Is Your Child Struggling In School? They Could Be A Visual-Spatial Learner. Here’s How You Can Help.

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What is a visual-spatial learner?

According to Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., an expert in visual-spatial (VS) learners, these children “are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential (i.e., typical) learners. They learn better visually and experientially than auditorily.”  

Below are some general identifiers of VS learning from Silverman. The more traits your child exhibits regularly, the greater the chances he or she could be in this group. 

  •    Thinks in images instead of words
  •    Resists demonstrating what she or he knows (needs to know why)
  •    Has trouble with timed tests
  •    Takes things apart to find out how they work (prefer hands-on-learning)
  •    Gets frustrated with writing assignments
  •    Solves problems in unusual ways
  •    Doesn’t memorize math facts easily
  •    Reaches correct conclusions without apparent steps
  •    Dislikes public speaking
  •    Is not a good speller
  •    Doesn’t budget time well
  •    Doesn’t have neat handwriting
  •    Is extraordinarily imaginative
  •    Oral expression is much better than written expression
  •    Is not well organized

What is the inner experience of a Visual-Spatial learner? 

It’s like a visual “knowing,” where one is trying to find the words, math equation, musical notes, architecture modality, or any other way of putting into form what is clear in the child’s head. Often, the vision they have in their head is clearer than they can communicate, especially to a sequential thinker who expects someone to “show their work” to be convinced the child knows something. 

Why do Visual-Spatial children have a difficult time in school?

Most teaching techniques in our schools primarily cater to linear-sequential learners, whose learning typically progresses from easy to difficult material. Subjects are often taught step-by-step, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed.

Problem solving and learning is taught in a systematic manner, using a series of logical steps: Memorize the math facts and then do algebra, or learn to read and write and then write your own story.

While these techniques work for some learners, they are counter to the VS style. More and more, I see children on the VS spectrum who don’t yet have the sequential learning skills required early on in school.

Further, Visual-Spatial learners tend to learn holistically.

This results in their sometimes arriving at solutions without going through the usual steps. Showing your work, often required by teachers, may be impossible, and could result in a child not getting credit for an assignment and possibly being suspected of cheating. VS learners may succeed in solving difficult problems while finding simpler tasks a challenge. Teachers might interpret this kind of student as being obstinate or contrary.

What is the best learning environment for a Visual-Spatial learner? 

Many parents who have highly Visual-Spatial children may choose to homeschool or find a school that is appropriate for VS learners. Smaller schools that are learner-driven will be a better fit.

Sometimes project-based schools work well. Ideally, they will have access to open space and nature, technology, and offer freedom of choice. Your child will be able to tell you if it works for them. 

A school such as Big Minds Unschool in the San Francisco Bay Area is my favorite example of a school that serves the VS child.

It values the child’s own innovative ideas and supports them in creating meaningful work.

They provide hands-on activities and real-world reasons to explain why anything is done, from helping to clean up and following rules to working on projects.

Unlike a typical school, the learning objectives at Big Minds (and the type of school that will work for a VS learner) are the ability to:

  1. Maintain a clear connection to their passions and areas of strength
  2. Engage in creative inquiry and investigation as self-directed learners
  3. Research and critically analyze others’ research
  4. Communicate well, both orally and in writing
  5. Successfully navigate social interactions

These values and learning goals work for Visual-Spatial children.

They are joined where they are at, as opposed to trying to make the child reach a learning goal that may be mainstream, but that does not necessarily suit them.

At the same time, there is an expectation that they, when and if ready, will be able to adopt the more linear-sequential skills necessary to navigate the world in order to support their VS gifts.

As with all schools, make sure there is a “felt” sense of whether they carry out their stated values. After a day of hanging out there, your child will have a good sense of whether it will work for them or not. 

How can I facilitate my Visual-Spatial learner at home? 

If your VS child is at a more typical school that emphasizes auditory-sequential learning, please know that there is plenty you can do to facilitate their learning at home. These kids never stop learning, and often do their more important work after school and on the weekends (and, yes, sometimes at midnight.)  

All kids learn differently. Is your child struggling in school? It could be that he or she is a visual spatial learner. Here's what you can do as a parent to help your visual spatial learner. #visualspatial

1) Support their projects and curiosities.

This is the easiest and clearest thing you can do. Help them find the tools, the classes, the glue, the shows, the entrepreneurial endeavors. Exhausted? See if you can get a neighbor kid to help, even a mentor if you can. A high school student would be great. 

