Learning Styles v. It’s a Syndrome

Regardless of what you’ve heard or read before about children, about how they learn, or about the things that influence learning, I ask you to put aside all those preconceived ideas and consider what you are about to read with an open mind. Based on these descriptions and what you already know about your own children, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. Note that this information applies equally to boys and girls; behaviors and fictional names are used for examples only. Let us begin.

Why “Learning Styles”?

I began studying learning styles when the teaching methods I was using did not work well at all with how my children actually learned. However, the learning style descriptions that I found in my studying also did not match the reality I was living. I read many scholarly-sounding explanations that looked very impressive on paper (or on-screen), but they failed to hold up in practice. I had two case studies sitting at my own kitchen table that disproved most of the things I was reading about how kids were supposed to learn and how they should be taught. Child “A” did seem to fit with several items on this checklist, but not that one or that one, and these three items she would never do in a million-billion years. Child “B” fit most of the descriptions from that list, but its suggested teaching methods didn’t interest him in the least. As I paid attention to what my kids did throughout their days (not just during school time), I began to spot some very consistent trends. Some of those trends were repeated in other kids (and adults) we knew, and I realized that learning styles are revealed more in the things we do away from the lessons, than they are in any particular learning situation, and the teaching methods that will be most effective will be tailored to match those preferred, leisure-time activities. I eventually wrote my own books on learning styles, and my methods have been proven successful over and over again in my own children, in the children of my friends, and in the children whose parents have attended my workshops or read my books and blog articles. (See the links at the end of this article)

Those scholarly works on learning styles either contained too few or too many categories. Many of them combined tactile (touching) with kinesthetic (moving), as though they were one and the same style of learning. However, my kitchen table was home to one very tactile child, who was not so very kinesthetic, and one very kinesthetic child, who was not so very tactile. Hmmm… a dilemma. Other learning style proponents created far too many divisions, leaving me even more confused, as my children seemed to fit some of the criteria from each and every category, without dominating any single one. I further read the descriptions of how these numerous categories were supposed to be utilized, and I again thought “Okay, this child does do this, but he/she would be totally bored by that method… and what about the other subjects that don’t work that way at all?” What to do… what to do?

I started making notes of how people acted and what people did that could be indicators of how they would learn best. I watched kids at our homeschool group activities and kids at play; I watched parents at the grocery store and people of all ages wherever I saw them. I saw four basic categories being represented: tactile and kinesthetic were there, but as two separate and distinct styles, plus visual (seeing), and auditory (hearing/saying). The more I watched and studied and observed and analyzed, the more these groups were confirmed. Sure, people applied those groupings in various ways, but touching was still touching, and moving was still moving, no matter how each individual performed it.

The next revelation for me was that different academic tasks require different learning methods. That told me that each person must be able to adapt to learning with other methods than the one that is most comfortable for him. Spelling requires visual skills more than anything else, but music must be heard, and handwriting requires muscle training. What happens to the child who is taught within one and only one style of learning (as advocated by many learning style authors)? I can tell you what will happen to him: he’ll slip through the proverbial cracks and fall behind in learning!

As I saw my four categories represent basic learning styles, I also saw the need to re-combine them for cross-over learning throughout all academic disciplines. Focusing on a single learning style was the error that I saw in most learning style philosophies, and that singular-focus seemed to be a guarantee for failure. No one learning style could work in all situations. The student who faithfully read every printed assignment from elementary through high school would become hopelessly lost in the college lecture hall. Those finely-honed visual skills would fail when non-existent auditory skills became vitally important. How could I bridge that gap?

Teaching to students’ learning styles is regarded as impossible in a single-teacher classroom of 20-plus kids. An efficient classroom model depends upon visual examples, auditory lectures, and abundant reading and writing assignments for every academic subject. Tactile and kinesthetic methods can be time-consuming, space-consuming, and are generally considered impractical in a large group. With standard classroom methods, any students who are dependent on tactile and kinesthetic methods are inevitably left out, or they must instinctively train themselves to adapt to visual and/or auditory methods. If self-adapting isn’t possible, or doesn’t occur rapidly enough, those same students begin to fall behind, and as the class moves on without them, falling behind turns into failing.

How Behavior Relates to Learning

Eye color has been used to show the folly of prejudices by segregating students by eye color and relegating approval or disapproval on that basis alone. But what if learning styles could be demonstrated just as simply? What if we began training tomorrow’s teachers by saying that only their brown-eyed students could understand certain lessons? And what if we further said that those with the darkest brown/nearly black irises would understand most easily, and those with lighter brown/nearly amber irises would catch on a little more slowly? Then suppose that the parents of any students whose eyes were shades of blue or gray or green or violet were later informed by these teachers that their students’ non-brown eyes were distracting to all of the brown-eyed students and therefore disrupted learning for the rest of the class. The suitable solution, the teacher would relate, would be for the parents to obtain a prescription for colored contact lenses from their eye doctor and for their children to wear those lenses every day, school day or not. What effects might this have on all the students? What effects would carry over to the other teachers or to the parents?

Now instead of eye color as our determining factor for who learns how and when, let’s use deportment, a good old-fashioned word that encompasses demeanor, conduct, and behavior. For Group #1, let’s take the students in a hypothetical classroom who are fidgeting with their pencils or drumming their fingers on the desk or chewing on their fingernails or twirling a lock of hair or doodling in the margins of their notebooks or doing anything at all with their hands or fingers. You’re not in trouble – you’re in good company. After all, Leonardo da Vinci was a great doodler! All Group #1 students may move to this corner over here.

Group #2 will consist of those remaining students who are wiggling in their seats, tapping their feet, crossing their legs, or doing anything at all with their feet or legs. Group #2 students, you may come and stand in this other corner, knowing that you belong with every Olympian throughout history.

For those who are left in the original group, any who are laughing, smiling, joking, or making comments (either saying them aloud or just thinking up good one-liners in their heads) may move to that far corner. This is neither a judgment nor a punishment for being off-topic or truly funny. We are merely grouping the more vocal students together as Group #3, along with every great philosopher and stand-up comedian who has ever lived.

Those who are left become Group #4 – the more reserved and quiet students, those who read without prompting, those whom teachers love to characterize as “cooperative” and “obedient.” Here, though, their only act of cooperation or obedience was to wait until we finally described all the other groups that they didn’t fit into. Group #4 may move to the last corner to continue analyzing this activity, because it’s about to take another sharp turn.

Students, you may now pick up a large, numbered card that matches your group number. If you feel that you belong in a different group, you may also take a smaller, numbered card for whatever group (or groups) that you feel describe your personal characteristics (which are listed on the back of the cards, in case you need to review). It doesn’t matter how many cards any student ends up holding – 1, 2, 3, or 4 isn’t important. As long as each of you has one large card, that is what counts. If you really feel strongly that your large card is the wrong one, you may exchange it, or you can just pick up a small card for the other number and hold onto both cards. I’ll explain the significance of the card sizes later.

Once everyone is reasonably settled on their cards, let’s regroup according to how many cards each student has. Those holding only one card may form a new group along that wall; those with two cards on this wall, three here, and four over there. Hold your cards with the numbers facing out, so that we can all see them, and take a look around at all the different combinations. These two students are holding the exact same combination of cards, both in size and number, but does anyone think these students are exactly alike? No, and that’s because even though their cards match, they will still act and behave and think in different ways, based on their individual interests.

This exercise is showing us how behaviors relate to learning styles. By behaviors, I mean the little things we all just naturally do without thinking, rather than consciously making an effort to be polite and follow the rules. Now I’ll tell you what behaviors are represented by the different numbers. Look at the numbers you’re holding while you think about these descriptions.

Card #1 is held by Tactile Learners, those who learn best from having their hands and fingers busy. If their hands and fingers can be involved in learning a lesson, they will learn that lesson much more quickly and more thoroughly than if their hands are empty and their fingers are held still. These hands and fingers are direct transmission lines to this learner’s brain and need to be involved in some way for learning to occur.

Card #2 is held by those who are Kinesthetic Learners, who love to be on their feet and in the game. Large muscle movement fuels their brains, so what will happen when we make these students sit still and quiet? That’s right – absolutely nothing. Well, nothing productive, that is.

Card #3 represents the fast-thinkers, the Auditory Learners, those who have such a deep need to share their thoughts that they blurt them out for all to hear. They ask questions because they can’t wait around to see if the answer will come later, and they answer both questions and un-asked questions because their brains are begging their ears for more information.

Card #4 marks our Visual Learners, the ones who observe and study and analyze and memorize, rather than jump in, grab hold, or speak up. These students will attempt new things, but only after they have assured themselves that they know absolutely every step required, the order in which those steps must occur, what things could possibly go wrong, and how to avoid making those mistakes in the first place. When they try, they will succeed. The first time. They have read, researched, studied, and acquainted themselves with all the information they could find – that is what kept them quietly busy while everyone else was volunteering to be the guinea pig, doing the experiments, or asking 1,427 questions.

The large number cards indicate a predominant learning style, the way the student will prefer to learn and experience new things. He knows he’s good at learning in that way, and his attention will always be captured by those methods. The smaller number cards represent learning styles the student uses less frequently, but often enough to know that he is somewhat comfortable with them. As I said before, no one learning style works in all situations. Focusing on a single learning style is the downfall of most methods that advocate learning styles, but by gradually expanding and increasing a student’s experiences in his weaker styles, he will become more comfortable with all styles of learning and learn how to learn in every situation.

