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Understanding — Non-Verbal Reasoning

Non-Verbal Reasoning in Children

Boy sitting at a desk in a classroom with a puzzled look.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 17 Jan 2022

What is Non-Verbal Reasoning in Childhood?

Non-verbal reasoning in childhood is thinking without words

This kind of thinking involves looking at something and ‘seeing’ the answer, getting the concept, or solving the problem. 

Non-verbal subjects: A more visual brain is required for logical thinking activities like building models, reading graphs, or finding your way around a building. Measuring, diagramming, and taking data also fall into this category.

Verbal learners: If these activities are harder for your child, he may be more of a verbal type of learner and will likely require different instruction in school. That is, verbal learners like to hear instructions aloud or read the information in printed words. Non-verbal learners like to see visuals of the directions, perhaps using checklists or diagrams to follow a sequence of instructions.

Children may use verbal mediation to solve non-verbal puzzles. For example, a child might say, ‘First, I will do the edge pieces, then the similar colored pieces, and then I will complete the puzzle.’ However, although some verbal strategies help, these tasks are non-verbal because we can solve them without using words.

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Symptoms of Non-Verbal Reasoning Issues in Children

  • Perplexed by problems: getting stuck on puzzles or math problems
  • Cries over the instruction booklets for Lego sets: getting stuck when building with Legos, Erector Sets, or other toys that require step-by-step reasoning
  • Having a harder time learning to do math problems: having trouble in math, especially in terms of assessing relationships among shapes, variables, or abstract concepts, such as problems in geometry and algebra
  • Prefers letters over numbers: showing a strong preference for reading and writing rather than math
  • Reads books but not graphs: enjoying reading books but often avoiding graphs and maps due to confusion or frustration
  • Struggles when trying to build things: becoming stuck or irritated when attempting to build with blocks or construct a model airplane
  • Prefers to act in a play rather than do a science experiment: seeming to enjoy acting or other more verbal activities over doing a science-based activity

Causes of Non-Verbal Reasoning Issues

Clinically, visual problem solving is called ‘non-verbal reasoning.’ Like doing a Rubik’s Cube, you have to ‘see it.’ 

Psychologists test non-verbal reasoning on intelligence tests or aptitude tests. The non-verbal tasks on these tests involve working through problems like:

  • building with blocks to make a printed design
  • discerning patterns and deciding what comes next in the sequence
  • determining how to balance a scale using a visual key
  • logical reasoning problems like seeing which objects share a common category or follow a consistent pattern
  • Looking for a particular shape among a series of distracting shapes and answering questions like, “find the missing shape” or “mark the matching shape” or “mark the shape that comes next in this pattern”

These tasks are measures of non-verbal reasoning skills. People who struggle with these reasoning skills are likely to have math, engineering, art, or geography difficulties. 

Explain your answer: In today’s math and science curriculum, students are almost always expected to not only get the answer right but also describe their thinking. Students may struggle to get the correct answer or tell how they completed the problem. Children with challenges here may find these analytical thinking problems and explanations very frustrating. 

Are we born with our intelligence? Science indicates that some aspects of intelligence, such as non-verbal reasoning, are in our DNA. Most psychologists would say that these issues with analytical or logical reasoning are signs that your child’s brain is simply wired differently. We call intellectual skills like these ‘organic’ in that some aspects of cognition are innate and have been intact since birth. 

Genes or environment? However, a child’s IQ score is made up of both genetic and environmental factors. Thus, a child could be born without a natural leaning toward math and science but could develop these skills over time with deliberate practice. In educational psychology, we know that attitude and effort are essential to developing any academic skill. [2] Non-verbal reasoning is one of those talents that kids can develop with determination and effort.

Mindset & grit: Research continues to show that individuals who are not naturally inclined toward a certain endeavor can learn to do it. The prevailing belief is that you are born ‘an athlete’ or ‘an artist.’ In her fascinating book, Mindset, Carol Dweck [1] shows how a group of very poor artists can take a class for six weeks and produce beautiful portraits with regular practice. There are several amazing examples of individuals who wanted to become athletes, even after significant injuries or disabilities, and with attitude and effort, made it all the way to the Olympics. [1,2]

Taken together, although some aspects of intelligence have been with us since birth, there is no reason to assume that intellectual challenges are permanent. Modern research shows that the human brain is plastic and pliable and that new connections can form throughout life to bring about greater intellectual capacity and improved results in life.

What to Do About Non-Verbal Reasoning Issues

The most important thing a parent can do to help a child with non-verbal reasoning challenges is to build on their strengths. 

