We invite you to submit your questions about teaching, parenting, or otherwise living with visual-spatial learners. Your questions will be answered by Linda Powers Leviton, a member of the Visual-Spatial Resource Access Team and visual-spatial learner herself!
To submit your question, write Linda directly!
Please see disclaimer below.
I am an adult (25 y.o.) just recently realizing why I have had challenges with certain jobs and career choices over the last few years. I've been in gifted programs since grade 4 and have had many of the challenges that visual-spatial learners have in school (as I read about on your website)... but had very little support or understanding of this learning need. I've always been drawn to activities that allow you to physically manipulate things (construction, baking, art, etc.) but have never been able to utilize this ability in my job as a nurse.
Nursing is far too technical/medical for my interests (systems thinking), but I still love helping people as part of my work. I also have a Masters in Public Health but don't know what to do with it anymore because I've grown bored of the field (something that commonly happens with most activities I engage in).
Do you have any suggestions for career options for visual-spatial learners in health or community services? Most of the suggestions I've seen are in engineering and computer sciences, but my background is in a very different discipline.
I would be grateful for any suggestions you could offer.
Frustrated VSL Nurse
Dear Frustrated VSL Nurse,
The short answer to your question is that you must have a career that allows you to use your creativity, to apply your innate gifts of observation, problem-solving, pattern awareness, and meeting unique challenges head-on. Nursing doesn't usually allow much of any of those, but there are types of nursing careers that are more likely to provide some of that, such as becoming a nurse practitioner, or a triage nurse in an emergency room.
If I were to work with you, I'd want to know more about your personality (are you more introverted or extroverted, intuitive, analytical etc.) before I'd suggest a definitive direction, but the general answer is that you need a career with some creative diversity. Pubic Health Administration might be a better direction, if you can afford it. In general nursing pays more and jobs are more readily available. However, I've known people to pursue exciting and challenging (not to mention rewarding) careers working for the World Health Organization or non-profits. Often PHA jobs will pay for you to live in other countries, solve healthcare or social problems, live with household help and in luxurious housing all while saving half your salary (many of these areas are poor, and your money goes further).
Perhaps this is where you should apply your creativity first: finding Public Admin jobs that require a nursing degree. Often these jobs have a basic goal, but then you are in a position to see what else needs to be done and can create a system to get it done. For most people, finding their purpose in life is a strong drive...it may be that yours will require a creative direction that uses those special VSL skills to unfold.
Linda Powers Leviton M.A.
Dear Power Tools,
I am 15 years old, and as far as I can tell I am an extremely Visual Spatial person. I know that I need help with school, but I don't have the money to get diagnosed. And if I do, there don't seem to be any high schools for VSLs. To me it seems that I would need a whole school, but there aren't enough high schoolers for that. Do you know how to help?
Dear VSL teen,
I definitely remember that feeling--knowing you have more to offer, but being surrounded by a sea of peers who don't appreciate your gifts, and seem to understand everything differently and seemingly effortlessly. For VSL's who excel in the arts, many cities have high schools (and colleges) that specialize in this area. Other schools may have certain classes that will appeal to you, and there are always going to be a few teachers (usually a VSL too) who will appreciate, understand, and encourage you. But, we do have to remember that strong VSLs are a minority of the population, and a part of our experience seems to involve educating others about who we are and what we need.
So, even if you find an educational environment that is VSL-friendly, you will probably have to do some experimenting to find your particular best learning practices, and you'll need to self-advocate to get the differentiated assignments that will keep you enthusiastic. For instance, when a teacher assigns a research project you can: 1) define the topic in a way that highlights your particular interests and skills (i.e. describe the historical event from the viewpoint of the art produced during that time, or explain a scientific concept using the graphic novel format); or 2) ask to present the research in a way that inspires you (i.e. prepare a power point presentation, or an oral report with posters, costumes and props); or 3) ask if you can address the topic from a global perspective (i.e. create time-lines, charts, posters, illustrations that show how the topic relates to the "big picture" or other important concepts); or 4) ask if you can present the information in a creative context (i.e. write a play about it or create a debate or compose an "autobiography" that allows you to discuss the critical points circumstantially as in Diary of Ann Frank).
Remember, your VSL gifts are ones that make you unique. At 15 you probably just want to "fit in" and have your life be a little easier; in the outside world of career and purpose, that creative spark is what will help you achieve innovation and excellence. It's true that most of us have to jump through many ASL hoops to fulfill our life purpose and passion, but looking at the big picture (which VSLs tend to do well), it is worth the hassle.