The existence of a predominant learning style does not indicate a dysfunction or disability in the other styles. Oh, no, not by a long shot! The fact that I do not speak Mandarin in no way indicates that I am incapable of ever speaking Mandarin. It simply and profoundly means that I have never yet been taught to speak Mandarin, whether by learning it on my own or by being taught it by someone else. I could do it; I’m capable of doing it; it just hasn’t happened yet. This also applies to learning styles. Auditory learners prefer oral question-and-answer to written quizzes or being given oral instructions to reading the directions themselves, but they are fully capable of strengthening their reading comprehension and composition skills. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Tactile learners touch. They feel surfaces; they pick up objects; they rub textures. Their hands are rarely empty; their pockets are always full; their fingers are always busy. They think in 3-dimensions as though they can see all sides of a structure at the same time; they understand what they can’t see, based on what they can see; they are adept at building anything. They are mistakenly called grabby, distracted, or day-dreamers, because no one else can see the complex, invisible creations they are generating in their inventive imaginations. When their hands and fingers are involved, they learn and remember.

Kinesthetic learners move. They run; they kick; they throw; they cartwheel; they skate; they swim; they climb. They are rarely still; they are rarely bored; they rarely admit to being sleepy until the moment when they finally drop. They love the spotlight; they crave action; they thrive on motion. They are mistakenly called wiggly, restless, or hyperactive, because no one else can tell that movement means survival to them, since their thinking power gradually shuts down with inactivity. When their arms and legs and feet are involved, they learn and remember.

Auditory learners speak. When they are not speaking, they are listening intently, whether to spoken words or to the theories swarming around in their own minds. They dwell on every thought; they share every idea. They have never met a stranger; they are not afraid to speak up; they know their opinions are valid. They hum and sing and tap out the continuous rhythms in their heads. An outside source of sound or music can help to block out all the other sounds around them and allow them to concentrate on the words inside their heads. They are mistakenly called noisy, motor-mouths, tattlers, or disruptive, because no one else can hear the enchanting, internal music they hear or the clever thoughts and ingenious ideas that are bubbling up, ready to burst forth. When their ears and voices are involved, they learn and remember.

Visual learners read. They study details; they notice patterns; they spot things that are out of place. They thrive on order and consistency; they walk the line of perfectionism, often on the obsessive side. They keep their crayons in spectrum sequence; they erase too much, then begin again with a new sheet of paper; they sort and categorize and alphabetize. They may be good at drawing, but will vehemently deny it, finding some insignificant fault in every sketch. They are mistakenly called shy, nit-picky, reluctant, or hesitant, because no one else can see the infinitesimal details being analyzed in their mind’s eyes. When their eyes are involved, they learn and remember.

School Children, Their Behavior, & Their Underlying Learning Styles

Now let’s look at how some behaviors have been mislabeled as “syndromes,” leading the parents and children to believe that physiological or psychological maladies exist, requiring medication to restore “normalcy.” This will not necessarily be the case in every circumstance, but in far too many situations, errant assumptions can create bigger problems than they purport to solve.

Marty’s permanent record says “trouble-maker” and “class clown” (but not in a fun way). He’s great at sports, because he is very skilled at handling whatever ball comes his way. He can even spin a basketball on his fingertip, but the faculty doesn’t appreciate that in the cafeteria. Marty has been called “slow” because sometimes he lags behind the rest of the group, touching and feeling things that no one else dared to touch and feel. On one field trip to a museum, Marty got caught balancing a banana on end on top of a globe. (Now really, it takes talent to stand a banana on a globe!) Marty got in trouble in that museum for other things, too. He touched the suit of armor (and the chain mail); he ran his hand along the textured plaster walls; he stopped to feel the tapestries (every one of them, as if they were all different); he lingered by the stained glass windows and traced the leaded panels with his fingers. By the end of the museum tour, he’d been scolded so many times to “keep your hands to yourself,” that he reached up in frustration and flicked a small sign sticking out over a doorway, making it flip around and around on its little pole. Marty’s tactile senses meant nothing to the group’s chaperones, even though he learned so much that even the tour guide doesn’t know (she’s never felt the tapestries); they just saw him as a disobedient, nerve-wracking nuisance.

Debbie’s teacher calls her a day-dreamer and says she has difficulty paying attention. Debbie’s records list ADD, claiming that she can’t stay on-topic with the rest of the class. If only we could see the ideas generating inside Debbie’s imagination, we would realize that the poster of a castle on the classroom wall is being transformed in Debbie’s tactile-learner mind into an intricate 3-D model, complete with moving drawbridge, pennants flying from the parapets, crocodiles swimming in the moat, and a lovely princess who has been unjustly imprisoned in the tower. Debbie is pondering how to glue sugar cubes together to build her own miniature castle… or does she have enough Lego blocks to do the job?

Next we have Matt, who can sometimes get stuck on math problems, but he knows that walking around helps him think things through. It has been determined that he has some physiological or psychological syndrome that compels him to move and pace, while his classmates are capable of sitting still and writing quietly. Remember what I said earlier about how kinesthetic learners’ thinking ability gradually shuts down with inactivity? Matt has instinctively adapted to his classroom situation by getting up from his desk and pacing to restore his energy and his thinking power. The “syndrome” notation in his records has merely made it permissible and acceptable for him to leave his desk and move around.

Now there’s Henry, an athletic, high-energy boy whose arms and legs never get tired. Every muscle movement of Henry’s seems to expand into something much bigger than is necessary for the circumstances, getting him into trouble with his teacher, who incorrectly believes that the only good child is a quietly seated child, one who only speaks when spoken to and only moves after receiving permission. Henry is another kinesthetic learner, one who charges through life at top-speed, one who sees no need to wait around for others to catch up, one whose goal is to be the first to cross every finish line. When Henry most needs a long play-break to expel some of his energy and wake up his mind, he is punished for his actions with remaining seated at his desk during the next recess.

Consider Andrew, who hums frequently. His mom apologized for his “disruptive behavior,” saying he’d been diagnosed with “Tourette’s” and just can’t help himself. She was sure we’d all noticed (and been bothered by) his incessant humming at a group event, but not a single person had noticed anything out of the ordinary. In my estimation, Andrew is an auditory learner. He’s humming the songs that naturally play in his head. He is probably a budding musician, who will need only minimal encouragement to attain proficiency.

Everyone calls Gloria a chatterbox. She talks all the time, about anything and everything. If she’s not quoting entire scenes from her favorite TV shows and movies, then she’s singing the latest hit song. Her classmates think she’s a flirt and a gossip, only because she has already talked to the new student and learned all about where he came from, what kind of job his dad has, how many siblings he has, and has told him something about each of the other students in the class and about the kids who used to live in the house that his family just moved into. The art teacher scolded Gloria for being “distracting,” but the silence was making Gloria forget what she was supposed to be doing. Talking aloud to herself actually helped Gloria’s mind focus on working the clay. Her records say “disturbs other students” and “is constantly disruptive,” when they should say “auditory learner.”

Rhonda is a proficient reader, reading and comprehending at a grade level far beyond her classmates. However, the fact that Rhonda is so easily bored with the level of lessons in her classroom has led her teacher to become frustrated and insist that Rhonda has a problem paying attention. Rhonda’s temper sometimes flares up over the puerility of her classmates’ responses to the lessons, resulting in outbursts or acting out (and an “ADHD?” notation in her records). If Rhonda were only taking medication to help her focus, her teacher reasons, teaching the entire class would be much, much easier. In reality, Rhonda is a very bored visual learner, who comprehends everything the first time it is presented and gets tired of waiting for the rest of the class to catch on. She was bored last week and read ahead in her textbook, which is why she is even more bored this week and why she’s now browsing the dictionary for words she doesn’t already know. There was a ratio problem in her math lesson yesterday, comparing the number of feathers to the number of fish hooks in a fisherman’s tackle box; Rhonda was curious as to why a fisherman would need feathers; her research last night left her with 38 beguiling facts about fly-fishing that Rhonda desperately wants to share with the class, but the teacher said “That’s science, and this is math class. Sit down and be quiet.” Rhonda’s greatest allies will be her family, who can praise her expanded learning efforts and encourage her to spend her free time researching every little thing her mind hungers to know. They can take her to visit Bass Pro Shops or another big sports emporium some weekend, where she could meet a real fly-fisherman and get her questions answered first-hand. Mom, Dad, and siblings can all appreciate Rhonda’s interests and “off-topic” discussions, because her interests can prompt delightful outings to museums, libraries, zoos, or other special trips that the entire family enjoys.

Sherry is also a prolific reader, but unlike Rhonda, Sherry is extremely quiet and withdrawn. When her teacher has the students gather to watch a science experiment, Sherry stays toward the back. She would much rather watch from a distance, than be dragged into participating in anything new. Sherry doesn’t like to be called on, never volunteers to help, and is never first in line for anything. Or second, or third. The teacher told Sherry’s mom about this “shyness” problem, and says she has tried coaxing, bribing, cajoling, and forcing, but Sherry just can’t overcome her shyness. Once, when the teacher finally convinced Sherry to try doing an experiment after all the other students had done it, Sherry did it perfectly. “SEE?? You could do it all along!!” Teacher thinks Sherry’s reluctance to join in is a serious psychological issue and has recommended counseling for Sherry, a visual learner who prefers quietly watching until she knows what to do and how to do it.

These children are but a few examples of what is too commonly occurring in today’s classrooms. If these same children could be allowed to follow their own instincts for learning, instead of conforming to the methods that are traditionally believed to cover the most students, they could be building complex models or standing up to do “seatwork” or talking through their thoughts aloud or whatever else might be needed for them to accomplish the lesson tasks more quickly, more easily, more interestingly.

Those who deny the validity of learning styles do so in some very interesting ways.

