Is it ADHD or a kinesthetic learning style?

Continuing our summer mini-series on learning styles, I’m pleased to share this guest post and video from Madison McWilliams, who runs The Joule School. This unique program is now enrolling for Fall 2014.

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At The Joule School, we serve students who are considered bodily-kinesthetic learners. These are children who learn best when they are allowed to engage their hands and feet as well as their minds. To some, there may appear to be an overlap between these children and those who have been diagnosed with ADHD, a neurological condition characterized in part by hyperactivity (the need to move often and difficulty in sitting still).  

Introductory material on learning styles is available here, here, and here. In short, a learning style is the method by which a student takes new information and converts it into knowledge. Learning styles influence the entire educational process, including which strategies children use when studying for tests and the types of subjects that they prefer. Many education experts recognize three primary learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.

A kinesthetic learning style is characterized by an ability to retain (memorize) information best when it is related to movement.  When presented with new material at school, kinesthetic learners zero in on action that can be performed with the human body. They have an innate ability to copy movement and tend to excel in gross and fine motor activities such as dance, sports, art, or playing instruments. While telling a story, they will likely act out the scene or role-play while they speak.  Kinesthetic learners function best in a classroom where they can role-play, build, measure, jump, sing, and experiment because all of these actions help them process information into long-term memory.  

Kinesthetic kids have a long history of being unsuccessful and/or unhappy in traditional schools because their natural tendency toward movement is at odds with desk-and-lecture classroom structure. These children

  • tend to “zone out” when listening to a teacher for a long period of time and may daydream or doodle;
  • have difficulty concentrating on paper-and-pencil assignments;
  • get “the wiggles,” which may lead some students to fidget, kick, or get out of their seats;
  • may interrupt a student or teacher (likely with requests to show or demonstrate something);
  • may drop things on purpose, in order to have an excuse to get out of the seat to pick it up; and
  • walk to the pencil sharpener or bathroom an unnecessary number of times.

Misinformation has led many adults to automatically assume that behaviors like these (especially from boys) are the result of ADHD. Teachers of these students may respond with discipline or by contacting parents with a referral for ADHD testing. In fact, while the rate of ADHD in youth is approximately 8 percent of the total population, one recent study noted that when given a diagnostic checklist, schoolteachers rated 20–23 percent of the entire male population at their schools as having ADHD.*  This is not surprising, as the symptoms of ADHD in the classroom are almost identical to those of a kinesthetic learning style.  ADHD students often

  • blurt out answers to questions;
  • fidget in their seats, kicking the seat in front;
  • daydream;
  • have difficulty listening to a teacher for long periods of time;
  • may get out of their desks and wander around the classroom at an inappropriate time; and
  • interrupt the teacher or classmates.

Since the manifestations of ADHD and a kinesthetic learning style are so similar, it is prudent to address an ADHD referral by first screening a child for a kinesthetic learning style. This helps ensure that the child's behaviors are not simply evidence of a mismatch between his or her needs as a student and the learning environment. Two simple questions can help establish whether or not the student is challenged by ADHD or is simply a bodily-kinesthetic learner:

1. When provided with a bodily-kinesthetic lesson, do the “ADHD symptoms” disappear or appear to be dramatically reduced?

True kinesthetic learners will be able to stay engaged in a lesson that allows them to use their bodies. For example, a kinesthetic learner who is offered the opportunity to classify roots by movement and touch will probably be quite successful during the lesson and subsequent evaluation, because such an activity stimulates his or her mind. Students with ADHD, which is characterized by impulse control issues, may still find themselves distracted, fight the urge to disrupt or abandon the lesson, or have difficulty explaining what they are doing when prompted by a teacher to describe their learning.  

If a child is suspected of having ADHD because he or she struggles to sit still in class, stakeholders should try a kinesthetic lesson in a subject that the student ordinarily does not enjoy. (This is recommended because we all tend to concentrate better if we like the subject being taught.) If the student can remain focused during the lesson and retain the material taught, then it is likely that he or she simply has a mobile learning style. If the child completes the hands-on activities but shows little or no retention of the concepts covered, or seems far too stimulated by the hands-on environment to focus on the lesson, then an appropriate expert in ADHD should be consulted.

 2. Do appropriate ADHD accommodations help the child focus or achieve in school?

ADHD accomodations are designed for visual and auditory learners who need additional help to overcome their struggles with distractibility and hyperactivity. These children often retain material best if it is taught in a traditional format with traditional assignments, but they simply cannot focus on the lesson long enough for the material to sink in. There are dozens of research-based accommodations for these children. For visual learners, an appropriate ADHD accommodation might be a written checklist of tasks to help them organize and complete an assignment, which they can cross off as they progress through each task. Using audiobooks as a supplement to text-based materials can help hold the attention of an auditory student with ADHD. If appropriate accommodations are implemented and they facilitate gains in student learning, then the child may be a visual or auditory learner who simply needs assistance in focusing, and a specialist in ADHD can make recommendations for that student.

A Sample Lesson for Kinesthetic Learners

I will leave you with a brief video I made to demonstrate one example of a simple and effective math lesson geared to kinesthetic learners. Please feel free to leave questions or comments below; I’d love to continue the discussion.

Madison McWilliams

* Nolan et al. (2001), Teacher reports of DSM-IV ADHD, ODD, and CD symptoms in schoolchildren, Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 40, 241—249.

The joy of learning styles

A parent in one of my recent consultation sessions asked, “How do I figure out my kid’s learning style when she’s just a toddler?” My answer: You don’t. At this age, you wait, you watch, you experiment. Above all, you pay attention to her emotions in learning situations.

What do emotions have to do with it? Well, while the research is inconclusive regarding the outcomes of applying learning styles theory to classroom practices, and there is disagreement among education experts about how best to determine and label these styles, you can be sure of one thing: learning style preferences matter—because happy, relaxed learning is the best learning. You know this intuitively.

Let’s say you need to learn a new language for your job. Put yourself in a stressful, uncomfortable situation, and your mind goes blank. But get in your groove, whatever that groove may be—listening to language lessons with your favorite music in the background, shooting hoops while practicing with a native speaker, or making a gorgeous set of flashcards with your best art supplies—and you soak up the lessons like a sponge.

Austin’s alternative educators understand this powerful phenomenon. Whether or not they subscribe to Neil Fleming’s well-known auditory/visual/kinesthetic model or Howard Gardner’s broader and more elegant formulation in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, or any other particular theory, they’ve built their successful schools on a profound understanding of the simple concept that one size does not—and never will—fit all. That’s why they create systems that honor each student’s individual mix of needs and learning style preferences, allow room for flexibility, and cultivate joy.

I’m likely to post more about learning preferences here in the future. For now, I’ll leave you with this lighthearted infographic that the good people at offered to share with Alt Ed Austin’s readers. Take this fun little quiz, and then leave us a comment: What’s your most joyful learning style?