Lisa can’t understand her son Andrew’s approach to his math worksheets. Despite frequent reminders, Andrew steadfastly refuses to show how he derived his solutions. He just shrugs and says, "As long as the answers are correct, what does it matter?"

To Lisa, it matters a lot. When she was a student, she was taught to write down all the steps in solving a math problem. Now, Lisa’s trying to help her son by making him do the same. Andrew’s resistance to showing his math calculations has Lisa perplexed and – truth be told – more than a little annoyed. After all, is writing out all his work really a lot to ask?

In actual fact, that is a big ask of her son. But Lisa doesn’t realize it, because she’s unaware that the way she learns is very different from the way that Andrew learns.

Lisa learns best by processing information in a logical, step-by-step manner. To her, writing out the steps in a math problem is second nature. It’s not so for her son though.

Andrew’s quick mind solves math problems almost by intuition. It takes real effort for him to try to "slow down" his mind and notice all the steps in the process, some of which, for him, are unconscious. He’d much rather just get on with the next math problem.

Our learning strategies may not help our child

When it comes to helping kids with school work, many well-meaning parents encounter frustrations similar to Lisa’s. We try to help our children in the best way we know how, and very often that "best way" includes insisting on learning strategies that worked for us as students. We never suspect that the methods we love may be creating extra hurdles for at least one of our children.

Even worse, never-guessed-at differences between our learning experience and our child’s learning experience can mean we fail to recognize points of real crisis for our child. A parent who remains relatively relaxed in a test situation, for example, might never realize that their teen finds the stress of exams almost unbearable.

For over 25 years teacher and author Cynthia Ulrich Tobias has been setting parents’ misperceptions straight, helping parents see where there might be a mismatch between their learning style and their child’s. Her books The Way They Learn, I Hate School and Every Child Can Succeed have served as welcome primers, teaching parents new lessons about how to help their children succeed in school.

Ulrich Tobias’ book Every Child Can Succeed, in particular – which builds on Anthony F. Gregorc’s original Mind StylesTM model – helps parents make sense of four distinct learning styles.

Four distinct learning styles

Here’s a quick look at just a few areas of difficulty Ulrich Tobias has identified for each learning style, together with some pointers from her on how parents can help children who strongly match a specific learning style.

The predominantly Concrete Sequential learning style student

Prefers to deal with concrete, observable facts
Absorbs and stores information in a logical, step-by-step (a.k.a sequential) manner

Descriptors: Hardworking, systematic, accurate and detail oriented
Defining motto: Let me deal with the facts

A Concrete Sequential student has a practical bent. They like fine-tuning information or ideas to make them more efficient or economical. They are well organized and prefer an organized work environment, and thrive when expectations are clear and the routine is predictable. They’ll demand to know what the rules are, and quickly point out anyone not following them!

What’s hard for them:

  • Abrupt changes in routine and inconsistent rules will unsettle a CS student. A spontaneous, creative teacher or parent who loves to switch things up with surprise activities may not realize how insecure this can make a CS child feel.
  • Vague instructions or assignments confuse and stress these students. They need to know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Group assignments, or assignments requiring extrapolation or creativity will be far more intimidating than individual assignments and straightforward worksheets.

How to help:

  • Encourage your CS child to be more flexible. Help them learn that changes in routine are to be expected, and usually won’t have serious impacts.
  • Encourage your student to ask the teacher for written descriptions of assignments (if these seem to be lacking) or, if needed, an example completed to the standard the teacher is hoping for.
  • The CS student enjoys charts and checklists that allow them to mark their progress. To keep them motivated give them praise, but also offer a tangible reward – something they can literally hold in their hand – like candy, stickers or extra allowance.

The predominantly Abstract Sequential learning style student

Prefers to deal with abstract ideas, relying on their intuition and imagination
Processes and stores information in a logical, step-by-step (a.k.a sequential) manner

Descriptors: Logical, methodical, analytical and thorough
Defining motto: Show me the underlying principles

An Abstract Sequential student likes to take their time gathering information, analyzing and organizing information logically, and making objective, well-informed decisions. Like the CS student, they need clear and specific directions, and prefer to work alone.

What’s hard for them:

  • May be overwhelmed at the start of an assignment. Once underway, they like to focus on one thing at a time, and can find even minor interruptions quite annoying.
  • The AS student hates to be rushed, and finishing assignments on time can be a challenge. Tight deadlines create significant stress if they feel there is not enough time to do an assignment well.

How to help: 

  • Help your AS student brainstorm how they might begin their assignment and break it up into smaller chunks.
  • Help them plan out a project timeline to reassure them they can get all the work done in time. Back them up in approaching the teacher to ask for an extension if it helps relieve the pressure, but don’t let it become a habit.
  • As this "cover-all-the-bases" student matures, they may need help with learning how to zero in on the most relevant information, and sift out less important information.
  • Remember that AS students find it difficult to relax until their work is done. Often self-motivated to work hard, don’t assume this is because they enjoy the work itself. In reality, they are looking forward to free time to pursue their own interests, so make sure they get to enjoy their reward.

