Don't panic if your son has trouble spelling or your daughter can't sit still during history class. It may be that he or she simply has a different learning style.
Every child learns in a slightly different way, experts say, and figuring out your child's own learning style can help assure academic success. In some cases, it may even help do away with labels, like "attention deficit disorder (ADD)" and "learning disabled (LD)."
Here's a step-by-step guide to identifying, understanding, and making the most of your child's learning style.
Learning Styles: Identifying Your Child's Strengths
Parents need to keep their eyes and ears open to figure out what works best for their children when it comes to learning, says Mel Levine, MD, co-founder of All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit institute for the study of learning differences.
"Some children are hands-on, while others work best through language and do well with reading," says Levine, a pediatrics professor at the University of North Carolina Medical School. "Some children understand things better than they remember them.
"There are many different patterns of learning, and the best thing that a parent can do is step back and observe what seems to be happening and what seems to be working with their child."
Levine suggests that parents begin evaluating their child's learning style at age 6 or 7. Learning styles really start to crystallize during the middle school years.
Understanding your child's disposition can also help you determine his or her learning style, says Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, MS, a learning coach based in Ventura, Calif., and author of Discover Your Child's Learning Style.
For example, is your child adventurous? Inventing? Or thinking/creating like a poet or a philosopher?
"An adventurous personality really has to move to learn, so sitting at desk all day doesn't do it for them," she says. By contrast, "a child with an inventing disposition asks a million questions, such as 'How does this work?' 'What about this?'"
Another factor to observe is your child's "learning modality", she says. This refers to which senses your child best learns through. Are they auditory (listening and verbal), visual (picture or print), or tactile-kinesthetics (hands-on, whole-body, sketching or writing)?
"Some people are more visual and need pictures to learn, while print learners need print," she explains.
Another aspect of learning style involves the environment, she says. For example, noise, temperature or lighting may affect some children's ability to learn.
"For one child, temperature might not make a difference, but some children can't concentrate if it's too hot, and/or lighting can be a crucial factor for some people if fluorescent lighting causes eyestrain," she says.
Learning Styles: Playing to Your Child's Strengths
Once you have identified your child's learning style, you can begin to build on his or her strengths to compensate for learning weaknesses -- without labels.
"If a little girl has a lot of spatial problems (difficulty picturing things), but is terrific in English, she can learn math by putting everything into her own words," Levine explains. "If you show her an equilateral triangle and ask her to talk about it, boy, will she understand it.
"She can only understand things in words, which is why she is such a terrific English student."
Another way to enhance learning is to focus on your child's affinities and areas of interest.
"A lot of strength could ride on the coattails of their passions, and you can build academic skills in that area," Levine says. "Have him became an expert in the area that he feels passionate about."
Pelullo-Willis agrees. "Parents really should encourage children's interests, talents and what they love to do," she says. "Parents tend to say 'If you are not doing well in school, you can't take horseback riding lessons,' but those are things that can build self-esteem.
Further, she says, "acknowledging and honoring their interests and talents tells you a lot about their learning style. If your child is really interested in plants and gardening, you can see if they are more hands-on and they need to go out there and garden. Or do they learn better from pictures about gardening, or reading about gardening?"
Learning Styles: Increasing Awareness in Schools
As it stands, schools mainly teach to print, auditory and language learners, according to Pelullo-Willis.
"They teach by saying 'Read, answer the questions and listen to me talk' and that only covers a small percentage of children," she says.
If your child is a hands-on learner, "You can say: 'Of course school is so hard for you; you need to move a lot and they don't do that in school,'" she says. "Then learn everything you can about how to use their learning style to make school easier."
Adds Levine: "We are learning more and more that there are differences in learning, and to treat everyone the same is to treat them unequally."
The good news is that growing numbers of teachers are focusing on learning styles and reaching out to all types of learners.
For example, Levine helped launch the Schools Attuned program. This professional development program helps teachers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to accommodate learning differences. To date, the program has offered training to 30,000 teachers.
But if your child's teacher has not been trained in learning styles, don't despair, Pelullo-Willis says. Instead, talk to him or her about what you have observed about your child's learning style.
"Say, 'Wow, I have just discovered this and I tried it, and he got it. Do you think we could work together using this kind of information?' And the teacher may even get interested in reading a book or article on learning style," she says.