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Supporting How Children Learn Best
By Susan Miller, Ed.D.

During circle time Luis rhythmically taps his fingers on his knees while Miss Pingry reads the story, The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Marcy says, “Shhh. I can’t hear!” Meanwhile, Darla enthusiastically hugs her best friend.

In this brief scene, behaviors typical of most four year olds are observed. How this scene plays out, however, depends upon the teacher. She could be annoyed that Darla and Luis cannot keep to themselves and sit quietly. She might reason, if they would do that, then Marcy would not have to make that irritating “shhh” sound. Or, Miss Pingry might understand that children learn in different ways and they have their own preferences for the way they do things.

Using the Learning Styles Model and Multiple Intelligence Theory in the Classroom

Although learning styles theory and multiple intelligences (MI) theory are different, they can be integrated to help children learn in many ways. Learning styles theory has to do with differences in the process of learning, while the theory of multiple intelligences is more content-oriented. Both theories emphasize that people are unique and learn differently. Let’s look at how you can adapt these theories for the children in your classroom.

Learning Styles Model

Dr. Rita Dunn, Director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John’s University, developed the Learning Styles model and intended for it to be used as a tool for organizing the classroom to respond to children’s individual styles and needs. The Dunn model encompasses five areas that affect learning: environment, emotions, social, physical, and psychological. Within each of these dimensions, there are numerous elements, which will be described below, that influence each child differently. The child’s preferences can change with age, are not fixed, and can be influenced by cultural background or gender.


·        Sound. Some children like quiet surroundings, while others prefer or don’t mind noise.

·        Light. Certain children prefer bright lighting. Others work better in a dim environment.

·        Temperature. Some children like it cool, however, others want to be warm. 

·        Design. Informal learners like carpeted areas to stretch out or soft beanbag chairs to sit on while formal learners prefer to read in a straight-backed chair and write at a table.



·        Motivation. Some children receive their motivation from the teacher or parents, while others are self-motivated.

·        Persistence. Certain children stick with a project to the end. Others need constant encouragement to keep going.

·        Responsibility. Some children can work independently, while others need more supervision.

·        Structure. You may need to give specific parameters and directions to some children. Children who need less structure will prefer open-ended tasks.


·        Self. Some children work best alone.

·        Pair. Other children like to work with another child.

·        Peers/Team. Still others enjoy learning with their peers in a small group and being part of a team.

·        Adult. Some children like to work closely with an adult for guidance.

·        Varied. While learning, some children prefer working on a variety of tasks while others prefer routines and patterns.


·        Perceptual. Visual learners look with their eyes to gain information. Auditory learners learn best when they hear things. Tactile learners need to keep their hands busy with such things as writing or drawing. Kinesthetic learners require whole-body movement.

·        Intake. Some children like to have drinks or eat while they are working while others don’t feel the need for this type of refreshment.

·        Time. Some children concentrate best in the morning. Others prefer the afternoon or evening.

·        Mobility. One child may move around while another child can sit for hours.


·        Global/Analytic. Some children learn best by seeing the whole picture or concept, however, others prefer to have a concept broken down into its component parts.

·        Hemispheric. Right-brained children prefer the arts, whereas the left-brained learners enjoy math problems.

·        Impulsive/Reflective. Some children quickly jump into tasks while others take their time to make decisions and think things through.

Accommodating Children’s Needs

Based on our observations of Luis from the opening scenario, we can assume that he is both a kinesthetic and tactile learner because he was enjoying the rhythmic tapping on his knees. He learns best with sound and he isn’t aware that he is bothering Marcy. He seems to be amusing himself so he probably works well alone. He would also appear to be self-motivated. It is hard for him to sit still, therefore, he probably learns best with some mobility. As he taps away, Luis seems to be more impulsive than reflective.

To provide an appropriate environment for Luis based on his learning style preferences, his teacher could set up a music center with a tape recorder. He could listen to the music alone with a headset if he’d like. He’d probably enjoy having space to move to the music rather than sitting down on a chair. Luis might also like to use his hands to play a bongo drum while he listens to the music. Besides addressing Luis’ individual learning style preferences, this simple center can be incorporated into the classroom and enjoyed by other students.

Multiple Intelligences

When Dr. Howard Gardner, Co-Director of Project Zero and Professor at Harvard University, wrote Frames of Mind in 1983, his intended audience was psychologists, not teachers. However, educators have enthusiastically embraced his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner’s MI theory reinforces a cross-cultural perspective of human cognition. He doesn’t look at being smart from the usual vantage of standardized test scores, instead, he sees the intelligences as abilities for learning, solving problems, or creating something that is valued in one’s culture.

