Teaching children to be systematic – one step in cognitive self-regulation

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Children, especially those with learning discrepancies, need to develop thinking skills at the executive function level. That is, they need to learn cognitive self-regulation.

The first area we address is being systematic. That means doing one thing at a time and working from beginning to end. Explain to them that, by being systematic, we won’t miss anything. A lot of our children don’t know where to start. They don’t systematically work on one thing and then the next. And they don’t know when they’re done. These are the focus of being systematic.

Teach children to figure out where to start an activity. In the beginning, they need help. I like to place a green ‘go’ dot in the upper left hand side as the place we always start*. Then they learn to complete one step before moving to the next – always moving left to right and top to bottom*. Put a red dot at the end so they know when they’re done.

Most children find it challenging to have a lot of tasks in front of them. Prompt them to cover up the rest of the activity if it overloads them. Comment: “It looks like that’s hard for your eyes. How about we cover some of them up?” Sticky notes are perfect for covering up anything that’s distracting them. I’ve found that most children ask for sticky notes once they’ve tried them. They’ve told me it really helps them stay focused. It’s a small investment for improved attention and learning.

Another important helper is the ‘finder finger’. Tell students that they’ve already got something to help them work systematically … and it’s attached to their hand. It’s their index finger. Index fingers can point to things and track along a line to help their eyes (and brains) stay focused. 

When you look at being systematic and these simple strategies, you can see how they help children gain control over their executive functions.

  • Planning and organization are enhanced by teaching children where to start, how to move on to the next item, and how to tell when they’re done.
  • Inhibitory control is improved by teaching children how to proceed from one thing to the next, from beginning to end. Children overcome impulses to stop and/or jump around to other items.
  • Working memory is improved by having to remember what they’re trying to accomplish, what they did on the items before, and what didn’t work. They learn to remember information that’s important to new items. Also, they find how clearing old unhelpful information out of their memory bank can make it easier to think. 
  • Self-monitoring skills are developed as children make sure they keep moving along with the task, left to right and top to bottom – right up to the end. They also learn to make sure they’re not repeating the same unhelpful strategies again and again.
  • Cognitive flexibility is developed as children shift from item to item and task to task.  They have to switch from one thing to another and keep their thinking flexible. 

* of course, the direction would be right to left for Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and Sindhi speakers.

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