The next step in cognitive self-regulation: Find the most important information

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The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention. The next step is to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information. They learn to pay attention to only those things that are relevant to what they’re doing.

Throughout, we continue to expect children to work systematically and use strategies that are helpful to them.

Start off by teaching children to match. They have to keep the one thing in mind while they search for another one the same – the one that matches. This is a good way to help them understand the thing they’re matching is most important right now.

Then they learn to listen to instructions and say the key words over to themselves while they do the activity. For example, they repeat “Find a dog with long ears.” while searching for it.

Believe it or not, we teach children how to ignore things. This is part of becoming more resilient – “I can stay on track if I can ignore things that aren’t important right now”. Ask them if the thing distracting them is “important right now”. If the answer is ’no’, prompt them to ignore it. Notice that we use the phrase “important right now”. That’s because things change from moment to moment but, right now, that’s not important to us. 

This process works on all executive functions:

  • Planning and organization is emphasized when children figure out what’s most important and then either find it or follow the direction.
  • Inhibitory control gets a good workout since they have to control their impulses and not get distracted by irrelevant things. They must keep themselves on task.
  • Working memory is activated by having children repeat instructions over to themselves while they follow them.
  • Self-monitoring comes into play as they check their progress in finding or doing the most important thing. They also have to keep checking that they’re not getting distracted by unimportant things, no matter how interesting.
  • Cognitive flexibility is activated by having children move from task to task, each with different ‘important things’.

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