Dos and Donts When Learning Doesnt Stick Child1st Publications
Feb 03, 2016

Do’s and Don’ts: When Learning Doesn’t Stick

ALL learning begins with sensory input. But all input is not created equal, my dears. Teaching and learning can involve talking and listening, but those things are some of the least effective ways to make learning happen.

We’ve all encountered children who just couldn’t seem to remember what we taught them – or who seemed unable to learn to begin with. It is human nature to begin wondering if there is something about the child that is not working well.

Is he not listening? Is she lazy? Is she not trying? Is he just super forgetful? Or is it more serious than that? Is he just not able to learn? What REALLY is going on?

Do any of these scenarios ring a bell with you?

  • Does he completely bomb spelling tests?
  • Is learning math facts seemingly impossible for her?
  • Does he appear to learn math procedures only to forget two days later?
  • Do you get a blank stare when you give verbal directions?
  • Do you frequently hear, “I just don’t get it”?

These scenarios happen all the time in every classroom. It’s not just you!

Here are some simple Do’s and Don’ts to guide you

    1. DO take the time to find out how the child remembers most easily.
    2. DO persist in asking questions until he or she begins to really pay attention to how they remember things they do remember. Ask: “How did you remember that?” “What kinds of things are easy for you to remember?” or “How did you remember this just now?”
    3. DON’T assume the child can’t learn. Just don’t even go there. Assume his brain is just fine.
    4. DO look at the lesson you are teaching and scrutinize it carefully:
  • Is it primarily using symbols? (Example: learning to spell words, learning math facts, learning math procedures? Learning history facts? Phonics rules, etc.)
  • Is it all verbal? In other words, are you teaching it orally? (You talking; him listening). Is she reading about it in a book?
  • Are there ANY hooks for learning, meaning, and remembering at all? Or is it pretty much business as usual: you teach while he or she takes notes, or watches, or reads about it?
  • Is this the routine: You present the material, kids listen (take notes, read about it in the book), you assign homework, they do homework (or not), you ask them to review, then you test them.

If this pretty much sounds familiar, let’s just take a moment to see how learning happens when it happens beautifully.

Here’s how learning happens in the brain

ALL learning begins with sensory input. But all input is not created equal, my dears. Teaching and learning can involve talking and listening, but those things are some of the least effective ways to make learning happen. Teaching verbally, listening, reading, memorizing: all these things register in the brain in very limited and short term fashion. Our brains are not hard-wired to store these types of experiences in long term memory. Not unless there is a whole lot more going on. Let’s take a close look.

First, here is what is happening in the brain during a lesson:

  • Sensory Input – Each type of input during a lesson or experience makes neurons fire in the regions of the brain that relates to that input. For instance, sight, smell, touch, body movement, story, color, texture, all of these inputs stimulate different areas in the brain. So if a child is doing something that involves several of these stimulants at one time, there will be a corresponding number of areas in the brain in which neurons are firing all at one time. This is so cool and amazing. And really important to understand.
  • Neural Nets – All these neurons that are firing all over the brain wire together to form a neural network around the “thing” that your child is learning. That neural net will include anything that was stimulating the brain during the lesson. Some elements are more powerful for memory and recall than others. Nevertheless, just keep in mind that the more varied the lesson in terms of sensory input, the stronger the chance that learning will be happening all over the brain and in a very memorable fashion.
  • Total Recall – The amazing, miraculous thing is that once you have set a really good stage, the brain does an amazing job of doing what it is supposed to do. Learning goes in to various regions in the brain to make neurons fire; when they fire together, they fuse into a neural network, and when one little thing such as a color, or jingle, or metaphor, or pattern is recalled, the whole learning piece comes flooding back intact.

Some inputs are more powerful than others

Smell is so closely related to setting (context) and memory that it would be worthwhile and fun to experiment using scent on purpose while learning something boring or hard. Then when you want to know what your child remembers, diffuse that scent again and see what happens.


Location is also a great way to anchor learning and make it memorable. Don’t do all your teaching with the students sitting in the same exact place for every lesson. Try mixing it up. How many times have you been trying to remember something you forgot and you say to yourself, “I remember I was standing right by the back door, I was holding my sunglasses in my hand, and the doorbell rang just then…” and hopefully as you recall those related events, the thing you were trying to remember comes back to you.


Story is one of the most powerful ways to help children learn and remember. This is because when you tell a story with learning concepts in it, the child’s brain is stimulated in all the places it would be if he were IN the story experiencing the action, seeing the sights, moving, feeling emotions, etc. Stories are powerful ways to convey a lot that otherwise would be tedious and hard to remember. They are also powerful because they explain the “why” behind dry facts.


Metaphor is extremely effective as a teaching/learning/remembering tool. Very much like stories, they SHOW rather than tell. Choose something that is very familiar to your child, something he or she can see, and use that to explain some new abstract concept that is loosely related. Example, network of roads is like the circulatory system.


Color and Pattern and anything else that is super visual like pictures that show the learning are captured instantly in the brain. What a child sees will stick far more readily and permanently than what he hears. Show, don’t tell.


Context is very important for children. Never give them an isolated detail and ask him or her to just remember it. Build it into its environment, show how it is part of a pattern. Rather than study something from a book, go to the source as often as possible and give first-hand experience.


Belief is the strongest factor in learning. Your belief in your child and his/her belief in their ability to learn. For this reason, it is critical you use your very best teaching tools, learn as quickly as possible what your child’s learning strengths are. He/she must experience success. There is no question about whether or not they can learn.


Respect the child’s natural design. Adults allow for specialization for themselves, but we tend as educators to demand that all children perform equally well in everything. We would be so wise to help the child focus on his/her strengths from childhood so as they grow up, they will know what they are good at. Better that than turn the focus on what they don't do well!

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