Looking for clues, signals and models – the next step in cognitive self-regulation

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The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention on one thing at a time. The next step was to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information.

Now we teach children to look for things that can guide their responses. There are three main types of guidance: signals, clues, and models.

Signals help us know where to go, what to do, and what’s happening. They might simply be the written instructions on an activity. The signal might also be a stop sign that tells us to halt. 

Clues are like signals, but they’re sometimes hidden and not too obvious. Crumbs on someone’s chin suggest they just ate a cookie. The red X in the example below is a clue about what is expected – cross out the different word. 

Models show us what to do. A photo on a LEGOÒ box shows what the structure is supposed to look like when it’s done. Here’s one example that gives both the final model and steps for completing it:

An example of the use of signals, clues, and models is when you want to find a toilet in an unfamiliar restaurant. You look first for signals – where is a sign that says “Toilets” or “Women/Men”. If that doesn’t work, you look for clues – there’s a person talking to a waiter and the waiter’s pointing toward a doorway; that’s got to be the way to the toilet. Another way to locate the restroom is to look for a customer who seems to be heading toward the back of the restaurant with a sense of purpose.

We teach children to look for the guidance of signals, clues, and models that can help them figure out what to do. They might choose another child as their model – hopefully a good one! They might miss the teacher’s instruction but can check what the other students are doing. That’s a model.

One we start working on emotional self-regulation, we use signals, clues, and models again. They help guide the children’s social behavior as well.

All executive functions are needed when looking for and using signals, clues, and models:

  • Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to look around and don’t get distracted by things that aren’t important.
  • Planning and organization – being systematic and figuring out how to use the signals, clues or models to guide them.
  • Working memory – remembering the signal, clue, or model and reminding themselves about the main focus.
  • Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they’re on track.
  • Cognitive flexibility – switching between the signal, clue or model and their own work.

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