Study Skills
Metacognition: Reflective Learning Can Help Kids Perform Better
7 min read
By Kathryn Rawson
Published on Mon Nov 21 2022
Metacognition: Reflective Learning Can Help Kids Perform Better

In 1928, Margaret Mead, an American Cultural Anthropologist, was famously reported saying, "Children should be taught how to think, and not what to think." It turns out she was way ahead of her time and was already tapping into a theory that educational psychologists would later term 'Metacognition'.

The concept has since become a buzzword of sorts and was first theorized by Professor John Flavell, an American Developmental Psychologist, based at Stanford University. Flavell explained metacognition as "one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them." Put simply, it is the process of thinking about thinking. In reality, it is so much more than that and studies have recently shown the positive impact it has on learning and academic success.

Metacognition can be best understood as a three-pronged approach to learning. It is the ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate one's work in order to improve. It can be as simple as a learner reflecting and recognizing that they do better in Math than in English, or as complex as a learner implementing a learning strategy that proved useful in the past. There are a multiplicity of ways to implement metacognition and interweave its processes with existing learning strategies.

Metacognition is Reflective Learning

A study undertaken in 2011 evaluated the relationship between students' use of metacognitive learning strategies and their test results. In the period leading up to the test, the students were provided with handheld electronic devices which signaled throughout the day and prompted them to complete a short questionnaire about their learning behaviors. The study found that those students who reported greater monitoring during the period leading up to the test performed better than they had in previous tests. Other studies confirm that strong metacognitive skills serve as a predictor of academic performance and success.

Metacognition Beyond the Classroom

Metacognition is about more than just academic success and can be applied to everyday life, beyond the confines of the classroom. The ability to self-regulate one's thinking, feelings, and behavior is important to effectively navigate the challenges that life throws at us. It can equip children with the skills necessary to deal with frustrating and difficult situations.

Pausing to ask a frustrated child why they got angry when their computer was confiscated encourages self-reflection on their part, and can contribute to better management of their emotions and subsequent actions. Similarly, asking an anxious child what exactly about their difficult assignment daunts them, can assist them in better understanding why they feel anxious and planning their next steps. Perhaps it's not because they don't understand the topic, but rather they struggle with the format of the assignment -- a long essay.

Metacognition Leads to a Growth Mindset

Ultimately, metacognition allows a child, or an adult for that matter, to move from a state of being 'stuck' to 'unstuck'. It focuses on the room for change, and as a result, can promote grit and resilience. This can also be referred to as a 'growth mindset'. Having a growth mindset is the belief that one's talents and skills are not fixed or innate, but can be improved and developed over time. Carol Dweck, a Stanford Professor, can be considered the authority on growth mindset. Her research shows that those with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity, rather than 'the end of the world.'

In 2014, Dweck delivered a powerful Tedx talk entitled 'The Power of Yet' in which she promoted the idea of telling students that they hadn't passed their course 'yet', rather than telling them they had failed. This kind of thinking leaves room for self-reflection and improvement, and empowers children rather than crippling them with thoughts of inadequacy. It empowers learners to be able to ask the question of 'how can I do better?' or 'why didn't I pass this time?'

When applied to social and personal improvement and development, a growth mindset has been shown to lower aggression and stress in adolescents, which often arises as a response to bullying, exclusion, and peer pressure. It's undeniable then, that metacognition and growth mindset are vital life skills, and for this reason, we at Coachbit have incorporated them into almost all of our curricular modules.

What Can Parents Do?

There are ample ways that metacognition can be included in learning techniques in the classroom, but that is not where it ends. Metacognitive skills develop very early on in life. As early as eighteen months, toddlers have been seen to develop problem-solving strategies to correct their mistakes. Between the ages of 3 and 5, we see the greatest development of metacognitive behaviors. Parents and caretakers can play an important role in promoting metacognitive thinking in everyday life. Here's where to begin:

1. Ask Reflective Questions

Through conversation and dialogue throughout the day, parents can introduce metacognitive behavior and reflective thinking in the home. The Child Mind Institute has recommended the following helpful guideline for those questions.

Questions should be:

  • Open-Ended: Allow space for your child to reflect on their thoughts -- "Tell me more about why you think that?"

  • Non-Blaming: Ask them to think about their behavior, rather than scolding them for it -- "Why did you get so upset when I turned the television off?"

  • Solution-Focused: Ask them to think about how their new understanding of their feelings can shape the way they act in the future -- "How can you handle that differently next time?"

  • Process-Oriented: Ask questions that will assist your child to understand their own thought and behavior process -- "How did you remember to do your homework?"

Asking these types of questions can be extremely helpful, but they can also yield what feels like little results. Some children will outright ignore the questions, and teenagers specifically may shrug them off with an eye roll. That is not to say that they are useless. Just by asking these questions, you are triggering metacognitive work internally.

2. Explain Your Own Behavior

Helping your child understand the thought processes behind your own problem-solving and decision-making can be incredibly helpful. Instead of telling them merely that they cannot watch another episode, explain that you've made the decision to turn the television off based on the fact that the family will be winding down for the evening, and electronic devices will be put away. It's unlikely that they will take it well, initially at least, but their internal cogs will be turning.

Similarly, taking responsibility for your own poor choices is powerful. Apologize when you've lost your temper with them -- "I have been very stressed from work, but shouldn't have taken it out on you." This shows self-reflection on your part and models the type of behavior we want to encourage.

3. Let Them Struggle

As parents, we often problem-solve or make decisions on our child's behalf in an attempt to avoid frustration (or meltdowns) and the natural consequences of their actions. Research shows that while our attempts to avoid anxiety-inducing situations may comfort anxious children in the moment, it prevents them from developing long-term coping strategies. The same can be said for metacognitive skills. Allowing children to face the natural consequences of their actions -within reason and safety, of course - is important in the development of problem-solving skills.

When you see your child spending all of their money on an expensive video game, and leaving little for spending for the rest of the month... let them. They will go the rest of the month without spending money which can be difficult to watch as a parent, but the process will inform their future decision-making. Have a conversation with them after the fact and allow for reflection on their thought process. This will help them develop their own metacognitive skills. 

The Bottom Line

Several studies show that children who are able to utilize metacognitive learning strategies early on are more successful in and outside of school. More important than that, though, is they exhibit greater resilience and self-advocacy skills. The ability to self-reflect and self-regulate are key components in the process and can be introduced both at school and at home. Let's raise resilient kids!

Recommended Resources:

Cambridge International Education Teaching and Learning Team: Getting Started with Metacognition (A great resource for educators and parents alike)

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Education Endowment Foundation: Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Metacognition and Self-Regulation


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