Motivating Different Kinds of Kids

by Dr. Wayne D. Lance1

Jacob must have experienced some difficulty in motivating his sons. The effects of famine in the land had reached serious proportions, yet it was known that a good supply of grain was available in Egypt. Even hunger seemed not to move Jacob’s sons to action. In exasperation he had to exclaim, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?”

At various times every parent — and certainly every teacher — has been perplexed over an inability to motivate a particular child. The child fails to follow through with an assignment and, to paraphrase Jacob, the parent exclaims, “Why do you just keep sitting there without doing your assignment?” The response will probably be something like, “It’s boring” or “I just don’t understand it.”

Part of the answer to this common problem has to do with under­standing a child’s learning style. Teachers and researchers are finding that matching instructional methods to a student’s learning style can make a positive difference.

Environmental Preferences

After living in the heart of New York City for several months (and now in central Kansas), I have found that I prefer silence to noise when I am reading or writing. But there are those who choose to work where there is constant activity, where the sound of the bustling street, rather than being a distraction, actually blocks out distractions. Believe it or not, there are students who seem able to perform better with some level of background noise!

Two of my former colleagues replaced the lighting in their offices with low-intensity bulbs. When I went from my brightly lit office (which I prefer) to the dimness of their work space, I felt like I was going from noonday to dusk. They preferred the dimness and felt they were far more productive in the subdued light. I’ve seen children who react differently when the intensity of light is changed. Not only does their mood change, but their ability to concentrate is affected.

Temperature is one of a number of variable environmental factors in the equation of how productive we are. Even posture is important. Do you know people who seem to read and think better in a horizontal position than sitting in a conventional chair at a desk?

Learning Styles

Environmental factors are only part of more than twenty components identified as affecting how individuals learn. You can probably think of other ways children differ—ways that contribute to their ability to learn new things.

Some children love to tell stories, others seem to be constantly asking questions, while still others are always on the move. Some are quiet and prefer to be alone. Some always seem to have at least one project underway. Rather than thinking of these characteristics as idiosyncrasies, think of them as built-in tools for learning.

When considering your own preferences, you can probably state that you are a morning person or a night person, that you must write things down in order to remember them, or that you prefer to hear a list and rehearse it consciously in your mind. Studies indicate that men and women differ to some degree (with considerable overlap) in learning styles. You may be an analytical thinker or a global thinker, or more dominated by your left brain than your right brain.

In other words, numerous factors affect learning, and it is illogical to expect all children to function the same way in the same environments with the same materials and the same instructional methods.

Getting a handle on how each of our children learns is not too difficult, especially if we avoid being a stickler for measurable evidence. Teachers do have instruments they can use to determine learning styles, such as the “Learning Styles Profile” or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

While such instruments are useful, I do not believe they are necessary for typical parents teaching their own children. With a small number of students and the opportunity for 24-hour observation, parents are in an ideal position to observe and come to valid conclusions about the ways each of their children learns.

Matching Methods and Materials to Styles

There are a number of ways to label, or categorize, learning styles. The terms we choose to use are not that important; in fact, like any use of labels, we must be careful not to put a child in a neat cubbyhole and base all of our planning and teaching on that assessment.

What we want to look for are tendencies, preferences, areas of success, and areas of difficulty. Then through trial and error we discover ways to adapt our teaching methods and materials to each child’s style.

No person has totally one style. In fact, some people seem to have strengths and preferences which cut across nearly all styles. But for the child who seems to be particularly difficult to motivate, it pays to try
to identify the predominant learning style and then adapt methods and materials accordingly.

The chart below is one way of viewing learning styles. As an example of application, consider a child who appears to learn best through the auditory channel. Because so many teaching materials are geared toward the visual learner, it may be necessary to do some adapting. You or one of your older children can record a story or textbook passage on tape. In this way, your auditory learner can listen repeatedly to the recording while he tracks the words visually.

This same student may make better progress in developing writing skills by first speaking his story into a tape recorder, then playing it back and critiquing his own work prior to writing. Your auditory learner may learn much about the life-styles of early American settlers by first listening to music of the period and then being guided into more traditional printed materials.

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