Memory & Learning Styles

Is your child remembering some things well and forgetting others?

Is your child:

  • Learning okay in certain subjects but struggling in others?
  • Remembering the landmarks but not knowing the street names?
  • Knowing the address but not paying attention to what is around him?
  • Having difficulty remembering things either visually or verbally?
  • Retelling the story, she just read in her reading group, but forgetting where reading group meets?
  • Getting lost on the way to music class but recalling every word to the song for next week’s concert?


Some kids do particularly well in certain subjects but really struggle in others. For example, some kids can remember what they learned when they see it on paper but cannot remember a word of the teacher’s lecture.

Your child may remember landmarks but not verbal directions. For example, if you ask your child where his school is located, he may reply, “down the street from the playground; there’s a McDonald’s across the road.” Or, your child may say, “My school is on Elm Street, just turn West off Hickory street and North on Elm.”

The first example is more commonly associated with visual and semantic memory. These learners tend to like landmarks and information for which meaning can be assigned. The child may remember that the school is near McDonald’s because he went there after school one day.

The second example is more commonly associated with a child with a strong spatial and verbal learning style. That is, this child remembers because of hearing the directions aloud and seeing where things belong on a map.

Some children are better at learning verbal information but hate math. Others intuitively know where things are but might struggle to remember verbal information like names, dates, or numbers.

Everyone processes information a bit differently, and it is no surprise that your child has learning strengths and weaknesses. It is not a problem either, unless the weaker area is having a considerable impact on learning.

Imagine a child who tends to be a verbal learner, who has memorized math equations all the way through Algebra, and gets great grades. What if that child enters 9th grade Geometry and suddenly cannot pass the class without a tutor? In this case, the child may have a significant deficit in visual learning.

Perhaps your child needs help interpreting shapes, figures, and graphs. Maybe your child is bound for a legal career but not one as an engineer or architect. If he or she can get by just fine, chalk it up to a learning strength.

If, all of the sudden, you see failing grades in math and chemistry, this problem may signal a learning need or learning disability. Accommodations like extra time, preferential seating, and a quiet work space can make a world of difference.


Memory and learning styles can impact a child’s success in life. Understanding how a child learns can allow parents and professionals to promote certain strategies over others and can guide a child toward greater success.

This confidence in learning can build self-esteem for a child who may otherwise struggle significantly in school. Some children prefer visual processing and visual learning styles versus auditory processing and auditory learning styles. Some children prefer the opposite.

Some children learn best kinesthetically, by doing something, and struggle with both auditory and visually presented information. These kids like to try the task, complete the experiment and touch the samples.

Multiple Intelligences: Psychologist Howard Gardner [6] proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. These intelligences are like learning styles, referring to areas in which individuals may excel. In addition to verbal, visual and kinesthetic learning styles, Gardner proposed other types of intelligence. A few of these types are as follows: musical, mathematical, interpersonal and naturalistic.

Aptitude in some of these areas is self-explanatory. A kinesthetic learner tends to learn by movement and action, that is, by trying a task instead of just reading or hearing about it. An interpersonal style of learning fits a person who is very intuitive to others’ moods and is able to work well with others. Naturalistic learning refers to an elevated understanding of nature and the natural environment.

Gardner’s work suggests that when educators and other professionals support multiple intelligences, children can learn to feel confident in their strengths, rather than force themselves into one learning modality or measure success based on one specific academic skill.

Thinking in pictures: Temple Grandin talks about visual memory and learning in her book Thinking in Pictures [5]. Here, she explains how a number of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders remember things vividly in picture form. Like Temple, some children are visual learners and have an amazing ability to recall detailed visual information.

This strength can benefit a child if it is recognized. Of course, having a memory style that leans one way or the other is not directly related to autism. Core deficits in autism fall in social communication. If your child has an incredibly vivid visual memory and has major challenges with social skills, an autism evaluation may be a good idea.

Learning Disabilities: When learning struggles occur in a variety of learning settings and in a number of different modalities, a learning disability may be present. This term means that challenges in processing information for reading, writing, math or a combination of these challenges may greatly impact a student’s ability to make progress in one subject or another.

If a child has a particular memory style but not a disability, he or should be able to compensate for areas of weakness with strength. A learner who can remember a lecture well and who can pass a test based on reading and hearing the teacher may struggle to interpret a chart or graph, but an auditory learning strength may compensate for a visual memory weakness.

It is when the visual memory weakness is not compensated for that a learning disability may be present [2-4].


If your child cannot learn in a certain way, it is important for him to understand how to modify learning strategies to tailor to his strengths.

Auditory learners learn best when they can listen to information presented, hear a lecture, or sing new information as a rhyme or jingle. The 50 states song may help a child learn his states. He may enjoy hearing a speaker on a topic like marine biology instead of viewing a map of marine ecosystems.

