Throwing Marshmallows
Throwing Marshmallows
“Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he’s not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” ~ Katrina Gutleben

What is a Right-brained Learner?

The term "right-brained learner" (also called visual-spatial learner) refers to the latest brain research into what functions are controlled by each half of the brain. According to The Visual-Spatial Learner: An Introduction by Linda Kreger Silverman:

The left hemisphere is sequential, analytical, and time-oriented. The right hemisphere perceives the whole, synthesizes, and apprehends movement in space. 

Obviously everyone uses both sides of their brain to function, but often one side will be more dominant than the other (I like to think of it as being on a continuum). These differences result in different learning strengths and timetables which greatly affect how a person learns.

Silverman continues: 

Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words.  They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners.  They learn better visually than auditorally.  They learn all-at-once, and when the light bulb goes on, the learning is permanent.  They do not learn from repetition and drill.  They are whole-part learners who need to see the big picture first before they learn the details. They are non-sequential, which means that they do not learn in the step-by-step manner in which most teachers teach. They arrive at correct solutions without taking steps, so “show your work” may be impossible for them.  They may have difficulty with easy tasks, but show amazing ability with difficult, complex tasks.  They are systems thinkers who can orchestrate large amounts of information from different domains, but they often miss the details.  They tend to be organizationally impaired and unconscious about time.  They are often gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically or emotionally.

Most schools and curriculum approach learning in a very sequential, left-brained manner and use timetables that do not match with the normal development of the right-brained learner. Learning more about the natural strengths and having accurate develomental expectations of your right-brained learner will help reduce frustration (for both of you) while also helping your child learn in a way that makes sense to him.

How Do I Know If My Child Is a Right-Brained Learner?

The article The Visual-Spatial Learner: An Introduction by Linda Kreger Silverman is a great place to start and gives a great overview of visual-spatial traits. Read it and see if you recognize your child. If you do, you might want do a little more in-depth reading on the subject. The following table from the article highlights the main differences between right brained (visual-spatial) thinkers and left brained (auditory-sequential) thinkers:


  • Thinks primarily in words
  • Has auditory strengths
  • Relates well to time
  • Is a step-by-step learner
  • Learns by trial and error
  • Progresses sequentially from easy to difficult material
  • Is an analytical thinker
  • Attends well to details
  • Follows oral directions well
  • Does well at arithmetic
  • Learns phonics easily
  • Can sound out spelling words
  • Can write quickly and neatly
  • Is well-organized
  • Can show steps of work easily
  • Excels at rote memorization
  • Has good auditory short-term memory
  • May need some repetition to reinforce learning
  • Learns well from instruction
  • Learns in spite of emotional reactions
  • Is comfortable with one right answer
  • Develops fairly evenly
  • Usually maintains high grades
  • Enjoys algebra and chemistry
  • Learns languages in class
  • Is academically talented
  • Is an early bloomer


  • Thinks primarily in pictures
  • Has visual strengths
  • Relates well to space
  • Is a whole-part learner
  • Learns concepts all at once
  • Learns complex concepts easily; struggles with easy skills
  • Is a good synthesizer
  • Sees the big picture; may miss details
  • Reads maps well
  • Is better at math reasoning than computation
  • Learns whole words easily
  • Must visualize words to spell them
  • Prefers keyboarding to writing
  • Creates unique methods of organization
  • Arrives at correct solutions intuitively
  • Learns best by seeing relationships
  • Has good long-term visual memory
  • Learns concepts permanently; is turned off by drill and repetition
  • Develops own methods of problem solving
  • Is very sensitive to teachers’ attitudes
  • Generates unusual solutions to problems
  • Develops quite asynchronously
  • May have very uneven grades
  • Enjoys geometry and physics
  • Masters other languages through immersion
  • Is creatively, mechanically, emotionally, or technologically gifted
  • Is a late bloomer

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Is Right-Brained Learning a Learning Disability?

The right-brained learning style is most definitely not a disability…it is merely a different way of learning. One that many people are not familiar with. Our society and most educational models primarily value a left-brained way of learning. Right-brained kids, especially in the early years in school, often struggle and assume that it must be because they are “dumb”, not realizing that their struggles are caused by teaching methods and timetables that are contrary to their natural learning style. They are square pegs which schools try to force into their round holes.

Right-brained learners are often misunderstood. Since they are obviously bright, yet struggle with the “basics”, they are often seen as “lazy” or as “not living up to their potential”. Right-brained learners also often find themselves with a host of labels such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, discalculia, ADD, or ADHD.

Right-brained learners often find themselves “struggling” in school, not because they are learning disabled, but because they are being forced to learn on what is, for them, an artificial timetable, using approaches that are weighted heavily towards left-brained strengths (memorization, sequential learning).

For more on this topic, read Natural Learning Development for Right-Brained Children by Cindy Gaddis.

Why Do Right-Brained Kids Seem to Struggle?

Right-brained learners are often seen as “struggling learners,” which can be confusing to anyone who knows them, because they are also usually very obviously smart. They also seem to have the most “labels” - show me a kid who is ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, or a host of other learning disabilities and I will show you a right-brained learner (despite the fact that the right-brained learning style is not a learning disability, but rather a different way of learning.)

The “struggles” that many right-brained kids go through are actually a result of a mis-match in expectations and approach plus not understanding their learning style. Traditional school approaches teach things from a very left-brained perspective which works against the right-brained child’s natural way of learning.  

