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Organizing — Metacognition

Metacognition in Childhood

Young boy holding two large white puzzle pieces.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Metacognition in Childhood?

Metacognition is ‘thinking about your thinking.’ 

Children are using metacognition as they think through the steps to solve a problem or complete a project. 

You will know your child is using metacognition when they say something like this while solving a puzzle, “Oh, I see. I will start by sorting out the pieces. Then, I will put the edge pieces together. Then, I will work toward the center.” We call these phrases ‘think-alouds.’ They are a sign of good metacognition.

Children with learning challenges or learning disabilities often show signs of problems with metacognition and learning strategies. They may struggle to organize their thoughts or reach important learning objectives. 

For example, children with metacognition issues may give up easily on assignments or not get started in the first place. The child may have trouble with longer projects like a book report or research paper. They often forget that the first step of a book report is to plan the steps to take to complete it. For example, read the book, check their understanding of it, outline the paper, start writing it, and then edit it until they reach the final draft. Instead, you may find your child sitting at the table with the book lost in a pile of papers or staring at a blank computer screen.

The school day is often filled with frustration and failure. Teachers may comment that your child is ‘unmotivated,’ ‘doesn’t do his work,’ or ‘never finishes anything.’

Symptoms of Metacognition Issues in Children

  • Won’t get started: expecting that parents will do the homework or requiring constant reminders to begin schoolwork
  • Lacking study strategies: getting lost on homework assignments
  • Gets stuck: failing to ask for help on schoolwork
  • Unclear thinking process: unable to describe a plan for how to complete a task
  • Lacks procedural knowledge: responding, “I don’t know?” when asked, ‘How will you do this?’
  • Gets frustrated: giving up easily on schoolwork or homework
  • Reading comprehension problems: struggling to understand reading materials and failing to ask questions like, “wait, did I read that right?”

Causes of Metacognition Issues

Metacognition is a term that comes from educational psychology and cognitive psychology.  Children with challenges here are struggling to ‘think about their own thinking.’ These challenges impact the study skills needed for homework projects and longer assignments. They may cause a great deal of frustration for your child. 

Here are several reasons why your child may be struggling with metacognition.

  • General executive functioning problems: If your child has trouble with metacognition, it may be that completing the tasks is hard for them. For example, your child may have difficulty getting started on homework (initiating), finding the materials needed to do homework (organization of materials), remembering the steps (working memory), and making a plan to complete the homework (planning). These are all executive functions, and metacognition is on this list. 

Helpful tip for Executive Functioning issues: REMEMBER! These executive and cognitive skills evolve throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. No one is born knowing how to do all of these things independently. Your child may need help learning executive skills, and that is okay! 

  • Becoming overwhelmed: Children who need help with metacognition can get overwhelmed by long lists of tasks accumulating in their minds. The teacher may assign something new, and the child starts to think it is impossible to complete everything. 

Helpful tip for overwhelm: A teacher who ‘gets it’ may prompt your child by saying something like, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” That is, teachers can improve your student’s success by reminding them to complete a project step-by-step. 

  • Self-monitoring and self-regulated learning problems: Kids struggling with metacognition will often say that they read a whole passage but cannot remember anything about it. Likely, they are not ‘thinking about thinking’ by asking themselves questions like, “does this make sense?” or “wait, what was that passage about?” 

Helpful tip for self-monitoring issues: If your child struggles with reading comprehension or math or other learning challenges, the book: Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities [2] is a great resource. There are many step-by-step instructions about how to teach learning strategies. The book is for tutors and parents who can sit with the child and map out a specific learning strategy together.

Tips and Strategies for Metacognition Issues

If your child indeed has poor metacognition, it will be vital that they learn to use strategies. Children who struggle to plan and organize the steps to solve a problem tend to require explicit teaching in study strategies.