A visual learner will appreciate maps, charts and graphs. Visual depictions of different species of fish will be more interesting to a visual learner than would hearing a description of the fish’s behavior.

Active or kinesthetic learners want to get their hands wet, swim with the fish, or do an experiment on different types of ocean water to check the salt composition and determine the best habitat.

Many learners may like a mix of learning styles and modalities to master a topic. Your child might like to hear the lecture, with visuals, while taking notes, come home and have a conversation about the lecture, watch a movie on the ocean and visit the nearest aquarium.

When possible, it is best to use a variety of techniques and experiences that will work for many learners. That said, within the lesson an auditory learner might retain more from the lecture and conversation, and a visual learner will recall images from the video and power point slides.

If your child does not have any significant deficits, a preference for visual or verbal learning could be related to their learning style and may not be a disability. If you do notice deficits in processing, challenges with reading, writing or math or slow processing speed, it will be important to look at their symptoms further.

Referral for neuropsychological evaluation or for a psycho-educational evaluation will be crucial. If the problem could be attention or social skills, a full psychological evaluation to assess for ADHD, Autism, and learning disabilities is needed.

Associated referrals include tutoring and consultation with your school team to see what is being done in the classroom and to determine what can be done based on the unique learning profile. A tutor can help to develop strategies to make rote information more meaningful.

It is important to tackle these challenges early so that your child does not develop anxiety or depressive symptoms or challenging behaviors [7,8] around education.

Children spend a massive amount of time in school. When they feel less effective, it can really impact them across the board. Finding learning challenges and treating these early can really help maintain and improve your child’s self-esteem.

It’s also important to encourage other areas that your child excels in, such as art, dance, music, or sports. Other strengths can really help build confidence for a child who may be struggling in an academic domain. If your child is developing emotional symptoms, a referral to a psychotherapist may also be warranted


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Phonological Processing/ Phonemic Awareness (learning challenges): deficits in the processes highly associated with word reading that relate to breaking a word into parts and understanding how to blend sounds to form words. Challenges with memory could be related to a learning disability, and it will be important to consider this possibility if reading is a problem.
  • Selective, Shifting or Sustaining Attention (focusing challenges): difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges remembering things or paying attention to details
  • Processing speed: deficits in fluency of cognitive processing. A child may not encode information quickly enough and may be overwhelmed with information.


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): challenges sustaining attention; distractibility; impulsivity; difficulties with sustained attention, shifting attention, focusing attention, these challenges could all impact attention to learning and processing speed
  • Learning Disabilities (Educationally Identified Disabilities): dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia may go together. Challenges with processing including memory may be impacted
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: sometimes, people with autism learn or process visual or verbal information differently. Social Communication deficits are the core symptom of autism, and this diagnosis would not be a consideration without evidence of these weaknesses [1]


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context and to administer an assessment to rule in or out learning or emotional concerns
  • School Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context and to evaluate for school services
  • Tutor: to teach and implement strategies to improve verbal or visual learning, to build confidence by helping your child feel more successful with repeated practice and different strategies from what is taught in the classroom
  • Therapist: to treat low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or other emotional symptoms that may occur when children develop learning challenges

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • NEPSY, RAVLT, CVLT: assessment of memory, attention and processing strengths and weaknesses for children. The NEPSY provides a number of batteries looking at attention, motor, memory, phonological processing and phonemic awareness (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: assessment of intellectual abilities, which can help us understand cognitive processing and determine what interventions may work best. The cognitive assessment is important because it will provide an idea of the child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. For example, the assessment may contrast visual working memory from auditory working memory, look at visual-spatial processing versus verbal comprehension or fluid reasoning, and assess processing speed, which can certainly have an impact on learning in the long-term. (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • WIAT-III/WJ-IV/GORT-5: academic assessments in components of reading, writing, math, and oral language can help us understand learning processes and see the impact of any executive functioning, processing speed or attention deficits on learning (Neuropsychological, Psychological, or School Psychological evaluation)
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: executive functioning assessment may help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and attend. (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • BASC-3, Clinical Interview, Brief Projective Measures: emotional assessment is helpful because learning disabilities can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. It is important to cover all of these bases and to work to strengthen your child’s self-esteem in other areas if academics are tough (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)


[1] Bell, Nanci (2007). Visualizing and verbalizing: For language comprehension and thinking.


[2] Grandin, Temple. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded edition: My life with autism.


[3] Gardner, Howard (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice.


[4] Peacock, Gretchen Gimpel & Collett, Brent (2010). Collaborative home/school interventions: Evidence-based solutions for emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.


Perseverance books for kids:

Spires, Ashley (2014). The most magnificent thing.


Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.


Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn.


McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.


Image Credit:
Description: Portrait of smart school boys
Image ID: #51205582 (Big Stock)
By: khorzhevska
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Pychology

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