Inside: Here’s a little secret to self-regulated learning and massive success in life: teach your kids about metacognition – the power of thinking about thinking and the ability to improve it. Download the metacognitive thinking posters, exercises, and games below.
One of the best parts of homeschooling for me is having time to teach my kids about the power of their minds.
Here’s an example that readily comes to mind. It’s a scientifically proven fact that we don’t pay attention to things that are boring. When my kids were little, I would go out of my way to invent games and strategies to make lessons more fun for my kids. I loved doing it, but with four kids and four different grades, it was beginning to wear me out.
So, one fine day I went ahead and shared with my kids the latest research on boredom. And this seemingly minor conversation had profound consequences. Instead of me being the one kids relied on to deliver a fun lesson, they became the creators of learning fun for themselves! In other words, they each went on to develop anti-boredom strategies that were even better than mine because they were the users of their minds and knew better than anyone what made them tick.
The human mind is simply extraordinary. It allows us to write poetry, invent computers, and build muscles just by thinking about exercising (not kidding).
But what I find most fascinating is our ability to think about our thinking, or what scientists call metacognition.
In our homeschool, January is traditionally a month dedicated to learning more about metacognitive thinking strategies: something that helps us to think clearly, size up situations, make plans and decisions and learn from mistakes. Below I share our most valuable printables, games, posters, and ideas.
How to Start Learning about Metacognition
Metacognitive thinking, or knowing about knowing, has a long history, even though the word didn’t enter the modern science vernacular until the 1970s. Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote, “. . . if somebody knows something, then he knows that he knows it, and at the same time he knows that he knows that he knows.”
You might be surprised to hear that even before Spinoza, Plato, probably the world’s most well-known philosopher, divided the cognitive self into learner, teacher, and evaluator. And that was over 2,000 years ago!
I love using this triad approach to illustrate how metacognitive thinking works because kids love the realization that they are actually teachers! They’re not baby birds sitting in the nest waiting for us to find just the right morsel to feed them. They can be learning and reaching for knowledge any time by asking what if…? and why? And also, what’s the problem? How can I solve this problem? Did it work?
At its very core, metacognition is all about self-awareness (i.e., being able to recognize one’s own thoughts and emotions) and self-management (i.e., self-discipline, self-motivation, and being able to identify and achieve goals).
As you can see on the poster above, metacognition allows us to see things from a higher ground. Metacognition is an overseer of our own cognitive processes, such as attention, perception, memory, reasoning, language skills, communication, etc.
Thinking about thinking, then, is akin to our inner voice. As Plato said, “When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself.”
Every time we think critically about our thoughts and reflect on our own experiences, we use metacognitive skills.
We can use our inner voice to fret, worry, and blame.
I can’t believe I did so badly on a test. I don’t understand long division. I’m dumb.
Or we can take a step back and challenge our thinking (and beliefs) to optimize our future outcomes.
The previous outburst can then evolve into:
What other explanation is there? Why did I get long division wrong?
Maybe I didn’t spend enough time trying to understand long division.
Maybe I don’t have the right resources.
Now that I know that I don’t know long division: how can I change that?
I can watch a YouTube video that explains long division, but I’m too easily distracted there.
I can ask someone [parent, teacher, older sibling, friend] for help, but everyone is so busy.
I can study with my textbook to see if it makes more sense now and then work on long-division problems for 15 minutes after breakfast.
This is the student that’s going to improve, not just long division, but how she goes about learning everything. It’s going to be long-term independent learning and continuous improvement. In other words, this kid’s going places.
Why does metacognitive thinking work?
Genuine learning requires us to take on the burden of responsibility. We’re in charge of what’s going on in our minds. We know how to be our own best teachers (how to work up the right mindset and internal motivation to get this done). At the same time, we’re also in the best position to assess the progress (the internal evaluator asks: What did I learn? Am I moving in the right direction?)
This can feel like a lot to handle (there’s a reason it’s called a “burden” of responsibility), but it does get easier with practice. Mastering cognitive responsibility is the road to true independence and adulthood. In this world of the attention economy and perpetual mental stimulation, I want my kids to be independent thinkers and the captains of their own lives. And these reflective skills are more critical than ever.
So, if you’re ready, let’s dive deeper…
The Steps of Metacognitive Thinking
As you can see in the image below, the metacognitive process involves five steps. I came up with an acronym AGAIN to make it easier to remember the steps and to stress the fact that we need to do it again and again!
A…It starts with assessing the situation (What are you going to focus on? What’s the core of the problem or challenge?)
G… The next step is all about gathering the needed information in view of personal strengths and weaknesses. (What do I know? What do I need to know? What bad habits am I dealing with? What mistakes do I keep making?)
A… Step 3 is about analyzing or breaking into parts and examining all the possible solutions methodically. (What can I do? What would be a good way for me to do (or get) x?)
