What To Do When Learning Doesn’t Stick

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. Instead of labeling the child unable to learn, what can you do to help learning stick?


DO take the time to find out how the child remembers most easily.

DO ask 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?”

DO look at the lesson you are teaching and scrutinize it carefully

    • Is it predominantly 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/her listening). Is he/she reading about it in a book?
    • Are there ANY hooks for learning, meaning, and remembering at all? Or is it 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 naturally.

Here’s how learning happens in the brain.

All learning begins with sensory input, but not all input is created equal. Teaching verbally, listening, reading, and memorizing are only stored in the brain short term. The brain’s of our little tots are not wired to store these types of experiences in long term memory without activating other senses and parts of the brain.


How can you activate different parts of the brain?

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

Story is one of the most influential 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 triggered in all the places it would be if he or she were in the story experiencing the action, seeing the sights, moving, or feeling emotions. Stories are a powerful way to communicate ideas that otherwise can be boring and hard to understand.

Metaphor is an extremely effective tool. Much like stories, they show rather than tell. Choose something that is very well known to your child, something he or she can see, and use that to explain a new abstract concept that is loosely related. For example, network of roads is like the circulatory system.

Color and Pattern and anything else that is visual such as pictures are captured instantly in the brain. What a child sees he or she will remember far more readily and permanently than what they hear. Show, don’t tell.


Location is also a great way to secure learning and make it stick. Don’t do all your teaching with students sitting in the same exact spot for every lesson. Instead try mixing it up. How many times have you been trying to remember something and you think to yourself, “I remember I was standing right next to the front door, I was holding my cell phone in my hand, and my sister called me…” and with any luck as you remember those connected events, the idea you were trying to recall comes back to you.

Context is important for a child. Never give them an solitary 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 memorize something from a book, go to the source as often as possible and give hands-on experience.

Belief is the strongest factor in learning. Your belief in a child and his/her belief in themselves. For this reason, it is crucial you use your best teaching tools and that you learn as quickly as possible what your child’s learning strengths are. There is no question about whether they can or cannot learn. The child will have success as long as you believe in and respect their individual learning style. 

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