What to do with the Hands-On Learner

Originally Published: March 1998

Last month I discussed the auditory learner. This month, let’s take a look at the hands-on, or, kinesthetic, learner. These are the kids that are in trouble most of the time. They want to touch everything (including the walls as they walk down a hallway). When given written work, they may fill the page with doodles and write everywhere but on the lines. Wanting to move and use their hands, however, does not mean they are good at either. They often have poor balance and poor motor skills. That is, they may find it difficult to keep time to music, hop, skip, march, tie their shoes, cut, paste, color within the lines, and copy written work (made even more difficult by their improper pencil grasp). On top of all that, they often have trouble remembering what they were told to do, or how to do it, even when it is something they are to do regularly.

These kids can be exhausting to teach no matter what method you use. However, if you ultimately want to see an improvement in skills, and a desire to learn, you must consistently use the following teaching strategies:

  1. Follow a period of quiet and concentrated study with a chance for movement. That is, don’t require long periods of sit-down work. The definition of long depends on the child’s age and maturity. The length will increase over time, but use observations of his behavior to determine an appropriate amount of time. The activity should be something planned. If you allow him fifteen minutes to do as he pleases, you’ll spend 30 minutes trying to focus his attention on the next task. The physical activities should also help him build weak skills: moving to music, skipping, jumping rope, tossing a ball, cutting, pasting, drawing, and so on.
  2. After any physical activity, allow him time to calm down. You could follow with a snack, reading out loud as he listens, or just give him a minute or two to sit in his seat quietly while you show him the next lesson, asking him to repeat to you what he is supposed to do in order to be sure that he understands.
  3. Before a period of concentration (working on math, participating in a discussion, etc.), have him get a drink or use the bathroom—or anything else he usually asks to do during a work period, so that he has no excuses and you can keep him at the task.
  4. Work requiring concentration should be completed in a place that is quiet and without distractions. These kids look for excuses. Music won’t stay in the background, they will hum. Toddlers playing nearby will suddenly “need” them. They must learn to stick to a task, and that requires the teacher to be a drill sergeant. This is made easier when they realize they get to participate in what they consider interesting activities once they’ve completed the “tedious” task at hand.
  5. Some suggest using a timer to indicate the end of the work period. However, because these kids tend to dawdle and daydream, and/or rush through a task without doing it properly, I assign a task that should take 20 – 40 minutes (depending on the age of the child), show them exactly what is expected so that it is a job well-done, and then explain that if it is not completed properly, it will be “homework.” That way, they eventually learn that it is better to stay focused and do it correctly than lose free time in the evening.Sometimes I tell them it must be finished by lunch time or they will have to finish during recess, always requiring the task to be done correctly. I have set a timer occasionally for tasks that they have practiced and can do correctly—mostly chores. The timer reminds them to focus, and indicates how much longer they take than necessary. It does not allow them to stop if the task is incomplete, however.
  6. I also video tape the child at work. These kids usually feel that everyone expects too much. They believe they are working fast and doing their best. The video shows them what everyone else sees—they stop to daydream, move especially slowly, or do something in an inefficient way despite being shown another method. It also serves to point out specifics you are trying to change. For example, if you have been demonstrating how to do a task, and tape them at that task, you can point out the things they are doing that are incorrect or that slow them down.
  7. It is important to demand and help them achieve correct practice of any skill. They will fill hours doing something incorrectly, making no progress at help.

These kids need more one-on-one help than any other type of learner. With that help they can achieve great things. Without it, they tend to be described as students who “don’t live up to their potential.” Teaching this type of child is not easy, but it can be, finally, extremely rewarding when your efforts have helped them become skilled and capable adults.