  1. They divide learning styles into too few or too many categories, thereby making it all too confusing, and also by mixing up the behaviors into unnatural groupings. Their classifications don’t make sense in practice, therefore they conclude that learning styles don’t exist.
  2. They deny concrete evidence and proof by claiming that “one more try” would have worked for the student anyway; changing the method to fit the student had nothing to do with it.
  3. They see preferred methods of learning as being completely separate and distinct from personality, interests, and behavioral tendencies, which ultimately invalidates the entire premise of learning styles.

Teaching Methods for Learning Styles

If your child reminds you of Marty or Debbie, try some of the following tactile solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their fingers and imaginations and delights their hands with finger-friendly textured surfaces. Because tactile learners depend on finger stimulation to learn, keeping their hands and fingers involved is vital. Let him use Scrabble letter tiles for practicing phonics patterns, forming spelling words, or breaking words into syllables. Calligraphy pens and alphabet rubber stamps are unique tactile methods for learning spelling words, since the student will spend more time focusing on phonics patterns, prefixes, suffixes, and root words while diligently printing out each letter, than he would if he was merely expected to copy the words over and over with a pencil. Let him regroup toothpicks as math manipulatives to physically prove to his eyes and his brain how multi-column addition and subtraction really work. Magnetic learning manipulatives have an adhesive feel that appeals to tactile learners, as do Velcro, vinyl clings, stickers, and sandpaper. Textured papers (scrapbooking supplies) are another great motivator for tactile students and can be used in place of or to enhance plain, boring notecards, flashcards, or writing supplies. Tactile students learn best when they are allowed to experiment freely and use manipulatives themselves, not just passively observe demonstrations that are done for them. If the child has a favorite “security object,” that item can be held or kept close during lessons as tactile stimulation during periods of thought and concentration. (It’s not that the object helps the child feel secure or avert fear, as much as the child enjoys handling the object for its tactile sensations that invigorate his mind.) Construction toys of all types are beneficial for tactile learners and will feed both their need for fine motor activities and their desire for 3-dimensional learning. Tactile learners may find certain textures displeasing, just as certain sights are deemed ugly by our eyes.

If your child reminds you of Matt or Henry, try some of the following kinesthetic solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their high energy and love for action and delights their muscles with ample physical challenges. Because kinesthetic learners depend on muscle stimulation to learn, keeping their arms and legs involved is vital. Let him take a play break before starting lessons, to warm up his large muscles (which activates his brain) and tire out his body enough to enjoy sitting for a little while. Let him do worksheets or other reading or writing assignments while standing at a kitchen counter, kneeling on a chair, or kneeling or lying on his tummy on the floor. These positions allow plenty of muscle movements for balancing and reaching, which keeps the muscles active, which keeps the brain active. Incorporate sports activities into lessons: oral Q&A or quizzing math facts while playing catch, jumping rope, or running laps around the house (ask a question, run a lap while thinking, answer the question, repeat). Let him take a brain-break between or during lessons, any time he feels his attention lagging or his thoughts getting fuzzy or his legs getting restless. That break can be anything from a few laps around the yard to ten push-ups right here, right now, to grabbing his basket of clean laundry and running it upstairs to his room before dashing back – it’s just enough exercise to restore ample blood flow to the gray matter. Kinesthetic learners often enjoy role-playing and drama, since it means being in the spotlight, at the front and center of the action. If he can’t think, take him out of the chair or outdoors, and find some way to use balls of every size and anything with wheels as props or prompts for reciting facts or to help illustrate lessons. Use sports equipment as large-scale math manipulatives in the backyard, or set up a multi-station quiz course: run to the tree, circle it twice, answer a question; run to the baseball bat, balance it on your hand, answer a question; run to the basketball, make a basket, answer a question. You get the idea, and your if-I-could-only-bottle-this-energy kid will love it.

If your child reminds you of Andrew or Gloria, try some of the following auditory solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their questions and discussions and delights their ears with enchanting sounds. Because auditory learners depend on sound stimulation to learn, keeping their ears and voices involved is vital. Let him use background music (headphones at low volume) as “white noise” to block out the distracting noises of foot-shuffling, paper-crinkling, throat-clearing siblings. Give him opportunities to read aloud to himself without bothering others. Encourage him to read instructions aloud, then discuss them to be sure he knows what to do. Auditory learners have very distinct opinions, but sometimes have difficulty turning those into written sentences. Help him “talk it through” first, then either jot a few notes to aid his memory or help him remember it all long enough to get it down on paper. Expect hundreds of interruptions, questions, comments, statements, explanations, discussions, jokes, funny stories, and mouth noises from an auditory learner – every hour of the day. Expect him to hum and sing and talk to himself aloud, and if that will be distracting to others, make some provision for allowing the auditory learner to be noisy while allowing the quieter learners to think in peace. I found it very helpful to let my budding comedian get the jokes out of his system first, then proceed with the lesson. I allowed my son to make notes of any off-topic story he wanted to tell me during lessons – the notes helped him remember it later, but jotting it down got it off his mind and let him move on with his lesson. Trying to keep an auditory learner quiet when he has thoughts to share (on-topic or not) is like trying to put a lid on an active volcano. Auditory learners may find certain sounds displeasing, just as certain sights are deemed ugly by our eyes.

If your child reminds you of Rhonda or Sherry, try some of the following visual solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their intense examination and delights their eyes with intricate details. Because visual learners depend on visual stimulation to learn, keeping their eyes involved is vital. Let him have ample time to study and observe and watch a demonstration before expecting him to try it. Visual learners benefit from seeing manipulatives and demonstrations, but they are not likely to join in. Ask what parts he’d like to see done over again. And again. He’s not shy: he’s analyzing and memorizing. Go beyond the basic reading assignments with posters, diagrams, charts, and maps, giving him plenty of time to study the intricate details of each. Show him how to use color-coordinated notecards, file folders, and highlighters to organize subjects, thoughts, and ideas. Making notes, highlighting them in specific colors, and re-copying and re-highlighting those notes helps the visual learner remember – and the colors are as important to the memory as the words are. Help your visual learner avoid falling into the perfectionism trap by comparing everyday play clothes and special-occasion nice clothes to everyday handwriting and special occasion handwriting: Mom’s grocery list is written much differently from Grandma’s birthday card, so please don’t encourage him to believe that every single word on every single worksheet should be written in perfect script. It can be helpful for the visual learner to look for imperfections in other areas of life, to help him understand that life is neither perfect nor ideal: typos and grammatical errors can be found in professionally published books, and artists simplify their paintings’ subject matter (paintings are not photographs, after all).

Combining Learning Style Methods for a Well-Rounded Experience

I mentioned earlier that focusing on a single learning style is undesirable, because it leaves the student at a disadvantage in many learning situations. Remember all the students in our classroom experiment who ended up holding multiple cards, representing multiple learning style groups? Those students have already recognized that they have some learning abilities in styles other than their predominant learning style. Whether we recognize it or not (like the children who were holding only one card), most of us do have skills to varying degrees in each learning style, but if the weaker skills can be strengthened, we could be adept at learning in any situation. That’s a very worthy goal, right?

As teaching parents, we can use the predominant learning style to grab and hold a student’s attention, then add subtle experiences with the other styles to expand and broaden learning abilities. This can be done as simply as letting the student read the instructions for a lesson by himself aloud, combining the visual experience of reading with the auditory experience of hearing the words from his own voice. A brief discussion of the lesson takes the auditory experience even further. Then some hands-on and moving-around activities can supplement the lesson to add experiences in tactile and kinesthetic learning. Students benefit from being allowed some time for free-play and unplanned experimentation with tactile learning aids, so don’t rush to put everything away as soon as the lesson is over.

Let’s suppose that our lesson is in geography, and we’re studying the state of Iowa. We’ve read the instructions to locate Iowa on a map of the United States. We’ve discussed what that means, and our student understands what he is expected to do. However, Frankie doesn’t live anywhere near Iowa and isn’t familiar with all of the states yet, so there is a bit of a challenge for him. And he’s starting to wiggle in his seat. Let’s have Frankie run upstairs to the game closet and bring back the USA jigsaw puzzle, then he can help move these chairs to make some room on the floor. (Now he’s re-energized and thinking clearly.) Frankie, you can start the puzzle by sorting through the pieces for states with names that might look or sound similar to Iowa. That’s right, Iowa, Idaho, and Ohio. (Trust me, I’m from Iowa, and there are people running around loose who think those three are all the same state. I could not make that up!) Frankie, you can set those pieces aside while you work on putting the rest of the puzzle together. (Working on the floor gives Frankie lots of reaching, stretching, and kneeling to keep his large muscles active, and fitting the puzzle pieces together gives his fingers some fine-motor involvement and connects the shapes of various states from his fingers to his eyes and his brain.) Now can you see where those three pieces you set aside will fit in? And where is Iowa? Correct! Now point to the state where you live. Correct again! Let’s count how many states are between where you live and where Iowa is. Very good! Can you go find the big atlas on the bookcase and bring it here? (More physical exercise for the energetic Frankie.) Let’s look in the atlas for a USA map, and you can try to find Iowa on that map, too. (This gives Frankie a visual workout, as he compares the map in the book to the puzzle on the floor.) Excellent! Great job today! Now I’m going to take a few minutes between subjects to start a load of laundry, while you take the puzzle apart and put it back into its box. If you’d like to play with it a little more first, that’s okay, too.