2) Allow for plenty of unstructured time.

If they are at a school that is pretty structured, they may need plenty of unstructured time at home. Some kids will need downtime after school before they can venture into a project, even one that they want to do. If their weeks are packed, saving a half or even full weekend can be helpful.  (#1 counts as unstructured time.) 

3) Adjust homework.

If their homework is repetitive and tedious, and they are able to somehow communicate that they understand the work, ask their teacher if they can have less homework, or show their work in other ways. Remember to make this as easy on the teacher as possible.

They are busy (and underpaid!) 

4) Welcome technology.

This is the way our children learn and play. Their brains are fast and sometimes learning from YouTube videos or documentaries suits them more than reading a textbook.

Listening to audiobooks might engage them more than reading books, and they may remember stories or information better that way. Welcome their way of learning.

Help them to understand how to fact-check and to do things like navigating comments so they do not become overwhelmed. These are skills they will need in life anyway.

Additionally, gaming is underrated. We don’t know what the jobs of the future will look like, but I’m pretty sure that brain surgeons will be using technology to operate (if they aren’t already).

Multiplayer gaming also promotes social skills. 

5) Get outside with your visual spatial learner.

Visual-Spatial children need to move and be in nature. The truth is that we all need nature, but VS learners who tend to be highly sensitive need nature to soften the harshness of the world so they can unwind, recharge, and reconnect to themselves.

6) Be aware of how school can impact behavior and mental health.

If your child is having behavior issues or is showing signs of depression, and you suspect that it is due to a mismatched school setting, seek help from professionals who understand this population.

Additionally, if you do nothing else for your VS child, understanding them will go a long way. Your relationship, (and any adult in their life who understands them) is going to be helpful.

If you are able to do one thing on this list, you are helping them. 

7) Reframe their situation and side coach.

If you are able, understanding your Visual Spatial child and in turn, helping them to understand themselves in the context of a mostly non-visual spatial world can go a long way.

If this is something you will never, in a million years, understand yourself, seek outside help from a professional who truly understands this. These kids are often their own worst critics.

Instead of “there’s something wrong with me, I don’t fit in,” you can help them to understand “there’s something wrong with the school, they can’t teach me in the way I learn.”

Find your own words that represent your understanding of this.

Children know the truth when they hear it. Remind them that school doesn’t need to be the only place where they learn (and therefore judge their ability to learn.) It may only take a few conversations to internalize this understanding, with the goal being for them to be able to understand themselves and when age-appropriate, to advocate for themselves. 

8) Help them find their people.

Are they crazy about coding, sewing or even Dungeons and Dragons? Find a group if you can. Or you may need to connect them with one important friend.

Have a quirky, visual-spatial aunt or neighbor down the street? Or a random kid they connected with at their tae kwon do class, but they live an hour away? Welcome these relationships and make the drive if you can.

Often, these kids feel so different from everyone else that finding that kindred spirit can be such a relief!

The world is changing. I believe that our Visual-Spatial learners are wired for the future.

Many of them are concerned with and ready to solve many of our world’s problems that most of us can’t imagine there are solutions to. Meeting them where they are at and helping them navigate their education while holding onto their gifts is key to helping them reach their potential, helping them grow, and ultimately be contributing members of our planet. 

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, Headshotcroppedcoach and consultant for parents at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. She runs parent support groups both privately, and for Big Minds Unschool, a school for twice-exceptional learners in Pinole, CA. Teresa has been published on sites such as Mother.ly, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. She specializes in giftedness, twice-exceptionality,  educational fit, and family dynamics. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on HelpMyChildThrive.com. Follow her on Facebook at  fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching. 

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Teresa Currivan
Teresa Currivan is a licensed marriage and family therapist, parent coach, and former school therapist, currently in private practice. She specializes in unpacking the layers of diagnoses that come with exceptionalities and differently-wired children. She speaks about her strength-based approaches to teachers, faculty, and parent groups, and has published extensively on the topics of giftedness and twice-exceptionality. She runs The Right Place Learning Center in Lafayette, CA where her Currivan Protocol™ is used to assess, address, and resolve exceptional issues in children. She received her MA in Counseling Psychology using Drama Therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and completed post-graduate training at The Psychotherapy Institute in Berkeley, California. She recently published her book, Help My Exceptional Child Thrive; Strength-Based Approaches to Properly Address Dyslexia, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Anxiety and More. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her website is https://helpmychildthrive.com/

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