A Parent’s Guide To Alternative Education, Pt. 1: The 4 Types of “Learners”

I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground. ~ John Dewey Click To Tweet

Schooling choices can be one of the most difficult decisions we make. We all want the best for our little charges. But how can we know we’re making the best choice? Some of us take a laid back, wait-and-see approach, and still others will try to avoid any possible set-back by researching every possible educational opportunity. So how do you know which school is the best for your child? With a few tips, you’ll be an expert.

One of the first things to remember is that no one knows your child better than you do. There will be many to tell you they know best. Your job is to smile, appreciate their efforts, take in their opinions and tuck the information into your parenting file. Then trust yourself.

Before making educational choices, curriculum and extra activities, you need to understand how your child learns and retains information. Whether you’re choosing a pre-school, elementary, or school for teens, you must first discern your child’s learning style. Yet even before this, you need to first figure out yours.

If you understand your methods of taking in information, you’ll be less likely to assume your child’s style. Below is the definition of a learning style, and then a description of the four styles.  Once you recognize the manner in which they retain information, you can more successfully embrace styles of teaching that support their processing.

What is a learning style?

A Learning style is how our brains record information for retrieval at a later date.

Each of us are born with one dominate learning style and a secondary style that works in tandem. Although children pass through many learning styles as they mature chronologically, each child will favor one style over the others. Infants and toddlers tend to use a tactile style of taking in information. Tactile means they have a need to feel everything. You’ve probably observed a little one putting every item within their reach into their mouth. As children develop, they become experiential or kinesthetic learners.

The kinesthetic learner does best by doing or experiencing information. This is the ‘exploration’ or ‘discovery’ phase of growth. I strongly suggest as a parent, we fill this period of growth with anything other than T.V. and sitting still. This age is a time when zoos, fieldtrips, animals, weather, singing, movement, and playing without strict organization is essential. I’m not an advocate of day cares, play groups or pre-school if they can be avoided. I prefer one-on-one time with parents, grandparents and siblings and time to discover.

As children arrive at Kindergarten, 5-6 yrs of age, their need for small group interaction and age appropriate learning heightens. A kindergarten program, small in nature (10-15), with a rich, well-rounded sensory program can enhance learning.

Once your child becomes a teenager, their learning style has most likely become predominate in 80%-90% of their information processing. Sometimes as a teacher, I see students failing to thrive not because they are learning-challenged (someone may have labeled them as such), but because they have been placed in a learning environment opposite their learning style. And here’s the worst part of this scenario—Teens are intelligent enough to have assessed themselves against everyone else in the classroom and perhaps find themselves not measuring up in their minds. Unfortunately, this lack of self-appreciation creates survival skills that are meant to avoid having their peers see their struggles or weaknesses. For example, a typical classroom setting caters to the visual learner who will listen and take notes. The auditory learner may even do well if the lecture format encourages discussion, since this student will need to process by talking about what is heard.

Parenting can create the same challenges. When we are training or directing our teens towards task completion, and we expect them to learn things our way, or the same way we taught another child, we short change them. So let’s explore each learning style in greater depth. I suggest you figure out your own style first, your partner’s style and next, your child’s learning style. This exercise alone often prevents or clarifies discipline and training frustrations.

There are 4 basic types of learners, or “learning styles”.

  • Visual learners
  • Auditory learners
  • Verbal Learners
  • Kinesthetic or Experiential Learners

1) Visual Learners

Visual learners take in information through sight. They are the ones that will remember colors, vivid pictures of events, posters, etc. It’s like living with a camera, and always taking pictures.

Visual learners’ strengths:

  • Prefer directions that are written and take detailed notes for information recall
  • Tend to think in pictures and grasp the big picture readily
  • Will notice the pictures, posters, etc in a room
  • Can recall diagrams, charts, and words after only seeing them a few times
  • They tend to be “puzzle people”, love to read, write, and often are the keepers of the family stories they’ve witnessed
  • Love parables, analogies, can visually put together abstract figures
  • Able to look at the pictures on a direction sheet and put together something rather than read the directions
  • Great at directions because they hold a mental ‘map’ in their heads
  • Love organization and things put away in the same place every time. Order actually creates restfulness, calm and a sense of security for them
  • Desks or rooms may be a mess, but they know where every pile is and what’s in it
  • When reading for details they can often recall which side of the page and where on the page the information can be found.
  • Strong spatial intelligence and can clearly see a ‘what it could be’ completed project.
  • Love colors, lines, art and fashion. They have an instinct for style or creating atmosphere
  • Dream in color, like charts and understand them easily.
  • Like books and rote memory
  • Prefer to work in a quiet room alone
  • When trying to remember something they often visualize a picture for easier recall
  • Love order and organizing. When others would run from the work, they often find it relaxing to organize closets, drawers, files, etc.
  • Prefer to sit in front of a room, theater, lecture, etc. to avoid the distraction of others in their line of vision which may become the priority focus