I… Implementing is the action part; that’s where action steps (first, second, and so on) come to life. This is the part that sometimes takes the most discipline and perseverance.
N… and finally, note the outcome. It means going over what happened and reflecting on the results. Did it work? Did you get the results you wanted? What can be learned from this experience?
Metacognitive thinking is not about judgment (I can’t believe I failed! I’m bad at this), and it’s not about over-analyzing our every thought, action, or emotion.
It’s the opposite: we engage in metacognitive thinking to be our own best friends.
Whether we’re looking at our test performances, relationships, physical stamina, or response to the latest novel, metacognition allows you to take stock of where you are at.
It’s about being a witness to our experience.
Am I happy with the results? Is it the best way to think about this or handle it for my growth and happiness?
And if the answer is yes, that’s great!
If not, metacognitive thinking can help. As Howard Gardner wrote in his book Extraordinary Minds, exceptional individuals have a “talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.”
Because if you make a mistake, the mistake is still there whether you acknowledge it or not. But as Confucius pointed out, “A man who committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”
The whole point of metacognition is to become comfortable with focusing our attention on our experiences, deriving meaning, and making adjustments. The very fact that we can demonstrates clearly that a part of ourselves is already there, saying this way! careful of that! look out for that puddle! oops, I did it again… it’s okay to make mistakes. what can I learn from this experience?
How to Promote Metacognitive Thinking
During our everyday interactions, social activities, and goings on, there are many opportunities to help our kids foster their ability to think critically about their own thoughts.
And studies do show that metacognitive thinking can be improved with instruction and training.
This article is intended to help you teach metacognition skills to your kids, but as a bonus, it might also help you create a stronger connection to yourself because teaching metacognitive thinking starts with modeling.
As a parent and educator, you have many opportunities to show how to engage in metacognitive thinking throughout the day by reflecting:
- I’m thinking…
- I’m noticing…
- I’m wondering…
- I’m seeing…
- I’m feeling…
There is so much that can be learned if we stop to reflect. Share your reflections with your kids! Your thoughtful contemplation of life, events, people, and ideas can go a long way in sharpening important mind-enhancing processes, such as critical thinking skills, language, and perception.
Your kids watch you figure things out, even if you don’t know the answer right away, and they take home the lesson that they can do the same.
In addition, I’m a huge fan of reading together. This is my opportunity to promote critical thinking, “Hey, I’m noticing this x and y. What’s that about? What do you think? Do you see what I see?”
I came up with a powerful set of discussion questions that trains kids’ minds to think critically. Picture books are perfect for any age because you can spend 10-15 minutes reading and then dive deep into character motivation, fundamental themes, and universal lessons.
With my older kids, we read the same books separately – it’s been nonfiction lately – and discuss them. It’s our own family book club. For example, when my teenager and I read together The Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain by Daniel Siegel, MD, the goal was not to drive the nail in or point out things that make him bristle. The wisdom of discussing a book like that was to see what my son got out of it and to help him put it into perspective. And, of course, as always, simply to practice the art and the intricacies of an intelligent conversation where respect for each other’s opinion and empathic listening flourishES.
Here are some questions incorporating metacognitive thinking into everyday life, helping us make sense of our experience / our day / our life.
- CONTEXT: What do I know? What do I know I don’t know? What do I not understand?
- FACTS: What is the reality? What evidence do I have? How do I know that it’s true?
- OPINIONS: What do I feel? Is this a big deal?
- OPTIONS: What can be done? What’s the most flexible thing I can do right now? What can I do first, second, then… and last?
- CONTACT: Who can help me? How can I find the right person to help me?
- GOALS: What do I want to achieve? What do I really need to know? When do I need to know it? How can I focus my energy on the right thing at the right time?
The idea is not to memorize the questions like a multiplication table but to …
show how the mind can be channeled in productive ways.
I believe that most of us, left to our own devices, tend to fret, often mindlessly dwelling on the most worrying thoughts, and getting caught in a negative thought loop where no resolution is ever found.
I love the quote from Thomas Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: “So few people are really aware of their thoughts. Their minds run all over the place without their permission, and they go along for the ride unknowingly and without making a choice.”
Training the mind to step back and think about our own thinking and feeling is how we choose to think better. As Plato urged 2,400 years ago, “take charge of your thoughts.” Because – to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson – our thoughts emerge as our words, and sooner or later, our words turn into actions. And over time, actions grow into habits. And habits develop our character. And finally, your character becomes your destiny.
The Wisdom and Habit of Metacognitive Thinking
The word metacognition became popularized as a tool for academic success, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s beneficial for all learning in life. We are forever students of a changing world: with each idea, inspiration, opportunity, and action potentially stirring us toward more wisdom, fulfillment, and greater synthesis.
