- Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of your own thought and emotional processes.
- People with ADHD frequently require more time and effort to strengthen their metacognitive skills.
- Metacognition helps you transfer learning and information to different contexts and tasks.
- There’s a difference between self-evaluation for learning and self-evaluation for criticism and shame.
Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of your own thought processes with the goal of improving learning and performance. Put simply, it’s a way to manage your thinking and is the last executive function to coalesce, typically in the late twenties for adults with ADHD. Metacognition allows you to connect the dots, see the big picture, self-evaluate and monitor, which ultimately helps you with performance and task completion. This self-awareness helps improve time management, planning, focus and other skills that challenge kids and adults with ADHD. With practice and time, you will get the hang of the skills needed to apply metacognition and improve problem solving.
Metacognition is a process related to self-awareness and is considered a key Executive Function (EF) skill because it governs behavioral output and is tied to emotional control. It is the last EF skill to fully coalesce in the late twenties for people with ADHD. In fact, researchers at University College of London found that subjects with better metacognition had more gray matter in the anterior right prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain found to be smaller in folks with ADHD. So, those with ADHD frequently require a bit more time and effort to strengthen their metacognitive skills. The ability for self-regulation and assessment allows you to better achieve specific goals, learn what worked well (and what didn’t) and to then apply that learning to future tasks. This process forms the essence of a growth mindset:
Along with self-regulation, metacognitive thinking helps you choose, monitor, and evaluate how you approach a task, measure progress and how close you are to achieving (or not achieving) your final goal. It helps you transfer learning and information to different contexts and tasks by being more aware of strengths and challenges. For example, if you are writing a report for school or work, metacognition increases your awareness of your progress, possible distractions and need for more efficiency so you can make different choices. If, upon self-reflection, you notice it was way too noisy in the coffee shop to concentrate on your writing, you can move to a quieter space to finish your work more productively. When your next writing project rolls around, you will already have learned that you get better results in a quiet environment. You'll skip the cafe and head straight to your bedroom or a nearby library.
When working to improve your metacognition, the goal is to observe your abilities and strengthen your strategies to accomplish various tasks and projects. You can then develop, find, and allocate resources to optimize performance. The more experience you have in managing your thinking, the easier it’ll get. By assessing goals and outcomes, you’re better equipped to shift efforts and strategies. Whether you're sitting in a work meeting, playing basketball, or making a new recipe, use these strategies to assess your progress along the way and what, if anything, needs to continue or change:
- Beforehand: Look ahead to what is in front of you. Ask: What is the goal of this assignment? Do I have what I need to work on this task? What is my first step? Second step?
- During: Notice your progress. Ask: How is my plan working? Am I making progress? Do I need to make any adjustments? Where do I need help? Who will I ask for assistance? What do I know about this topic/situation/problem already that could assist me here? Where can I find the information I need?
- Afterward: Consider the process as well as the accomplishment. Ask: What did I do well? What could I have done differently?
In addition to task completion, metacognitive thinking can be applied to social interactions. You can create a valuable feedback loop when you practice asking yourself open-ended questions which foster self-reflection in groups or one-on-one interactions. However, you don’t want to be cruel and beat yourself up either. There’s a big difference between self-evaluation for learning something from a situation and going down the rabbit hole of self-criticism and shame. The key is asking neutral questions like these:
- “How am I doing?”
- “What are their faces or bodies showing me to help me figure this out?
- “What helped me before that I could apply to this situation?”
- “What is the impact of my words or behaviors on others?”
Lastly, when people notice their body sensations, they are not only self-aware but they also slow down the cycle of reactivity that is such a part of living with ADHD. Are you starting to feel tension in your chest or stomach that indicates anxiety or anger are present? Is it time to shift gears and do some breathing exercises, get a drink of water or take time apart in order to slow your reactivity down? Many people with ADHD struggle in the face of strong emotions to stay centered and steady. Being able to identify which bodily sensations let you know that you are feeling flooded can be very useful in avoiding outbursts and arguments and making different choices about how to respond.
Metacognitive thinking is a powerful tool that allows you to acknowledge problems without succumbing to a failure mentality and giving up. It’s a way to focus on continued learning, improving efficiency in problem solving and identifying tools and resources needed for support. If you can avoid negativity and manage NOT to put yourself down, you’ll reframe self-evaluation from good/bad to working/not working. This shift reinforces a growth mindset and bolsters resilience as long as you can resist going down a pathway of personal criticism. That’s not self-monitoring; that’s self-judgment. It’s also a way for you to acknowledge how well you are actually doing. Instead of asking "Why can't I do this differently?" ask "How can I do this differently and what support do I need to make this happen?" This is what a growth mindset is all about: You try something, see how it goes, learn from the experience and regroup and try again. It's the product of neutral, effective metacognition and self-acceptance.
Allen, Micah, et al. “Metacognitive Ability Correlates with Hippocampal and Prefrontal Microstructure.” NeuroImage, vol. 149, 2017, pp. 415–423., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.02.008.
Fleur, Damien, Bredeweg, B. & van den Bos, W. "Metacognition: ideas and insights from neuro- and educational sciences." NPJ Science of Learning, vol. 6, no. 13, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/41539.2056-7936.