You may have heard the term “learning styles.” Perhaps your child’s teacher mentioned it, or a fellow parent dropped it into conversation. The theory, in a nutshell, is that children learn in one of three ways: visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically. And because of their learning style, they learn things a certain way.

The theory has been around for a long time. But now some experts are saying that while it’s important to figure out a child’s learning strengths, it’s just as important to flip the coin, and look at their learning weaknesses. Once both are identified, instruction can be tailored around those weaknesses rather than catered to their strengths alone.

Learning success isn’t just about aptitude in math, or a love for science. In short, it’s not just about the “what,” it’s also about the “how.” Clinical and School Psychologist Gloria S. Rothenberg, Ph.D., explains that the way a child learns affects the efficiency, accuracy, and meaning extracted from information in his environment. “Learning styles can foster talents where the learner’s strengths lie, or they can disrupt learning when some area is weak and compensatory skills are lacking,” says Dr. Rothenberg.

For example, auditory learners tend to be better at language arts subjects such as English and Social Studies. Visual learners tend to be better at math and science, and kinesthetic learners often do well in hands-on or laboratory type situations, as opposed to lecture-style instruction.

Still, there are many exceptions to these tendencies. That’s because children with strengths in one area may have weaknesses in another. There’s a lot of information out there as to how to play to a learning style strength. Here’s what Dr. Rothenberg says to be aware of when it comes to learning style weaknesses:

  • Children with auditory weaknesses have trouble following spoken directions and rely on visual cues, including watching others, to understand what to do. Retaining multi-step directions is especially hard for them. They may also become distracted while listening to a story. Visual schedules, which use simple icons or pictures to represent tasks and steps, are helpful for these children because they provide visual clues in sequential format to guide behavior. Adults can simply point to a picture to give reminders rather than repeatedly calling out a child's name.
  • Children with visual weaknesses have a hard time remembering locations and may appear disorganized or disoriented when gathering or putting away materials. Just as the name suggests, they have trouble learning things visually, so they need to be guided through any lessons with charts, diagrams, graphs, or other visual arrays. For example, a teacher may need to tell them how different parts of a diagram relate to each other, and why.
  • Children with kinesthetic weaknesses have trouble learning things through sense of touch – for example, learning the meaning of rough by touching sand paper, or learning smooth from touching silk. Their ability to learn something by "doing it" physically is also weak. They may be bothered by certain textures or conversely, they may want to touch everything they can get their hands on, in order to get some extra sensory input. Their sense of gravity can be skewed, which leads to balance and spatial problems. These children are most likely to benefit from language-based cues to guide their behavior, since many kids with kinesthetic problems also have visual/spatial weaknesses. Planning out a sequence of steps verbally before doing them can be very helpful.

One of the most important things you can do when you see your child excelling or struggling with an activity is to make a mental note of what’s going on in that particular learning environment. What qualities surrounded the activity? What led to the success or the struggle? By familiarizing yourself with your child’s weaknesses, you’ll be better able to coach them as to how to overcome their challenges the next time around. And by focusing on your child’s strengths, you can help them play to those qualities – in school and beyond.