Why Children Need to Use Abstract Reasoning in School

Young children play on digital tablets in school.
Hero Images/Getty Images

Abstract thinking is the ability to process ideas that involve complex visual or language-based ideas that are not easily associated with concrete ideas. Abstract ideas are often invisible, complex and subjective, as compared with concrete ideas that are usually visible and objective. For example, justice is an abstract concept, while a police officer is a concrete idea.

Abstract thinking skills are important in the study of subjects such as applied math, sciences, and social studies. Abstract thinking is essential at higher levels of thinking such as in those described in Bloom's Taxonomy. 

If your child has been diagnosed with a learning disability and also has difficulty understanding how to approach learning tasks, he may have weaknesses in the area of abstract reasoning. Learn why the ability to engage in abstract reasoning is important in special education assessment and how this ability can benefit students in the classroom and in the real world alike.


Abstract reasoning tasks include the ability to understand subjects on a complex level through analysis and evaluation and the ability to apply knowledge in problem-solving by using theory, metaphor, or complex analogy.

The ability to understand the relationships between verbal and non-verbal ideas is also a part of the abstract reasoning. For example, using statistics to predict the outcome of an election is an example of abstract reasoning applied to a real-world problem. Students in math classes may work on such problems, more so as they age and master math basics.

How Abstract Reasoning Problems Work

Abstract problems are often visual and typically do not involve social ideas. An example is predicting what comes next in a sequence of shapes by recognizing there are a pattern and relationship. Abstract reasoning is usually assessed as part of intelligence testing.

Reasoning ability enables students to apply what they learn in complex ways. Educational standards, such as the Common Core standards, place emphasis on these skills. While rote memorization is helpful, educators increasingly frown upon such strategies.

Many students with cognitive learning disabilities and other disorders have weaknesses in abstract reasoning and can benefit from direct instruction in problem-solving skills. They may also benefit from language therapy to help them learn to use language to understand and solve problems.

If you suspect that your child has a learning disability because she's having difficulty in this area, don't delay having her assessed for possible disorders. Early intervention is the key to helping children with learning disabilities continue their academic progress. If found to have a learning disorder, your child may have to work harder to engage in abstract reasoning, but the disorder won't make it impossible to use the skills involved in such reasoning, be it problem-solving or understanding how ideas are connected.

Abstract Reasoning in Intelligence Tests

In intelligence quotient (IQ) testing, abstract concepts are considered by some to be less biased than language-based concepts. However, children who have been exposed to toys that build abstract reasoning skills, such as blocks, tinker toys, geometric toys or other building and problem-solving toys may improve their abstract reasoning abilities.

Given this, even if your child has not been diagnosed with a learning disability, it may be in his best interest to use the aforementioned toys early on. Such toys typically don't feel like work to children but like entertainment. Parents can use such toys with their children to both bond and fine tune the abstract reasoning skills of their little ones.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gómez-Veiga I, Vila Chaves JO, Duque G, García Madruga JA. A new look to a classic issue: Reasoning and academic achievement at secondary schoolFront Psychol. 2018;9:400. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00400

  2. Kuschner ES. Nonverbal intelligence. In: Volkmar FR, ed. Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York, NY: Springer; 2013. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1698-3

  3. Soares N, Evans T, Patel DR. Specific learning disability in mathematics: a comprehensive reviewTransl Pediatr. 2018;7(1):48‐62. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.08.03

  4. Oostermeijer M, Boonen AJ, Jolles J. The relation between children's constructive play activities, spatial ability, and mathematical word problem-solving performance: a mediation analysis in sixth-grade studentsFront Psychol. 2014;5:782. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00782

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.