Your Child's Unique Learning Style: How to Use Your Child's Strengths for School Success

By Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger

Many children have a dominant learning style, a preferred way of thinking and acting. By tapping into your child's personality and understanding the lens through which he or she best relates to the world, you can help build a foundation of success and self-confidence, as well as an increased desire to learn.

In his ground breaking 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner questioned the traditional views of intelligence. He theorized that intelligence is more than just the math and verbal skills that are measured by an IQ test.

Gardner described at least eight intelligences, including strength in:

  • reading
  • math and logic
  • forming personal relationships
  • movement and athletics
  • design and recognizing relationships
  • singing and music
  • understanding oneself
  • understanding nature

Children usually have a combination of strengths, with one that may be dominant. As a parent, you may notice this dominance from the time your child is a toddler (an early reader, walker or musician). Or, you may see a child's style emerge and develop over time.

Gardner's theories are now commonly translated into many school programs and textbooks. Your child may no longer do a standard history report, instead acting out a famous incident in history, (good for the mover - a kinesthetic learner) or plotting a graph of historical events (good for a spatial learner - strength in design) or leading a project team (good for the interpersonal learner).Podcast: When a Student Struggles

What Parents Can Do

If your child's classroom situation doesn't suit his preferred style of learning, you can use the strategies described below to work with his teachers or support his strengths at home. By focusing on your child's strengths and helping him discover new ones, you can use his achievements beyond the classroom to help him stay motivated at school.

Liz knew the alphabet very early and loved being read to. At 10, she's still rarely without a book in hand.

If you were Liz's parent, what strategy might you use to maintain her interest in reading, while also making sure she doesn't cut herself off from other opportunities?

Her love of reading helps her excel in many subjects, but you could also help her organize a book club with some classmates, so that reading becomes a route to friendships, or talk to her about what she is reading. Ask her questions such as, "What other ending could the book have had?" to help her analyze ideas.

Matthew has always been curious. As a toddler he loved looking for bugs outdoors and taking things apart and trying to put them back together. Completing worksheets is his idea of homework torture.

Look at Matthew's curiosity, strength in spatial relationships and love of nature as traits that will serve him well all his life. If he attends a school that doesn't provide a lot of hands-on exploration, ask for a conference with the teacher. Perhaps you could work together to find assignments that allow him to use his interest in asking questions and experimenting.

Homework could be an opportunity for creativity - perhaps a paper and pencil task or report can be transformed into a project. Instead of answering questions about air and water pollution, he could do experiments at home and share the results in class through a video he makes.

If the teacher is not receptive to reframing assignments, you can keep your child motivated by helping him complete his work as assigned and then creating that video together as a family activity. Encourage his interests through hobbies (camping or hiking) and find out about related after-school clubs (science or outdoors) and youth programs.

Rob keeps up with the demanding schedule of two sports teams and still makes time to hang out with his friends. The only class where he doesn't fidget waiting for the bell to ring is physical education - not surprisingly his favorite subject.

Kids like Rob, who love - actually need - to move, sometimes have a difficult time sitting still in class or making time for schoolwork. He needs a strategy to keep his attention focused. Suggest that he keep moving by writing notes or diagrams, instead of just listening to his teacher.

At home, instead of doing his homework in one long stretch, allow him to take frequent breaks to toss a ball or jump rope. Work together at home to come up with active ways to complete traditional assignments - perhaps by impersonating one of the main characters in a book to help him finish a book report or setting to music work that needs to be memorized

Cassidy loves math and puzzles and sports. Cassidy's teachers have complained that she can be disruptive, but Cassidy insists that she only behaves badly when she's bored by assignments that don't challenge her.

What can you do if your child sometimes acts out in school because she's bored? If the teacher is flexible, he or she might be willing to provide supplementary work that better matches your child's abilities and interests. You may need to show the teacher what your child is capable of. With your child's help, put together a "home school" notebook. If, like Cassidy, math is her passion, provide word and other more challenging problems that will foster problem-solving skills. Maybe an older student can work with your child on a favorite school subject to keep her challenged.

Ruthie's teachers love having her in class because of her way with other kids. She's strong in relationships, the class mediator, the one who befriends the new kid in the neighborhood. But Ruthie's parents think she could do better in school if she were less involved in relationships and more interested in her work.

Teachers enjoy having a class peacekeeper. But if you're frustrated because your child spends more time socializing than learning, encourage her to combine friendship time with schoolwork by helping her set up a study group at your home or a private chat room on line where she and her friends can brainstorm project ideas or question each other in preparation for a test. She'll appreciate the time with her friends and the kids will be learning from each other.


Harriet S. Mosatche, Ph.D., and Karen Unger, M.A., are the authors of Too Old for This, Too Young for That! Your Survival Guide for the Middle-School Years, published by Free Spirit Press. Dr. Mosatche also wrote Girls: What's So Bad About Being Good? How to Have Fun, Survive the Preteen Years and Remain True to Yourself, published by Prima in 2001.