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Assessing and Leveraging Learning Preferences to Optimize How We Help Mothers

Written by Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC and La Leche League Leader

 “I see … “

“I hear you!”

“I got it.”

When we first meet a mother for a lactation consult, we’re working “on baby time!”  We are charged with assessment and education, developing individualized, practical solutions so mothers can be successful in their breastfeeding goals. We don’t have a lot of time to figure out how a mother learns best, but we have to make sure we present information to her in a way she understands and can use.  Determining how she learns is easy and the benefits are many.

As we define learning preference, we must consider how we collect information (input) and how we retrieve it.  Our senses of sight, hearing, and touch provide pathways for information collection; these three, with our senses of smell and taste to a lesser degree, offer modes for information retrieval (like when a particular scent rouses a memory of an experience).  Our own learning preferences affect how we communicate with and “teach” others; this affects how we work together.  We do not teach as we were taught, we teach as we, ourselves, learn.  An understanding of how our brains are working, in contrast to how others function similarly or differently, can enable us to establish rapport and work together effectively and compassionately.  This understanding can also help us more effectively help the mothers who seek our guidance.

Ideally, we are always using visual (sight), auditory (sound), and kinesthetic (touch and movement) modes of learning, to varying degrees, depending on the situation.  However, during periods of stress, our brains revert to their innate preferences.  It is possible to develop and sharpen our non-preferred modes of input and retrieval, but when we get to that consult, we are wise to figure out what mode our client prefers and do our best to gear our education to that informational pathway/sense.

To encourage a resourceful state, during which multiple modes of input can be employed, begin the consult by taking some deep, relaxing breaths with the mother.  As you listen to her explain why she’s sought your expertise, pay close attention to not only the content of what she’s telling you, but:

  • body language
  • speech patterns
  • word choices
  • eye movements

These representations will offer insight into how to best teach the mother and share information with her.

Visual learners are the most common.  They learn quickly and are also quick to recall information; they can remember information in any order.  Visual learners are often fastidious about grooming, clothing, and matching colors.  They are attentive to detail.  The visual learner will look at you while you are speaking.

A mother who prefers to learn in the visual mode:

  • Tends to sit still, uses fewer extraneous body movements
  • Speaks more rapidly
  • She might use words like: bright, clear, hazy, see, look, picture, imagine, color, focus, perspective, watch, notice

Our sense of hearing is the first sense that develops, before we are even born.  The auditory learner relies heavily upon her ears for imitation and creativity.  She needs to “begin at the beginning” when recalling information, and needs order and sequence to understand relationships of part to whole.  The auditory learner is often a slow reader, and when you’re speaking to her, she might focus on her baby or close her eyes, even though she is listening intently to you.

A mother who prefers to learn in the auditory mode:

  • Uses rhythmic physical movements and gestures (always metronomic and      repetitive)nodding of the head, finger tapping
  • Might tilt her head to one side when listening or speaking
  • Speech patterns are moderate and rhythmic to match body language
  • Auditory learners tend to be the most talkative
  • When thinking through a problem, she might make clicking sounds with her tongue/mouth
  • Auditory learners might use words like: hear, listen, resonate, ring, talk, sounds like, rhymes, sing, tone

The mother who seems compelled to begin her consult by showing you the problem rather than telling you about it is most likely a kinesthetic learner.  She never liked traditional school situations and prefers to be in motion in order to grasp your visual and auditory inputs.  She may change positions often and is eager to use her hands.

A mother who prefers to learn in the kinesthetic mode:

  • Rarely remains in one position for more than a few minutes
  • Enjoys motion so much and does not wish to make it “automatic” or rhythmic, so      will be in near-constant motion but erratically and not smoothly
  • Speech patterns are the slowest of the three learning styles, punctuated by hand      motions, head motions, or shifts in bodily stance; physical movements are intended to emphasize the meaning of words, full of variety and spontaneity
  • Kinesthetic learners might choose words like: grab, handle, touch, push, move, cold,      warm, embrace, soft, wrap my arms around; action words – get it, go for it, do it, make it

When we understand how a mother is collecting and recalling information, we can tweak our communication skills to match, and build rapport with that person.  Rapport allows us to develop trust, gain respect, “walk in another’s shoes,” and stretch our own viewpoints.  Then, we are able to gain credibility and work together for creative problem-solving.

Your communication is only as effective as the response you receive.

Once we know which learning mode a person prefers, we can cater to that. In so doing, we also may notice a subtle shift in our own perceptions of a situation.  By paying attention to body language, we find we put our arms, legs, and postures in similar positions as the mother.  After a few minutes of observing a mother’s movements, you might mirror the animated facial gestures of a kinesthetic learner, tilt your head to one side when conversing with an auditory learner, or mirror a more static face/eyebrow and eye movement with a visual learner.  Modulating our voice patterns – speed, rhythm, pitch, and volume – to match those of the mother we are helping will have the greatest impact on our sense of connection with her. The shape and modulation of a speech pattern is more important than the actual pitch (an adult male using the higher range of his voice when speaking with a 7-year old girl, for example). It is easy to match speed and volume closely, and we often do this subconsciously.  Finally, using words that mirror the predicates the mother chooses will be very effective.

Are you unsure about which mode of learning you prefer?  Let a few people who know you well read this blog post, and see what they think.  See if you can identify how your spouse, friends, and children learn.  At your next consult, try what you’ve learned here, and leave a comment if it changes anything for you.  Hopefully, you’ll be hearing lots of great feedback:

“She sees things like I do!” (visual learner)

“That IBCLC really resonated with me!”  (auditory learner)

“We feel exactly the same way!” (kinesthetic learner)

Resource: Bruckner, S. (1998). The Whole Musician: A Multi-Sensory Guide to Practice, Performance, and Pedagogy. Santa Cruz, CA: Effey Street Press.

Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC and La Leche League Leader, enjoys writing to share breastfeeding information with mothers and those who support them.  In addition to her frequent contributions to La Leche League International’s publication Breastfeeding Today, Diana blogs about normalizing breastfeeding in American culture at and has been a guest blogger at Best for Babes and The Leaky Boob.  Diana can be found lecturing at breastfeeding education events around the United States.  She is pursuing a Master of Public Health, and upon graduation hopes to work in public service as an advisor to policymakers in maternal/child health and nutrition.  Mother to three breastfed children, Diana has served as a clarinetist on active military (Army) duty in the West Point Band since 1995.


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