Linda Powers Leviton M.A.
aka Power Tools
Dear Power Tools,
Hello. I am a mother of 9 year old boy. He is in 4th grade. I have been trying to get some help on my son's academic or learning style issue. I have noticed that my son has been alert to colors and shapes ever since he was very young. He is very sensitive and caring. He loves colors, mixing colors, puzzles, mazes, and Legos. He can spend hours on hands-on activities.
Then his first grade teacher told me that he could not read. He had been memorizing the whole book with illustration on pages. He has gone through the phonics programs for a year. He reads at his grade level now. But he still has difficulty with writing. He does not like math computation but can solve complex word problems if I read the problem to him.
It feels like he is always catching up in school. Then he has taken ITBS and CogAT early this year. The analysis says his ability is 90th percentile but his achievement is 50%. He has "non-verbal" visual learner profile. His teacher has suggested to do some repetitive spelling and math computation to help him. I am not sure whether these tests are accurate. He can spend hours doing Lego, 3D puzzles, or folding origami papers but cannot stay still for 15 minutes of math computation or spelling. I have asked his teacher whether he should repeat the grade since he is young for his grade anyway. He teacher does not recommend repeating the grade. She believes my son is a late bloomer.
Is there a teaching method that I can use to help him? Is public school not meant for visual learners?
Mom of Our Colorful VSL
Dear Mom of Our Colorful VSL,
Many schools do not do a very good job of teaching anything but auditory sequential learners. Even the ones that do well in the primary grades will lose us around third grade, which is the most common time for VSLs to feel the gap. My first thought is that phonetics is not the way VSLs learn to read, and being behind in reading automatically puts him behind in everything except Art, maybe. Most VSLs learn using sight reading, which is that they memorize what the word looks like and build a vocabulary based on their memory and recall. When it is big enough, their ability to fill in the gaps allows them to become good readers. My second thought is that he could have a hidden learning challenge, such as dyslexia or visual tracking irregularities that are impacting his achievement. A normal eye test would not uncover something like this, yet it would make basic math (having to identify and line up the numbers) and reading, more of a challenge for him--both learning it, and doing it (you often see them getting tired and cranky when the brain becomes fatigued by the task). You'll need to see a Developmental Optometrist who is trained in Vision Therapy Techniques to know if this is the case. Repetition and rote work is definitely not going to help, if there is something organic going on.
However, it is important to address now, because as a sensitive, possibly gifted VSL, whatever it is will soon begin to impact his sense of self: it is very difficult for a bright child to emotionally reconcile the disconnect between knowing what he knows (that he can do harder things--such as math-- but not be able to manage what others find simple, such as math facts). That is exactly the kind of child I assess and counsel most frequently; by third grade they have become demoralized by the daily experience of not being understood or appreciated for their real gifts. Some shut down entirely and refuse to do any work at all, others begin to act out and get labeled with AD/HD inappropriately.
I would also suggest you get him a good IQ test, one that can adapt the test environment to his potential hidden learning challenges and uses the test to determine the areas in which he needs accommodations or treatment. The only one I know that is likely to understand both the VSL and potential learning challenges would be the Gifted Development Center in Denver. It might be worth a vacation out there to see if you can nip this in the bud before it goes any further. With their report and recommendations in hand, you'll have a much better chance of getting the school to reevaluate their perception of him and perhaps provide him with a better learning approach. If not, you'll know what to seek in a new school.
Linda Powers Leviton
aka Power Tools
Dear Power Tools,
I am the mother of a five year old boy who I suspect is a Visual-Spatial learner. He has not participated in any psychological testing, therefore his definite learning styles and IQ are unknown. I am certain I am a Visual-Spatial learner based on my research.
About my son: All through preschool he was very active and had a short attention span. The preschool teachers reported that he was good at puzzles and liked to look through books for long periods of time. When the teachers introduced him to alphabets, he did not learn them in the traditional manner. Instead, during the summer before he entered kindergarten, he worked on StarFall.com and learned the Upper and Lower case alphabets, including the sounds, within two weeks. He learned his colors by spelling them (Through listening to Frog Street) within one week. He started to read at the age of 5 years and 2 months. Many of the concepts that were covered in kindergarten, he mastered before entering kindergarten. This was exciting to my husband and me; however, during the course of the school year, his report card did not reflect his knowledge. During the school year, the teacher complained of his inattentiveness and energy. At home, he has to stay occupied and tends to like to put together different equipment. He stays focused for long periods of time when he is engaged in these sort of activities or working at the computer. Because of his age, (he entered kindergarten at 4 years & 11 months) and perceived learning styles, we are repeating him at a Montessori school next school year. Are these characteristics of a young child who is a Visual Spatial Learner? Will the Montessori school address his learning style more adequately than the traditional public school? Any information that you can provide me with will be invaluable.
