Styles, Stages, And Stress

Whenever I hear the phrase, “Everyone knows (fill in the blank),” I flinch. The reality is that there is a sizeable group of people who still believe the world is flat, so “common agreement” hardly constitutes proof of fact. 

Having had the opportunity to work with youth in a variety of settings, I have found there are several “known” facts that while intuitively make sense, are incorrect. As a result, a number of decisions about schedules, activities, or handling certain behaviors are based on flawed understandings. 

Learning Using Sensory Input

The first and perhaps most common misconception I hear when visiting youth programs is that individuals have different learning styles. Or, more specifically, some of us learn visually, while others are auditory or kinesthetic (movement and tactile-based) learners. This misconception arose following the publication of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, and has since been addressed by Gardner himself as one of the most significant misunderstandings of his writings on education. 

The reality is that each of us learns by using all of the sensory input available in a given situation.  If you are in a classroom, on a field, or in a pool, you are listening, taking in visual cues (which include the teacher’s affect and body language when discussing a subject), and at times rehearsing the information by taking notes or physically practicing a skill. If we tailor our plans or instruction to accommodate only one or two perceived learning styles, we tend to ignore other ways in which individuals engage with the content or information that is being conveyed.

Now, if you are one of the many talented park and rec professionals who previously considered learning styles when designing programs, fear not, for it is very unlikely that you have been causing any significant harm or short-changing the participants. In fact, one benefit of the myth of learning styles is that many instructors now, in designing programs, consider the individual needs of each participant (a very good idea!). Ultimately, what matters most is that you and your staff members are cognizant of, and intentional in, considering how every aspect of an environment will affect how individuals respond to the programs.

Don’t Get Stuck In Stages

Another common misconception, bolstered by many classes taught in high school and college, is that development occurs in neat and tidy stages. To be clear, the contributions of notable child scholars, such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg, who all developed robust stage-based theories, were and continue to be extremely valuable, and are the foundation for what we know about child development. However, the notion that development can be segmented into stages with clear beginnings, middles, and ends that children typically move through is problematic.

The most significant problem that arises when youth staff members think about development occurring in stages is they tend to ignore a participant’s individual developmental differences. While we frequently need to tailor our program offerings to meet the needs of the largest segments of the population (to attract participants), we can still be flexible in meeting each individual’s cognitive, physical, social/emotional, and program-specific skill development. The difference in a program designed to meet a particular developmental stage, versus a program designed to meet the needs of the majority (while considering individual differences) often is as simple as the latter is purposeful in planning for and meeting the needs of participants at either end of the achievement spectrum across each developmental domain. Put another way, instead of expecting that each child of a certain age can/should be able to think, act, and behave a certain way because he or she is in stage X is unrealistic.

Time Out On Teachable Moments

The final misconception I frequently come across in youth programs is how to recognize and capitalize on teachable moments. Specifically, many people who work with youth were trained to believe that any discussion or reinforcement of a choice, behavior, or situation should be as close to the moment as possible. This approach ensures there is a salient connection between the reward, consequence, or conversation and the target behavior or choice. But there are times (that even the most seasoned youth worker might not recognize) when it’s actually better to wait and revisit the situation at a later time.

So, when isn’t “in the moment” the ideal time to teach a lesson? First, and obviously, when safety is a concern, any discussion or debriefing needs to wait. For example, if there is severe weather and little Bobby pushes another child on the way to the shelter, it’s best to wait to discuss how we treat each other until everyone is safe and the threat has passed. 

In the severe weather scenario, besides physical safety being a concern, emotions like fear and uncertainty are often high, which profoundly limit an individual’s ability to think about or make connections. It’s best to wait to instigate a dialogue or make connections between rewards and consequences.

For the same reason it wouldn’t be a good idea to teach proper sports techniques to someone on a roller coaster, you don’t try to explain why we “keep hands to ourselves” when a child is emotionally charged. What might not necessarily provoke a strong emotional response for you (or other participants) may very well elicit a strong response from someone else. For example, my daughter is used to our dogs but is very uncomfortable around her grandparent’s beagle. Recently, she threw an object she shouldn’t have while demanding to be picked up to get away from the dog. As much as I would have liked to discuss why we don’t throw things, all she could do was watch the dog and make sure the perceived danger had passed.

Every Child Is Unique

Whether we’re talking about a false belief in learning styles, putting too much stock in stage theories, or recognizing that not all moments are created equal, is that each child (and adult for that matter) has unique experiences and perceptions. Yes, some individuals may be more engaged with a certain type of stimulus, like pictures over spoken words. Yes, development viewed from a wide perspective does typically follow a particular path or course. And, yes, it’s generally a good idea to pair a response closely to the target behavior or actions. All that being said, when we hold on to misconceptions about how learning and development occur in explaining actions, preferences, or programmatic decisions, we risk not fully engaging each participant in the present situation. Challenging our preconceived notions and thinking about how the bigger picture can and will affect each individual is at times difficult, but ultimately is worth the effort when we see how far each individual can grow.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit