During a recent parent-teacher conference at my son’s school, one of his teachers made a suggestion.

“What if we looked into audiobooks to help him keep on track?” she said.

I listen to audiobooks every day, but for a 7th grader?

“We have several students who use the audiobook tools,” she said.

We signed him up, and immediately noticed an improvement in his comprehension.

That made me wonder, how many other kids are struggling because their brain works better when they hear and see the information versus just reading alone?

“I have two daughters and even though they have the exact same genetic template, the way they learn, act and behave is quite different,” said Dr. Sharief Taraman, chief of General Pediatric Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

Taraman said no one brain is the same, and environment and genetics are both factors with learning. The more areas of the brain that are active when taking in new data, the more likely we are to remember new information.

“Back in the day when my dad was learning math, he had an abacus [or counting frame] and he would slide the beads,” said Taraman. “It was a very tactile, visual, even auditory because you would hear clink of the little beads moving, and that’s how you used an abacus to learn math. And guess what? They learned it really well.”

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When multiple ways of teaching are in play, “everybody wins,” said Theresa Sparlin, middle school program coordinator for the Chiaravalle Montessori Middle School in Evanston.

“We have been formally implementing something called Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, so if somebody is a real visual learner, we want to make sure they have handouts,” Sparlin said. “The idea is that if one person learns better that way, then everybody is going to benefit from it, so it’s creating an environment where all the types of learners are being addressed.”

Here are some tips to better understand your child’s preferred learning style:

Know when your brain is at its best

While it’s never too late to learn, there are times when the brain is the most malleable.

“Our brains have windows of neuroplasticity –– it peaks at ages 2 to 4 so you can really shape young kids, and then there’s another window in early elementary but the next big window is during puberty,” Taraman said. “The hormones are actually changing the way the brain works, specifically the frontal lobe which is involved in executive functioning, and how we communicate with other people.”

Start a dialogue

Sparlin advises talking to your child about how they like to learn, and implementing the styles at home when tackling homework.

“We actually start the year off where we ask the kids to explore their learning styles,” she said. “Do they like to be with others, or by themselves? Maybe they prefer handouts? So are they visual? Auditory? Tactile? Some students make up songs. … I have a student who says he still remembers the preamble just because of the song.”

Monitor dips in progress

Taraman suggests being your child’s advocate and taking notice of where they may be blocked, which could mean there is something going on neurologically.

“It’s all about identification and early detection,” Taraman said, who is also the chief medical officer for Cognoa, a digital behavioral health company that enables clinically validated assessments to determine developmental challenges. “We’re so reactive in medicine unfortunately so what we need to be is more proactive.”

Be inspiring  

Positive memories and emotional engagement help the brain to remember facts more easily.

“So if a professor or teacher comes in and they’re blah, who’s going to remember that?” Taraman said. “In medicine, a lot of times what we do is we present a patient, so it makes it real. ‘This is a 7-year-old girl who started losing her hearing and she has these stroke-like episodes,’ so they’re emotionally engaged and now they can actually learn about the process.”

Get a study buddy

“Humans are wired to be social beings,” Taraman said. “They actually had some experiments where they had a person playing with two artificial intelligence machines, and the three of them were passing the ball around, and when the avatars stopped playing the game with the human and only played with each other, you could actually see there were functional MRI changes that happened to the person who gets excluded. Humans seek and want to have social interaction, and the way that we learn is through social interaction. This is what made our species a dominant species because of our ability to pass knowledge on to others.”

Jenniffer Weigel is the director of community relations for the Sun-Times and has had a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.