The disadvantage for visual learners:

  1. Taken to extreme, their skills at seeing what could be is so strong they fail to see what is. You’ve met the eternal optimist that is inspiring, but they may struggle with the realities of life.
  2. These concept rich learners are bored easily with frill or filler material.
  3. They are excellent spellers but often can’t remember names.
  4. They often need to see a speaker’s body language and facial expressions to understand concept content given in oral form and can misinterpret this information.

They learn best by:

  • Taking notes, making outlines, diagrams, charts and flashcards
  • Watching videos, copying notes from the board
  • Using highlighters, rewriting important information
  • Creating concept pictures

Best ways to discipline visual styles:

  • Help the visual learner make lists often
  • Incentive charts
  • Encouraging notes (believe it or not the teens I teach still react to a huge happy face drawn on their papers)
  • Contracts – write down the rules, expectations and consequences and have them read and sign them
  • Display schedules that say, “Kim grounded and then draw a line through the days until the grounding is over.” If you have their activities written on a centrally located calendar, then drawing a line through it will have great impact
  • Once they’ve done a great job of, say, cleaning their room, take a picture of it clean and hang it up. . . it will serve as a reminder


2) Auditory Learners

Auditory learners learn through hearing. They are the children who only need to be told once. They are the students who typically do very well in a traditional school setting where the days are spent sitting and listening. They rarely speak unless they’re certain they have their information correct or have something profound to say.

Auditory learners are excellent people observers and often are the ones who rescue friends because they are such good listeners. The good news is auditory learners retain about 70% of what they hear. The bad news is only about 30% of students are auditory learners. Unfortunately, typical educational situations are designed for visual and auditory students. Which means in a classroom of thirty, only nine students will be grasping the information, which leaves twenty-one students lost or distracting others.

Auditory Learners’ strengths: 

  • Love engaging in group discussions and can remember what they, as well as the rest of the group, says
  • Can recite back to you oral instructions or conversations from 6 months to a year ago. You only have to tell them once.
  • Excel at lectures, online audio classes, audio books, any information shared orally
  • Can memorize large portions of text when it’s given to them in pieces orally
  • Have a need to discuss their perceptions or things they don’t understand which can be very beneficial to the student too shy to speak up
  • Make wonderful musicians, often repeating music by playing by ear.  Can memorize anything put to a rhythm or song

Disadvantages of Auditory Learners:

  1. If you miss-state something, you’ll be reminded of it. They don’t forget.
  2. Repetition drives them nuts. They get it the first time.
  3. They have a need to discuss things they don’t understand, which can cause them to appear disruptive to others.
  4. Easily distracted by noise. Since they learn through their ears, they are always aware of every conversation around them.

They learn best by: 

  • Songs and singing
  • Recitation
  • Being read to
  • Repeating back to you what they’ve learned.
  • Dramatizing the information
  • Oral reports
  • Debates, panel discussions, verbal games
  • Teaching what they’ve learned aloud
  • Raps songs, poetry

Best ways to discipline:

  • Have them read aloud the rules you’ve established  Lectures that include repeating what you’ve said.
  • Oral role-playing, where they are you and you are the one being punished.
  • Taking away music playing items—stereos, tv, etc.
  • Sitting alone quietly –removing interaction.


3) Verbal Learners

A child who is a verbal learner, must speak and hear themselves speak for information to become logged in to memory. Consequently, this child doesn’t do well in a sit-down and listen learning situation.  If you’re going to lecture this child, you need to keep the points short and clear and always ask – “Now tell me what you heard, or what you think I said. And have them list it back to you. You can start with one or two points when they’re younger. By the teen years, if you keep directions simple, you should be able to give them a 4-5 point message.

