How Do Children Learn?

By Ian Gross | Parents Avenue’s Columnist
Ian Gross is the Principal at Kinabalu International School, Sabah, Malaysia and is currently studying for a Doctorate in Education through Bath University, UK.

Previously I have written about play based learning and how this can be a valuable way for young children to learn. How about older children, what can you do to support primary or secondary aged children in their learning.

As soon as children start school, they need to be motivated, their interest needs to be captured. This shouldn’t be too difficult as young children have very active imaginations, hence play based learning for our young ones. As they get older however, we have to work harder at keeping their excitement and motivation.

Primary aged children and teenagers learn by observing, by asking questions, by listening, exploring and of course, experimenting. We all learn through our mistakes and shouldn’t be afraid to make them (in a safe environment). Children need to understand why they are learning and of what use it is. 

They need to be engaged and invested. As children get older, they need to take responsibility for their learning and part of this is making their own decisions and choices. A good example is a child getting out of doing homework because you give the school an excuse for them. Let your child take responsibility for why they didn’t do their homework. Very quickly you’ll see them do more work on their own.

Learning in the Primary School

Children are still used to learning through play and if your child’s school is quite rigid with its lesson structure then giving your child time to play will help them adjust at their own speed. There is nothing wrong with letting your child play or choosing their own play. This helps give them a balanced view of the world they are growing up in and helps them understand what they are learning at school as well as an opportunity to unwind. We all need that at the end of a busy day.

Do you ever wonder what is going on with your children when they play with toys in a way you don’t understand? They are learning to problem solve and are also flexing their imaginations. Try having them explain what they are doing for you, but don’t be critical or negative just because you don’t see it. Use humour and fun to help get into their minds. There are no right or wrong answers and children are learning through experimentation and exploration.

Children have to learn to read and write and you are happy to help with this. Children are also born without social skills and need to learn these too. Children observe, mimic and respond. Your social behaviours, good and bad will very quickly be passed on to your children. Ever noticed how they pick up certain phrases and words that you use. Some are funny, others you may be a bit embarrassed about, but it shows you how children do learn from you and others around them.

Some tips to help with their learning include:

• Read with your children
• Use simple language to explain situations to them
• Answer their questions, and encourage them to ask
• Explain some decisions and the reasons why e.g. why they must wear a seatbelt for safety
• Give your children time to unwind and play


Learning in the Junior School

As your child gets older you should be encouraging greater independence and responsibility for their learning. This can start with them getting themselves ready for school. This could be them arranging their school clothes ready for the morning or making sure they have packed their own bags. It has to start somewhere at some time. The important part is letting them make mistakes so they can learn from them. They might get a little upset at times but by doing it for them you are only teaching them to cry for someone to do things for them. Be strong and firm, not harsh, or even worse, too easy.

Focus on what your child is learning and not what they are doing. Ask questions about what they understood and not what they did during the course of the school day. Focus on how they are learning and not what they know. Try not to simply ask about grades and marks, they will begin to think this is all that matters and can become stressed on just marks alone. Ask how they could improve, or do they understand why they got the marks they did. This helps children understand their own learning and its process. It takes the focus off the grade and makes the understanding more relevant and this supports improvement.

Some tips to help with their learning include:

• Encourage your children to try new things and activities
• Help and encourage them to answer their own questions
• Create opportunities for them to take more responsibility for their schooling
• Show an interest in what they are learning (not just doing)

Learning as a Teenager (Secondary / High School)

As children become teenagers, they have more to contend with than just their education. They are becoming much more aware of society and their part in it and within their own social circles. They will be making and breaking friendships. They will be experimenting with styles, music and language. They may even try pushing some boundaries that you find uncomfortable with. Try and remember how you were at their age. Telling them what to do does not always work.

Teenagers might look like they are not listening, but they are. They are also still observing and trying to understand the world around them. Teenagers also still like time to play and unwind and need opportunities to let off steam.

Probably they are finding some subjects at school they don’t like, there’s nothing wrong with this, we all have aspects of our jobs that we don’t look forward to. This is a great opportunity for them to learn to deal with this. In a similar way there are probably teachers and other children they don’t like at school. Don’t try and change this. Teenagers need to learn how to work with others, especially people who they don’t want to work with. 

They need to learn how to deal with their emotions and how to get through difficult situations. As previously written in another article about living with your teenager, it is also a difficult time for you, but be patient. Teenagers need your support and attention, even if they don’t appear to.

Often this is a time when parents pull back from their child’s schooling, but you still need to show an interest and be involved. Even though they now have more teachers than they did in the Primary school, make the effort to get to know them. Go to parent teacher meetings and follow the advice of their teachers. Reach out to the teachers by email or phone (at school) if you need to understand. But don’t confuse this with hanging around and getting overly involved or protective. Teenagers need their space at school and again, they need to learn from their mistakes and to be able to take responsibility for their own learning and actions.

Even if you think you don’t know much about teaching and learning, your child keeps learning from you and your family throughout their lives. And as your child progresses through primary and then secondary school, you can help your child have a positive attitude to learning, just by being positive yourself. Always show an interest and be willing to learn from them as well. Understanding and doing these things will also help prepare your child for university and their working lives.

To find out more about Kinabalu International School, kindly visit their website at, contact them at 088-224 526 or visit them at Jalan Kinabalu International School, Off Jalan Khidmat, Bukit Padang, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

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