By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach
John*, as his mother will explain in an exhausted tone, is an energetic child. He loves Legos, creating unique contraptions, and appreciates complex conceptual challenges. But in kindergarten and first grade, he struggled with many subjects. While he enjoyed discussing larger math concepts like infinity and fractals, he battled with basic math facts, spelling, and even writing (and was later diagnosed with dyslexia).
John is also very sensitive. When he knew that his teachers or other children were frustrated with him, he, in turn, acted out in frustration. He was eventually asked to leave first grade due to behavior problems.
In one interaction with John, then seven years old, he informed me that “the parts of a tree are all the same.” I had a feeling he was onto something, so I encouraged him: “But an apple isn’t the same as its bark or its leaves. I can’t eat the bark of an apple tree, but I can eat the apple,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, searching for words to describe a concept that seemed so clear in his mind. “But the leaves, the apple, the bark, the wood, the roots – it’s all the same, through and through.” When I asked how he knew this, he strained to articulate his idea. Eventually, though he wasn’t able to give me the proper term. I believe he was describing what we call DNA.
John is a visual-spatial learner.
According to Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., an expert on visual-spatial learners, these children “are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They learn better visually than auditorily.”
Additionally, 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 sometimes results in suspicion of cheating. Visual-spatial 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.
Most teaching techniques in our schools are designed for linear-sequential learners whose learning progresses from easy to difficult material. Subjects are taught in a step-by-step fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. Problem solving and learning is done 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 visual-spatial style. More and more, I see children on the visual-spatial spectrum who don’t yet have the sequential learning skills required early on in school.
How to recognize a visual-spatial learner
Below are some general identifiers from Silverman. The appearance of one or even several of these does not necessarily indicate a visual-spatial learner. But if many indicators are evident, it’s worth looking into:
- Thinks in images instead of words
- Resists demonstrating what she or he knows
- Has trouble with timed tests
- Takes things apart to find out how they work
- Is 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
One thing I would add to this list is the spatial component of thought. One child described it as thoughts that come in “chunks” or “globs” or preverbal thoughts. Complex ideas present in preverbal units, and it’s in this way that many visual-spatial thinkers synthesize thoughts. So, I would add, “thinks in preverbal chunks.” So much about being visual-spatial gets lost in translation when trying to put the visual-spatial thought into words (which are linear).
Today, I see many students trying to cope with an education system that doesn’t fit their learning style. Unfortunately, most professionals tasked with helping these children are trained to (or only have time to,) focus on behavior rather than learning style. As a result, these children are often given labels that only partly address their problem, or that don’t address their problem at all.
What can we do?
- Homeschooling or attending schools designed for visual-spatial learners is the best way to educate these children when possible. Following the intellectual curiosity of the child with project-based and learner-driven techniques is helpful. Addressing the varying needs of children through techniques such as Montessori math, (a process-oriented, tactile, and visual way of learning math), technology, and experiential learning methods are also helpful. Additionally, having a high student-teacher ratio and high teacher retention is key to creating and maintaining important relationships that develop over the years, as visual-spatial children are relational learners.
- For families who are unable to homeschool or attend a private school, understanding how your child thinks and learns. Using this information to parent and communicate with his teacher is going to be important. One simple change that can make a huge positive impact for many of these students is finding alternatives to traditional homework and quizzes. (For those lucky enough to have one-on-one tutoring, the same applies and can be ideal.) Keep all after school and home activities child-led as much as possible. Seek help from a professional who is knowledgeable with visual-spatial children if there are behavior issues. More often than not, the behaviors can be due to the child’s misinterpretation that they are not good enough when really the issue is an educational mismatch. Even when you can’t fix their education, you can side coach them at home with your deeper understanding of what is really going on. How you interpret the situation is more important than getting them the right school. Seek help for yourself in getting clarity so that you can guide your child when needed.
- Additionally, allowing your child to explore and learn outside of school in a way that suits them is going to be important. Is she obsessed with YouTube videos about something educational like science experiments, or even Spongebob? Embrace it. Does he need to download all that he has learned by talking to you, another adult, or a peer who has similar interests? Does she want to learn about stop motion animation, but doesn’t want to take a class? Does he want to continue with dramatic play, even though his same-aged friends are done with that? I’d say go with all of this whenever possible. This is your child’s way of learning and integrating knowledge.
- Find your child like-minded friends (yes, they are out there!) Organize a monthly get together for chess, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, or whatever your child is excited about. Do the work to stay connected to that one friend he hit it off with about supernovas back in first grade.
A Success Story
Jeannie*, a highly visual-spatial first-grader, was refusing to go to school and cutting her arm daily. A mental health professional told her parents that she may have ADHD and depression.
Her parents decided to pull Jeannie from school. She stopped cutting immediately and exhibited happy behavior. This marked the beginning of the family’s journey in discovering Jeannie’s needs. They’ve since sought my help, and as part of that, obtained appropriate assessments. When seeking help for your child, find someone who you feel “gets” them: their quirkiness, their intelligence, and the depth of their emotions. Remember to trust your instincts on this one.
Jeannie tested as being highly creative, highly sensitive, highly visual-spatial, and highly gifted. She now shows no signs of depression. Here is what we found helpful for Jeannie.
The first year Jeannie’s mother homeschooled her, using a child-led approach. Jeannie was allowed to read the Harry Potter books as much as she wanted, (an obsession of Jeannie’s, as she wore her Harry Potter robe everywhere). As part of her schooling, her mother found a homeschool class where Jeannie and other children explored the stories in depth by creating art, enacting scenes, and even choosing a character to be all day. All of this allowed Jeannie to process in-depth what she loved about the books, and what she was yearning to learn more deeply. In this class, Jeannie met friends with mutual interests (and mutual learning styles,) and processed some of the rich information about being human that these amazing books have to offer, addressing social skills along the way (without calling it “Social Skills”).
The second year, Jeannie attended a micro-school designed specifically for highly gifted, visual-spatial learners. Her teachers allowed her to study in-depth what engaged her, even if topics were beyond her grade level.
Now, Jeannie continues to be engaged, and while she previously had difficulties connecting with others, she has a close group of friends with shared interests. She even reaches out to those who do not share her interests. Jeannie, now in 5th grade, continues to thrive at her current school. Her parents continue to embrace her different learning style at home.
It is my hope that our public-school system can learn from techniques with which homeschoolers and certain micro-schools are finding success and incorporate them into their methodologies. Visual-spatial children are key to our societal advancement. As Silverman has found, they are often some of the most gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically, and emotionally.
Visual-spatial children are an integral part of what our future needs to be.
*Names and details have been changed for the purposes of the article.
© 2017 Teresa Currivan Updated ©2020
Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, and coaches parents at Help My Child Thrive Coaching LLC and The Right Place Learning Center. She is the author of the book, My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions. She has connections to SF Bay Area schools including Big Minds Unschool, Fusion Academy High School, The Academy of Thought and Industry, and others. She leads support groups for parents of differently wired children at The Right Place Learning Center. She has been published on sites such as Mother.ly, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education page. She specializes in assessing and supporting differently wired children and their families. You can find more articles related to being differently wired in her book. Follow her on her Facebook at fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching.
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This article is part of Teresa’s book, My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions. You can purchase it on Amazon by paperback or ebook – or order it from your local bookseller or library.
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A similar article titled, “Could Your Struggling Kid Actually Be a Visual-Spatial Learner?” was previously published on Mother.ly.