Verbal learners’ strengths:

  • Prefer oral instruction that they can verbally engage in
  • Typically have highly developed auditory skills and can concentrate on one person even in a crowded room of distraction if they are being engaged with words
  • Their vocabulary is typically more advanced than their age and they speak with eloquence and clarity early on. When learning to read, they can retain the ‘content’ even though they are still decoding words.
  • In a classroom or group setting, this student CAN talk and listen at the same time!
  • They think in words rather than pictures.

The disadvantage for verbal learners:

  1. They are great at verbal debates—If you engage them in a verbal battle without being this type of learning style, expect to be frustrated or be reduced to yelling.
  2. In a classroom setting, the student can talk and listen at the same time, but most students lack this skill and style.
  3. Written information can often have very little meaning if it is not combined with verbal lecture, instruction and discussion.
  4. When focusing on reading or writing, they can be easily distracted by noise (because they process by hearing, any extra noise will become the priority)
  5. May seem to be distracted processing through their own filter when others are talking with them. Although they are great listeners, they are searching internally for a form of reference.
  6. They interpret underlying meanings through non-verbal cues such as speed, inflection, tone and pitch, often misinterpreting meaning.

They learn best by:

  • Interacting and talking about what they’ve learned—they process externally.
  • Listening to audio tapes while moving, exercising
  • Talking aloud to aid recall
  • Reading a book and notes aloud
  • Taking classes online because they have the ability to go back and listen to it again while looking at their notes.
  • Audio books, interactive foreign language programs, video programs
  • When up against a difficult task or subject, talk them through it step by step.
  • Teach information through song, ditties or repeat rhymes, the crazier the better.
  • Say words in syllables and use word links.

Best ways to discipline:

  • Tell them the rules and have the child repeat them back to you, define how they broke them, and what the consequences are.
  • Demonstrate with actions a natural consequence– at all cost, do not engage in a verbal fight unless you are prepared to lose. I once had a battle with my daughter about how thorough she was completing her chores. No talking about it fixed the problem. One day she asked if I would drive her to a friend’s house. I asked if her chores were done, to which she replied ‘Yes’. After checking them, knowing they would be halfway completed, I said nothing about it and left to drive her to her friends—halfway. When I turned the car around to return home, she asked, “Mom what are you doing?” I replied, “I’m driving you there as thoroughly as you have completed your chores.” Nothing more was ever said about this. . . and I never had to drive half way again.)
  • I often use parables or imaginary stories to drive home points with a verbal/auditory learner.
  • I use the Oreo cookie approach with this type of learner—praise, followed by criticism with a suggestion, followed by praise. It will take the verbal fight out of them. . . and this is one child you do not want to fight with verbally!
  • When you need to know what’s going on in their lives, simply get them alone (like a captive audience in a car, or long walk) and say, “Tell me what’s going on inside you.” Then wait them out. DO NOT SPEAK AGAIN. They can’t stand it, they’ll speak up eventually. I once had to walk 5 1/2 miles to get the ball rolling, and then didn’t want to stop until she was done.


4) Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners learn by experiencing, handling, trial and error rather than reading, writing, or hearing and talking about events. The good news is, by age 10-12, kinesthetic learners typically develop a secondary learning style which can help to avoid owning every animal available or blowing up the kitchen sink! Obviously, hands-on learners will not find the classroom ‘sitting still’ traditional style easy to learn in.

Hands-on learners have the greatest potential to embrace new concepts if their learning means are not stifled. They ask more questions, and understand the full concept of science and math. I always love teaching kinesthetic learners but it does require major preparedness, and staying two steps ahead of them. But when they get a concept, they get it so well that they can teach it to the next student.

Kinesthetic learners’ strengths:

  • Learn best while moving—it’s essential to keep the body occupied while the brain is attempting to log data entry for future retrieval
  • Can recall rote memorization if they’ve written it a few times, but best if they can connect an experience with it. My math students practice multiplication tables while exercising on a total gym. One fact per pull. You’d be surprised how quickly they can remember this way.
  • Can recall the feelings of a memory, story or event better than the details of such. They may know they were scared but can’t tell you why.
  • Have a strong ability to manipulate objects skillfully
  • Typically outstanding athletes or any skill that requires precise movement, balance and eye-hand coordination
  • Usually learn best by using their hands or body
  • Strong at computers due to the ability to tactilely manipulate it
  • Are predominately boys or young children below the age of seven

