The Gift of Learning – Part 3 (of 6)

» Posted in Family Life, Learning, Parenting | 0 comments

learning through experience

As I mentioned in last week’s post, strengths-based learning is key to helping our kids grow and learn.  Before I talk about learning specifically, let me briefly talk about how to identify strengths in general in our kids (as well as in ourselves).  While there are a number of assessment tools you can use to help you identify these strengths, the best way you understand your child is to study them.  Watch your child and see what they gravitate towards time and time again, especially in non-directed play or activities.  What do they consistently excel at?  Look at their emotional reactions to certain activities and ask yourself the following questions:

  • When my child does this, does she feel effective and successful?
  • Does he seem to really look forward to it?
  • Does she appear focused and curious and engaged?
  • After he has completed it, does he look satisfied and fulfilled?
  • Does she want to do more of it?
  • Does he want to learn more about it?

Pay close attention to how specific tasks or activities make your child feel.  Track the answers to these questions for a week or two, and you will begin to see a clear picture of your child’s strengths (and conversely their weaknesses).  Take the time to KNOW your children well – not just their personalities and temperaments, but also their learning styles.  Throughout the remainder of this series on learning, I will be providing you with information and tools that will help you understand your children’s learning style, but also what happens when that learning breaks down – and more importantly, what to do about it.

Learning Tools

So how does learning work?  The most basic instrument or tool for learning is something called a neuro-developmental function.  To simplify this, I’m going to call these functions “learning tools”.

Our minds and those of our kids are like tool chests full of these learning tools.  Just as a carpenter will use different tools depending on what he’s building, so our mind will use different clusters of these learning tools to learn specific skills.  Our brains have zillions of these learning tools, and on top of that, the range of the different combinations that you need to accomplish tasks is mind-boggling.  Each brain has approximately 30 trillion connections or synapses, which allow for a lot of strong connections, some disconnections and misconnections.  Think of this:  we each have more connections in our brains than there are stars in the universe!

While certain traits and learning styles can be “hard-wired” into our kids, it’s important to remember that our brains are very malleable and our experiences can greatly impact the connections that are made in our brains.  The other important truth to keep in mind is how resilient our minds truly are, and how our kids are capable of changing and developing their strengths over time.  The more we use and stretch our brains, the more connections are formed, BUT the less we use aspects of our brain, our brain begins to prune connections that we don’t use.  That’s why I have a hard time doing math today when I was actually an A student in math in high school.  My brain has been pruned of my math synapses (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it)!  And so the experiences you expose your children to are critical, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it’s never too late to help them develop cognitively.  Studies have shown that even people in their senior years can change the connections in their brains – the more you continue to challenge your brain to learn new skills, the healthier your brain will be (an excellent book that explores this topic further is The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge).

Learning Systems

According to Dr. Mel Levine, a professor of pediatrics who has studied learning in children for years, there are also 8 learning systems in our brains that work together to help us learn a variety of different skills.  These learning systems work together.  At any point, the strength of functions within each system directly influences our performance.  These systems can grow, change, level off, or deteriorate, depending on what happens in our lives and how we exercise or train these systems.  These systems are the:

  1. attention control system
  2. memory system
  3. language system
  4. spatial ordering system
  5. sequential ordering system
  6. motor system
  7. higher thinking system, and
  8. social thinking system.

Learning Breakdown

Like any complex instrument, it’s common that there might be breakdowns or specific weaknesses.  We ALL have these flaws and we all have some kind of learning dysfunction.  Often these flaws don’t seriously impede our ability to succeed.  But sometimes they do.

Here are some examples of some learning dysfunctions (I will share more about this later in the series):  some kids have difficulty writing even though they have lots to say – they just can’t seem to form letters quickly and accurately enough to keep up with their flow of ideas and words.  Other kids have trouble finding the exact words to say when they talk, difficulty remembering the associations between sounds and symbols when they read, or trouble understanding complex sentences and thereby following verbal directions quickly and precisely in the classroom.  Still others have trouble with their working memory and they can’t seem to hold onto information long enough to use the information.

Another child may constantly daydream and fidget in class, often out of focus.  She is told she needs to start paying attention in class or she’ll get a detention.  She comes to believe that she is somehow bad.  No one seems to realize that her fragile concentration is a kind of mental burnout – she has a learning dysfunction that interferes with her ability to turn on and keep up the flow of mental energy that she needs to concentrate in class.  Her dysfunction is misread as a behaviour problem when really she is battling mental fatigue.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Each of these problems is a specific learning dysfunction and is likely to interfere with their learning.  Often these dysfunctions go undetected.  Instead the assumption is made that the student isn’t really trying, is lazy or unmotivated, or “just not too bright”.