Mom scurries off to the laundry room, but takes her time coming back. She quietly peeks in on Frankie to see that he has taken the puzzle apart and is putting it back together again. Mom pours herself another cup of coffee, knowing that Frankie is not just playing, Frankie is learning numerous lessons: how puzzle pieces fit together very intricately, what shapes the various states are, which states are located next to each other, how the Eastern states are generally smaller in size than the Western states, and so on. Now Frankie is grouping the states by shapes: which ones are odd-looking rectangles, which ones are sort of triangular, which ones are rough combinations of wobbly rectangles and triangles, and an “Other” category for states that make no geometric sense whatsoever. As Frankie sees Mom peek in once more, he regales her with the extensive details of all the things he has discovered while playing with this puzzle. (To him, it’s no longer tedious learning; it has become discovery.) Mom can ask a few leading questions to show her interest and keep Frankie sharing: “Tell me more, Frankie. This is great!” Some puzzles have little pictures on each state, signifying the various products produced by those states, which can lead to more comparisons or more sorting (every piece in this pile has an ear of corn on it; now change the pile to match one of the other pictures on the Iowa piece). Sort the states by name and line them up in alphabetical order; if the state capitals are listed, the states could be re-sorted into the alphabetical order of the capitals’ names. States can be lined up in order of size, or (with a little research) by the year they attained statehood, or (more research) alphabetically by state nicknames. Are you beginning to see the possibilities for strengthening learning styles that have come from one formerly boring lesson? Every learning style has been used, our student has learned immeasurable lessons in just a few minutes’ time, and his ability to learn in his weaker styles has already begun to improve. His fingers were satisfied with manipulating the puzzle pieces over and over again; his large muscles were kept active with all the movements across the floor and around the room; he was able to talk about his various projects and share what he learned; and his eyes ranged from the small details of tiny pictures and letters to seeing the overall puzzle as a whole. Frankie was captivated by being allowed to play during school today (try not to spoil it, Mom), and the mundane puzzle has morphed into an amazing learning tool.

 

Anyone can conduct a study and skew the outcome to support their desired agenda, but that doesn’t mean the results are accurate. Compare what you’ve read here today about learning styles to how your children act and learn, then judge for yourself. Experiment with some of these suggested techniques the next time your student gets stuck on a lesson, and see if changing the presentation helps to dislodge the educational roadblock. Crossing the learning style boundaries will hone the skills in every style and result in a student who can fit his methods of learning to the circumstances.

Obviously, the writers of this blog believe that homeschooling is the ideal environment for children who need understanding of their learning needs more than they need labels, but perhaps some of these tips can help you where you are right now. If this article has piqued your interest, our books offer even more on learning styles from the Guilt-Free Homeschooling perspective. They include simple, low cost/no cost, learning style teaching methods that often use items and materials you may already own. For much more insight into learning for all students, for all subjects, and for all ages, check out our books:

Diagnostic Tools to Help the Homeschooling Parent, and
Taking the Mystery Out of Learning Styles

Many more GFHS blog articles expand on the various learning styles and offer ideas in numerous subject areas. The tips, techniques, and ideas in our articles are not limited just to homeschooling – they work for helping your child understand his homework, too!

Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting
My “Rule of 3”
Texture Dominoes
Sugar Cube Math, Part 2
Dominoes Make Great Tactile “Flashcards”
ABC Flashcards
Beanbags (No-Sew DIY)
Hopscotch – A Powerful Learning Game
Jumpropes
100-Grids & Flashcard Bingo
“Mystery Boxes” and the Scientific Method
Color-Coding as a Learning Tool
Untangling the Math Pages (with colored pencils)
“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play
“Tactile Learning” topic
“Kinesthetic Learning” topic
“Auditory Learning” topic
“Visual Learning” topic
“Learning Styles” topic
“Activity Ideas” topic
“Workshop Wednesday” topic

The Various Stages of Homeschooling (for Newbies)

There were several distinct stages that I went through as we worked through our homeschooling journey, and you may recognize them in your own journey. This is the viewpoint that I had, as the Homeschooling Mom, the parent who was responsible for most of the teaching in our household. My husband and our kids probably saw things a little differently or had their own opinions about it, but this is how it felt to me. I have not applied definite time periods to these stages because some families may progress through one stage quite quickly, while taking much longer to move through another stage. Speed has nothing to do with the appropriateness for your family, as long as you are working at a pace that is suitable for your students’ abilities and for your family’s lifestyle. Some stages may fly by so quickly that you don’t even notice them passing, while others may stick around (rather like gum on your shoe) for a long, long, long time. Bear in mind that each family’s experience will be different, and what you zip through un-noticed may be what others get stuck in seemingly forever… and vice versa. Neither status indicates success or failure—that’s just how life goes.

1. Terrifying: You are considering homeschooling and trying to decide whether homeschooling will work for your family’s unique situation. You recognize that drastic changes must take place, but you don’t know yet exactly what those changes are, when they will take place, or how they will affect your lives. You are pretty sure that these changes will upset your domestic tranquility apple-cart and alter life-as-you-currently-know-it forever (or at least for the imaginable future), but you are also faced with the reality that these changes are inevitable.

2. Scary: By your first real day of homeschool lessons, the hardest decisions are usually behind you, and this process moves to being only scary instead of truly terrifying. This stage is somewhat like wading waist-deep into cold water—you’re there, you’re mostly wet, and although you’re not completely immersed yet, you feel fairly certain that the worst shock is already over.

3. Possible: Sometime in the not-so-distant future, you may begin to feel that this just might be possible. You’ve been at this for a while now, and you’ve found little bits of routine that worked fairly well and other bits that you definitely don’t ever want to repeat again. Ever. You also now are developing a mental list of other ideas you’d really like to try at some point. But it could be a really short list.

4. Finding Your Groove: After a longer while, you will probably have adopted a pattern of the things that are working best. That pattern may only apply to one small portion of your school day, such as lunch break, or you may have stumbled into a groove that works for most of the day. This can also be called the “So Far, So Good” stage.

5. Loving Every Minute: For most families, there comes a time when they are feeling more confident in their daily routine. You may notice that while still far from perfect, you have smoothed off a lot of rough edges from where you started. There have probably been a few days that you definitely don’t want to repeat, but they are now being over-shadowed by some truly wonderful days that are making this new process completely enjoyable.

6. Veteran: One day, after repeating the same cycles several times, you may find yourself thinking “I’ve been here before. I know what to do this time. I can handle this.” You will look back over all you’ve learned and marvel at how confident you now feel. You know exactly what to do today, this week, and this month, but you might still be unsure about next year. It’s okay to be a little shaky about the distant future, but remember that this is nothing compared to where you were at Stages 1 and 2, and you will get things figured out by the time that distant future becomes the present.

7. Roadblocks: This is an interim stage that really can occur at any time, including before or after any of the other stages. My daughter hit a roadblock in the midst of Algebra 2 and couldn’t make any progress until the next school year. She had had some health issues for a time and attributed her thinking-problem to that, but she just couldn’t grasp the concepts presented. Since that particular textbook was designed as a 2-year class anyway, she gave in and put the math book on hold even before the end of that school year drew near. Several months later, she was determined to try again and not let it beat her down, and by that time, her brain had processed long enough on the concepts that she had no trouble getting through it.

A different type of roadblock occurred when my son reached a point in early high school where he just couldn’t relate to the lessons in his textbooks. In my estimation, things had been working fine, and then… nothing was working any more. I scrambled to come up with alternative projects that would interest him enough to further his education without completely derailing his progress. The result was primarily that I was transformed into an unschooler without realizing it at the time, giving up the standard textbooks in favor of the more real-life learning opportunities that appealed to him.

Roadblocks are anything that hinders your progress, and they may last a few moments, a few hours, a few weeks… or much longer. The duration is insignificant—what you do about the roadblock is the important part. Back up and refresh or fill any gaps in the foundational skills, try something totally different for supplemental activities, or put the book on the shelf for a while, but don’t let the roadblock win. You can dig under it, climb over it, or map an alternate path around it, as long as you refuse to let it keep you stagnant. Some of our alternate paths included changing the order of classes to put the problem subject at a different time of day, changing the location for doing a particular class (a different room can make a big difference), continuing on with the rest of the routine but putting the difficult subject on hold while we looked for a new program or a new approach. We abandoned the programs that were most favored by our friends (to their shock and horror) but just didn’t work for us. We sampled other methods until we found something we liked, something that worked, something that didn’t leave us (student and teacher) in tears every day, all day long. More than once we used the information from one program and the order of lessons from another program, and combined them into a system we thought up ourselves, just because we wanted to try it that way… and it worked.

A few specific situations may contribute to requiring more time to work through a roadblock, such as a special needs student, students who have spent a long time in institutional school before switching to homeschooling, one or both parents who are (currently or previously) classroom teachers who insist on recreating school-at-home conditions, trying to keep up with the Homeschooling Joneses by doing too much or doing what doesn’t fit your family but was advised as vitally important by others because it worked for their family, and the dual-school family (also known as “Somer-Homeschool”: Some-R-Home, Some-R-Not). Regardless of the cause of the roadblock, keep digging, keep climbing, keep mapping, and keep refusing to be beaten. It’s not your fault, and it’s not your student’s fault; it’s the curriculum that just isn’t matching your needs. Review it, find a way around it, or wait it out, but remind yourself that whatever you choose to do is a plan: you are doing something about the roadblock, even if that something means taking some time off to let the stalled brain process on the concept until it is ready to try it again.

8. Mentoring: With a history of successful homeschooling comes the day when you may find yourself offering helpful information to other families who are seeking homeschooling advice. You may secretly giggle inside when they tell you how knowledgeable you are and how much they appreciate your input, because you still remember all too clearly just how terrified you were only a short time ago, when you were still occupying the spot they are in today. At the same time, you will be able to rattle off exactly which activities your family enjoyed the most, which materials were the least helpful to you, and how your family’s routine gradually developed into your own preferred style of homeschooling. Share how you adapted methods to fit your own family’s specific needs. Share willingly with all those who seek your advice—they are asking you because you are standing out from the crowd in a way that appeals to them!

