Are we really accommodating all learning styles?


Six months ago, my eldest son attended a First Aid course. We knew it was a full weekend of learning; we also knew there would be a practical exam at the end, so we were a little apprehensive about his ability to cope with the situation. As any parent of a child with learning difficulties will tell you, we attempted to help him prepare for the course; effectively rehearsing the content with our son to enable him to get the most from the activity. Providing this support was, in itself, tricky as we had limited course objectives and information to work with. We sought to fill the gap by researching the course on the internet and considered our past work-related experiences of a ‘typical’ first aid course.

He loved the first day and was keen to revise what he had learnt when he came home. Deciphering his notes, we got an idea of the things he needed to know and helped him to prepare for his practical exam the next day. We knew a practical exam in front of his peers would be challenging and not just because it was an exam. Despite all our preparation, sadly, he failed – twice.

Fast forward to this week and a statistic I learned during a Parent’s Evening. Again, my eldest son was the subject of a conversation with his language teacher who also happened to be the SEN teacher (Special Educational Needs teachers who are in schools to assist children with additional needs). I was elated when, during our discussions, she revealed that she had no idea that he was on her SEN list. I took the inference from this exchange to be that my son was communicating to a level that even a language teacher wasn’t able to identify his long-standing Speech and Language Impairment (SLI). I was, however, concerned by the fact she had 45 children on her SEN list. Those 45 children represented 15% of the school’s population. So why am I telling you all this? What relevance is it to our role as training and development professions?

So it got me thinking, what are we doing now to accommodate individual’s additional needs when designing our learning programmes?

Well, whilst I fully accept that the statistic is based only on one school, if it is in the right proximity for the school population as a whole, then when these students hit the workplace in a few years’ time, in a training room of 15 delegates, there is likely to be at least one person with an additional need. And the reality is probably that there are people entering our training programmes now with additional needs – they may just not have the visual labels that the next generation have. So it got me thinking, what are we doing now to accommodate individual’s additional needs when designing our learning programmes?

Your immediate response is probably one of ‘we are accommodating them with our blended learning approach’ and I would agree in part with you. It is true that engaging remote learning is typically visual, which is a preferred learning style for many with additional needs, but it doesn’t offer kinaesthetic learning that many need in order to move from knowing to understanding. Workbooks with lots of explanatory text are great to read at your own pace but many will find the focus to read and retain the information harder than the average learner, and if you choose to use them as a participant guide during a face to face session, this can result in the delegate being so focused on trying to read the text, that they don’t engage with the learning happening around them. Classroom learning can offer the opportunity to discuss ideas but formulating their thinking into coherent, structured narratives and then verbalising can at best create additional stress if they are not a confident speaker – at worst, they become disengaged and even disruptive.

So what can be done? Well in short, if you are taking a blended learning approach then you are part of the way there. As with most things, it is about being aware and knowing what to do when the situation arises. I would consider myself to be pretty conversant in my son’s SLI, but I am not an expert in many of the other conditions which result in individuals having additional needs. Most of what my son benefits from in the classroom, can easily be transferred into our training session, such as:

SET EXPECTATIONS – Tell them what to expect, including timings, and what is expected of them ideally before a session but if not, at the start when you have their best levels of attention.


ALLOW THINKING TIME – Allow sufficient time to process language and formulate a response – the average time allowed to respond is 2 – 3 seconds whereas most learners benefit from at least 10 seconds.

GIVE CLEAR & CONCISE INSTRUCTIONS – Give instructions that are kept short and simple, and presented in the order for which they are to be done.

PROVIDE WRITTEN INSTRUCTION for reference. If this isn’t available, then offering the opportunity to photograph key information for later reflection.

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES TO ASK FOR CLARIFICATION OR REPETITION – in a group but also discretely on a one to one basis at the end of a session.   Where possible suggest opportunities for them to discuss later once they have had time to reflect.

ENCOURAGE THE USE OF PLANNING STRATEGIES – such as creating mind maps and writing frames. Allow time for them to be implemented especially for written assessments.

KEY VOCABULARY – Establish key vocabulary lists so that they can use these in written assignments.

BE AWARE – consider why the participant may be reluctant to participate in group activities. Consider offering them to complete an activity last or allow them to select the delegates to work with. Also consider, if the exercise has to be done as a group activity.

In my mind, these simple steps can hopefully prevent the catastrophic effect that the failing the first aid training course had on my son. Unfortunately, failing in front of his peers is something he couldn’t get beyond and he never returned to the club. Had the trainer been more aware, then maybe she would have allowed him to take his practical exam last so that no one else was around to watch or allowed him time to implement his planning strategies by sitting the exam on another day so he had time to reflect and prepare (something that they later offered but by then it was too late, the damage was done). Maybe should would have also provided the opportunities for him to seek extra clarification away from the group or provided all the delegates with a key vocabulary list to help them get to grips with the new words they were expected to use. Hopefully, by following these simple strategies, no one attending your training programme will experience the same result.


About Author

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As an experienced and professional Consultant and Training Professional, I have had the privilege of working across a wide range of companies and business areas predominately in the Financial Services sector. Wherever I am and whatever job role I am undertaking on behalf of a client, you will always find me influencing and driving others to produce results.

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