What does that mean? If the kiddo does better with words, give them the words. Even better, give them the words and visuals together. Psychologists call this ‘pairing.’ It can be a crucial way to help students develop better visual skills while building on stronger verbal skills. You might show the child a color-by-number and then sit by them and say, “Now, look for number 5. Color that one red. See, now, you are getting it. Now go to the next number.” In this way, a verbal learner can become a better visual learner.

In terms of strategies for someone who struggles with non-verbal skills, the following is recommended:

  • Talk it out: Individuals with weaker visual processing or non-verbal intelligence may find that talking through logical steps is the best way to solve a math problem or understand new information effectively. For example, write out a series of steps for your child. Or you can sit by your child and talk through each step of a math problem. In this way, your child can use words to learn to do visual problems.
  • Find the meaning: To play to your child’s strengths, assign meaning to all information given in pictorial form. Tell the child how this number relates to something in real life. Here’s an example. For 3 – 2 = 1, ask your child to picture a playground with three swings. Ask them how many swings would be left if two friends were already on the swings.
  • Experience it in real life: Go out to the swings on the playground and give the child a chance to experience this ‘problem.’ You can say, “Okay, there are three swings. You are on one; I am on one. How many are left for someone else?”
  • Provide context: Tell stories to bring meaning to non-verbal images. When looking at a map, tell the child a story about what happened in these different regions. These stories should be about situations your child remembers or of which they have prior knowledge. Include feelings, sights, and sounds in the stories. These meaningful events and experiences will allow the child to put context to visual or graphical representations. This strategy alone can be very powerful in helping a struggling child learn to read a map or understand a visual diagram.

When to Seek Help for Non-Verbal Reasoning Issues

The time to seek help for a non-verbal reasoning issue is when your child is really struggling in non-verbal subjects in school like math, science, art, or geography. 

As a parent, you’d see the following if your child is struggling:

  • Your child is crying at the kitchen table when it’s time for math homework
  • Your child is doing great in all subjects but is failing science
  • Your child simply refuses to draw in class 
  • Your child runs out of the room when it’s time to look at a map or study the globe

It will be essential to get some help in any of those cases. None of these are unsolvable problems, and some professionals can get things on track. Throughout this article, we will discuss how to know when your child needs help and the type of help available to support your child with non-verbal reasoning challenges.

Further Resources on Non-Verbal Reasoning

  • School consultation: If your child’s skills are impaired in terms of non-verbal skills, a consultation with the school may help. Academic testing may be required if your child’s struggles persist on non-verbal subjects such as science, math, engineering, and geography. A 504 plan or IEP may be necessary if your child struggles in math or other non-verbal subjects, tasks, or tests.
  • IQ test: If you suspect your child has difficulty with non-verbal reasoning, it would first be important to consult with a School Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist and have an IQ test to confirm. IQ tests assess your child’s general intelligence. The assessment would include non-verbal reasoning. School psychologists typically only administer IQ tests as part of an evaluation for special education. If your child is not being considered for specific services, it will be necessary to consult a clinical psychologist instead.
  • Full psychological evaluation or academic evaluation: If your child is really having difficulty academically, it may be that there are multiple issues worth addressing. Sometimes, after a lot of failure in math, for example, children will become anxious and simply refuse to do the work. A psychologist or neuropsychologist can do a full assessment to consider symptoms in a mental health context
  • Prep for the SAT, ACT, or other achievement test: If you have a middle-school or high-school-aged child, who plans to go to college, entrance exams may be a challenge. Keep in mind that most aptitude tests and competitive exams include a quantitative reasoning section that makes up roughly half of the exam. You may want to help your child prepare for exams of this nature. This support may include mock exams, a professional tutor, or a prep course. 
  • Physical therapist or occupational therapist (OT): Sometimes, children will have difficulty with non-verbal reasoning due to visual tracking or other motor skill issues. It may be that your child has trouble with depth perception, visually assessing items in front of a complex background, or physically manipulating objects.  In that case, an occupational therapist is a great resource.

Similar Conditions to Non-Verbal Reasoning Issues

  • Spatial reasoning: children who struggle with non-verbal reasoning may have difficulty reading a map or solving visual puzzles
  • Intelligence: children who struggle with non-verbal reasoning may have difficulty with non-verbal reasoning or other types of problem solving
  • Fluid reasoning: children who struggle with non-verbal reasoning may have difficulty understanding new concepts in school

References about Non-Verbal Reasoning

[1] Dweck, Carol (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Amazon

[2] Duckworth, Angela (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Amazon 

[3] Eide & Eide (2006). The mislabeled child: Looking beyond behavior to find the true sources—and solutions—for children’s learning challenges. Hyperion, NY.

Other Resources on Non-Verbal Reasoning

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Sattler (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc, La Mesa, CA.

DeThome, L.S., Schaefer, B.A. (2014). A guide to nonverbal IQ measures. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. (13) pp.275-290.