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ADHD & Learning Styles: Understanding How Your Child Learns

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For children with ADHD, the inability to focus in class and while studying can lead to poor performance, stress, and frustration. One way you can help your child succeed in school is to help identify his or her learning style, then implement some study strategies that play to your child's strengths.

What Are the Different Learning Styles?

There's a famous quote attributed to Einstein that says: ''Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.''

This quote nicely illustrates the idea that learning is as much circumstantial as it is innate. It's an important idea to think about if your child has ADHD.

Although children rely on all of their senses as they grow and develop, it is common for adolescents to learn better with one sense over the others. This is called a student's preferred learning style. Recognizing this preferred learning style as your child studies for texts and exams can help your ADHD child thrive in the classroom and become a more confident learner.

Research on learning styles is a vast and rather complicated subject. A variety of theories exist about how one learns best.

Auditory learners learn best through talking and listening, visual learners do best with spatially organized information, kinesthetic or ''hands on learners'' thrive when they are in experiential settings. No learning style is ''better'' or ''worse'' than the others, but learning experiences that take a child's preferred style into account will optimally support his or her educational process. Not only that, learning experiences tend to be more engaging and hold a student's attention better when presented with their preferred learning style in mind. This can be instrumental in helping ADHD students focus on their material.

Auditory Learners

Do you have a child who is extremely interested in listening to music, benefits from classroom conversation, verbally processes his or her ideas, and often mutters aloud as he or she reads or writes?

These are common attributes of auditory learners. An audio learner is a whiz at listening to information and retaining it. In general, students can remember about 20-30% of what they hear in class. An auditory learner can remember up to 75%.

If your son is an auditory learner, she has the full Zootopia movie memorized and will remember that at breakfast last week you mentioned off-handedly that if she completed all of her homework you would take her to go swimming this weekend. You have no recollection of this conversation. Your child, however, has a brain built for remembering and recalling the specifics of verbal communication. So it looks like you may need to get ready for a trip to the pool!

Student listening to a teacher

School Tricks and Tips for Auditory Learners

Your child can leverage his or her auditory learning style at school by engaging in dialogue with others. This child will benefit from verbal conversation in any shape or form.

  • Encourage your child to study with a buddy so that he or she has a partner to bounce ideas off of and discuss tricky concepts with. Alternatively, act as a study buddy for your child. Offer to sit with your child while she does her homework and work through problems out loud so your child can aurally engage with material. This has the added benefit of putting you in a position to monitor their focus and keep them on track, which can be very useful for an ADHD student.
  • See if it's possible for your child to record lectures and notes in the classroom. This takes the pressure off of your child, who can use these recordings to listen and re-listen to material at his or her own pace. This can also help fill in any gaps where he or she might have missed material or gotten distracted.
  • When learning facts, suggest that your child use flashcards. Reciting the words out loud, solo or with a partner, will help your child study more effectively. The constant action of flipping cards, reading the definitions, and moving on to new ones can help keep your child engaged.
  • Help your child create his or her optimal study environment. For audio learners the ideal environment can vary--some like it quiet, others prefer a bit of background noise to learn best. This is very important, as audio learners can also find themselves easily distracted by extraneous noise or complete silence. Identifying what type of auditory environment helps them focus best can drastically help with their engagement with the material.

Visual Learners

Does your child enjoy diagrams, puzzles, charts and other graphically organized information? Can they tell you exactly what the textbook page with a given science fact looks like?

If this description fits your child, he or she is likely a visual learner. This type of learner likes to look at instructions, see examples of a concept, and organize information spatially. Perhaps your son likes to close his eyes while trying to remember what the teacher went over in math class the day before. Maybe he has always been interested in the illustrations in books. When giving directions to the ice cream shop downtown he will probably ask for a paper and pen, and draw you an illustrated map, labeling the street names and major landmarks you'll encounter.

Students working in a group

School Tricks and Tips for Visual Learners

Your child can tap into their ability to remember visual information at school in a variety of ways.

  • Make it a point to use charts, maps, posters, films, videos, and visuals when possible for your child. Use your child's ability to perceive visually by providing him or her with examples and illustrations of new concepts. Using interesting visuals can also help keep your ADHD student engaged by consistently offering more interesting alternatives to the various other distractors that are vying for their attention.
  • In all subjects, if you can help your child graph and organize material while studying or doing homework, it will be easier to retain the information. If you can talk to your child's teacher and encourage him or her to provide whiteboard examples, pictures, and visuals in class, even better!
  • Note-taking can be helpful for visual learners. Putting things onto paper and being able to look at them can help your student remember information. Writing down as many details as possible can also help your ADHD student stay engaged with the material- just make sure they don't get too carried away and miss things the instructor is saying! Re-writing notes later can also help your student to re-engage with the material and increase their retention.
  • Similarly, flashcards can be a nice way to see information in small, more visually-oriented pieces.

Kinesthetic Learners

Does your child enjoy dancing, crafting, or hands-on science experiments? Does he or she seem to remember facts better when they can draw, touch, or act out what they are learning?

Kinesthetic learners are drawn to activities that are experiential, concrete, and physical. They learn best when they can engage their fine and gross motor skills in the learning process. Maybe your child talks frequently with his or her hands, enjoys imaginary games where he or she can role play, and easily understands the intricacies of your Zumba routine (even though you're still struggling to master that middle section). Perhaps your child really loves science experiments, art projects, pipetting and mixing chemicals, observing animals, and physically noticing his or her surroundings.

Students and teacher working on an art project

School Tricks and Tips for Kinesthetic Learners

  • Engage your child in physical after school activities. As this Atlantic article shows, movement breeds focus, and focus will help your child learn better in school. Since your child learns best through physical movement, recognizing and incorporating his or her physicality into day-to-day life will make it easier to focus when it's necessary.
  • Encourage your child to release excess energy in ways that don't negatively affect a classroom environment. Chewing gum, tapping a hand or food, doodling and holding a stress ball can all make sitting in a classroom easier and more engaging. These can double as effective memory tools, as oftentimes the class material will become associated in the student's mind with the silent activity they were engaged with at the time! (Just make sure it isn't something so engaging that your student forgets to pay attention to the instructor.)
  • When studying, help your child take breaks and change positions. Providing your child with an exercise ball instead of a chair can be more physically stimulating; having your child move or stand while going over vocab words or history concepts might also help him or her learn better. These outlets can also help ADHD students to manage any excess energy and keep focused on their material.
  • Help your child role-play exam situations and historical scenarios. Learning by acting scenes out will help your child retain information more effectively and help keep him or her interested and actively engaged with the material.

Benefits of Knowing Your Child's Learning Style

There are three main learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Your child will tend to learn best one way, but he or she will still benefit from learning via the other two styles. The underlying idea behind learning styles is that each student has an individuated process and a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. (See Ken Robinson's TED Talk ''Do Schools Kill Creativity'' for more about this idea.)

Helping your ADHD child understand and utilize his or her learning style can make your child a more effective student and help to identify ways to maintain focus and engagement with material. Starting a dialogue with your child regarding the way he or she best learns can be a rewarding way to help your child succeed academically and feel engaged in his or her progress as a student and as a life-long learner.

By Meghan Cooney
January 2020
k-12 learning with adhd

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