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Adult Learners are Different Than Children

Like so many other Parents, this dad has been consumed with home-schooling. But I am trying to juggle that and also maintain my career, as an Executive Coach. My 5 year old son just started kindergarten and my 7 year old daughter is in 2nd Grade. It is gnarly! Tears have been shed, although never by the children! As I bounce between lurking over their shoulders, and logging onto Zoom to coach my clients, I have been smacked in the face by the difference of Adult Learners and Child Learners. I list a few of those differences below:


Children are largely tabula rasa (blank slate) when they are learning. My son doesn’t know his ABC’s yet, so he is trying to fill his brain with new information; where there was previously nothing before. This is largely rote (memory based). Repetition is key in this type of learning.

Adults are very different, their brains are already full of knowledge. They Velcro something new onto something old. When they are exposed to a new concept, they immediately look for a place to attach that new information into their existing knowledge base. Imagine saving a document on your computer: does it go under “family photos” or “bills paid?” This schematizing allows an adult to retrieve that information later, when they encounter the context that necessitates it. Keys to maximize adult learning in this context include:

  • Allow adults to interact with and comment on new learnings

  • Use experiential learning (e.g. Scenarios, Experimental Gaming, Case Studies)


Children are forced to learn, it’s their job. They check in, or log on, at a certain time and they know that they are suppose to be learning until it is time to check out, or log off. They are expected to work hard and focus on learning during the day.

Adults, on the other hand, are usually trying to fit learning activities in, between their work day or other adulting duties. They are often just trying to fulfill the requirement of being present during the training event, and actual learning comes secondary (if at all). If the goal is real learning for an adult, try to do the following:

  • Promote learning in the actual workplace: when adults learn in the environment that they will have to apply that learning, they are more likely to acquire that new knowledge

  • Ensure that the adult learner cares about the topic and sees how that learning will increase their performance

  • Allow adults to choose when to learn, they want to prioritize appropriately


Children usually require a lot of supervision. They often lack confidence to work for long durations without feedback or guidance from an adult, as this helps them to stay on track and reach goals. They have been taught to expect high levels of supervision.

Adults, no matter what level, usually hate micro-management. They prefer to be allowed to work at their own pace, and to do things according to their own style and approach. Adults still want feedback and guidance, but they are more inclined to seek it out as they deem necessary. Allowing adults the freedom and flexibility to manage their own development, will go far in increasing their buy-in. When working with adults:

  • Don’t micromanage- allow adults to seek input as necessary

  • Be present when they ask for your help

  • Let them create their own timelines and action plans


Those of us who are home-schooling are probably developing some bad habits, if we don’t remember to coach adults differently. I have to force my son to stay in his seat and focus on the computer. I have to make sure my daughter doesn’t give up if she gets one thing wrong. Adults have higher-order needs, and we must adapt to them. Make sure to flex to the adult you are coaching and use basic Adult Learning Theory concepts to increase knowledge acquisition and professional applications. This will ensure that maximal learning takes place.

What other differences have you found between child and adult learners? Share in the comments below!

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