Gardner’s theory suggests that each child not only learns quite differently, but possesses varying amounts of strengths in the eight identified intelligences. For this reason, children are attracted to particular types of activities because they exhibit strength in a certain type of intelligence. As a teacher, you may wish to introduce new materials and information through a child’s strongest intelligence because he seems to learn best this way. However, it is important to make sure that children have opportunities to learn, solve problems, and create through all of the multiple intelligences. Let’s look at some descriptions of Gardner’s various intelligences and the types of activities your children might enjoy participating in.

Spatial Intelligence – The ability to visualize the world and translate it into new forms. A child with this strength likes to:

·        look at charts, maps, posters, and videos

·        paint, draw, and doodle

·        put together puzzles

·        take apart machines and contraptions

·        work with designs and color

Linguistic Intelligence – The ability to relate to language and words. A child with this strength likes to:

·        tell stories

·        play word games

·        read and write

·        tell riddles and jokes

·        play with sounds

Musical Intelligence – The ability to recognize tonal patterns, rhythm, pitch and melody. A child with this strength likes to:

·        use musical instruments to play rhythms

·        enjoy listening center activities, such as:

·        learning tape-recorded songs

·        sing songs, hum melodies, and whistle tunes

·        sing-song chants and rhymes

·        hear poetry

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – The ability to recognize patterns and order and deal with inductive and deductive reasoning. A child with this strength likes to:

·        solve brain-teasers

·        work with numbers

·        gather, sort, and organize collections

·        play computer games

·        ask questions and figure things out

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence – A fine-tuned ability to use the body and handle objects. A child with this strength likes to:

·        dance and move creatively

·        act, role play, and engage in mime

·        work with sensory materials, do art

·        projects, and build with blocks

·        play sports and active games

·        fix things with his hands

Interpersonal Intelligence – The ability to understand people and communicate with them. The child with this strength likes to:

·        meet and play with friends

·        play groups and cooperative games

·        mediate arguments and be a leader

·        be a team player

·        volunteer to help others

Intrapersonal Intelligence – The ability to be sensitive to one’s own inner feelings. The child with this strength likes to:

·        work independently

·        enjoy personal projects and hobbies

·        keep a diary

·        daydream and use her imagination

·        observe, listen, and reflect on what’s happening

Naturalist Intelligence – The ability to recognize plants and animals and make other distinctions in the natural world. The child with this strength likes to:

·        use equipment like binoculars and a magnifying glass to study organisms

·        collect and categorize natural materials

·        care for plants and animals

·        take outdoor field trips to look at plants, animals, or the weather

·        keep a journal of observation

Accommodating Children’s Needs

Let’s look back at the circle time scene again and focus on Darla hugging her best friend. If we observed her way of solving problems and her interactions with others, it is possible that we might identify an Interpersonal Intelligence as a strength for Darla. She seems to enjoy learning and playing with her best friend. She frequently expresses her pleasure with the relationship by hugging her enthusiastically.   

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences allows Darla’s teacher to see her strengths in a different context. This enables her to plan curriculum and transform existing lessons into multimodal learning opportunities for the children in her class. To accommodate for Darla’s Interpersonal Intelligence, Miss Pingry could plan for some games at the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” that could tap into Darla’s leadership skills by asking her to explain the rules. Or, she might ask her to volunteer to help others learn the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” song through peer teaching. She could also set up a sandwich-making center where the children work cooperatively to create wonderful picnic food.     

At the same time, these activities and projects could also appeal to children with other MI strengths. For example, a child with a Musical Intelligence would enjoy learning and singing the song, and a child with a Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence would love to create sandwiches using his fine motor skills to spread a filling on the bread. And, a child with a Naturalist Intelligence would be delighted to go outdoors for a picnic.

Using Learning Styles and MI in the Classroom

Can you draw from both theories to support your children’s learning? Of course you can! Any time you have a “data bank” of useful information about how individual children learn best, it is a plus for everyone. If the children are comfortable learning through their strengths and preferences, they feel good about themselves and school activities. And, because they are involved in positive ways, you will have fewer behavior problems to manage and a more supportive learning environment for your children.

Susan Miller, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education at Kutztown University in Kutztown, PA.

Resources for Teachers

Armstrong, T. (1993). 7 kinds of smart: Identifying and developing your many intelligences. New York: Plume.

Boggeman, S., Hoerr, T., and Wallach, C. (1996). Succeeding with multiple intelligences: Teaching through the personal intelligences. St. Louis, MO: The New City School, Inc.

Campbell, L., Campbell, B. and Dickinson, D. (1999). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Dunn, R., Dunn, K. and Perrin, J. (1994). Teaching young children through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades K-2. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York:  Basic Books.

Learning Style Inventory (Grades K-2): Primary Version (LSI:P). Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles, 8000 Utopia Parkway, St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY  11439.  Phone: (718) 990-6335.

Silver, H., Strong, R. and Perini, M. (Sept. 1997). Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Educational Leadership, 22-27.