Thank you in advance,
Extremely concerned parent
Dear Concerned Parent,
It certainly sounds like your child is a Visual Spatial Learner. You seem to be staying on top of it very well, and thank you on behalf of my readers for offering the program suggestions that worked with your son.
In general, Montessori Schools do a wonderful job of teaching VSLs because of their hands-on, experiential philosophies. They focus on math concepts instead of math calculation, they allow the children to participate in understanding process, rather than just dictating step-by-step ways of doing things, they usually have more kinesthetic approaches to taking in information (which sounds like it might be perfect for your son).
His activity level might be related to a number of things: if he is gifted, he might be bored; if he is a tactile-kinesthetic learner, he might need a more hands-on approach to learning; if he has some AD/HD, he will be more challenged when faced with sitting in a chair and attending for long periods of time; he is a young kindergartner, so it might be a function of maturity, so repeating kindergarten will give him a chance to accomplish that.
If he continues to have problems, an assessment would be the best way to evaluate this, but academically, he sounds advanced, so, just be careful not to mistake boredom (by repeating Kindergarten, he is relearning things he knew when he started school a year ago) for other problems. Perhaps the teacher can be enlisted to monitor his interest and suggest ways to engage him, when he already knows the material. Many factors must go into the decision on whether to repeat a grade-- size of child, social adeptness, maturity, academic abilities and achievement. Gifted boys are often considered immature because they are sensitive and cry when hurt; in fact, the is typical of gifted boys because their sense of justice, perceptions and feelings are fine-tuned, so they are easily hurt.
Hope this helps,
Linda Powers Leviton MA MFT
Dear Power Tools,
My son attends a private Catholic school in Houston and has been having some trouble since 1st grade. He is 8 yrs old now and in 2nd. The psychologist that tested him said he was extremely high in abstract thinking.
He is extremely creative and has many of the gifted characteristics. He has very messy handwriting but will dictate a book to us to write down for him, then he illustrates it. He seems to daydream a lot at school, doesn't finish assignments - even though he usually knows what to do. After looking into the characteristics of the VS Learner, I asked him if he thinks in pictures or words and immediately he answered pictures. He is very sound sensitive and cries at any movie we see. The tags on the shirts bother him and I could go on and on. Many people have told us what an exceptional child he is because of his social skills. To make a long story short - the grades are not good except science - A. Others range from B down to an F in English. The teachers at the conference last week are asking if we know of anything to help him in school - they obviously don't. He is extremely unorganized and wehave him now carry a chart with him to each class to mark off things as he goes. Getting to the room on time, having all materials, and completing the class work are included on the chart.
I hope you can give some suggestions because when I picked him up yesterday he was very down about how he is the worst student because of his bad grades. He is such a joy to be around. He wants to be a manager of a theme park - he already has the park planned out with a spa with the best massages for the moms and kennels for the pets. He also wants to be an inventor. I hate to see any of this get dampened in him. I have considered pulling him out to home school. I also have a degree in early childhood and elementary education.
I was wondering if doing the V-S Identifier at this age would help. I hope to hear from you soon. We love our son enormously and I don't want him getting the negative side of school.
Sounds like you already know that your son is a Visual-Spatial Learner (VSL). The real question is "What should you do about it?" When I assess a child, I put a great deal of faith in parent observations. (I have created a type of qualitative assessment that looks at the whole child. You can find more information on my website.) I have yet to be misled in that practice. However, you are also describing what may be some twice exceptional traits. For instance, being very sensitive to sound and touch can sometimes mean a Sensory Integration problem, which can be addressed with occupational therapy. Daydreaming can mean anything from an attention deficit, to boredom with the pace of the class, to very high imaginational overexcitabilities. As you can imagine, when teachers jump to the AD/HD conclusion, the impact can be devastating and misleading. If you are interested in getting the most reliable understanding of his IQ, skills and potential learning challenges, you should have him tested at the Gifted Development Center, which is pretty much the Cadillac of agencies for identifying multiple exceptionalities. Check out their website.
