What is Metacognition and Why Does It Matter So Much? | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 5 Min Read

Do you ever wonder why neurodiverse kids struggle with evaluating their strengths or challenges, understanding how their brains work and creating steps for self-improvement? Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of your own thinking and thought processes and, as the last executive functioning skill to coalesce (in the mid to late twenties), it’s often very challenging for alternative learners. Put simply, it’s a way to manage and understand your thinking. Metacognition allows someone to connect the dots, see the big picture, monitor their work and assess their progress. It ultimately helps with performance, task completion and learning. This self-awareness assists with time management, planning, focus and other skills that can be daunting for neurodiverse children and teens. With practice and time, you can help your student learn the skills needed to apply metacognition and improve problem solving.

Metacognition is a process related to self-awareness and is considered a key executive functioning skill because it governs behavioral output and is tied to emotional control. It also influences your ability for self-regulation and self-evaluation. People use metacognition to  achieve specific goals, learn what worked well (and what didn’t) and then apply that learning to future tasks. Researchers at University College of London found that subjects with better metacognition had more grey matter in the anterior right prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain found to be smaller in folks with ADHD*. So, students with ADHD usually require a bit more time and effort to strengthen their metacognitive abilities.

Metacognitive thinking, along with self-regulation, helps you choose, monitor, and evaluate how you approach a task, measure progress and how close you are to achieving (or not) your final goal. It helps you transfer learning and information to different contexts and tasks by being more aware of strengths and challenges. This is often delayed for kids with ADHD, LD, 2E or ASD.

Let’s look at an example of how metacognition ideally works. If your student has a history paper to write, metacognition increases their awareness of their progress and possible distractions. It allows them to assess their efficiency and make different choices along the way. If, upon self-reflection, they notice it was way too noisy at the kitchen table to concentrate on their writing, they can move to a quieter space to finish working more productively. When their next English paper rolls around, they will already have learned that to get better results in a quiet environment. They will probably skip the kitchen table and head straight to their bedroom or a nearby library.

For neurodiverse students, however, this process hits bumps along the way. Due to challenges with working memory, emotional regulation or organization, they may not be capable of recalling what happened last time at the kitchen table, they may be defensive about their difficulties with sustained attention and goal-oriented persistence or they may wrestle with avoidance and anxiety. Adults who live and work with these kids can assist them by kindly reminding them of what has happened in the past, reviewing what helped them and brainstorming a plan for this project. Their challenges with metacognition are both developmental and biological, not willful.

The goal is to show them how to observe their abilities and improve strategies to accomplish tasks. By thinking about goals and assessing outcomes, they will be better equipped to shift their efforts and apply their cognitive skills. You want to help them understand themselves as learners and have tools to evaluate their academic work (checking problem sets, editing papers, studying for tests). Then, they will develop, find, and allocate necessary resources to optimize their performance. The more experience they gain in grasping and managing how they think about tasks, what tools they need and how they apply themselves, the easier it’ll get.

When you help your student apply metacognitive processes along the way, you engage in conversations such as:

  1. Beforehand: Look ahead to what is in front of you: What is the goal of this assignment? Do I have what I need to work on this task? What is my first step? Second step?
  2. During: Notice your progress: How is my plan working? Am I making progress? Do I need to make any adjustments? Where do I need help and who could I ask for assistance?
  3. Afterward: Consider the process as well as the accomplishment. What did I do well? What could I have done differently?

In addition to productivity and completion of projects, metacognitive thinking can be applied to social interactions. Neurodiverse kids especially benefit from creating ways to perceive themselves with peers, in classes and during activities. Practice asking them open-ended questions which they can use on their own to foster self-reflection:

  • “How am I doing?”
  • “What helped me before that I could apply to this situation?”
  • “What is the impact of my words or behaviors on others?”
  • “What are their faces or bodies showing me?”

Paying attention to bodily sensations associated with anger and anxiety is another important part of building metacognition in neurodiverse children and teens. They need help understanding that they have physical signs that let them know they are becoming dysregulated. With awareness of these sensations, they can slow down any impending outburst. Questions like these can be useful to build this awareness: Are you starting to feel agitated or anxious? Where in your body do you feel this tension? What can you do right now to shift gears in order to settle down? Offer them some reminders of choices that have helped in the past that could apply in this situation or write down a list of soothers to refer to.

It’s very important that kids, especially those who are neurodiverse, don’t use self-evaluation as a pathway for self-criticism. For metacognitive abilities to be useful, they have to be neutral. Instead of asking “why can’t I do this differently?’, ask ‘how can I do this differently and what support do I need to make this happen?’ To avoid negativity, reframe self-evaluation from good/bad to working/not working to reinforce a growth mindset and bolster resilience.

Metacognitive thinking is a powerful tool which allows all children and teens to acknowledge problems without succumbing to a failure mentality or focusing on difficulties and giving up. It’s a way to focus on continued learning, improving efficiency in problem solving and identifying tools and resources needed for support. When you help your student learn how to think about their thinking, you nurture the self-awareness they will need as self-reliant, successful learners.

*Allen, Micah, et al. “Metacognitive Ability Correlates with Hippocampal and Prefrontal Microstructure.” NeuroImage, vol. 149, 2017, pp. 415–423., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.02.008.

Fleur, Damien, Bredeweg, B. & van den Bos, W. “Metacognition: ideas and insights from neuro- and educational sciences.” NPJ Science of Learning, vol. 6, no. 13, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/41539.2056-7936.

Learn more about Dr. Sharon Saline at www.drsharonsaline.com.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain.

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