The importance of thinking about thinking cannot be understated, especially for students who learn differently or find themselves struggling to keep up. Metacognition, defined as “the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes,” builds independence and resilience among students by allowing them to recognize unhelpful habits and negative self-talk. Metacognition enhances the development of executive function skills; student learn to actively reflect, think strategically, and put on their future glasses. A student with limited metacognitive ability might stare for 30 minutes at a worksheet, only to conclude that they “cannot think of anything to write about” or simply “can’t do it.” On the other hand, a more metacognitively aware student in the same situation might be able to ask themself, “Why am I having a hard time with this assignment, and what can I do to change that?”
Often, bolstering metacognition also provides the very tangible benefit of simultaneously improving time management skills. Instead of putting off assignments without fully grasping the compounding effects of consistent procrastination, students working on metacognitive awareness begin to ask themselves more specific questions about self regulation. How long will this take me to accomplish? In what order should I complete these tasks? Where will I work most effectively? What can I do to avoid “time robbers”? What other obstacles might arise, and what will I do in that situation? While some adults often take this kind of metacognition for granted, for many students these are non-intuitive skills that can be practiced and improved.
In many ways, the process of developing self-monitoring is much like the process of an actor rehearsing a play. Just as an actor must balance their own thoughts, habits, and routines with those of the character they portray, the student is asked to step back and compare their own actions to the student they would like to become. How am I similar to this person? How am I different from this person? What would the character do in this situation? Is that different from how I am reacting at present? If so, how do we merge into one?
Great actors will ask these questions independently as they prepare for a role, but once inside the rehearsal room, performers are also supported by a whole team of creatives offering thoughts on character, style, and structure. An executive function coach might serve as the student’s metacognitive “director,” tasked not only with spearheading creative vision but also with designing a space for all players to work to their fullest potential. Just as a director guides the actor through “blocking” or planning out the progression of a scene, an executive function coach works with students to manage the progression of their daily, weekly, or annual academic responsibilities. In either case, this work includes managing both the physical and emotional structure of events.
Like a director building systems to support an actor’s performance, an executive function coach will help students to:
Almost all script analysis techniques require storytellers to identify the main “event” of a scene and then consider how this event stacks into the larger story; without any understanding of purpose, the performance will likely miss the mark. Similarly, students without any understanding of what they are working towards may become academically disengaged or burned out from unnecessary pursuits of perfection. Executive function coaching helps students enhance their metacognition skills to identify personal priorities and then actively craft schedules that reflect those dreams and values. Once this backbone is in place, coaching sessions also provide the necessary time and space for practicing metacognition: How did the week go academically? Am I on track with the benchmarks I’ve set for myself? Am I where I’d like to be as a thinker and learner? With academic priorities outlined, it becomes easier for students to justify study sessions over social media or brain-breaks over all-nighters. Sarah Ward, M.S., CCC-SLP of Cognitive Connections suggests the “C.O.P.s” method of anticipating a student’s weekly activities, where “C” stands for “chill time” spent in leisure, “O” stands for “obligated time” like school, appointments, or extracurricular activities, and “P” stands for “productive time” where students complete assignments and chores. Coaches assist students in listing their most common “chill,” “obligated,” and “productive” activities, and then help students craft and visualize a standard week that aligns with their overarching goals.
Build flexible structure
Only amatuer performers attempt to replicate exactly the same performance each night. Experts, on the other hand, effectively incorporate and encourage spontaneity within the director’s predetermined structure. Just as directors and actors recognize that it is impossible to map out every move, coaches and students work under the assumption that schedules will change from week to week. The goal of assignment tracking and scheduling is to provide useful structure, and metacognitive coaching equips students with tools for managing the unexpected. For example, coaches or parents might use transparent page protectors to hold copies of their student’s schedule; this way, the student can easily make adjustments using dry erase markers. Metacognition at this phase may turn “Volleyball tournament this weekend!” into “Hmmm, I have a volleyball tournament this weekend. How does this change up my schedule? Will this cut into my study time? What do I need to adjust to stay on track?”
After opening night, the director leaves, and maintaining the artistic integrity of performance becomes the actor’s responsibility. Executive function coaches also expect to exit after ensuring the performance can run smoothly on its own. They slowly guide students towards independence, stacking skills into routine until students feel comfortable implementing planning processes by themselves. At the outset, a coach might start by creating a hard-copy or digital planner system for students to simply list assignments. From here, students begin to practice creating realistic time estimates for single tasks, enhancing their metacognition and executive function skills. Once this is achieved, coaches encourage students to map out full days or weeks. Ultimately, students extrapolate upon these skill sets and begin managing long-term projects or career goals.
Recognize that it may feel strange at first
It may feel unnatural for students to step into this new “character,” but coaches are there to help. Creating a new routine takes time, and just as a director supports an actor’s artistic process, mentors also provide guidance, ask useful questions, and empathize with the growing pains of new habit formation. Actors are constantly required to perform movements that feel awkward at first; for the sake of visual storytelling, a right-handed actor might need to pick up a cup with their left hand, or kick a soccer ball with their left foot, or execute a complicated dance move. In all cases, actors will practice the process until the unnatural becomes second nature. In other words, they “fake it till you make it” – or as author Amy Cuddy suggests, “fake it till you become it.” Students are introduced to this kind of mentality, and are reminded that faltering at first or accidentally missing a day is all part of the learning process. Metacognition also eases this transition, and provides a method through which students can wonder about their actions safely and without judgement: a student who starts with the mindset of “I am bad because I didn’t turn in my homework” might be coached towards a growth mindset of, “Hmmm. I notice that I didn’t get this assignment in on time. What do I think about that? Why is that? Was the situation avoidable? Why is this important to me?“ Through encouraging metacognition, coaches and parents can turn missteps into learning opportunities.
Ask any director or actor about their creative processes, and you will never receive the same answer twice. Some teams work outside-in, drawing inspiration from paintings or movement or music, while others work inside-out, drawing upon their personal experiences and motivations. The same goes for mentor-mentee teams in executive function coaching: different projects and different people require different tools. While coaches can, of course, call upon foundational techniques time and time again, the real creativity in both mentoring and artmaking comes from adapting these foundations to the situation at hand. The benefits of iterating for each student are twofold: first, the student ends up with a more personalized system, and second, iterating provides a great opportunity for teaching metacognition. This might look like, “You seem a bit hesitant to update your digital planner. Why is that? Can you think of anything that might work better for you? Could we move to a hard copy planner or a whiteboard system?” By talking through suggested adjustments, coaches model awareness of learning processes and help students to think more concretely about iterating for themselves.
Ultimately, executive function coaches view metacognition not only as a tool for academic development, but also as a springboard for personal growth. Our passion is helping students “perform” (pun intended) to the best of their abilities, both inside and outside the classroom.