Planning the Home Education Year: Part 2 – Finding Your Child’s Dominant Intelligence and Learning Style

by | Homeschooling

In part 1 of this series, we looked at defining your family’s philosophy of education. Today, we’ll look at your child’s learning style, which we cannot fully discuss until we look at Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Multiple Intelligences

Dr. Howard Gardner first came on my radar when I was in teacher’s ed back in the ‘90s. He’s still the person who comes to mind when I think about learning styles because they are closely related (although Gardner has always warned, they are not the same).

Since my teacher training, critiques have brought forth the myth of multiple intelligence. 

In 2016, Gardner himself contributed to Scientists Making a Difference: One Hundred Eminent Behavioral and Brain Scientists Talk About Their Most Important Contributions that his theory is “no longer current.”

Find that article by Howard Gardner here.

I now use this theory as a guideline, but not a rule, when thinking about plans for a neurodivergent/disabled learner.

According to Dr. Gardner, each of us is born with eight intelligences:

  • Musical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Visual-spatial
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Linguistic
  • Naturalist (added in 1995 by Dr. Gardner)
  • Interpersonal (social)
  • Intrapersonal (understanding of self)

This philosophy of how we learn has been introduced in classrooms since 1983 when Dr. Gardner’s work Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences was originally published. It was revolutionary regarding how teachers planned for their diverse students, even though it wasn’t written with teachers in mind.

Your child most likely is strong in one or two intelligences.  Rather than teaching to those one or two intelligences alone, Dr. Gardner explained that the child needs to be exposed to all the intelligences since “all human beings possess the capacity to develop the several intelligences.”

Dr. Gardner delineated the difference between learning style and intelligence as follows:

Style refers to the customary way in which an individual approaches a range of materials—for example, a playful or a planful style. Intelligence refers to the computational power of a mental system: for example, a person whose linguistic intelligence is strong is able readily to compute information that involves Language. Whether a person likes to use a certain intelligence is not the same as strength in an intelligence: I might love music but have only mediocre musical intelligence.” – Dr. Howard Gardner

Learning styles are broken down into main three categories:

  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Tactile/kinesthetic

When it comes to finding your child’s learning style and dominant intelligence, observe your child carefully for a period. Luckily, as a parent, you have the advantage over a classroom teacher in that you have been with your child since the very beginning and have years worth of observations to go by.  In case you want to take more time with this, observe your child:

  • During free time (What do they choose to do?)
  • During playtime (What do they choose to play with?)
  • While in the company of others (How do they prefer to interact with others?)
  • In structured activities (What comes easily to them?)

While there are checklists/quizzes that you can look at for multiple intelligences, you already know what your child’s strengths are. In looking at the list above, you have already pointed out two of your child’s strengths—one in terms of what consider the more academic intelligences (the first six on the list) and one of what consider the more social intelligences (the last two).

How to narrow down your child’s dominant intelligence:

For a disabled child, focusing on intelligences first (as opposed to learning style) is beneficial since some restrictions are prevalent. You can narrow down your child’s dominant intelligence by the process of elimination. Be cautious here. Having a limitation in one area does not mean that your child isn’t intelligent in that area, as I demonstrate below.

An example:

My son is non-verbal and beginning to learn to read and write. Linguistic intelligence would not be his dominant intelligence at this time. I also know that he’s not quite understanding numbers and number sense; therefore, I could easily eliminate logical-mathematical.

Despite the fact that my son has a mild hearing loss in one ear and a severe hearing loss in the other, since birth, he’s been extremely motivated by sounds. He has always loved music and rhythm.  In fact, when I was still pregnant, I distinctly recall him kicking during a drum band performance at school. Merely in the way that he lights up when I switch on music, without a doubt, my son has strong musical-rhythmic intelligence.

I have always known that my son has a connection with music beyond typical musical talents. He can’t hold a tune or play an instrument just yet, but I can tell that he listens to musical sounds and intonations in ways I never have—even though music has always been a substantial part of my life. How do I know how musically intelligent he is? My son finds humor in different musical arrangements within instrumental pieces of music. A quick run of the scale, the sound of choppy xylophone taps, or the increasing tempo in guitar strumming does not go unnoticed with my musically “intelligent” boy!

I cannot speak of his intrapersonal intelligence because I am not sure what he understands about himself just yet. However, he has strong connections with everyone he encounters which leads me to think that he classifies as possessing interpersonal intelligence.

I’ve narrowed it down to 2 primary intelligences: musical-rhythmic and intrapersonal.

These intelligences were likely developed and nurtured in him throughout his life. Does that mean that I never focus on the other intelligences? Of course not. This gives me a solid place to start. This tells me that to help my son learn new concepts, I could begin where/in ways that he is most proficient and slowly develop the other intelligences. I primarily teach to these intelligences, but I also create learning activities that reinforce the less dominant intelligences because he deserves the exposure to further develop the parts of himself he chooses.

What about learning style?

My son prefers to explore his world through touch and deep body experiences. Based on his dominant intelligences, you would think that he’s more of an auditory learner. However, because he tends to use his body to learn about new things in his environment, I could say that he’s a tactile-kinesthetic learner, hands down (pun intended!).

Questions to ask yourself:

To find your child’s dominant intelligences (aim for two to get started), ask yourself:

  • Which of the first six intelligences could I easily eliminate?
  • Which of the last two intelligences could I easily eliminate?

To find your child’s main learning style, ask yourself:

  • What have I observed my child do when exploring their environment? Do they tend to listen more? Are they drawn by visuals? Or, do they prefer to use movements?

You don’t need complicated checklists to figure out your child’s dominant intelligences and learning style. As a parent, you intuitively know the answer to these questions.  Take some time in your home educating reflections journal to respond to these questions. Once you have the intelligence and learning styles in writing, you will be better able to plan for your child’s year (which is what’s coming up in the rest of this series).

What have you observed about your child’s learning style and dominant intelligence(s)?


Dr.Howard Gardner’s FAQ – a PDF written by Gardner himself in response to the many questions he received over the years regarding Multiple Intelligences. Note this was written before he published his essay in the book below.
Scientists Making a Difference: One Hundred Eminent Behavioral and Brain Scientists Talk About Their Most Important Contributions book edited by Robert J. Sternberg, Susan T. Fiske, and Donald J. Foss
Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences – book by Howard Gardner
Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice – book by Howard Gardner
The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach – book by Howard Gardner
The Big What Now Book of Learning Styles: A Fresh and Demystifying Approach – book by Carol Barnier
The Way They Learn: How to Discover and Teach to Your Child’s Strengths – book by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias


  1. Sue

    What a great intro/summary of multiple intelligences and learning styles. Love Dr. Gardner’s philosophy and framework of multiple intelligences. As every child is a unique individual, it make so much sense that each of them would have different combinations of intelligences that help them to shine in their own uniqueness. What I find tricky is getting siblings to understand that they each have their own set of gifts and none are better or more important than another. I can’t wait to give my children the scholastic quiz. I think they will find it very interesting and it will most likely spark some very interesting and insightful conversations. Thanks.

    • Gabriella Volpe

      I’d be interested in feedback after you give your children the quiz, Sue! I am sure it’s going to be eye-opening for them and will probably help them understand one another better. Thanks for being here!

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