Disadvantages for Kinesthetic learners:

  1. Generally more difficult to focus their attention in a sitting environment (unless situation is interactive) but once they are focused, it is equally difficult to disengage them.
  2. Hearing and talking does not make the information ‘real’ to these learners. It is necessary to actually go through the motions of what you want them to do.
  3. This learner typically learns what to do by failing first and then completing the tasks successfully. They prefer trial and error learning.
  4. They may have difficulty reading because they remember less what they have seen or what was talked about.
  5. Generally poor spellers.
  6. They tend to process physically, which could become aggressive if not taught how to communicate verbally.
  7. They tend to be falsely accused of being a slow learner.
  8. They tend to have a lot of physical contact which can be either annoying or misinterpreted in a group setting.
  9. Can sometimes have trouble associating words to feelings.

They learn best by:

  • Adding movement while learning causes them to process and retain information better.
  • Allowing them to read and do at the same time, will result not only in better processing but will build an experience which is retained, as well as related to, other processing.
  • Use tactile means of learning whenever possible—writing in sand, sign language, computer manipulation, role playing, hands on experience outside of the classroom as much as possible.
  • Encourage them to write while they are reading or talking.

Best ways to discipline:

  • Walk and talk or play a sport and talk –they’re more inclined to listen and to remember the lesson.
  • Provide a physical outlet for them, and allow them to work up a sweat before you address issues. We once had friends who had their children dig a hole for periods of time–sometimes until they calmed down and were not mad anymore, then have them come in and talk about their ‘mistakes’. This style can outwait you. So digging the hole or painting a fence either gets work done for you, or they learn quicker how to control their anger and get to the communication factor sooner. When I went to visit after 3 of the 4 of these friends’ children had gone through their teen years, I smiled as I asked how they managed. Dad said, “Did you notice the beautiful pond you drove by coming up the driveway?” And today those grown kids, returning home from college, laugh about how they dug the pond during their years growing up.

Now that you’re perhaps familiar with your children’s learning styles, it is essential that you learn what your own style of learning is. Most parents make the mistake of failing to recognize each child’s learning style and insist on teaching either a traditional method of learning, or their own style of learning. Both of which may be mistakes for your child.

For instance, when we homeschooled our children, I adorned the walls with wonderful posters, charts, graphs and powerfully inspiring quotes. After several attempts at teaching fractions to my daughter (a verbal learner) and son (kinesthetic learner) I pointed out that they should use the charts on the wall behind them. They both looked around the room and were surprised at the charts. We’d been schooling in the same place for months, and they’d never noticed the charts before. That’s the day I discovered that I was a visual learner, and I was expecting them to learn my way. I had to change immediately. Once I did, math was much easier.

Upon reading this, you may come to recognize areas where you have been expecting your own children to absorb information in ways that are simply not their learning style. They may be in a classroom that is not conducive to their way of learning, and you may have to make changes to place them somewhere where they can learn their way. Or worse yet, you may have fallen for the labelling of them as slow or unorganized, or any of the other labels that allow us to administer medication without a thorough diagnosis, or settle for a learning ‘difficulty’. Stop.

Discover the way they learn, and set up situations that will inspire learning rather than stifle it. This is key.

You may also be punishing in a way that is ineffective. I used to be able to scold our daughter with a simple look, which never would have worked for our son. Since the purpose of punishment was to protect them from harm or to train their character, we had to find ways that would stick and stay with them. Knowing their learning style helped to form a roadmap for punishment and direction.

Remember also, as we mature, we develop strengths in all of the learning styles. While we will always have one that is dominant or that we prefer, we nonetheless learn to incorporate the other three styles into our learning mechanisms as well. When a student is in a developmental stage, either young, or struggling with a concept, if we can allocate the information to their strengths, learning comes easier and more quickly. And further, the more we teach using all four learning styles, the greater the retention. Studies show each style taught brings the retention up by 25%. That means if you use 3 styles, your student will on average retain 75% of the information. In truth, the percentage is actually higher than that if you tap into their particular style and two others–the number moves to 90%.

As we study ourselves, and our family members, and strive to live with observance and appreciation of each one’s learning style and unique personalities, we can offer the world exactly what it needs: people with the potential to change the world!

In part II, we’ll take a look at schooling choices and which ones are more supportive of your child’s style.

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