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Learning: How Much Is a Matter of Style?

by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

Have you ever been told that your kids are too restless, too talkative, or too inattentive? Have you worried that your children may argue too much, or play too rough, or rebel against authority? Do you think each of your children is living up to full potential? How can you make sure your child’s inconvenient behaviors won’t get in the way of learning this year?

Every parent wants the best for their children. But how do you know what the best is? Why is each child so different? When I wrote my first book, The Way They Learn, I introduced the term learning styles―natural, inborn strengths and characteristics in each individual. Learning really is a matter of style. Our learning style affects how we understand and organize information; it helps us decide what makes sense and what’s important. As parents begin to do their homework, they realize just how unique and wonderful each of their children really is. They also recognize that many of the learning style traits in their children that seem inconvenient or irritating are actually signs of their greatest potential strengths.

It’s a Matter of Style

Before you decide your child is actually trying to frustrate you, read the following descriptions for various learning style strengths. Could it be that the child whose actions irritate you the most is actually destined to be the most successful?

Take a few moments to consider how many of these “inconvenient” behaviors can remind you that you truly have a great kid!

Behaviors to Consider:

    • The child who seems to be constantly talking or making noise

For many auditory learners, talking is the only way to really think about what they are doing. Hearing themselves say the words helps them understand and remember. Their best problem-solving may be the result of talking through the whole process. If you get tired of listening to a constant stream of chatter, try using a code word. Let them know you will give your undivided attention the moment they say that word. In the meantime, you can practice tuning out the sounds that are merely a part of their thinking process. Remember, even the noise that seems utterly unnecessary to you may be helping your child think and learn. Hold him accountable for the bottom line, but consider letting him talk his way there!

    • The child who seems to be easily distracted, preferring imagination over reality

Many children have very active and visual imaginations. Often, when they look like they are not paying attention, they are trying to form a mental picture of what is being said. These children can have a great future in the areas where their visual strengths are most in demand—art, design, and advertising, just to name a few. Instead of being frustrated with their apparent inattention, try finding out what they are paying attention to. Then try finding ways to incorporate the distraction into the process of listening. For example, take the colorful picture that is lying on the table, and encourage your visual child to think about what her picture would look like if she followed the instructions you are giving her. Whenever possible, provide these learners with a picture of what you are trying to communicate. Also encourage them to draw or write as they are learning in order to reinforce the visual strengths.

    • The child who is restless, active, and won’t sit still
If you have a child who constantly has excess energy to burn, there is cause to celebrate!

Having a child who squirms and changes position every few seconds presents a challenge to both teachers and parents. But as your child gets older, the ability to think and work on the move is a real plus. Athletes, actors, mechanics, craftsmen—all of these professionals have discovered how beneficial it is to be gifted with natural movement and energy. Instead of simply trying to force your active child to be still, try to direct the energy. For example, use that flight of stairs to practice spelling words, or shoot hoops in the backyard while you talk about what will be on tomorrow’s test. You may be amazed at how effective your active learner is if you simply insist the bottom-line task be accomplished—with or without staying the same place to do it!

    • The child who can’t seem to remember details or specifics

Not everyone was born with a naturally analytic mind. For many, the overall picture or general concept is much easier to grasp than the details. Of course, if your child is not analytic, school may seem difficult and frustrating. It’s important to recognize and reinforce the positive aspects of being more “global,” or big-picture oriented. Your global child will be able to quickly and intuitively understand the main idea of a story or lesson. He or she will often know an answer without being able to explain or justify it. Global learners find it easier to connect ideas and see relationships than their more analytic counterparts. It often helps globals focus on necessary details if you will warn them in advance about what they will need to know. Notice and praise their ability to quickly get to the heart of an issue and pull out the highlights. Instead of making them feel bad for forgetting details, help them recognize why the details are important in the first place—how they fit into the bigger picture.

    • The child who is a perfectionist and can’t seem to think of anything but details

Some children are so focused on achievement that it seems like they never relax and just enjoy themselves. If you have a child who worries about getting every detail exactly right, be sure to encourage the concientious nature that prompted the concern in the first place. Certainly the workplace can always use people who are careful and thorough, especially in professions that depend on accuracy and fine points. If you yourself are not a particularly detail-oriented parent, you may be frustrated by your child’s constant questions and concerns. But it is important for both of you to keep enough perspective to stay balanced. Ask your child what he needs in order to feel like he has enough information or materials to accomplish his task. Try to avoid saying things like “Oh, don’t worry about it.” Look for situations where your child does not have to even think about details—watching a movie just for fun, for example. Be prepared for the fact that even though there is no formal evaluation needed, your perfectionist may still feel compelled to pick it apart. The concern for perfection is real, so try easing it, not doing away with it entirely.

Be Positive!

Children respond better to positive rewards, praise, and encouragement than they do to threats, guilt, or coercion. When parents really know and understand each child as an individual, they can design strategies and instruction using rewards that truly motivate that child to succeed. Focus on the strengths—the traits in your children that will help them make their own unique contribution to the world. Sometimes in the middle of daily conflicts, pressures, and frustration, it’s hard to remember what you appreciate about the child who is being so inconvenient. So why not take a moment right now and start making a list of what you really value about each of your children? You don’t need educational terminology or formal techniques to figure out why your child is so precious and unique. When you start focusing on strengths, it won’t take long at all to discover that you’ve got a great kid!

How Do You Know Your Child’s Style?

    When your child experiences success, what are the circumstances that brought it about? How can you duplicate those in other situations?
    How your child asks the question can often be as important as the question itself. Should the answer be detailed or general?
    Keep an open mind when it comes to finding what works for each child. Remember, sometimes it will be an approach that doesn’t make sense to you!
  4. FOCUS
    You can’t build on weakness—focus on strengths and how you can use those to overcome areas of frustration. Keep reminding your child of the positives!
  5. LEARN
    Learn more about learning styles and how to recognize and use the strengths. You and your child can both be lifelong learners!

Books by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

  • Do You Know What I Like About You? 

  • Every Child Can Succeed: Making the Most of Your Child’s Learning Style

  • I Hate School! 

  • The Way They Learn: How to Discover and Teach to Your Child‘s Learning Style

  • The Way We Work: A Practical Approach for Dealing With People on the Job

  • You Can’t Make Me! (But I Can Be Persuaded): Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child

Cynthia Ulrich Tobias has a masters degree in education, and is founder, manager, and CEO of AppLe St.™ (Applied Learning Styles). She is a popular presenter for businesses, government agencies, churches, and school districts, and is a featured guest with radio and television appearances. To learn more, visit This article first appeared in the the Virginia Home Educator, Summer 2010.

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