Metacognition and Self-Regulation

As adults, we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking we’ve got our students’ and children’s problems figured out:

“I know why he’s mad…it’s because he can’t get the Legos to fit together!”

“She must be sulking because her friends left her out during recess today”

Grown ups certainly have more life experience than kids, and sometimes we are great at reading between the lines to sense what might be going on under the surface of a seemingly shallow problem. That being said, it’s amazing how often adults forget to do the most logical first step in problem solving with children: asking them what’s wrong. When asking a child about the catalyst of an uncomfortable or upsetting experience, it’s important to go beyond a “grazing” question: the kind you ask when you already have an answer in mind and are merely extending a formality. Instead, thoughtful, considerate support involves an invitation into problem-solving and self-regulating dialogue; the type of invitation that comes along with Ross Greene’s initial steps of collaborative problem solving.

The tricky thing about asking a child to describe an underlying trigger for dysregulation is that more often than not they don’t yet have the awareness and skills to effectively communicate it. In order to effectively express a trigger for dysregulation, an individual must develop and utilize the following skills, in this order:

  1. Metacognition: the ability to think about one’s own thinking and emotional state well enough to figure out what’s going on internally. Metacognitive development involves a basic understanding of brain functioning, as well as mindfulness skills to pause and identify internal cues and triggers.
  2. Self-regulation: regulation of one’s thoughts/attention, emotional responses, actions, and motivation in order to behave in an expected way for a given situation (adapted from Lindemuth, 2014). Self-regulation skills are inherently tied to the development of executive function thinking skills.
  3. Strong (or at least functional) verbal and nonverbal communication skills: collective expressive communication skills to allow an individual to share his/her idea(s), plan(s), and emotion(s).

Research in the areas of self-regulation and executive functioning has consistently demonstrated the critical importance of metacognitive development in order to allow children to understand their thinking processes and internal states well enough to build self-awareness of emotional triggers and identify opportunities to use mindfulness and regulation tools before becoming entirely dysregulated. Without metacognition, children consistently rely upon adults to cue them to notice their states of dysregulation, identify and choose regulating tools, and effectively implement those tools. The process of teaching metacognitive skills provides a foundation for more effective self-advocacy and self-regulation.

There are a variety of curricula and resources designed to build metacognitive skills and teach students about their brains. One such curriculum, co-created by therapists Carrie Lindemuth, M.Ed/ET and Hanna Bogen, M.S., CCC-SLP, is called Brain Talk. This narrative-based curriculum consists of eight short, white-board animated videos and corresponding lessons plans, discussion points and activities. Through these videos and the corresponding learning activities, students are introduced to their amygdala (Myg), basal structures (Buster), hippocampus (Ms. Hipp), and Prefrontal cortex (The Professor), and what happens in the brain during a “Myg Moment” (i.e., fight/flight/freeze avoiding reaction) or “Buster Bam” (i.e., dopamine-driven grab and gulp reaction). Additionally, they learn how integration between their “emotional” limbic brain and their “thinking” cortex (i.e., Brain Talk) leads to strategic thinking and self-regulated decisions. Brain Talk is currently available via annual subscription at


PastedGraphic-1Most individuals don’t have the opportunity to learn about their brains until they are in the midst of a crisis, whether it be anxiety, depression, hyper-impulsivity, or significant dysregulation. What a gift we could give to our students to teach them these critical metacognitive skills from the get-go!


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