Right-brained kids develop their 3-D visual processing skills first, then sometime around 8-10 years old, their 2-D sequential processing skills kick in. Unfortunately the things that are traditionally focused on in the early years (reading, writing, memorization of math facts) are things that naturally come later with right-brained kids. What this means is that right-brained kids are being expected to learn things before they are developmentally ready. Think for a minute how frustrating this would be for a child (or anyone!)

Right-brained kids are global thinkers which means that they are “whole to part” learners. Traditional teaching approaches tend to focus on sequential skills (such as phonics) which approach things in a “part to whole” approach. This sequential approach goes completely counter to the way our right-brained kids think.

Right-brained kids learn better in context…they learn their math facts better by using them than by doing drill or worksheets. Since they are global thinkers, they often just “know” the answer but struggle with “showing the steps” or explaining the process they used. They are often very good at mental math. Jason used to completely balk at doing worksheet problems but had no problem figuring out how much allowance he was supposed to get (which often needed the same borrowing/carrying skills). I used these moments to help me remember to breathe and remind me not to stress.

So in a nutshell, many right-brained kids are struggling because they are being taught in ways that actually go counter to how they learn, on timetables that do not match their natural development. You would too, wouldn’t you?

The problem is not with the child, but with the approach. Learning more about how right-brained kids naturally learn and when they are developmentally ready can make a huge difference in reducing the struggles for our right-brained kids.

Additional resources:

Natural Learning Development for Right-brained Children by Cindy Gaddis

Collaborative Learning Process by Cindy Gaddis

Fixing Right-brained Learners?

Why I Talk So Much About Right-brained Learning

Right-brained Learning Links

Where Can I Learn More About Right-Brained Learners?

If you see your child in this description, then you will want to check out Cindy Gaddis' book The Right Side of Normal (due to be published Fall 2012). In the meantime, Cindy has a lot of information on The Right Side of Normal website. Cindy also runs a very informative email list that discusses homeschooling these creative kids called Homeschooling Creatively (I'm also a moderator). Cindy was the person who first suggested that I look into learning more about right brained kids and we have since become extremely good friends for which I am eternally grateful. 

Linda Kreger Silverman’s book Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner is a very good overview of visual-spatial learners and how they learn differently then what is traditionally taught in schools. This book gave me a lot of insight into Jason’s learning style. The only thing that I don’t like about the book is the emphasis she puts on IQ testing…even though she admits that testing does not always give good results with right brained kids. She also focuses on highly gifted kids and that can be intimidating (especially if your kid was not making maps of the neighborhood at age 2.) But that is her main background, so she spends a fair amount of time on the subject. There is definitely enough good info in the book to make it worth reading though.

Another good book with practical suggestions for helping right brained learners learn is Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child by Jeffrey Freed. Although it is subtitled Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child, this is more of a book about right-brained kids then it is about ADD (Freed makes the point that most ADD kids are right brained and that is the type of kid he worked most often with). Jason does not have ADD but I found much that was applicable to him in this book. It really helped me better understand how Jason thinks.

I have also created a Right-brained Learners book list that has additional titles that have been helpful to me.

And last but not least, I have also collected links to articles and online resources that are helpful. 

Why I Talk So Much About Right-Brained Learning

I tend to talk a lot about right-brained learners to anyone who will listen. (Who me, talk a lot? Never…)

I talk about right-brained learning mostly because of the huge difference having this knowledge has made in helping me understand Jason and how he learns.  I also feel that right-brained learners are very often misunderstood. Since they are obviously bright, yet struggle with the “basics”, they are often seen as “lazy” or as “not living up to their potential”.

Right-brained learners often find themselves with with various labels such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD, or ADHD. Despite not usually being developmentally ready until somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, they are often pushed into early reading, most often using phonics, an approach that does not always make sense to them. They find themselves “struggling” in school, not because they are dumb, but because they are being forced to learn on what is (for them) an artificial timetable, using approaches that are weighted heavily towards left-brained strengths (memorization, sequential learning).

Yet when a right-brained learner is taught in a way that values and honors his strengths and on a timetable that is right for him, he thrives and more than lives up to his potential.  It is my desire to help others recognize and understand right-brained learners. So you will see a lot of references to it here on Throwing Marshmallows.

Do you have to know for sure if your child is a right-brained learner? No. Cindy Gaddis, who introduced me to right-brained learning, did not have a “label” for how her children learned when she started homeschooling. She was able to “learn at the feet of her children” by valuing who they were and following their lead, regardless of society’s expectations. And many people (often right-brained themselves) intuitively understand and can meet the needs of kids who learn in this way. But for some of us, the “label” and accompanying knowledge is incredibly helpful and reassuring. Especially those of us who learn very differently!

I have written some about our personal journey with my right-brained son, Jason. I am always amazed at how often people can relate to our story and recognize their own child(ren). They are often surprised to hear that there are other kids who think as theirs do.

I have also compiled a collection of links to good articles, blogs and email lists for learning more about right-brained learning. Be sure to check out my Right-Brained Learning Book List for books that might help better understand how these kids think. While there are no books that focus specifically on homeschooling and right-brained learning, I have been able to glean a lot of insight from these books. As always, take what works and leave the rest. And be grateful that we do not have to help our kids learn coping mechanisms for fitting into a school system that does not meet their needs (or fight to get accommodations for them).

Cindy, in addition to her blog, also has a right-brained learners email list, called Homeschooling Creatively, that is an incredible resource for sharing with others who are homeschooling these creative kids.


Right-Brained Learning

By Cindy Gaddis
By Jeffrey Freed, Laurie Parsons
By Linda Kreger Silverman
By Mel Levine
By Ph.D. Thomas Armstrong PhD
By Mel Levine
By Thomas Armstrong