How to Boost Learning: Tap into Your Child’s Natural Strengths

Kid with backpack

Jun 15, 2015

We all have some skills that come more naturally than others. Some of us are better at speaking and finding the right word, while some of us are great at solving problems or getting along with a lot of different people. Kids are the same way. Every child has his own strengths and by using those strengths you can help boost overall academic success. There’s actually an entire theory based on this, called multiple intelligences, or MI.  Harvard Professor Howard Gardner introduced the notion of multiple intelligences in his 1983 book, Frames Of Mind, where he wrote that there are eight intelligences that are directly linked to a person’s problem-solving ability. The idea is that if people could identify their strengths and their intelligences, they could apply this knowledge to their learning and help maximize their academic abilities.EXPLORE
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Professor Gardner identified 8 total intelligences, or eight different ways to solve problems.  The first two are often used in schools and pretty recognizable for most parents; linguistic (reading and writing) and logical-mathematical (mathematics). But there are six other areas where your child’s strengths might lie. They are spatial intelligence (used by architects, and designers,), musical (musicians), bodily-kinesthetic (athletes, surgeons, carpenters), naturalist (veterinarians, farmers, campers), and the two personal intelligences, interpersonal and intrapersonal. The interpersonal intelligence is about knowing and understanding others – think of people who are really good at “working a room” or mediating problems between coworkers. The intrapersonal intelligence is knowing and understanding yourself, which can help with stress and anger management

The evidence for MI is around us. If we identify successful and happy adults, we see people who have strengths in many different intelligences; they’re not just people who read and write well (although they may do that). People with a strong intrapersonal intelligence, for example, find ways to capitalize on their strengths and how they learn and put themselves in positions to achieve. They may do this at work, as part of their vocation, or it may become a hobby, that provides peace of mind and relaxation. People with a strong interpersonal intelligence gravitate to fields in which they are surrounded by others.

The New City School, which I lead, began implementing MI in 1988. We saw it as a way to help more students learn and enable students to learn more – and we’ve been right. Students in our school learn to read and write, but there’s more. They also learn to show what they know through their drawings, by building dioramas and by creating poems. Our students tend to our garden and learn math facts by hopping and dancing. We believe in joyful learning. Students should want to go to school. MI helps us achieve that. In too many schools, there’s a narrow road to success; if you’re a good reader and writer, school comes easily. In an MI school, there are many pathways to learn. Reading and writing are intelligences which encompass key skills but other intelligences can also be used in learning.

Outside of the school setting, parents play an essential role in helping their children develop their multiple intelligences and abilities. Knowing your child’s intelligences and expanding his MI strengths may lead to success in school; it surely will lead to greater happiness in life. Here are some strategies you can use at home to help improve your child’s learning, problem-solving skills and capacity to excel in school and beyond.

Learn the qualities associated with the different intelligences. In his book, Gardner asserts that there are eight intelligences and eight ways to solve problems. Knowing what they are is a good place to begin to develop your child’s MI further. The Connections Academy blog does a wonderful job breaking the intelligences down in a visual way: 

Identify your own strengths. Look at the MI graphic and identify your 2-3 strongest intelligences and intelligences where you are the weakest. Edutopia also has an MI assessment quiz that can give you new insights into your learning preferences. Which intelligences are most obvious in your home and in how you spend your free time? Chances are, you spend most of your time engaging in your strongest intelligences, and you probably avoid the areas that are not your intelligence strengths. That’s only human nature. (I know that I do this!)

In most households, children naturally pursue and develop the intelligences in which their parents are strongest; children see, hear, and imitate. Kids who grow up in a household with lots of music will learn to appreciate music at a young age and are more likely to enjoy and learn to play music as they get older. Similarly, a child whose parents are painters or sculptors will probably be more comfortable playing with colors and clay at an early age. I suggest, though, that you reflect on your own MI profile and push against it when you think about the kinds of experiences that you want for your child. 

Use hands-on learning. It’s beneficial to your child’s learning if you provide her with opportunities to expand upon her own strengths at home.  You can also try these strategies if you want to expand to develop there abilities in other intelligence. For example,

– For those children who have a linguistic intelligence, or are word smart, you can set up a reading area or book nook for them to have a space to retire to and focus on their books. Or for younger children, carve out a time to read together, and ask your child to come up with another ending to the story. 

– For those who are logical-mathematical, or logic smart, you can provide them with plenty of age-appropriate puzzles or building block sets. You may also want to watch the weather report with your child and talk about the science and math behind the forecast.

– For children who are musically inclined, or music smart, try signing them up for a music class or providing them with instruments to play. (even pots and pans can act as drums!) You may also want to play games where family members make up lyrics to the same song together.

– For those visual/spatial learners or children who are picture smart, make sure to stock up on items like play-doh, paints, colors or magazine cutouts. You can also ask your child to use multimedia to create a card or collage to send out to family members.

– For those who are bodily-kinesthetic intelligent, or body smart, try playing video games where the entire family can get up and dance, do a relay race outside or take part in a home improvement project together. 

– If your child is naturalistic, or nature smart, a garden is a perfect learning activity. It can be a small herb garden for the windowsill, a larger vegetable garden in your backyard or you can join a community garden and tend it to it together.

– For those who have interpersonal intelligence, or people smarts, try cooking and working on a recipe together where you have to use your collaborative skills to complete this tasty project. You may also want to volunteer at a local food bank together.

– For those with intra personal, or self-smarts, encourage your child to keep a journal and write his thoughts down regularly, or ask him to start a blog online.

Expose your child to the “other” intelligences. It’s good for parents to consciously give children experiences in the “other” intelligences, those that are less likely to be part of their home. A mom who is a runner or a dad who is a basketball player, both heavily into the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, may spend so much time working out that they rarely go to museums. If so, they should make a point of taking their child to free cultural events, museums or historical landmarks in their area on a regular basis. Conversely, a history teacher needs to be sure to give her children lots of exposure to music and art. Children are brimming with potential in many different intelligences, and too often they narrow their focus and only want to explore areas in which they are already comfortable. It’s only natural that children will pursue intelligences in which they are raised, but getting them out of their comfort zones – getting them to use and learn in new intelligences – benefits everyone. Who knows, maybe that musical mom has a gardening grace of which she was unaware?

Encourage diversity through multiple intelligences. Most importantly, learning and enjoying a range of intelligences is another form of diversity. It helps to remind us that we are all different and we learn differently, and that’s OK. What counts is that we solve problems, not how they’re solved!

Understanding these multiple intelligences and how they contribute to a person’s capabilities can be an essential tool in developing your child’s love of learning and problem-solving abilities. If you can identify your child’s strengths, while also providing him with more ways to learn, you are not only making academics more enjoyable, but you are also arming him with skills that he will need to be successful in school and all of his future endeavors.

Thomas Hoerr is the head of school at the New City School in St. Louis, MO, and author of the book Becoming A Multiple Intelligences School. The New City School faculty has been implementing the theory of multiple intelligences since 1988. If you would like to learn more about MI or want to discuss this topic further with Dr. Hoerr, feel free to reach out to him at trhoerr@newcityschool.org.