How children and teenagers learn

Children and teenagers learn by observing, listening, exploring, experimenting and asking questions.

Being interested, motivated and engaged in learning is important for children once they start school. It can also help if they understand why they’re learning something.

And as your child gets older, he’ll enjoy taking more responsibility for his learning, and getting more involved in making decisions about learning and organising activities.

Your role in your child’s learning
Even if you think you don’t know much about learning and teaching, you are your child’s first teacher. Your child keeps learning from you over the years.

The move to primary school might have some challenges for both you and your child, and your support will help your child manage this change. If you’re positive about your child’s school experience, it’ll help your child feel positive too.

One of the best ways to support your child’s learning and education is by building a good relationship with your child’s school, and communicating with your child’s teachers.

Learning in early primary school

Children learn in different ways – some learn by seeing, some by hearing, some by reading, some by doing.

And at this stage, children still learn through play. Plenty of unstructured, free playtime helps balance formal lessons at school and also gives children a chance to unwind after the routines and rules of school.

Children also learn by using objects in lots of different ways. When your child is experimenting, exploring and creating with a range of materials, she learns about problem-solving in situations where there are no set or ‘right’ answers.

Children aren’t born with social skills – they have to learn them, just like they have to learn to read and write. Giving your child chances to play with other children is a great way for him to develop the skills he needs to get on with others.

Your child’s community connections can offer valuable learning experiences too. For example, visiting the local shops, parks, playgrounds and libraries or walking in the areas around your home helps your child understand how communities work. As you and your child explore your community together, you can talk to her about interesting things that you see, or share things that you know.

If your family speaks a language other than English at home, this can be a great way for your child to grow up as a bilingual learner. Although learning two or more languages can be challenging for some children, it doesn’t harm or hold back their development. In fact, being a bilingual child can have a lot of advantages – for example, better reading and writing skills.

When you give your child opportunities to learn in different ways, you and your child can both work out which way he learns best. And once you know how your child learns best, you can use this to help him with other areas of learning. For example, if he seems to learn best by seeing and doing, but needs to write a story for school, he might be able to make a comic strip to help him organise his ideas.

Tips for learning at primary school

Here are some practical tips for helping your primary school-age child learn:

  • Show an interest in what your child is doing and learning.
  • Play rhyming games, letter games, and shape and number games with your child, and practise taking turns in games and activities.
  • Use simple language, and play with words and word meanings – for example, you could clap out the syllables of words or play word association games.
  • Keep reading to your child even when she can read for herself.
  • Let your child hear and see lots of new words in books, on TV or in general conversation, and talk about what the words mean.
  • When your child shows you or tells you about something that he’s playing with, try to pause, give him your attention and ask a question or two.
  • Help your child discover what she’s good at by encouraging her to try lots of different activities.
When you’re helping your child learn, try to give him enough information in a way he can understand. For example, give a simple explanation that covers the main points, rather than a detailed one. If your child asks for more information, you can give him some details.

Learning in upper primary and secondary school

Your child will become more independent as she gets older. It might seem that she wants you to have less input into her learning, but she does still need your involvement and encouragement, just in different ways.

Even if your child is sharing less information with you, you can let your child know that you’re interested in what he’s learning by actively listening when he wants to talk. This sends the message that his learning is important to you, and that you’re available to help.

And when you talk with your child about what she’s learning, try to focus on how she’s learning about the topic, rather than on how much she knows. For example, you could say, ‘What was it like to work in a group to make that short film?’, rather than ‘What mark did you get for that film project?’.

Most children have one or two areas that they don’t enjoy as much, or aren’t as good at. As your child goes through secondary school, you could talk together about whether it’s an option to drop a subject he isn’t interested in. Your child’s teacher can also help you and your child decide if dropping certain subjects is a good idea.

Tips for learning at upper primary and secondary school

Here are some practical tips for helping your older school-age child learn:

  • Encourage your child to try new things, to make mistakes and to learn about who she is through new experiences. Put the focus on her attempts at something new, not on the success or failure of the result.
  • Show an interest in your child’s activities – for example, if he enjoys playing the drums, ask him about the music he’s playing and whether he’d like to play for you.
  • Watch news bulletins together and talk about what’s happening in the world.
  • Establish a routine of learning and good homework practice after school – for example, have your child do her homework at about the same time each day and in a particular area, away from distractions like the TV or a mobile phone.
  • Help your child develop or maintain a good sleep pattern.

Sometimes your child will need your emotional support for learning, as much as your practical help. You can support your child emotionally by:

  • sensing when he’s upset – for example, if he’s struggling with a task, ask him how it’s going
  • considering his point of view – for example, if he doesn’t want to continue with an activity, let him finish up and do something else
  • trusting his judgment – for example, if he thinks he’s ready to play a contact sport or try a new subject, let him have a go
  • accepting him as a person – this could mean appreciating that he’s strong in some areas of learning and not so strong in others
  • responding to his feelings – for example, sharing his excitement when he masters something new, and being supportive when he doesn’t
  • understanding what he’s going through – you could try thinking back to your own learning experiences, both the enjoyable ones and the challenging ones.