Kinesthetic, Auditory, Verbal? What multiple intelligences can teach you about your child’s learning style



This post is written in collaboration with the National Education Association’s Raise Your Hand for Student Success campaign. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own. 

When my 15-year-old, Isaac, does his homework, he’s got his earbuds in. Every time. And to be honest? It used to drive me crazy. 

“How can you study with music pumping into your brain?” I’d ask. After all, I’m highly distracted by music, particularly music with lyrics: only able to listen when I can also sing along, loudly, and really feel it. Which tends, in my case, to interfere with the thought processes needed for writing, reading, or working algebra equations.

But then I thought back to when Isaac was in second grade. During a conference, his very patient teacher shared that for the first month or so of school, he was so wiggly and distractible that he barely seemed to be listening at all.

Finally she decided to let him stand at his desk, rather than sit.

Bouncing a little or shifting his weight from side to side, she said, seemed to make all the difference: it calmed his energy and allowed him to focus. That means that Isaac is likely a kinesthetic learner: a “doer” who learns best when he is physically active. 

While Isaac has grown a lot less fidgety with time (though he still paces when he’s working out a big problem or thinking something through) I still recognize in him the hallmarks of a kinesthetic learner: physical and active, easily distracted, and enjoying socializing and social learning. And, as I recently found out, kinesthetic learners tend to be less distracted by music than other types of learners – in fact, background music can be an effective tool in helping to quiet and focus their thoughts. 

I first learned about learning styles as a college student, when I became curious about why I could listen to a lecture or look at a diagram and not seem to grasp what was being taught.  I knew I was smart, and I love words, but need to really engage with material – either by repeating it myself or discussing it with someone else – before it sinks in. This led to a lot of frustration as a student, especially in lecture-heavy classes.

My search led me to discover Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, often described as learning styles. The eight styles include verbal/linguistic, visual/spatial, mathematical/logical, auditory/musical, kinesthetic/bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. And while almost everyone is are fluent in more than one “intelligence,” most of us identify most strongly with just one or two.

As an interpersonal and verbal-linguistic learner, I learn best from discussing ideas and writing about them. But all of my kids are different – and each has his own blend of intelligences that make studying and learning unique (and sometimes, uniquely challenging.) 

My recent realization – that listening to music might actually help Isaac study, not hurt him – reminded me that it’s never a good idea to project my own pitfalls and preferences onto any of my kids.  Owen, a logical/mathematical learner, needs to create processes and systems around his learning, and has a hard time thinking “outside the lines” – making creative writing assignments – my strong suit – occasionally torturous for him. And William, an auditory learner, picks up concepts and instructions readily when they’re explained to him out loud, but tends to get confused or distracted when trying to read directions. (This would explain how my budding chef added two TABLESPOONS of salt to a pie recipe recently.)

It’s all too easy to get frustrated when our children don’t learn or absorb information the same way we do, mostly because that makes it more difficult to understand, help, and teach them. But just as if I want my kids to be successful and happy in school, I need to make sure to treat them as the individuals they are. 

If your child is having a hard time learning or absorbing information, it’s worth taking a careful look at her learning style to see if there is a way to help. As I learned with Isaac, it’s also a good idea to talk to her teacher – he or she may have a completely different perspective than you and be able to offer suggestions for creating a welcoming learning environment at home.

And no matter what, pay attention and be flexible. As with everything else in parenting, what works for one child may not work for another – and what works for you might not be the best approach for any of them!

Have you struggled with helping your child learn in the best way for him or her? What are some strategies you’ve tried for identifying and implementing your child’s learning styles? 

 Thanks to NEA Parents for sponsoring this post and providing a great resource for parents who want to help their kids learn!

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  1. Practical Mama