Teaching Kids with Autism: Are Learning Styles Important?
When parents and educators think about how to best educate a child, some of us might be familiar with the phrase learning styles - the idea that we prefer to take in information in different ways, and thus will learn more effectively when information is presented in our preferred mediums. While research on learning styles has not been proven to improve academic achievement in mainstream students, there seems to be a growing interest in understanding the learning preference of those with developmental delays, and whether matching the delivery of materials to an individual’s learning styles can improve learning outcomes. It is most certainly an exciting idea for parents and teachers alike, that identifying an individual’s learning style may help to boost a child’s learning, but it is also a common myth that these learning styles, once identified, are fixed. Contrary to popular beliefs, children may adopt a variety of learning styles when presented with different materials, and may even absorb better when information is presented through a combination of mediums.
What are some of the commonly known learning styles?
Visual - A common mode of learning is through visuals such as pictures and images. Visuals may be appealing as it presents the whole picture at one glance and may be used as a starting point to introduce difficult topics especially in mathematics. It can also be used to bridge learning gaps by helping students visualise abstract concepts better such as more complex emotions and feelings.
Visuals may be in the form of pictorial books, flashcards, or diagrams.
Using a visual schedule and visual timer may help to organise daily activities better or to acquire new routines such as toileting.
When giving instructions, it may also be helpful to use a picture reference to show the child what is expected of them e.g. “Quiet” (picture of person with 1 finger to the mouth) or “Sit well” (picture of a person sitting on a chair with legs down).
Wordy information can be presented in point forms to help them keep track of important information to remember.
Keep in mind to remove any distractions and clutter in the environment such as having toys lying around as visual learners may be tempted to “jump on” and explore the next exciting thing they see in their environment.
Auditory - For children who rely more on their auditory tracts to take in information, you may notice that even though they may not make much eye contact, they are actually paying attention and will respond when asked a question. These children prefer hearing information and concepts explained aloud, and learn better through listening.
May show a keen interest in music, reading, fact-laden subjects such as history and even learning different languages.
Provide verbal reminders when transiting from activity to activity for example “Clean up in 5 minutes”, and get them to acknowledge by responding back to your verbal prompts.
They may tend to be sensitive to sounds and too much background noises can be a cause of distraction for them. Distractions may be in the form of background noises from television or radio sets which they are not attending to, vehicles such as aeroplanes passing by, or even multiple conversations going on around them.
Provide them with a quiet environment to minimise disruptions to their learning.
Kinesthetic/Tactile - Students who are kinesthetic and/or tactile learners tend to learn best by touching and doing. They work best with their hands and enjoy observing the direct cause and effect relationship as a result of their tinkering. Sometimes they may even be observed going around the classroom picking up and exploring things with their hands.
Kinesthetic/tactile learners tend to enjoy hands-on activities such as art and crafts, construction e.g. lego blocks, manipulating tools e.g. paintbrushes, or may even enjoy taking things apart just so they can figure how to put it back together again. Outdoor sports and activities that require them to move about may also appeal to their style of learning.
When giving instructions, use demonstration wherever possible to show how it should be done and allow the child to watch and learn by modelling.
Allow the child to participate in the learning process by providing opportunities that involve the use of his/her hands.
Provide physical prompts using gentle forms of touch such as a pat on the back or shoulder. If that does not work, gently holding their hands may also help to get their attention or redirect them back to a task.
What are some other factors that can contribute to learning outcomes?
Besides relying on learning styles, overall learning can also be affected by other environmental factors such as time of the day (morning, late afternoon, evening etc), lights (brightly or dimly lit) and even temperatures. In fact these do not just apply to individuals with autism, we know that some of these environmental factors can affect our ability to perform as well. Especially when considering that individuals with autism tend to be more sensitive to changes in their environment, having a broader understanding on how learning styles might interfere with or aid in their learning is definitely helpful to keep in mind while working with this group of students. And while research on understanding how learning styles affect learners diagnosed with ASD, GDD, or even ADHD is still underway, what we do know is that these students may not always stick to one preferred method of learning over another. The ability to teach using a multi-sensory approach by being flexible and incorporating a myriad of learning styles to suit the child’s need may instead be the crucial difference a teacher or parent can make towards their child’s progress.
Written by Marjorie.
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