Metacognition and How It Relates to Your Tween

Teenage girl sitting on window seat with head in hand
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Invariably, tweens, like all of us, will face situations that make them feel overwhelmed and often defeated—such as a looming test or a challenging social situation. Their first response to these common dilemmas may be to assume they simply can't find a solution, which sets them up for failure. The way to combat this type of negative thinking is to use what are known as metacognitive abilities, which are a normal part of development. Metacognition allows us to self-reflect, monitor our thoughts, and come up with practical solutions to problems.

What Is Metacognition?

Metacognition, essentially, allows us to know what we know, to think about thinking, and to understand our sense of self. Tweens tend to have relatively strong metacognitive abilities compared to young children, but these skills are still being learned, and they can be sharpened with help from parents and teachers.

Metacognitive processes include planning, monitoring one's own thoughts, problem-solving, making decisions, and evaluating one's thought processes. It also involves the use of strategies for remembering information. Metacognition is vital to the learning process and is an important part of your child's emotional maturity.

Tweens who have stronger metacognitive skills tend to perform better academically than tweens with weaker skills. Such skills may also benefit students outside of the classroom, such as when they're interacting with friends and may face peer pressure, or when they start taking on small jobs or responsibilities. These thinking skills can also help tweens as they determine whether a decision they're about to make is good or bad, even if peer pressure isn't involved. 

How You Can Encourage the Metacognitive Process

Kids who perceive themselves as being “good” or “bad” at particular tasks may decide they either can do it or they can’t when it comes to a specific challenge, and that they don't have any control over the outcome.

For example, a child may say to himself, "Writing book reports makes me anxious." Using metacognitive skills might lead him to dig deeper and be more proactive, thinking, "What is it about book reports that makes me feel anxious and what can I do to change that?"

You can support the development of metacognition by encouraging your children to reflect on their own thoughts and actions. You might ask, "How did you make that decision?" or "What strategy did you use to remember what to buy at the store?" Try to work these questions into your daily activities or routines, such as during family dinner time.

In general, these questions should be:

  • Non-blaming: It can be hard to stay open when kids are acting out, but asking them to think about their behavior can help them learn to manage difficult situations in a better way.
  • Open-ended: Give your child some space to reflect on his thinking. ("Can you tell me more about why you think that?")
  • Solution-focused: Encourage him to think about how he can use his understanding to change things in the future. ("How could you handle that differently next time?")
  • Process-oriented: Ask questions that help your child get a better idea of how his thought process works. ("How will you know when this drawing is finished?)

Children raised in households in which parents are authoritarian, or attend schools in which teachers or administrators are, may struggle to develop productive thinking skills. If students are simply taught to obey orders, not question the decisions of the adults around them or to "do as I say, not as I do," they may not spend much time reflecting on their thought processes. ​

Similarly, the proverbial "helicopter parents" who follow their child's every move for fear of a misstep are not helping them develop metacognitive skills. Kids need to be allowed to make their own decisions, reflect on their thought processes, and develop their own set of problem-solving skills.

A Word From Verywell

As children grow, they will face increasingly complex dilemmas in life and in the classroom. The development of metacognitive skills can usher your children through challenges and help your tween on the path to maturity.

If you think you're doing your best to help your child make decisions independently and he still seems to struggle with metacognition, discuss the issue with your child's teacher. Find out if the teacher can provide you with books, worksheets, or activities designed to improve metacognition.

If you suspect that something else is to blame for why your child struggles with metacognition, talk to his teacher about the possibility of him having a learning disability. If that's the case, the school can have him evaluated and help him get the tools he needs to boost his problem-solving skills.

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