Articles to Help You on Your Journey:
21 Things That Can Slow Homeschooling Progress
Do the Best Job You Can and Pray for God to Clean Up the Rest
Top 10 Benefits of Homeschooling with Grace
Family Planning (No, Not That Kind)
Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Began Homeschooling
Tests, Book Reports, and Other Un-necessities
Homeschooling Is Hard Work
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson

Articles to Help You Through the Detours on That Journey:
Homeschool Beginnings–A Child’s Point of View
Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School
People Who Nearly Scared Me Away from Homeschooling
Redeeming a Disaster Day
Looking Back on the Bad Days
Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup
Bottom 10 Worst Parts of Homeschooling
Common Mistakes Made by New Homeschoolers
Homeschooling Failures I Have Known—and What Can Be Learned from Them

Parenting 101

I’ve often been asked how we raised our kids, by those who are up to their armpits in the midst of the power struggle that parenthood can sometimes be. The answer is one long day at a time, but with the help of some very consistent rules. I should clarify that many of these weren’t unbreakable rules as much as they were our family’s unique customs or our preferred methods for handling specific situations. I didn’t remember having a lot of rules for my kids, but my now-adult children have reminded me of several of them over the years. They recognize behaviors in others that they were not allowed to do and say “You never let us do that!”—and I’m pleased to say they mean it as a compliment. My daughter, Jennifer, has often caught herself watching her friends’ or coworkers’ exploits and thinking “If you were my mom’s child…” She has quoted some of our family rules as if they were The Wisdom of the Ages, only to have the hearer ask “Who says?” “Umm… my mom and I!” is her reply as she realizes that, unfortunately, the rest of civilization has yet to catch up to Mom’s Standards for Proper Conduct.

Some of our rules applied to my children, some to us as a family unit, and some were reminders for me as a parent that good kids don’t just happen. Kids obey best when they understand the reason behind a rule, whether they participated in the decision-making process that created that rule or not. Most rules are made to govern the future as well as the present: “Don’t run out into the street” is for right now, but also for every time in the future that a speeding car promises harm. Whatever rules your family makes, be sure to craft them with one eye on the future, and help your kids understand that the future-aspect is there to help them learn how to grow up into responsible adults. After all, “parent” is a verb, and you can’t expect great results from doing nothing. [“Parent” Is a Verb, linked below]

Overwhelmingly, I used the Golden Rule (Treat others as you wish to be treated—Luke 6:31, paraphrased) to teach my kids appropriate behavior and respect for others’ feelings and property. From toddlerhood on, I explained (in language suited to their understanding) what they had done wrong, why it was wrong, how it made the other person feel, and what their response should have been (the preferred behavior). Once they understood the situation from the other side, then they were able to offer a truly sincere apology, if circumstances required it. Beyond that, the detailed explanations helped those little people learn to think things through and anticipate the cause and effect relationship of actions to outcomes. You should not have kicked your ball into the neighbor’s flower bed. Your ball broke several of their pretty flowers, and they had just bought those plants and worked hard to get them all planted today. You can kick your ball over here where there is plenty of open space, but you may not kick it so hard that it lands near those flowers again. Do you understand the difference? If you disobey and kick the ball into the flowers again, you will be punished. Do you understand?

My kids were allowed to repeat certain actions only 3 times and no more. Whether it was running circles around the kitchen table or bouncing a beach ball off the top of my head, they could get away with it three times. Behavior that would have hurt someone or something was stopped immediately, but otherwise let’s just say that they learned to obey the limit.  Auditory learners and making noises go together like air and breathing, but the “Rule of 3” taught them to stop the repetitive noises after 3 times and save the remainder for more appropriate situations, such as when playing outside, or when in their rooms and not disturbing others. [My “Rule of 3,” linked below]

Nearly every “rule” we had was an extension of the respect relationship taught through the Golden Rule. Do you want your little brother barging into your room without knocking? Then be sure that you knock on his door before entering his room. The Rule of 3 was built upon respect for others’ personal space, and respect is in itself a Golden Rule relationship. Respect must be earned—it isn’t granted automatically. If you want it, what are you doing to deserve it? [Respect Must Be Earned, linked below]

Family is spelled T-E-A-M, and we are all on the same side. No one here is your enemy, especially not your siblings. Family is not a competition, and we’re all in this together. [Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M, linked below]

Speaking of teams, Mom should not be the only person working while everyone else is playing, because moms like to play, too. Get the household staff working—fill those machines and get them running, so you can feel good about all the jobs that are getting done. Teach your kids that if we get the chores out of the way first, then we can take a break, guilt-free. Work first, then play. [Using Your Household Staff, linked below]

I taught my kids not to interrupt a conversation (especially between adults), unless there was a true emergency involving large amounts of water, blood, and/or fire. I told them that if they stood quietly next to me while I was involved in a conversation that: 1) I would know they had something to tell me, 2) I would not forget about them being there, and 3) I would listen to them at the next appropriate moment. I also taught them to hold up one finger to help them remember what it was they wanted to say (or 2 fingers to remember 2 things—and it really does work). Yes, it was appropriate to wake Mom and Dad from a Sunday afternoon nap to report that the house next door was on fire. It led to very important life-lessons in how to remain calm in a crisis, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how long it takes from the time someone dials 911 until you can actually hear the fire truck’s siren. Good job! (Yes, that really happened, but no one was hurt, and insurance covered the damages.)

Whining, begging, nagging, and asking again and again will never convince me to change my mind. However, if you can present your case with facts and logic and without whining, then I will listen with an open mind. Notice that this is a two-way contract. My part of the agreement was to listen attentively to the logically reasoned case my kids presented, putting aside my preconceived notions about the topic and honestly considering the points they made. The result was that very often I had to reconsider and go with their proposal, because it truly was a better idea. [If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind, linked below]

We discussed “our family’s values” so that each child understood why we do what we do, why we don’t do what someone else may do, and why we hold tightly to our specific beliefs and values. It made an amazing difference in helping our kids make up their own minds when confronted with peer pressure.

As part of understanding our family’s values, my kids were taught to respect the rules and value systems of other children’s parents by not sharing their opinions on whether they thought those rules were correct. When a friend said, “I wish my Mom used your Mom’s rule,” my daughter explained that our family probably also had a few rules that the friend wouldn’t like, so the friend shouldn’t automatically assume that one family was better than another. This also applied to individual privileges, schooling or homeschooling methods, TV or movie choices, church programs, family activities, and just about anything else that could prompt a comparative discussion.

My most controversial rule (as viewed by my peers) was that “authority” figures who had no true authority over my kids (not their parent or police, etc.) and/or who were clearly wrong (meaning they had the facts wrong) did not necessarily need to be listened to or obeyed. This came into play when a bully-parent (one of those aforementioned peers who disagreed with my views, particularly this one) made a faulty assumption about my son, after overhearing a snippet of conversation between my son and another boy at a homeschool group function. That parent attempted to exert her “authority” (just because she was an adult) over the boys because of what she thought she heard, but my son (knowing the full context of the conversation) knew she was in error and tried to explain the misunderstanding. She threatened to tell his mother (me) that he had argued with her, and he dared her to follow through on that, because he knew he wasn’t guilty of doing anything wrong. When she gave me her side of the story, it sounded completely out of character for my son, so I turned to him for his explanation (which made her even angrier to think that I would accept the word of a 13-year-old over her testimony). The outcome was that I didn’t destroy a family relationship because of another adult’s misconception. Adults can be wrong, and kids learn to honor truth by seeing their parents recognize that adults are not always right just because they are adults. A parallel rule to the false-authority issue was that if anyone said to my kids “Don’t tell your parents,” that was our family’s code for “Run immediately to your parents and tell them everything!” That was also played out, with the result that my child identified right away that the person saying it was up to no good. Reporting the conversation to her parents was the equivalent of calling in the cavalry and turning the problem over to someone who could stop it from escalating into a more harmful situation. Crisis averted; family relationships secured.

Our family used “Because I said so” as valid reasoning under very special conditions, usually a minor emergency or some similar circumstance. Spoken quietly and surreptitiously, it was another code phrase that meant “Do what I say now, and I will explain the why later, as soon as I have the chance.” Everyone recognized that hearing the phrase “because I said so” meant something was seriously wrong and immediate, unquestioned obedience was required for the safety and well-being of one or more family members. We were careful not to over-use this or use it frivolously, so that it maintained its emergency-situation-only status. In our family, it was used by both parents and children, depending on the circumstances, which varied from “That kid has been mean to me before, and I really don’t want to run into him right now” to quickly leaving public situations that suddenly became uncomfortable or appeared unsafe. The full explanation that came later always assured us that the hasty exit had been completely justified.

The “family whistle” was a signal we used to find each other in large stores, get someone’s attention, or call to each other in surroundings where shouting might not be noticed. We used a unique melody of 3-4 notes that signaled us to “Come now.” We started using the non-shrill whistle when our kids were nearing middle-school age, and it was a wonderfully subtle way to signal each other in large groups. Most by-standers never even noticed.

As with any set of rules, consistency is crucial. As adults, we need to know that other drivers will obey the rule that a red traffic light means Stop and a green light means Go. Kids need the exact same consistency in knowing that their parents’ rules mean what they say. Without consistency, the rules break down, and before you know it, everyone is going, no one is stopping, and chaos is the result. Set your family rules, be consistent in their execution, and enjoy the freedom that results.