  • DO create checklists: One of the best strategies for a child who gets overwhelmed is creating checklists on a whiteboard. Often, just writing down a list of tasks can take the pressure off. Allow your child to decide where to start and when to stop each day. Go with your child to check off the list as each task is completed. Celebrate with high-fives and congratulations.
  • DO NOT ‘reward’ your child with more work. Often parents mistakenly see their child complete something and then instantly say, “okay, do this one now.” The problem is that you are taking ownership of the work, and by giving the child more to do, they will feel that their efforts are wasted. They will be less likely to go back to the list tomorrow… or ever. Instead, DO pat your child on the back and let them stop working for the day. 
  • DO model strategies: One way to help is to model strategies as a parent when solving problems. This technique is often referred to as a ‘think aloud.’ For example, “Okay, I am making dinner. First, I will get my recipe out. Then, I will pull out all the ingredients, knife, cutting board,  measuring tools, and a pan. Next, I will preheat the oven.” In this way, the child sees a problem-solving approach.
  • DO provide visual checklists: Another appropriate intervention is to talk to the teacher about providing your child with visual checklists, graphic organizers, and concept maps. Children can start developing their sequential processing skills through this type of ‘scaffolding.’ Adults can help by celebrating when each task on the list is completed. 
  • DON’T do it for them: Many parents realize their children struggle with planning or self-monitoring and instantly take over. They make the schedules, organize the materials, decide on the order to do the tasks, and determine when the work is done. This approach is a big mistake as it takes the thinking work (metacognition) and ownership away from your child. 
  • DO easy jobs first. If your child is hesitant to start a task, start with something ‘doable’ and quick. For example, ask your child to grab a piece of paper and begin to write a list of topic ideas for the paper they are about to begin. For today, just make a list together. Perhaps, tomorrow your child can choose a favorite topic and start an outline of the paper. 

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When to Seek Help for Metacognition Issues

As metacognition is an executive function, it will develop through childhood and adolescence. It’s time to be concerned if your child’s grades are dropping or they report that they are often lost in class or while reading books for school.

If you are concerned, a school psychologist or clinical psychologist can conduct a test of executive functions. These tests can provide information about your child’s skills in higher-order problem-solving, including their metacognition.

Metacognition is involved in task-oriented skills such as making a plan to complete an assignment and then asking, “am I on track on this?” A child with metacognition issues may constantly be forgetting to check in on their progress. Often, checklists and outlines can help kids with these challenges. If you see your child needing these organizational tools, particularly in middle school or upper elementary, a teacher, advisor, or school counselor can often spend some time helping your child get on track.

If your child’s development seems significantly behind in sequential processing, planning, or metacognition, a consultation with the school may help. A 504 plan or IEP may be necessary to support your child’s learning and study skills. Both the 504 and the IEP can provide accommodations such as ‘extra prompting and process time’ and ‘provide visual checklists and graphic organizers.’

Further Resources on Metacognition

  • Parents and tutors alike will benefit from reading “Smart but Scattered” [1] and “Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities.” [2]
  • Problem-solving with your child during the ‘teachable moments’ can help them develop their metacognitive skills. The book ‘The Whole Brained Child’ [3] is an excellent resource for parents in that regard. It will teach you how to see day-to-day struggles as opportunities to help your child build new skills.
  • If your child is struggling, you may consider an evaluation by a psychologist or neuropsychologist. This evaluation can help you understand your child’s cognitive skills and challenges.
  • In some cases, the school psychologist can test for metacognitive issues in consideration of an IEP. School counselors or school administrators can often help your child get an assessment for a 504 plan.
  • If your child’s challenges seem to be visual-spatial or sequencing-related, some occupational therapists can provide treatment.

Similar Conditions to Metacognition Issues

  • Verbal comprehension: challenges with understanding information and knowing about one’s own learning processes relates to metacognition
  • Auditory processing: challenges processing what is heard will have an impact on the ability to plan and organize and implement strategies for learning
  • Working memory: challenges with making a plan and ‘thinking about thinking’ is associated with issues in working memory
  • Planning: challenges with planning and organizing lead to major issues with metacognition
  • Intelligence: challenges thinking and reasoning can impact metacognition

References on Metacognition

[1] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential. 

[2] Reid, Robert, & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz & Hagaman, Jessica L. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition. [3] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.