Some of our kids are blessed with learning profiles that are wonderfully matched to expectations, while some are given profiles that fail to mesh with demands. If your child has a profile that’s not conforming to demands, don’t give up and don’t let him or her give up either.  That very profile has a very good chance of coming into its own sooner or later.  We all experience patterns of strengths and weaknesses that shift during different stages of our lives.  A big part of teaching and parenting is helping kids make it through periods when they feel inadequate.  It happens to everyone.

Not only will a mind come into its own at any time, but a learning profile that’s ideally suited to school may not be so well suited to career attainment.  And vice versa.  It’s well documented that many successful business people were unsuccessful in school – and no wonder because to be a successful entrepreneur takes a different kind of mind than to be a successful academic.  It really is true what they say:  A students teach B students to work for C students!

Proactive Intervention

In the ideal world, our education system would have the funding, resources and time to identify each of our children’s strengths and weaknesses, and then based on that assessment, design an individualized learning program to suit their needs.  Unfortunately, that isn’t realistic, given all the constraints and challenges our educators face each day.  Given that reality, I believe very strongly that our kids’ educational health is our responsibility as parents, especially when our kids are young and cannot advocate for themselves.  Unfortunately, for many overwhelmed and stressed families, it is just another thing on their already over-loaded plates.

Parents, the number of kids and teens who come to my office struggling from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem because of a failure to thrive in their academic career is heartbreaking.  It grieves my heart to see them giving up because of the constant negative messages they get from school.  And for those quiet and compliant children who don’t pose a behavioural problem – these kids often slip through the cracks and get shuffled through from grade to grade, slipping further and further behind.  And unfortunately, their sense of self is being shaped by these negative experiences, rather than ones in which they experience success, understand their unique giftedness, and feel confidence in their ability to thrive.

One of my greatest pleasures in doing psycho-educational assessments with kids is when I can tell them that the results show that they are bright, and that they have a really cool way of thinking and learning that’s different from others.  That’s usually when I am able to help them and their parents understand the way their brain works and give them some ideas on how they can advocate for themselves and what tools they can use to help them learn.  For many of these kids, it’s a defining moment for them when they begin to see their capabilities in a positive light, and to feel a sense of hope for their future.

There are also many wonderful learning opportunities for your kids in how you process their school experiences with them – how to handle failure, how to avoid comparing themselves to their peers, how to persevere, and especially, how to define themselves by how God sees them, rather than by their marks.  Being in a connected relationship with your child, showing empathy for the challenges and painful experiences they face, and guiding them with wisdom as they navigate through these experiences are so key for us as parents in helping to shape our kids for success later in life.

So What can You Do about It? 

There are many learning tools you can use with your kids from a very young age – from books, to games, to video games, to computer-based learning (two excellent resources are: and  Get involved in your child’s learning and you will begin to see how they’re wired.  But a warning:  look for ways to make it fun!  Kids naturally love to learn and are curious about the world around them.  Don’t use this as a way to put pressure on them to perform and don’t make them sit for hours working through math problems (okay, I admit, that was me having flashbacks of my childhood!).  Help them to learn actively – while playing and exploring the world.  In the early years, kids learn best through play and activity, not through static downloading of information as you drone on and on about a subject.

Pay attention right from the get-go to how your child is doing in school – not just their marks but their emotional well-being.  Are they happy and thriving?  Are they enjoying themselves?  Listen to the comments that their teachers make – is there a theme that you’re seeing?  Denying or minimizing (“What do the teachers know?”) isn’t wise at this point.  And don’t put off doing something about it – the earlier the intervention, the better.

Know the typical learning milestones (e.g., reading, writing, etc.) and if your child is falling behind, take steps to find out WHY and then provide them with additional support and help.  And do it sooner rather than later.  Don’t wait until the problems become a crisis and your child is struggling with school refusal or other significant issues.  If you wait until your child is in high school before doing something about it, you may find that it’s too late – by then, your teen may refuse to do anything about the problems or are too entrenched in their negative attitudes about school.  (Of course, if your child is already in high school or even university, don’t give up – the strategy will just be different in how you involve your teen or young adult in this process.)

I’m a big proponent of understanding your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, but I do understand that not everyone can afford to pay for a psychologist to do a psycho-educational assessment.  But understanding WHY is such an important part of knowing how to help your child, especially if they’re struggling in school.  Many times, the behavioural manifestation of the problem can look the same, but the actual cause can be very different, and hence, the intervention is also different.  Talk to your paediatrician about ways you can get your child assessed.  Talk to your school and get your child on the waiting list for an assessment with the school psychologist.  And many psychologists will offer a reduced fee or a payment plan which is often covered by your work insurance plan, so it may be worth investigating.

In part 5 of this series, I will share much more about diagnosing learning disabilities and what to look for in the assessment of the professional with whom you are working.  Next week, I will discuss learning styles and how to identify your children’s preferred style of learning.  In the meanwhile, please feel free to comment on this blog or ask questions!


Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>