See these articles for more complete explanations:

“Parent” Is a Verb

My “Rule of 3”

Respect Must Be Earned

Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M

Using Your Household Staff

If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind

Home Chores Build a Good Work Ethic

It’s an ages-old debate: should kids be required to do regular chores around the house? My short answer is yes. Mom’s time is too valuable to be wasted on menial tasks. That doesn’t mean that Mom can’t or shouldn’t do them, but it does mean that those tasks that don’t require Mom’s unique talents can be done by anyone, not only by Mom. However, kids will need to be taught how to do a task correctly before they can succeed in it themselves.

Doing chores teaches skills, responsibility, and independence. Some day, for some unforeseen reason, Mom won’t be able to perform all of the household chores and pick up after everyone else. Whether that condition is temporary (such as a case of the flu) or more-or-less permanent (a debilitating health condition… or worse), Mom needs everyone’s help in keeping up. Incidentally, all those things Mom does are things the kids will eventually need to do for themselves in life, so they might as well suck it up and start doing them now to lessen the blow of reality. They might even find that ironing a few shirts provides an ideal time to organize their thoughts, besides making them look sharp at the job interview.

There’s a principle in economics called TANSTAAFL (say it as “tan-stay-awful”), an acronym for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” I applied it to home chores as there are no free rides: everybody can do his share. If you plan to eat this food, you’ll willingly help carry the groceries in from the car and help put them away. As my kids got older, it morphed into “Hey, Mom! I’ll do that job for you, so you can do this job for me,” whenever my kids wanted me to help them with a special project (often making a new costume). They would lay out their proposal and then offer to do something for me (often making dinner), providing me with the necessary free time to bring their idea to fruition. Helping (bartering?) in this way taught them the vital concept of earning: you have to give to get something in return. The job-trading offers showed that they understood the most important part: every player is capable of contributing something to the Family Team.

Starting Young

My kids learned to help put toys away as soon as they were old enough to play with those toys. We stored our toys on open shelves in an assortment of shoeboxes, ice cream buckets, small dishpans, and recycled baby-wipes boxes, each labeled with a simple drawing for what items went inside. I worked side-by-side with my toddlers or preschool-aged kids to help them learn to sort out the toys and get everything put away (nearly) every afternoon before Daddy got home. They could still get something out to play with while I fixed supper, but the worst of the mess had been cleaned up. We made clean-up time into a game by calling out one type of toy and getting all of those put away before focusing on another one, starting with the largest items and working down to the smallest. Then as the kids got older and more adept at sorting and multitasking, they could handle the clean-up tasks themselves, freeing Mom to start cooking or laundry or any other higher-skilled task. By the time my kids were both school age, I had come up with a new clean-up game: I would challenge each of them to run through the house and find ten things that belonged to them and put those away. With a little more growing up, that game became known as 52-Pick-Up and was expanded to include anything that was out of place, if they knew where it belonged, not just their own personal items. They learned to appreciate the look of a tidy home and enjoyed the peacefulness that came with it, so it wasn’t difficult to get them to participate, especially because we played it as a game, and I praised them and thanked them for their diligence. Who doesn’t like being praised and thanked for their efforts? No one here!!

A child who never learns organizational skills grows up to be an adult who still doesn’t know how to organize or clean—I know because I was one. It is because I have struggled as an adult to learn how to organize myself that I began teaching my kids organizational skills as soon as they could pick up an alphabet block and drop it into a box. We played that first as a game to learn coordination, and then we continued to play it later on as a clean-up game.

Later on, I made each child a picture-chart for the bedroom wall to help them learn how to tidy things up in their rooms. A sheet of paper with simple cartoon-drawings showed a bed with wadded-up blankets and an arrow pointing to a neatly made bed, a jumble of clothes on the floor and an arrow pointing to the hamper, a pile of books on the floor and an arrow pointing to books on a shelf. Simple, homemade, but very effective. Teaching them to make the bed first provided a large surface to use for further sorting duties, again working from largest objects to smallest. My younger child felt it was a rite-of-passage, growing-up milestone when he got a picture-chart for his room—he was a big boy now, and he was old enough to learn how to tidy up his own room. He was still far from reading words, but he could read those pictures!

Learning Life-Skills

Yes, it does take longer to do a task with a child than it does to do it yourself. However, the time that is dedicated to teaching the child how to do the task himself will pay off in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. By spending the extra time required to teach my children how to do a task, I was ultimately freeing myself from doing that task in the future. Yes, I can pull a full bag of trash from the kitchen wastebasket, take it to the outdoor garbage can, and replace a new bag within a matter of seconds. Teaching my child to do that chore and walking him through each step could take ten minutes. However, he will get faster with practice, and I can eventually stop supervising and move on to my own tasks for those valuable ten minutes. Even if I only spent thirty seconds emptying the trash myself, that time adds up. If I include emptying every wastebasket in the house and if a larger family means more trash, that can become a serious waste of Mom’s time and talents. More importantly, the children won’t learn to take on the responsibility for that chore.

My kids learned to do many household chores through the years: keeping their rooms tidy; emptying the trash; emptying and filling the dishwasher; sweeping or vacuuming; dusting; cleaning bathrooms; mowing the lawn; carrying and putting away groceries; sorting, washing, drying, folding, hanging, ironing, and putting away laundry; and many other chores that I can’t remember. Some of these jobs were regularly scheduled tasks, and sometimes the kids were just asked to help out with other tasks. Yes, they needed reminders occasionally—we all do. Yes, there were times when they grumbled—we all do. Yes, there were times when Mom still did the job herself—the object here is teaching skills and responsibility, not giving Mom a life of unlimited leisure while someone feeds her grapes and fans her with palm fronds. Yes, there were times when a job wasn’t done perfectly—but that’s not the point—the point is that they learned how to do these chores, and they learned to own tasks as their responsibilities. Family is a team, with all players contributing something to the team; it is a tremendous help if those players can be interchangeable in certain areas. When everyone knows how to do a certain chore, life won’t ever come to a grinding halt while we all wait for the one, single soul who can perform the required task and get us all rolling along smoothly again.

This process of learning how to do chores is important for more reasons than just sharing in household duties as a child. This process is teaching life-long skills in decision-making, organizing, and taking responsibility. No one wants to live with an adult who thinks that if he ignores things long enough, the Trash Fairy will come and make the mess magically disappear. Or the Laundry Fairy, or the Dirty Dishes Fairy. Moms, if you don’t teach your children now how to do chores and how to take responsibility for doing them, who will? Do you believe that allowing your children to be sloths and doing everything for them will somehow transform them into conscientious adults? I’m sorry if this offends you, but if this is currently the case at your house, you are already being offended by children who disrespect you and treat you as their maid. The new guy on the job who leans back in his chair and rests his feet on his desk is an only-slightly-older version of the preteen who played incessant video games amidst empty soda cans, dirty dishes, and smelly socks, while an overworked Mom cleaned up around him. The young adult who expects to draw a paycheck while texting or checking social media on his cellphone is the same kid who never lifted a finger to help Mom or Dad with anything around the house—and worse, was never required to help.

What you teach your toddlers is what your youngsters will do automatically, and what you teach your youngsters is what your teens will do automatically, and what you teach your teens is what your young adult children will do automatically. It begins with sorting toys and putting them away, then progresses through taking out the trash and shuffling loads of laundry, and grows into someone who notices a task that is not being done and takes on the responsibility without waiting to be told that it’s his duty. I have known bosses who swept the floor because the lower-level employees didn’t think it was their duty to sweep. Sometimes it may not your assigned task, but you do have all the talent required. Teach your kids do look for tasks they can do at home, because it will pay benefits in the long run. As employees in that all-important first job, they will receive more positive feedback from taking the initiative to do a task (or asking if it’s okay to do it) than they will from standing around and waiting until someone else tells them to do it.

How to Do the How-To’s…

Start small—don’t expect your inexperienced teen to understand how to do multiple loads of laundry if he’s never had to hang up a single shirt. If your teen doesn’t know how to do laundry, start by showing him how to fold towels and work up from there. Help him master each crucial step before adding in more complications. It’s never fair or just or right to scold someone for doing a task incorrectly, if he’s never been properly taught how to do it.

Show & Tell—demonstrate the task and explain the critical parts. Example: explaining that a clothes hanger is a substitute for shoulders can teach how to hang a shirt straight. Talk about the various steps of the tasks you’re doing and explain the why’s for each step. Kids are more likely to do it your way if they understand the reasons behind why you do it the way you do it. I fold the towels this way so they will fit into this skinny cupboard. Also, specify which steps are required to be done a certain way and which steps can be done as the child wishes—giving him freedom to make it his job, not yours. It’s also helpful to the Family Team concept to listen to others’ suggestions of different methods. Mom is not God, and Mom can learn shortcuts from her spouse or kids. Been there, done that, changed my ways.

Let him try it—and don’t expect perfection or speed. Re-demonstrate any steps that are really crucial. Simple charts can come in handy here, too, such as how much detergent to put in the washer, what settings to use for different loads, and a reminder to clean out the dryer’s lint filter.

Give reminders—without nagging. No one enjoys being nagged. Set a very basic schedule for repeated tasks, such as “Make sure to empty all the wastebaskets and take the trash out by Thursday mornings, because the trash collection truck comes right after lunch on Thursdays.”

Say a sincere thank you—because everyone enjoys being appreciated. Hey, the trash is already emptied—and I didn’t even see you do that! Thank you!!

Keep it simple for success—even very complicated tasks can be learned one step at a time. Allow your child to keep trying until he gets a task done correctly, but do it by encouraging his progress, rather than scolding him for his failures. We worked for mastery in our homeschool lessons, believing that a concept wasn’t fully learned until a score of 100% had been reached. However, the child got to keep trying and keep correcting his work until he had mastered it. The same philosophy was used in learning chores and other tasks: keep trying until you get it right, keep working until you get it done. My daughter now works in a retail clothing store with many high-school-aged co-workers, and she finds their attitudes of “a just-barely-passing grade is good enough” to be completely unsatisfactory. Her work ethic of “keep at it until the job is done right” shows that she takes responsibility and personal pride in how the store looks and in how she serves her customers.