Words like “self–knowledge,” “full potential,” and “being intentional” often evoke a power of possibility. The choices we have in life stretch out on the edges, grow fatter with potential, and flicker into focus from the depth of our willingness to take chances and let in the fresh air and open space.
Our mind and its capacity to learn never ceases to surprise. But what helps us discover new freedoms and opportunities, as well as make sense of our experiences? That’s right: you can find your best life by practicing metacognitive thinking. It can be as simple as the willingness to pause briefly in the midst of a situation and say,
Okay, those are the thoughts in my mind, but I can change my mind at any time.
You can worry about the future, or you can pause and say,
Wait a minute; the future is not here; these are my fearful thoughts about the future. None of these is actually true.
It’s a choice.
Our minds are always busy, busy, busy, reacting to stimuli in our environment, thinking of something, and jumping from one thing to another. The challenge is to push that pause button. “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom,” Francis Bacon said, meaning that being silent allows us to channel our energies, hear the insights we already carry within us, and arrive at a wiser destination.
Metacognition and Yoga
In yoga, metacognition is referred to as Svadhyaya – the practice of introspection and self-awareness.
Most of us tend to focus on what’s missing, what upset us, what didn’t go as planned, or what struck us as negative in some way. Scientists call it negativity bias, and it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that helped our ancestors to register negative stimuli more readily than positive ones in order to survive. We no longer live in a world of constant threats to our very survival, yet our minds behave as if we do. Often when we practice introspection, we realize that what we found worthy of hours of fretting over on a closer examination doesn’t warrant more than a shoulder shrug.
C’est la vie…
Rather than fighting what can’t be changed, a person can observe herself, accept whatever feelings arise (it’s like watching the storm), then use self-knowledge to change the way she wants to act moving forward.
What I love about practicing yoga is that it doesn’t require any prerequisite. At any moment, you can stop everything and do it. You come as you are and start wherever you’re at. No judgment. No expectation.
I’m realizing that this article is growing way too long. To continue your journey, I invite you to hop on my mindfulness page, where I introduce further resources. I also have an ebook in my store that goes over yoga poses you can do with your children.
Before I finish, though, I just want to share one more breathing technique and also a calm-down game because critical thinking and effective decision-making can only happen when our minds are calm and reflective.
Square Breathing Technique
Box breathing (or square breathing) looks simple, but its power is truly astonishing, and the result is cumulative (so the sooner you start, the more you benefit). I practice this every single day. When I notice that my mind is all over the place (which happens to all of us a few times each day), I start box breathing. Ideally, it’s nice to stop all action, sit down, and close the eyes, but that’s often not possible, so I start box breathing while I’m doing whatever I have to do. And it never fails me: a few rounds, and I’m a different person.
Use the above printable to master the technique. The pattern is simple. Inhale for four counts. Hold. Exhale for four counts. Hold. Keep going round and round the box. When you just start, it helps to move the finger along the sides of the square to pace yourself.
After you’ve been doing it for a while, it becomes easy to extend the hold to five counts, then a little later to six, and seven, … and eight. I now often do box breathing for ten slow counts for each inhale, exhale, and hold without my heart and blood pressure rising in panic. However, I’ve been practicing for two decades, and this practice significantly altered my respiratory muscle conditioning and stamina. I also often combine box breathing with alternate nostril breathing. It means using your fingers to close one nostril and then the other to alternate the flow of air in and out, which improves breathing, brain function, and calms the mind.
Yoga Breathing Game (and Exercise)
OK, one more breathing printable that is perfect for kids! I love using ideas from yoga, especially yoga breathing techniques, to strengthen the powers of the mind. Teaching Navy Seal recruits breathing techniques resulted in an overall improvement in passing rate. (Link the warrior elite) So let’s get our mini seals trained like pros with a simple Rainbow Breathing and Butterfly Breathing technique.
Kids simply place a finger on a star and inhale as they trace to the other side of the rainbow. Exhale. Then repeat with every color of the rainbow: red… orange… yellow… green … blue… indigo… violet… ah…
The same technique works with butterfly breathing. Kids trace a butterfly’s wing with a tip of a finger as they inhale. Then trace the next wing as they exhale. Repeat with the remaining wings. You can find lots of yoga printables in my free library of resources, And you can get the password by entering your email here.
It’s strange that we expect our kids to focus, plan, learn, and problem-solve, but we seldom teach them how to go about it. Metacognition is one of those essential tools that we all need in life. As Albert Einstein famously said, “education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” It’s true that it’s not our job to put knowledge into our kids’ minds. Our kids are already born with all the curiosity, passion, and drive they will ever need to learn whatever they want to learn. But it is our job is to teach them to keep their fires burning and show them strategies they will need for success in every aspect of their lives.
Do you want to download Metacognition posters, games, and exercises featured in this article and the ones that are not? You can find them in Kid Minds Library of Resources. You can get the access code by dropping your email here. Look for Metacognition and Mindfulness resource section when you get to the library page.