The predominantly Abstract Random learning style student

Prefers to deal with abstract ideas, relying on their intuition and imagination
Processes and stores information in an unstructured or random manner

Descriptors: Perceptive, compassionate, spontaneous and flexible
Defining motto: Make my lessons personally relevant

An Abstract Random student is especially sensitive to and effective with people. They intuitively know what others need and are well liked by their peers. They focus on broad, general principles rather than details and need a work environment with a positive emotional atmosphere, free of conflict and competition.

What’s hard for them:

  • Having to work alone or work independently.
  • Keeping their thoughts about what is being taught to themself.
  • Working for a teacher who doesn’t seem to like them.
  • Remembering details and finding motivation to work on assignments that seem irrelevant to their life.

How to help: 

  • Allow your AR student to do their homework alongside friends or siblings if it helps them make progress.
  • Since they learn best by sharing ideas with others, don’t be surprised or upset if their teacher comments that they talk too much in class.
  • The AR student will work hard to please someone they love. Keep reassuring your AR student that you are proud of them and pleased by their efforts. Remember that criticism – even positive criticism – can deeply wound the AR student.
  • Help motivate them to do difficult or boring assignments by offering rewards that involve social events.
  • Encourage them to be good role models for their peers.

The predominantly Concrete Random learning style student

Prefers to deal with concrete, observable facts
Processes and stores information in an unstructured or random manner

Descriptors: Curious, adventurous, intuitive, innovative
Defining motto: Give me compelling reasons to learn this

A Concrete Random student is quick to act on their intuition, and is driven to keep changing, growing and taking risks. They contribute unusual and creative ideas and inspire others to take action. They tend not to "take your word for it," but are compelled to learn by experiencing something for themself.

What’s hard for them:

  • School in general! – but especially routines and repetition, keeping detailed records or explaining how their intuitive mind derived an answer. To the CR student, the shortcut always looks like the best option.
  • Adhering to the rules and having no choices. Typically strong-willed, CR students need freedom to make at least some choices of their own. Without that freedom, they often rebel.
  • Making up missed work is especially irritating for this child. They are naturally wired to focus on what’s next, rather than what lies in the past.

How to help: 

  • Challenge your CR student to find their own ways to overcome boredom when repetitive tasks are necessary.
  • Give this student as much freedom as possible to decide on their own approach to an assignment, but always check that they understand the requirements and deadlines.
  • Check their assertion that they "already know this stuff." They may know the basics, but have they really reached the required skill level?
  • Help them see that their complaints that assignments are "boring" or "dumb" are hurtful to the teacher or can appear disrespectful. Encourage your CR student to foster a positive relationship with their teacher, pointing out that this will help the teacher focus on the child’s strengths, and be more open to their alternative ideas for assignments.
  • Learn more about motivating a strong-willed child. Make room for them to exercise their intelligence, treat them with respect, and never use threats, anger or ultimatums if you want to see progress.

Additional hurdles for Abstract Random and Concrete Random learning style students

Despite all we’ve discovered about learning styles over the last quarter century, the traditional classroom still presents special challenges for AR and CR students. Some particular challenges that AR and CR students share include the following.

What’s hard for them:

  • Working in isolation.
  • Staying organized. AR and CR learning style students will often leave homework resources at school, but this is usually not deliberate. The anticipation of socializing after school simply distracts these kids from even thinking about homework.
  • Taking tests. While few students like tests or exams, AR and CR students find them especially harrowing. They may feel personally persecuted by tests, to the extent that their distress undermines their performance.

How to help: 

  • These socially-oriented students work best in pairs or groups. If they must do individual work, the presence of someone else who is also working quietly will help them stay focused.
  • Teach your AR or CR student to deliberately "S.P.P" at the end of their school day – to Stop, Plan for their homework, and Pack what they will need. Or arrange for them to partner with a more organized CS or AS student who can help them pack homework supplies. Find out if your child’s textbooks are available online and ask the teacher for the access information.
  • Accept that your child’s filing system will be much messier than you might be comfortable with. Any filing system at all is work for an AR or CR student.
  • Acknowledge that it’s especially difficult for an AR or CR student to keep track of schedules and deadlines. They will need help. Always help them check, too, that they have understood and fulfilled all the requirements for an assignment.
  • Expect to need to repeat your instructions. In her book I Hate School, Ulrich Tobias advises parents that these kids almost always need to hear instructions twice. "The first time lets them have the big picture;" says Ulrich Tobias, "they know what it is they are supposed to do. They need to hear them a second time in order to remember how to do it – the details don’t make sense until the big picture is in place."
  • Be especially supportive regarding tests and exams. Cheer your AR or CR student on through the school years by pointing out their many strengths – strengths that will be highly valued in the adult, working world.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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