Teach Kids to Think About Their Thinking (Metacognition)

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Teaching children to think about their thinking, metacognition, is essential.

Confucius said, “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.

Or, as Dr. Phil asks his guests, “How’s that working for you?

When learners become conscious of their thinking, they can become aware of their strengths and the strategies that are useful to their own learning. (Or aren’t useful.)

The definition of metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking. More specifically, being metacognitive helps kids understand their own learning process.

Metacognition with Kids

Thinking About My Thinking from One Extra Degree

Last week, I watched my nine-year old daughter AJ studying for her spelling test. Dad asked her the words and she spelled them — incorrectly. Over and over — wrong, wrong, wrong, again.

I’d finally interrupted and asked if we could stop. I asked what strategy was she using to spell the words.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I see that you’re rolling around the floor and it seems like you’re randomly guessing the words, do you think guessing is your strategy?”

“I don’t know.”

(The goal here is for AJ to know what strategy she is using AND to know if the strategy is working or needs to be reconsidered.)

“Did you know that good spellers see the word in their mind like it’s written on a chalkboard? That’s called visualizing. Before you answer daddy’s question the next time, I want you pause and not answer right away. Try to picture the word in your mind and then spell what you see.

Let me show you how I do it. I’m trying to think of spelling the word heart.” [I close my eyes.] “Okay, I see it. h – e – a – r – t. Heart.”

Sensory Interruption: Unfortunately, AJ didn’t change her strategy and got very frustrated. Watching her behavior I realized that I needed to do some OT to calm her down. I brushed her and gave her a tight bear hug for about ten minutes. This is how it goes for a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – and when her senses calmed down we could always try again.

But, you get the point, right?

Like creativity, metacognition is not an add-on to a learning activity but embedded during the learning experience.

If we can help our children think about their strategies, we can help them become more skilled learners.

Metacognition Awareness

John Flavell, a researcher of metacognition, believes kids need awareness in three areas:

1. An awareness of knowledge: understanding what they know

surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing –SQ3R (Robinson)

2. An awareness of thinking: understanding cognitive tasks

selecting strategies for the task

3. An awareness of thinking strategies: understanding approaches to direct learning




“Students learn to monitor and direct their own progress, asking questions such as ‘What am doing now?’, ‘Is it getting me anywhere?’. ‘What else could I be doing instead?’. This general metacognitive level helps students avoid persevering in unproductive approaches, to remember to check … and so on” (Perkins & Salomon, 1989)

Okay, but how do you teach kids to do this?

1. Explicit teaching

You’ll want to teach kids about a thinking strategy by introducing what it is.

For example, you might be working on the visualization of spelling words and seeing it in your mind’s eye.

Or you might be working on using context clues to infer what a new vocabulary word means.

2. Modeling Your Thinking

Then, you show students how to be metacognitive by thinking aloud your own process.

Kids learn by watching us so they need to see into our brains (scary!) Imagine your brain is printing out a ticker-tape of all your thoughts for you to read aloud. Saying your thoughts out loud shows kids what you’re thinking, or “thinking aloud.”

Here’s a video of a teacher thinking aloud and here’s another one.

You can model the strategy you’ve introduced.

Essentially, you’re trying to show students with a think-aloud model that successful learners use and are aware of their own thinking strategies or lack of strategies.

2. Scaffold the thinking

But, just like you don’t teach a baby to run before he can crawl, you step-by-step scaffold the learning about metacognition as well.

Begin by introducing thinking strategies, then move on to noticing the thinking strategies the student is using, and continue on to noticing if the strategies worked, and reflecting. You only continue on when the learners understand the step before it.

See a chart showing this gradual release of responsibility scaffolding HERE.

3. Facilitate and provide opportunities to notice thinking

Thought Bubble from A Teacher’s Treasure

The authors of Making Thinking Visible suggest seven routines for metacognition:

1. What Makes You Say That? Interpretation with justification routine.

2. Think Puzzle Explore A routine that sets the stage for deeper inquiry.

3. Think Pair Share A routine for active reasoning and explanation.

4, Circle of Viewpoints A routine for exploring diverse perspectives.

5. I used to Think… Now I think… A routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed.

6. See Think Wonder A routine for exploring works of art and other interesting things.

7. Compass Points A routine for examining propositions.

Clearly, REFLECTION is essential. Reflection allows students time to process their process, to think about their learning and thinking throughout any given activity. Use the routines listed above or use a reflection journal or prompt to help students build a new habit of mind that considers their thinking strategies.

Also, check out Diane Dahl’s metacognition lesson with pipe cleaners.

“When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself.” – Plato
originally published 1/16/12
updated 1/26/22
Teach Kids to Think About Their Thinking (Metacognition)


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17 Responses

  1. This is great!! I teach first grade and I love the break down of your explanations. I wanted to share your comments with parents in my class but it seems that some of your links are inactive (atleast from my end). When you explain The authors of Visible Thinking suggest seven routines for metacognition: – each of the explanations appear to be a link, but are unfound. If they aren’t intended to be links, then never mind. 🙂 I was just racking my brain on what to do for my observation with my principle this year and I think I’m going to use the pipe cleaner activity to teach kids about their thinking. So fun!!! Thanks!!

  2. Lenkaland says:

    Love this! We get caught up in “what to learn,” we forget to notice “how to learn.” And everyone learns differently. Spelling is a big struggle in our home, too. Hopefully it will all come together for both of our girls 🙂

  3. Janna Jennings says:

    I love your blog! Thank you for this great article and for keeping it real. My son also has SPD. I’m sorry y’all have to deal with it too, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only parent who has to do things differently.

  4. Andrea Gardner says:

    Ah Sensory days. Gotta “love” them. Is it odd that what I mostly got out of this is “Wow. I am glad my kid isn’t the only one who rolls around on the floor when I am trying to teach him.”

    I really enjoyed this post. It affirmed how I handle certain teaching moments with my kids. My special needs kid has more trouble than his brother with this, but I still try. He has to eventually get it, right?

    1. Andrea Gardner says:

      On a side note, visualization also helps with SPD. Have you ever tried it? We use the term “engine” to describe their state of being. We want a warm/normal engine. If they are having a down day their engine is low and we work together on ways to get it up. When they are anxious or having “moments’ their engine is high and we work to get it lower. When I see the signs of “engine trouble” I tell them so that they can learn the signs also. It helps. It takes a lot of work, but it does help.

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    Hi! I’m Melissa Taylor, mom, writer, & former elementary teacher & literacy trainer. I love sharing good books & fun learning resources.

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