5 minutes

Child Behaviour: Understand young children's individual learning styles

‘Conation’ is the will or urge to do something. Helen Garnett explores the importance of understanding children's different styles of motivation for learning and development. What drives a baby to take their first steps? Why does a child persist in riding a bike? What compels an adult to read every page of War and Peace? These ‘acts’ are driven by conation, defined as ‘the personal, intentional, planful, deliberate, goal-oriented, or striving component of motivation, the proactive (as opposed to reactive or habitual) aspect of behaviour’. In short, conation is the will or ‘urge’ experienced in doing or learning.

Conation is one of three key components of children's learning and development. Whereas cognition refers to the knowing/understanding/processing parts of brain activity and affect to feelings, the lesser known conation is the ‘action’, how we actively engage ourselves in our learning.

Conation can dip and rise according to the learning environment, and it is a challenge to accommodate the conative styles of every child within a group activity. But it is also vitally important to try. Take a group of children playing at a water tray – one child may want to pour, over and over. This satisfies their simple conative style. Another craves something more complex and gets easily bored. Their motivation for the task drops and they move away. If this mismatch with conative styles persists, children may even experience conative stress, where strain, tension or conflict in the provision can impair their learning, leading to a significant decrease in motivation.

Children's conative strengths and styles all differ. Educators who understand and respond to these unique conative styles not only help eliminate strain and anxiety where conative styles go unrecognised but also help children become more enthusiastic and self-directed learners. John Barrell (1995) goes so far to say that helping children to understand their own conative attitudes and skills is one of the most important tasks for educators and parents.

How Do We Discover Children’s Conative Styles?

One key aspect of conation is each child's ‘mode of operation’ (MO), namely, how they approach everything they do. It is important to recognise that when children are playing/acting in their most dominant MO, they will be at their most creative and productive. Children's MO can be broadly classified into four different categories or ‘approaches’ to exploring and learning.

1. Exploring: This is the way that children initiate exploring, investigating and probing – how they gather and share information from their environment
  • Simplify: Some children simplify how they approach play. For them, the joy is in the immediacy of the task. They will naturally be drawn to uncomplicated, straightforward activities
  • Refine: Other children want more elaborate strategies in their play. They might want detailed answers or solutions even if it seems to become complicated
  • Rationalise: Others like to explain, describe, label, or talk about what they have explored.
2.  Planning: This is the way children make sense of their world – how they organise and plan
  • Adapt: Some children might want to adapt or find a short cut; they find it easy to multitask
  • Rearrange: Other children can detect differences or inconsistencies and adjust things to enhance their play
  • Organise: Others like to arrange or design things in their play; they prefer structure.
3. Risk-taking: This is the way children improvise – how they deal with risk and uncertainty
  • Rearrange: Some children like to stick with play that is familiar and works well
  • Check: Other children like to check things out before they try them
  • Improvise: Others like to experiment to see what will happen.
4. Implementing: This is the way children find tangible solutions
  • Imagine: Some children will picture or imagine how things might work
  • Renovate: Other children will keep things working the way they feel they should
  • Construct: Others use touch and feel to find solutions, relying on the hands-on approach

As you can see, there are different ways of exploring, planning, risk-taking or implementing. Some children initiate (persist), others respond (neutral), and others may resist to any one approach. Research indicates that the best synergy in a group is when there are 25 per cent of initiators, 50 per cent responders and 25 per cent resistant.

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