Are you familiar with metacognition and SEL Learning? Have you wondered what the terms really mean and how you can help your children or students develop these skills? It’s simpler and so much more important than you may think.
I would like to introduce you all to Rick Cohen, Assistant Superintendent & Principal in Metuchen, New Jersey. I first got to Rick almost a decade ago when he asked me to come to his district to do professional development.
Through my years of involvement with his school district, I have grown to respect Rick and his commitment to truly making a difference for his teachers and students. He has always had a passion for making an impact on the social and emotional development of students. I am thrilled to say that Rick can now add Author to his impressive résumé.
Rick co-wrote his book, The Metacognitive Student: How to Teach Academic, Social, and Emotional Intelligence in Every Content Area (Your Guide to Metacognitive Instruction and Social-Emotional Learning), with an equally impressive group of professionals.
He wrote the book to teach student social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies within academic instruction and classroom management before the pandemic. He saw firsthand as a public school administrator how much stress, depression, and anxiety impacted student learning success. During and after the pandemic, student stress, depression, anxiety, and mental health concerns are even more concerning.
Fortunately, his book provides both teachers and parents with one simple metacognitive strategy that is easy to teach and learn that empowers students of all ages to develop a core set of problem-solving skills that they can use to help guide their thinking and self-talk through academic, social, and emotional challenges.
I asked Rick to explain what metacognition is and how it can help teachers and parents empower their students and children to be more autonomous critical thinkers and problem solvers across academic content areas as well as social and emotional contexts in school and outside of school.
What is metacognition?
The definition of metacognition we like best is in Emily Lai’s, Metacognition: A Literature Review. The definition is “Awareness and management of one’s own thought.” When we define metacognition as being aware of and managing both our thoughts and our feelings, it is easy to see how empowering teaching metacognition to students can be for their academic success as well as their learning of social and emotional learning competencies of self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and responsible decision making (CASEL, n.d.).
Why is metacognition so important today?
Metacognition is an untapped skill set. We have seen firsthand that when the metacognitive strategy of structured SELf-questioning is developed, academic outcomes improve. In addition, kids can make more thoughtful decisions about their feelings and the personal challenges and conflicts they’re facing. It’s really about teaching all kids a lifelong skill that they can apply in different educational areas and different facets of their lives.
What is the metacognitive strategy of SELf-questioning?
Teachers are really all over the map on how they teach thinking skills and problem-solving skills. But there’s research and evidence on how to do it well, which is where structured SELf-questioning comes in. Teachers and parents can sometimes get intimidated or overwhelmed—quite understandably so— when they hear terms like “metacognitive.” This book makes it simple for teachers as well as parents. It offers one very specific way to teach kids how to be more intelligent decision-makers, more responsible, and more thoughtful in any context.
The “structured” part of the term “structured SELf-questioning” refers to the idea that kids’ thinking through problem-solving and decision-making always benefits from a clear structure. Establishing one common structure for all problem solving makes it easier for all kids to learn, internalize and apply. Currently, so many schools overwhelm children by asking them to learn one structure, process, or set of problem-solving steps for math, another for science, another for conflict resolution, another for design thinking, another for research, etc. Learning just one common structure of six steps is much easier. And when accompanied by aligned, open-ended SELf-questions (questions that can prompt student thinking step by step in academic as well as social and emotional contexts without the need to modify the question), structured SELf-questioning helps kids think step-by-step, guide their self-talk, and support them through multi-step complex problem-solving. When a child works one by one through the steps of structured SELf-questioning with independence in school or outside of school, it leads to empowerment and autonomy.
At what age can children begin learning a metacognitive strategy?
Research shows that children as young as preschool can learn metacognition (Shure, 2011). This metacognitive strategy has been successfully taught as early as preschool. It is used by the adults at schools, helping administrators and teachers collaborate and make shared decisions about school improvement efforts. So whether you’re teaching or raising three-year-olds, third-graders, or high school students, you’ll have examples in the book and in the tech tools (go to selfq.org for more info on tech tools for teachers and parents such as an app and interactive website) of how to use this strategy.
Also, we understand that many teachers think they don’t have time for social-emotional learning, given that they have so much academic content to cover. But the structured SELf-questioning strategy makes it, so they don’t need additional time. And when parents use the strategy at home to support their child with homework or little social conflicts or emotional challenges that occur throughout life, children’s learning and application is accelerated.
Many parents say the strategy is best facilitated by a parent when the parent takes out the app and asks the questions in second person / you form because the student or child feels like an app is a less threatening third party.
How does metacognition help teachers and parents develop their students’ skills for coping and resilience?
With the ongoing pandemic, remote learning, and civil and racial unrest and uncertainty, it’s critical that students develop coping skills. Metacognition is a great strategy or approach to developing coping skills because metacognition involves awareness and management of thinking and feelings, and so do coping skills.
Teachers and parents can both use the metacognitive strategy of structured SELf-questioning to walk students through every phase of coping mechanisms:
How are you feeling?
Can you identify your emotions?
Can you manage those emotions?
The reality is that right now, many schools don’t have enough therapists and counselors to support all our kids who struggle. The question prompts help to teach students to calm themselves, self-evaluate, handle the problem, and reflect on if what they’re doing is working. It really gives them the tools they need to address academic stress as well as world stress. This strategy puts the onus on the child, not on the adult, to cope with and deal with life’s challenges.
What is one key takeaway educators and parents will get from developing metacognition?
There is a great deal of research on SEL, but many teachers and parents are left with the same thought: “I get why teaching SEL competencies like Responsible Decision-Making or Self-Management is important, but how do I teach it?”
The structured SELf-questioning strategy is research-based and doable, practical, easy to learn, and easy to teach for teachers and parents.
When educators and parents finish this book, they will have a great grip on how to move forward.
Rick Cohen is assistant superintendent of Metuchen School District in New Jersey and serves as co-adjunct faculty for Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rick has served as a leader of social-emotional learning (SEL) at the district, county, state, and national levels.
He is one of five coauthors of The Metacognitive Student: How to Teach Academic, Social, and Emotional Intelligence in Every Content Area (Your Guide to Metacognitive Instruction and Social-Emotional Learning)