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 their child?
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 children.
“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 children change.
“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 year:
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 effortless.”
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 journey.
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 best.
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.”