If you are willing to give the teachers at his school a chance to meet his needs, there are a number of resources. My experience with presenting workshops for teachers on this subject is that they are open to getting new ideas and developing more strategies, as long as it doesn't require extra work for them. Your first step, however, is to educate them; most teachers go into the profession because they are good in school, which means they were Auditory-Sequential Learners (ASL) themselves. So they have no idea what it means to think in pictures and for verbal to be like a second language, complete with translations. VSL 101 can start with Linda K. Silverman's article "The Power of Images," and/or mine, "Teamwork: helping Visual Spatial Learners Blossom..." They include many practical suggestions to help teachers start to think about new ideas.
From your description, your son is creative, ambitious, and imaginative. If you have it in you to homeschool him, that would be the gift that goes on giving. Allie Golon is also a tremendous resource in that area, and there are dozens of websites that can support you around selecting a philosophy of schooling that fits you and your son (believe it or not, there are several philosophical styles, and hundreds of resources for support, supplies, and content). Here is an interesting website that references the educational underpinnings of one homeschool philosophy.
It might take some research, but seeing your son excited about learning and motivated to expand his world, not to mention feeling good about his gifts, is a very empowering and rewarding experience.
Good luck on your quest...it would be a shame for the world to miss out on a theme park that included massages and a spa for both moms AND pets.
Linda Powers Leviton
Dear Power Tools:
My 10 year old daughter seems very anxious about something, but she won't discuss. She had a difficult time at school last year, and I suspect it has something to do with that. Can you recommend any ways to help her get past this?
Sorry to hear about your daughter's anxiety. It is very normal for children to have anxiety over unknowns, especially if they have previous unpleasant experiences in similar circumstances. Additionally, many children do not like any changes or surprises, and you should warn them before expecting a transition to a new activity (i.e., "In 10 minutes we need to go home, so start cleaning up in 5 minutes."). Just the fact that there are unknown potential challenges can unhinge many people.
Really there are two issues here. One is how to get your child to discuss their concerns, so you can address them; the other is to prepare your child for a new experience (current and in the future), like a new teacher, so they are less likely to build up the anxiety in the first place.
Because this is a common problem among my client/families, I invented a game for one of them that can address both issues. I call it the "Solution Game." This is one of those games that are best played in a nonchalant way, such as waiting in a long line, on an evening walk or waiting for dinner to cook. The game involves imagining potential different ways of handling stressful challenges. First you make up a vignette of what "awful" thing has happened (after the first one, take turns, if your child is willing). Then you take turns trying to think of solutions to the problem suggested. The goal is to think of as many possible actions and/or solutions as you both can. Whoever runs out of solution ideas to the given situation gets a letter of the word "SOLUTION;" the loser is the one who finishes the word (as in the game "ghost").
Here's an example: You forget your lunch and Mom drops you at school before you notice. Solution: "I'd tell my teacher;" "I'd go to the office to phone home;" "I'd ask if anyone can spare a piece of fruit from their lunch;" "I'd always have money in my pocket, just in case something like this happens so I can buy a snack;" or "I'd try to imagine Mom remembering until she actually does." Obviously, there are endless possibilities for solutions, including very silly ones like contacting aliens. It's more fun if there are some far-fetched solutions. It is especially funny if both are offering very serious suggestions, and suddenly the parent says something off the wall. When the child laughs, the parent admits that they ran out of ideas; they gracefully accept the next letter, and move on to a new vignette. You don't have to evaluate the merit of solutions because the primary goal of the game is to give the child confidence that there are many ways to solve concerns, and that he or she is capable imagining them. If later presented with this problem in reality (or even imagining and worrying about it), he or she will evaluate a solution based on her needs and comfort level.
There are two secondary goals to this game. One is that, the child might feel comfortable bringing up the real source of their anxiety by suggesting it as a vignette. The other is that it builds up a repertoire of real solutions to problems by placing them in the child's conscious and unconscious mind. What is more empowering than having a stable of solutions to problems that never even happened? Often, this is enough to reduce the anxiety, and if not, it can be the start of the conversation around it. But, the normal caveat applies--if there is extreme anxiety, and it impacts the child's ability to function, you should get help from a qualified therapist who has experience with children and their emotional problems.
Linda Powers Leviton, MA MFT
Please know that, due to the large volume of emails we are already receiving, Linda cannot personally respond to each one. She will, however, attempt to group similar concerns and questions and address those within this forum.
For those of you wishing to discuss specific issues related to your families or students, we would like to highly recommend you contact Linda for a personal consultation. Linda is happy to provide this service by email, Skype, over the phone or at one of her offices (Kirkland, WA. or Granada Hills, CA.) Her hourly consultation rate is $150.00. To arrange such a consultation or counseling session, please contact Linda and be sure to write, “Consultation” in the subject line. For further information about Linda and her services, her personal website is: www.leviton.org.