Teach your kids to be industrious by being industrious yourself—laziness breeds laziness. Don’t treat your kids as your servants by always asking them to fetch-and-carry for you, if you are fully capable of getting up and doing the same things yourself.

 

Teaching kids to help at home teaches them how to learn from others, something that will be very valuable in their future jobs. Teaching kids to do their assigned chores in a timely manner teaches them responsibility, again a valuable future skill. Teaching them to look for unassigned tasks they can do teaches them to take initiative, the most valuable skill of all. Being teachable, taking responsibility, and taking initiative combine to form an excellent work ethic, whether your child grows up to become a stay-at-home spouse or a corporate executive, and it starts with learning to pick up toys.

See also (in no particular order):

The Importance of Play in Education
Spoken Destinies & Learned Behaviors
Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M
Sorting Toys Is Algebra
I Give One Grade: 100%—But You Get to Keep Trying Until You Get It
Using Your Household Staff
Biblical Model of Discipleship
Pregnant & Homeschooling (great ideas for delegating, even if you’re not pregnant)
Full-Bodied Education: Mind, Body, & Spirit
We’re Not Raising Children – We’re Raising Adults
Respect Must Be Earned (good look at our attitudes toward each other)
Taming the Laundry Monster

How to Teach Your Kids at Home Without Killing Yourself in the Process

  1. Adapt daily. What didn’t work today can be changed for tomorrow. Life seldom follows a routine, so why should your lessons be exactly the same, day after day? Life provides very important lessons, and we can learn from everything and everyone.
  2. Remember that the teacher may not always be right. If the student can present his/her case in a valid and logical way, he/she may convince the teacher to skip portions of a lesson, try a different book, branch off to add a side interest, go on a field trip, etc. (But that argument must be presented with facts, not whining.)
  3. Network. If you’re stuck on a subject, try getting ideas from other homeschoolers, no matter what their kids’ ages. You might be able to adapt their methods to suit your child. Multiply the number of homeschooling parents (teachers) you know by the number of their children (students). The result is how many ways there are available to you to teach any given concept. Teaching methods can vary greatly with learning styles and family preferences. (Now consider all the other homeschoolers you just haven’t met yet, whose ideas can be found online!)
  4. Admitting defeat can be your first step toward success. When you’re pushing the wrong method, both student and teacher will always be on the verge of tears. The right method will be like gasoline to a flame—you’ll need to jump back out of its way! I’ve tried both, and I much prefer playing with fire.
  5. Play. A genius sees everything in life as a game to be played or a puzzle to be solved. Help your kids see learning as a game, and you will be nurturing genius, creativity, imagination, and much more!
  6. Entice. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” (old proverb) However, a wise, old farmer might tell you to just put a little bit of salt in the oats! If the lesson comes in the form of irresistible fun, you won’t have to cajole your students to get involved. (See #5)
  7. No one ever learned anything good through boredom. No one. Ever. Work your students’ interests into their lessons to grab and hold their attention, whether than means relating math story problems to Missy’s doll collection or teaching Sonny sentence structure through writing about sports.
  8. Watch your words. Be careful how you explain “learning styles” to your students. I overheard a boy once comment to his friend, “My mom says I’ve got to be doing something all the time. She says I always have to be moving and making noise.” So he dutifully made sure she was always right: he refused to sit still or remain quiet, just so his mom wouldn’t be disappointed. What his mom noticed as his consistent behavior and learning style, he seriously took to be an assignment. Our goal as learners should be to “learn how to learn” in every way possible, not lock ourselves into only one formula, so help your students strengthen their weaker learning styles through increasing exposure to other methods.
  9. Work toward your students’ strengths to grab and hold their attention, while you slip in subtle experiences in other learning styles. Be aware that they learn different subjects in different ways: spelling is a visual concept, but handwriting is kinesthetic. Pre-readers and early readers still live in an auditory world; watch for subtle changes in how they learn as their reading ability increases.
  10. Don’t use calculators for math until algebra (playing with a calculator is okay, just don’t use it for daily lessons). The mental skills must be fully in place first, and then the calculator can be used for saving time. Note: Don’t assume a problem has been done incorrectly just because your answer disagrees with the answer book. Re-do the problem carefully several times—I have found several mistakes in math text answer keys. Also, I accidentally hit one wrong key on my calculator during a college math final, didn’t notice it, and didn’t check over my work. That one stupid mistake spoiled an otherwise-perfect score—a huge lesson learned the hard way.

For further inspiration, see these articles:

What Didn’t Work for Today Can Be Changed for Tomorrow

Every Day Is a Learning Day, and Life Is Our Classroom

Tests, Book Reports, and Other Un-necessities

If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind

Becoming a Successful and Proud Quitter

How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive

Spoken Destinies and Learned Behaviors

Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting

My “Rule of 3”

There’s no denying it: Kids can be irritating—if you let them. When my kids reached that age of wanting to do things just to irritate Mom, I knew I either had to take control of the situation or lose it forever. I also knew that preventing a child from expressing himself can leave him feeling frustrated, so I wanted a solution that would satisfy both of us. The result was my “Rule of 3.”

My Rule of 3 was simply stated as “You can do that three times, but only three times, and then you’re done.” Making an irritating sound? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Running circles around the kitchen table while I’m fixing dinner? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Poking your sibling in the ribs? You can do it three times, then you’re done. The Rule applied to things done to others or around others, not to actions done alone that annoyed no one else. Practicing your piano lesson? Great! Banging on the piano keys? Three bangs and you’re done; go back to the lesson or move on to another activity. Doing karate kicks or high dance kicks in the backyard? Wonderful! Kicking the back of my car seat while we’re running errands? Three kicks and you’re done; move your feet to another position and keep them still. Somersaulting into the pool? Cool! Combining your super-acrobatic somersault with a not-really-accidental splash of water into your sibling’s face? Three splashes and you are done; the acrobatics are fine, just do them farther away from others. The same rule applies to the child who is completely capable of coherent conversation, but who decides to stop replying to Mom’s questions with the correct answers and substitutes a high-pitched EEP instead. Three EEPs and this game is over! You’re done, and the next thing out of your mouth had better be the correct answer.

Why a limit of three? The first time may be funny; the second time might be cute; the third time is merely indulgence to let you get that one last effort out of your system, but anything after three is seriously pushing beyond the limits of respect for others. Acts that were clearly a danger to others or were purposely hurtful, those I stopped immediately. The Rule of 3 was never intended to permit harmful or hurtful behavior, even temporarily. No teasing, taunting, or otherwise disrespectful behavior—if you don’t want it done to you, don’t do it to someone else. (I suppose I do need to mention that this also applies to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and anyone else who feels they have the right to tease, tickle, and/or pick on my kids. Poke the Mother Bear at your own risk, but be prepared to face the inevitable consequences.) The Rule of 3 did fulfill its designed purpose of teaching my youngsters to govern their own actions, so that I wouldn’t someday find myself reminding my teenagers to show respect for others—something they should definitely know for themselves by then. The Rule of 3 was a stepping stone on the road to maturity, and each time my kids stopped themselves after the third repetition of something, I knew they were progressing well on their journey.

This Rule of 3-times-and-done gave my normal, fun-loving kids an outlet for the silly ideas and the what-if-I experiments running rampant in their heads, but at the same time, it prevented them from becoming frustrated by a sibling whose behavioral exploits never stopped. Yes, that also meant that Mom (or Dad) had to step in from time to time to stop the antics with the firm reminder, “That’s three—you’re done now.” A few times, I had to redirect my Tigger to move his antics to the backyard where no one would object, and he could repeat them as much as he himself could stand. (Although eliminating the audience was often enough to bring the activity to a quick finish.) Occasionally, I had to take possession of the ball being bounced indoors (preventing a fourth bounce) or the toy car being zoomed around the breakfast dishes (preventing a fourth zoom) to bring the Rule of 3 violation to a clear and concise end.

If I hadn’t enforced the Rule of 3-times, the rule itself would have dissolved into the mist of all other unfulfilled dreams and wishes. The method of enforcement may vary from family to family and incident to incident. Personally, I can administer a death glare that can be felt from across the room, even if it’s focused on the back of your head. Of course, the laser-stare only works if the kids already know what will happen next if they ignore the heat from my warning stare. If the rule-breaker knows what to expect as a just and fair punishment, The Look can work as well as the verbal reminder “That’s it—you’re done.” Kids usually have an innate sense of justice, so choose the punishment to fit both the individual and the infraction, then be consistently consistent. (Now to avoid further tangents, let’s return to today’s topic.)

My kids loved getting their 3-times chances. To them, it was a brief moment of indulgent freedom where they were in control of their universe. And then they knew when to stop and hand the reins back to Mom to maintain perfect order in their world. They’d had their taste of leadership, and while it was fun while it lasted, they knew it was a temporary role, a momentary glimpse of what future independence would hold. It was a lesson in cause and effect: actions have consequences, so take responsibility for them. Learn to control your behavior (or your reaction to undesirable behavior from others), because this is just a tiny sample of life in the adult world, a preview of coming attractions.

Because I began implementing this Rule of 3 when my kids were small, they learned respect for the feelings and the personal space of others, along with the self-control to be able to stop if Mom said “That’s three—you’re done.” We all learned patience and tolerance and flexibility, often with twinkles in our eyes as we watched the star-of-the-moment perform his latest trick… exactly three times. His eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he owned the moment and was in complete control for the time being. All the other eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he could only do it two more times… one more time… and then he would have to stop. There were even a few times that I remember offering, “Okay, that’s two—you can do that one more time.” And he usually did, while all eyes twinkled at the freedom contained in the Rule of 3.

