Parents Have Learning Styles, Too

Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

Sometimes the light bulb goes off, and we see something that has been staring us in the face for years. We understand that we have not seen what is obvious, and finally it comes to us—Parents Have Learning Styles, Too.

A quality early childhood program values daily interactions with parents. We may see parents at arrival and dismissal. Then, there are phone calls and emails sent from home, work, and phones. We know how important it is to connect with the families and caregivers of the children in our classes and programs because we realize that when we partner with parents wonderful things happen.

In religious schools, although there is often less face-to-face contact with parents, the goal is also to work in partnership with families to create community and to work together to educate the children.

However, we have all experienced the parent or caregiver who is unhappy or questions us about everything. They don’t understand the work we are doing, appreciate the curriculum, or see that his or her child is learning and growing. They claim they have no idea what is happening in the class, that no one tells them what is going on. We feel that we are trying so hard, but this parent is unhappy and is threatening to take the child out of the program. Everyone is frustrated.

If we have a child who seems unhappy, disconnected, or uneasy, we know what to do. We know that children are individuals, each with a unique way of approaching the world. We know that children have Learning Styles. What we have failed to acknowledge is that parents and caregivers have learning styles, too. Perhaps we need to realize that we are communicating at some parents instead of communicating with them. The good news is that it is relatively easy to figure out someone’s learning style. Carefully observe what the person does and says as carefully as you observe and listen to a child. Words and phrases are clues to learning styles.

These learning styles are: visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic, and mixed modality. By adulthood, approximately 30% of us are visual, auditory, or mixed and 10% are tactile/kinesthetic.

Visual learners learn by seeing. They need information and the “big picture” in writing. They want photos and visual demonstrations. Visual learners will read the articles you give out on development and curriculum. They are the parents who want a visually stimulating classroom environment, filled with children’s work. Visual people make eye contact and can be impatient if they have to listen to anyone for too long. In a meeting, they will write things down. Visual learners may not express emotions, but their facial expressions are usually good indicators of their feelings.

Visual learners might use some the following words and phrases:

  • See, look, think
  • Appears to me, looks like, under your nose
  • Paint a picture, plainly see, short sighted, in light of

Auditory learners learn by hearing. They thrive on conversation and group discussion and do best when they can talk a problem out. They will remember what was discussed. They may not make eye contact, but they are listening. Auditory learners will ask a lot of questions and enjoy listening but since they need to talk might be frustrated with someone else’s lengthy descriptions. They are good negotiators and brainstormers. They verbally express their emotions and may come across as loud and aggressive. Given time to speak (and knowing that someone is really listening), they will calm down and be open to a discussion. Also, auditory learners may have little awareness of the aesthetics of the classroom and therefore don’t “see” what is happening there.

Auditory learners may use this language:

  • Listen, hear, understand
  • Clear as a bell, loud and clear, word for word, in a manner of speaking
  • To tell the truth, utterly

Tactile/Kinesthetic learners learn by action and touch. They will remember best what was done or experienced, not necessarily what they have seen or heard. They need multi-dimensional presentations and will seem distracted or lose interest if a presentation is only verbal. They need something in their hands during presentations or discussions – a chart, list, spreadsheet, or photo. When speaking to you, a tactile/kinesthetic learner will fidget and use his/her whole body to communicate. These parents will touch your arm, give you a hug, or even stamp their foot. Their emotions show in their body language. If this parent is upset, the simple act of taking a walk together may bring out the best ideas.

Tactile/Kinesthetic learners might say this:

  • Take, get, do
  • Come to grip with, get a handle on, get in touch with
  • Get the drift of, hold on, not following you,
  • Start from scratch, pain in the neck, too much of a hassle

Communicating with parents and caregivers with an understanding of their different learning styles has implications for every aspect of school communication: conversations, conferences, back to school night presentations, committee meetings, and parent workshops. We can’t only post notices, email, send home fliers, or tell parents information at the door.

Consider a parent you find challenging:

  • the parent who seems to question everything you do
  • the parent who never seems to know what is going on in the classroom
  • the parent who wants to talk for a long time at arrival and dismissal
  • the parent who, no matter how hard you try, just never seems happy.

Now take a step back. Take the time to really get to know that parent or caregiver. Have a face-to-face meeting. Tone of voice cannot always be accurately conveyed in an email. When you meet, don’t interrupt. Let the person speak as long as he/she needs. Listen and observe. Ask for clarification and allow him/her to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings just as we do when we actively observe and listen to children. Ask what he/she need to better understand their child’s school, curriculum, classroom, teacher, etc.

More work, right? Initially, it may seem that way. There can be many reasons parents are not as connected with us as we would wish. We don’t need to make it more difficult because when everyone plainly sees it, when it is clear as a bell, and when we all get a handle on it, miraculous things will happen. We are all here to do this sacred work together, in partnership. It is the only way we will succeed.

Special thanks to Ron Lewkowitz for his workshops on learning styles.

Walter Barbe, “Swassing-Barbe Checklist of Observable Strength Characteristics,” Teaching Through Modality Strengths: Concepts and Practices,

Walter Barbe, Growing Up Learning

Michael Grinder, “Righting the Educational Conveyer Belt

Robbins Research Institute , 1985 Neuro-Linguistic Professional Training, “Predicate Phrases”