styles
9. Slow Learners and Fast Learners
We have all heard the term ‘fast learner’ used in feedback by teachers and managers at work when they describe certain people. Everyone can be a fast learner in some situations and a slow learner in others - and both are perfectly fine.
Slow learners may take time to grasp a concept but will do what it takes to get there, often resulting in a deeper, more thorough understanding at the cost of speed. Fast learners may be naturally good at some things but may compromise depth for speed in the learning process.
10. The 8 Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences challenges the traditional notion that only cognitive intelligence (mathematical, linguistic) is valued in society. The 8 intelligences he identified include Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist. In today's world, where creativity and innovation are highly valued skills, the multiple intelligences learning theory is more relevant than ever as it broadens the scope of tools and strengths we can use for learning.
There is a wealth of information about these learning styles already available on the internet so I encourage you to research them more.
My two cents is that rather than focusing too much on the research, spend time observing your own child and seeing the learning style tendencies and patterns they tend to display when learning without pressure.
How Can Parents Help Children Best Use Their Preferred Learning Style?
One of the most important factors in a child’s education is how they learn. While learning styles are a natural tendency, being an effective learner is a 21st century super skill, and it comes by deliberately building an effective learning strategy.
The question is: how can parents help? If you are like me, I’m sure you have asked yourself: how can I best identify my child's learning style and help them succeed?
There are lots of ways parents can help children become aware of and use their unique learning style to maximum advantage.
As a parent, a good place to begin is just to ask yourself how your child reacts to new information.
Some kids are curious and want to know everything about a new subject quickly, while other kids need time to process before they can ask questions or try something on their own. What kinds of activities interest your child? Honest answers are important because it's easy for parents to get caught up in their own assumptions and preferences of what they want for their children. This is also known as confirmation bias and we all fall prey to it.
Like I said, learning styles is a natural and very personal instinct. However, over the years, I’ve distilled down a few specific things we as parents can do to support how our children develop and use their learning styles for maximum advantage.
7 Ways Parents can Help Kids Leverage Learning Styles for the Best Learning Results
1. Observe to Know Your Child’s Learning Style
Observing our children without filters or judgments is key to understanding how they prefer to learn.
By observing, I do not mean only in a ‘study’ environment. Learning is happening all the time, and a learning strategy applies to all learning - whether it’s mastering quadratic equations or learning to make a dosa.
As parents, we are lucky enough to be able to observe our kids in a wide variety of learning experiences - not just academic ones - and this gives us a wealth of insights into their learning process.
2. Provide a Stimulating Learning Environment
Creating an environment that is conducive to learning at home is key to building and executing a strong learning strategy.
The idea is to create an emotional, physical, and intellectual environment where children can develop a love for learning that will stay with them well into adulthood.
The Ultimate Parent’s Guide to Learning Environment will give you all the in-depth details on how to do that. Here, I will only say that when a child is in a positive and safe space, they feel more comfortable exploring different styles, different ways to learn, and even experiment with styles or admit that something didn't work for them.
With a safe space to explore, experiment, and fail without fear, a child can follow their curiosity and explore rather than getting caught in any mainstream or formulaic notions of how to learn.
3. Encourage Strengths, but Address ‘Weaknesses’ with Insight
Many educational theories tell us to praise and encourage the strengths but ignore the weaknesses, or don't focus on weaknesses or ask them to ‘improve’ on weak areas.
My experience is that it’s better to work on the cause of ‘weaknesses’ (if we must call it that) rather than the specific weakness itself, which is more likely a symptom of something else. In other words, for real change, work on the process and the cause, rather than the outcome and the symptoms.
This is connected to the idea of learning mindsets. It is important to get to the root of why our child or their teacher sees something as a ‘weakness’.
What is the barrier or experience that caused them to develop a fixed mindset about a particular skill and why are they not comfortable going deeper into it? Why are they avoiding a particular subject? How can that be remedied?
It is important to not use learning styles as an excuse to avoid learning things we consider our ‘weaknesses.’ But when we label children too easily with a particular style and specific strengths, we give them (or their teachers) an excuse to do just that.
Knowing why we resist learning something, or why we resist learning something in a particular way, are both useful while creating a unique learning strategy and picking the right skills, techniques and styles.
For example, if your child has developed a fear of math, sitting with the child and solving 100 math sums is not going to address their fear. Leave the sum-solving to the teacher. Instead, as parents, spend time with your child to understand the fear, and address that with appropriate steps. PS: if indeed math is a fear for your child, then do not miss my post on how parents can help children enjoy math.
Also, regular reflection with your child on both- pleasant and unpleasant learning experiences - can give rich insights about preferred learning styles.
4. Work Consciously on Developing Your Child's Multiple Intelligences
Our job as parents is not to tell our kids what intelligence to use, but to make them aware of each of their many intelligences, and equip them with the skills to decide which situation demands which intelligence.
It's important for both: parents and learners - to value all their intelligences equally.