Granted, the Rule of 3 was most often enforced for my always-pushing-life’s-envelope son. However, my less-boisterous daughter appreciated its effects in that she didn’t feel a need to retaliate for something that Dear Little Brother was doing just to annoy her. She knew she could allow him three chances. After three, if he didn’t limit himself, then Mom’s Voice of Authority would take over, and peace would reign once again.

The Rule of 3 is so deeply ingrained in all of us now that it can be difficult to understand why that kid in the check-out lane is still doing whatever, and it’s been 5, 11… 27 times now! Why hasn’t the kid’s parent said “That’s three—you’re done”? And then I remember that not everyone knows about my sanity-saving Rule of 3.

Over the years, there were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Rule-of-3 stunts. I remember telling my kids that I didn’t care if they wanted to bounce a beach ball off my forehead—but they’d only get to do it three times—and then they would be DONE. Try it a fourth time, and… well, they never did try a fourth time, because they had learned respect for the Mom who would let them get away with the first three times. The Rule of 3 worked both for them and against them, but it worked consistently every time. If only it worked as well on those kids in the check-out lane.

How to Encourage Learning

I am no one special. I am just an ordinary Mom who has learned a lot about teaching. More specifically, I have learned a lot about learning, about how to learn, and about how to help someone else learn.

I grew up in a very small community, went to the same small school from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and graduated in a class of fifteen. I was always scolded that I was not working up to my potential, no matter how hard I tried or how much I did. My teachers discouraged anything that wasn’t already part of their tried-and-true lesson plans, and as a not-always-by-the-book learner, I did not enjoy school (in fact, I hated school) until I went to college—the second time.

I know first-hand what it is like to feel trapped in public school. I know the ridicule, the bullying, and the torturing, and I know the sinking feeling of helplessness that comes from the inability to change anything, including teachers’ preconceived notions of who you are and what you can or can’t do. Now, decades later, I also know the freedom that homeschooling brings. Through homeschooling my own children, I was able to break free from many of the stigmas that accompanied me through the first portion of my education. I say “first portion” because I now recognize education as a life-long endeavor, and the most recent portion of my education has been acquired through homeschooling my kids. Having done as little as possible through most of high school, I welcomed the chance to try again, and I learned many things right along with my students.

I enjoyed learning creation science with my kids and studying its relationship to God’s Word, something I had never thought about in my school days filled with evolution-as-scientific-fact. I learned much more about history, while helping my kids learn, and was able to connect the random facts I did know into a more accurate timeline of civilization. Reading was no longer a tedious assignment that I despised and avoided, but it became an enjoyable leisure activity for me. I grew to love reading aloud to my children as much as they enjoyed listening to the daily installments.

Back in public school, I’d had mediocre teachers, poor teachers, and absolutely horrible teachers, all of them with overwhelmingly discouraging attitudes. I’d had a few good teachers here and there, but it was not until my second try at attending college that I found some truly excellent teachers, and I attempted to recreate their methods later on when I began homeschooling. They had not rejected questions; instead, they had convinced me that the only “silly” question is the one which a student is too intimidated to ask, and they further convinced me that any intimidation at all is the teacher’s creation, not the student’s personality. These teachers did not criticize incorrect answers or solutions, but kindly and gently showed students the proper methods for proceeding. At a point when I had never even heard of homeschooling, those teachers fostered the teaching techniques that I would utilize years later.

One thing I had learned during my public school education was that students didn’t matter. Students who didn’t immediately grasp every concept as first presented were being purposely dense and stubbornly making the teacher’s job more difficult. The teachers could only be bothered to explain tings once, and if you didn’t understand right away, there was something wrong with you. These were the required subjects that must be taught, and if you didn’t find them delightfully interesting, there was something wrong with you. These were the few elective courses they had the resources to offer, and if you didn’t find them endlessly fascinating, there was something wrong with you. A student who dared to object to the standard fare or dared to suggest possible alternatives or dared to desire anything more interesting was met with horrified gasps. The professional educators knew what was best, and they were in charge. End of discussion.

And then I met Mr. Benbow. Mr. Benbow taught engineering, math, and programming classes at the community college, but Mr. Benbow taught me so much more than just trigonometry. He could elicit a response from even the shyest, most introverted student, because he eagerly waited for and listened to that response. It was as if everyone else in the room disappeared when he spoke to you, and you knew he was truly, genuinely interested in your opinion on the subject at hand. He didn’t seem to want to leave the room without hearing your thoughts and having the opportunity to discuss them with you and ask another question or two for clarification. Your response, no matter how tentative, no matter how ill-prepared, was important to Mr. Benbow. And after only a few weeks in his class, you began to feel that maybe you were important to more than Mr. Benbow.

I recall a rather under-achieving student who described an incorrect method for solving a particular math problem. I was groaning inside, realizing he was wrong and feeling sorry for the humiliation I thought he was destined to endure as his error was pointed out, ridiculed, and corrected. But Mr. Benbow didn’t do that. He listened to the student’s entire explanation of how he’d arrived at his wrong answer, and then Mr. Benbow thoughtfully considered each misstep and gently replied, “Well, you could do it that way… but think about this… If we go back to this step, and instead of what you did there, we do this…” and he went on to fully detail the correct method, step-by-step, arriving at the correct solution, while keeping the errant student’s dignity intact and giving the rest of us a beautifully practical lesson in humility.

Every Wednesday, Mr. Benbow began class with a quiz—always just one question or just one problem, but it always reinforced what we’d just learned. Every Friday, he began class with a joke—it was his way of starting the weekend with a little fun. Any time someone asked him for help on an assignment, he gave that student his complete attention and always hinted at the answer just enough to help the student discover it for himself. Mr. Benbow knew that telling a student the answer outright taught nothing, but guiding the student on the path to discovering the answer taught much more than the answer to that single problem.

I eagerly signed up for Mr. Benbow’s introductory course in computer programming. It was required for my degree, but I knew that he was capable of teaching anything to anyone, even programming language to someone who had never seen a computer before, and I knew he would make it a fascinating class. When my first complex program failed to run as intended, I sought his help. He quickly read through the cryptic steps, smiled with that intriguing little twinkle in his eyes, and simply said “Computers are stupid. They are machines that can only do exactly what we tell them to do.” And there he left me, both feet firmly planted on the path to discovery. Obviously, he meant that my program was telling the computer to do the wrong thing. More precisely, as I soon discovered, my program had not told the computer to do the right thing. Mr. Benbow’s programming hint became a life-lesson for me. It’s as important not to do the wrong thing, as it is to do the right thing. When teaching and training my children, I have tried to remember to show them what not to do, as well as what to do.

All of Mr. Benbow’s excellent teaching methods influenced me heavily. When my children asked questions or gave answers to my questions or offered their opinions on random topics, I tried to give them my focused attention, as if their ideas mattered—because their ideas really did matter. When I listened to every little thing my 7-year-old son wanted to tell, he learned that Mom cared, that his thoughts were either funny or thought-provoking, that he could make people laugh, and that he was important, and he mattered. My kids learned to give answers with confidence, knowing that if they happened to be wrong, they still weren’t subjected to ridicule, taunting, or shame. Any incorrect assumptions would be gently but thoroughly straightened out, until they had a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand.

If I expected my kids to learn, I knew they couldn’t feel intimidated. Our classroom had to be a place where they felt safe enough to ask any question and discuss any concept that they didn’t fully understand. If I wanted them to learn, I had to find an eleventh way to explain or illustrate or demonstrate what my first ten tries had failed to clarify. Their lack of understanding came from my failure to teach, not their failure to learn. In order for my kids to learn, I had to find better methods of teaching.

Because my early teachers had turned “Go look it up” into a discouraging punishment, I was determined to transform educating my children into a delightful challenge, an eager race for knowledge, a dare of discovery that they couldn’t help but pursue. Whenever we came across something of uncertain meaning, I looked my students in the eye with the most intriguing twinkle I could muster, then I dashed to the bookcase to grab the dictionary or whatever reference book might hold the answer. They enthusiastically joined me for a cheek-to-cheek search through the pages, as we found the answer together. Before long, they were the ones dashing off to find the answer, proudly beating Mom to it, but still generously sharing the moment of discovery as we read and discussed the treasured facts together.

To encourage my kids in their learning, I made up examples and story problems that were personal to them, I involved them in the illustrations and the demonstrations, and we worked together to build the models and create the learning aids that finally made the concepts clear. We converted our board games to use the facts and skills they were trying to learn and played the games over and over to practice their new knowledge. As Mr. Benbow had done, I used impromptu questions now and then to prove to them what they had just mastered (instead of shaming them for what they didn’t yet know), and I made time during our classes for an abundance of jokes and silly stories and amusing tricks, just to keep life fun.

Learning is encouraged when fear is removed and confidence takes its place. Learning is encouraged when the student sees each question as a game to be played, a challenge to be attempted, a goal to be conquered. Learning is encouraged when the student is intrigued to the point that he does not want to walk away without knowing the answer. Learning is encouraged when the examples are personal, when the problems become tantalizing puzzles to solve, when research begins an exhilarating bunny-trail adventure through a hundred twists and turns, and when every question opens another new door to wonders yet undiscovered. If learning is not fun or exciting or satisfying or rewarding, who would waste a single moment in its pursuit?

For more tips on getting your students interested and encouraging their learning:
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson
How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive
Looking for the “Hard Part”
My Student Is Trying, but Just Not Learning as Expected
The Know-It-All Attitude
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson