It used to be parents were encouraged to try and navigate the
map that is their child's brain. If you watched your child long
enough, administered enough tests and trials, and asked the right
questions, you might arrive at a magical formula that would allow
your child to fulfill his or her learning potential.
Except, over the years, many children didn't fit any one
profile. Or, they did, only to change the following year.
Did parents ask the wrong questions? Did they misunderstand
The answer decidedly is no, says Michele Kane, associate
professor, coordinator of gifted programs in the Department of
Special Education at Northeastern Illinois University. The problem
might be that the theory of "learning styles" isn't the best way to
encourage our children to learn.
Learning styles once dominated early childhood education but, in
the last five years, have come up against some criticism. For one,
it's hard to pin down any one person into a specific learning
style. In reality, you'd end up with as many "styles" as there are
"Depending on all these different types of learning styles, what
many psychologists are saying is that there's just not a lot of
evidence about the validity or reliability of these models," Kane
says. "Teachers or parents will create a lesson plan based on these
theories, but a lot of times, the research isn't there."
Second, and perhaps most important, is the realization that
"To me, the critical piece of this is that there is no such thing
as a stable learning style. Children's style depends on the
situation," says Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at
Erikson Institute in Chicago. "So the first principle about style
is that it's not a stable, enduring descriptor of a child."
Here are some tips for helping your kids learn their best this
1. Focus on their strengths
In life, we're constantly looking for ways to improve things. This
pattern doesn't stop with our children.
"I think one of the most important things is that parents focus on
a child's interest and on their strengths," Kane says. "Because one
of the things we know from cognitive science is that when people
are doing things that they like-when you're doing something that
you love to do-it's magical. And when you feel that, you feel
really good about learning and you feel really good about yourself.
So the endorphins increase. So learning becomes almost
2. Learn about their interests
What a child is interested in may not, at first, appear to be
particularly academic. But everything can have learning potential,
provided they are excited about it. Let's say, for instance, a
child is interested in baseball. By engaging the child in a
conversation about baseball, you'll find you can talk about science
(the velocity of the ball, human anatomy) and math (runs that are
scored, batting averages). Because the child is interested in these
things, he or she will be more apt to listen.
"Follow the lead of the child and provide that information," Kane
says. "The kids lead us to realize what's best for them."
3. Partner with teachers and doctors
If you have questions about your child's learning, talking with a
pediatrician or teacher can be extremely helpful. Teachers and
pediatricians have developmental checklists that can help you
determine where your child should be in their learning
You may determine by talking with a teacher that what you know
about your child isn't the complete picture of who they are. They
may respond differently in class than they do at home, McNamee
says. Knowing how they respond in different situations can give you
a more complete picture of who they are and how they learn.
4. Take a look at their temperament
Be able to recognize your child's temperament and how that may
affect them in learning situations. A common example is
introversion and extroversion. It's not as simple as knowing if
they are shy or outgoing, though those things are important as
well. Knowing if a child is introverted or extroverted can give you
clues about the type of environment where your child learns
A truly introverted child may be under stress in a situation where
there are many people. Stress can negatively impact learning. So,
the problem may not be what the child is learning, but the
situations in which they are learning it, Kane says.
5. Suspend judgment
Perhaps the toughest thing to do is to suspend judgment. Often we
judge ourselves by the successes or shortcomings of our children,
measuring our parenting by the parenting of others. But that's not
good for anyone, McNamee says.
"Get to know your child and enjoy your child and not judge the
child," she says. "The best thing we as parents can do-and I think
we as professionals-is to open up the opportunity for parents to
see, to observe, to appreciate and to support all the different
ways their child is in the world."
6. Be a model for failure
Your kids think you're perfect. And, admit it, you aren't in a
hurry to tell them otherwise. But that may not be the best course
of action. Often kids are afraid to try something new because they
are afraid to fail. Mistakes are where we learn new skills. So, go
ahead and show them you make mistakes, too.
"Talk about your own struggles, failures. Show kids it's OK. Not
just as kids, but as adults," Kane says. "Sometimes it's important
to do things as a family that no one has done before, but everybody
has an opportunity to fail at."
7. Focus up
We really want to be there. But our smartphones are just so
tempting. The best way to help our kids is to know them. And to
know them, we have to talk to them. And listen to them. And watch
them. And that means leaving the phone at home.
"Really take the time to know your children," Kane says. "If you
could be really present for them, that's when you're going to pick
up the nuances and the behaviors. It's going to give you a lot of
clues as to who they are."
Christy Bonstell spends most of her time making people laugh. The best laughs are the ones she gets from her son, Keagan.
See more of Christy's stories here.
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