The tendency in our society is to only value cognitive or STEM skills, whereas where would the world be without the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, A R Rehman, Picasso, or Ronaldo? Poorer for sure, both in beauty and a few billion dollars!! Parents need to walk the talk when it comes to valuing each of their child’s intelligences, rather than say one thing but reward something else.
Comfort with multiple intelligences is also important because applied learning is all about the context.
A mathematician for example is not going to be sitting in a math lab doing sums on a blackboard with a bunch of other mathematicians. She is going to be out on the field, helping policymakers solve population challenges, architects solve housing crisis, or climate change scientists figure out weather patterns.
So she will need to use multiple intelligences to be able to relate, connect and collaborate with these diverse groups. The idea is that a 21st-century learner should be equally comfortable being ‘mathematical’ as they are being ‘musical’ when the situation calls for it. Even better if they can combine the two to come up with new and innovative perspectives! They needn’t be Einstein or Mozart - but they should be comfortable enough to call on those senses and instincts in the context of the situation.
In fact, the most effective learners in the world swear by the benefits of an inter-disciplinary approach to learning. It is important for parents to encourage the use of all intelligences and value them equally.
5. Let Your Child Lead Their Learning Journey and Own Their Learning Process
Throughout the school years, children who obediently follow rules, do not question the status quo, and display all the characteristics and moral values we consider as ‘good’ are rewarded.
Yet, in the world of work today, leaders are rewarded for asking the hard questions, pushing back against the status quo, and taking bold, yet informed decisions.
So the best thing parents can do to support their child’s learning style, is to let them be the leader of their choices, the solver of their own problems. Our job is to be there as a sounding board, offer suggestions and guidance, and help them develop the skills and techniques they need to be effective learners. Instead of making learning decisions for them, let’s equip them with the skills to be better decision-makers.
Research has shown that when children are self-directed learners - capable of owning their learning decisions, they are much more committed to their learning process and also take responsibility for the learning and performance outcomes.
6. Let Learning Style be an Empowering Tool Rather Than a Limiting Label
The best thing parents can do is to help our kids feel empowered to use their learning style to their advantage without feeling compelled to define themselves by it. What's key to making learning styles work is to be aware of the many different styles and approaches possible. To build and use our unique Learning to Learn Toolbox, to unleash possibilities and not constrain ourselves with any one style or label.
This matters because it helps children not to feel ‘stuck’ if they don’t understand something with the way it is being taught. Being informed and aware of learning styles helps them understand the cause of their confusion and also know that there are other options available for them to try and understand a concept that may seem ‘difficult’ to grasp in one way but not in another.
On the upside, kids should feel empowered to use their learning style to their advantage. But on the downside, kids and teachers often use the learning style labels to justify an inability to learn something, and this can become a debilitating factor later in life.
For example, I struggled for years with a fear of science and math due to such labels. But once I became aware of how I learned, in my twenties, I was quickly able to overcome both - the fear and the lack of understanding, by learning these subjects in the way I best related to them.
7. Help Your Child Build an Effective Learning Strategy
Every child is unique and I have said that about a zillion times! But I’m going to repeat it. There is no formula for learning: no two learning styles are the same.
The key is to help our children build an effective learning strategy that works for them. Effective learning - which I consider different from studying or understanding something - is a conscious process of learning a new concept, internalizing it with repetition and practice, enriching it by connecting it to other existing knowledge, and mastering it by applying it in real world situations.
But helping kids learn is a huge and vast area. There is so much information out there, and many of the articles (and believe me, I have read thousands of them) confuse terms like learning skills, techniques, strategies, and methods. They seem to suggest that developing skills in isolation, such as better reading or communication skills or critical thinking skills can somehow make you a more effective learner.
My approach is different. Over the years, I’ve been able to develop a framework to build an effective learning strategy. I’ve taken all the information out there and distilled it into this framework for effective learning which captures all the core components of an effective learning strategy. You can also get a free and super-convenient printable of my effective learning framework which is a great visual reminder of the components of effective learning.
Your Child’s Unique Learning Style is their Secret Weapon!
The geniuses of the world are not smarter than you or me.
They are simply more effective learners.
They absorb, understand, recall, connect, and apply knowledge better than you and me.
They know that effective learning is not an ‘automatic’ process. So, they constantly work on getting better at learning.
Being aware of and knowing how to use our unique, evolving learning style to our advantage can really impact learning outcomes.
Avoid getting bound by learning styles or putting them into neat boxes. Just like the learner themselves, their learning styles and preferences will change over time.
Our job as parents is to remain open-minded and vigilant, observing what resonates with our child rather than trying to force-feed a particular learning style onto them, or worse not using this secret superpower at all, to elevate learning outcomes. That’s like having the power to turbo-charge your child’s learning but choosing not to use it!
Each child is unique and each child will have a unique combination of preferred learning styles so try different approaches and see what works best. Learning is always a work-in-progress, so allow for flow, evolution, iterations, and even drastic changes of course. It’s all part of the process!
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