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. Then we helped them look for things that can guide their responses, using signals, clues, and models.
Next, we help them put the pieces of information together. We teach strategies for ‘constructing meaning’ from information they hear. It’s like taking the pieces of a puzzle and putting them together into a whole scene or object. Each piece is important but they need to be put together to get the full meaning.
Children with self-regulation difficulties tend to gather pieces of information together as if they were twigs – they’re bundled together but they’re every which way and the child doesn’t make a whole picture out of them. This means they often can remember details but not the complete meaning.
The ability to build a clear and complete picture out of information is critically important to understanding conversations and stories and for reading comprehension.
We practice constructing meaning by telling the children short stories that they need to make into a picture. They’re helped to draw what they hear or to arrange objects to show the story. A simple story might be: “A little brown rabbit hopped into a garden. He saw some delicious carrot tops. He ate all of them. Then he hopped home happily. He had a full tummy”. This story can be easily pictured – brown bunny, garden, carrot tops, no carrot tops, full bunny leaves.
I’ve found a lot of children focus on one detail and miss the main story. The child might draw rows and rows of carrots and forget the rest of the information. We gently guide children to listen again for other important details. Eventually, through repeated coaching, we help them arrive at a complete picture of the story. Then the final question is normally, “What ‘s a good name for this story?” This helps the child focus on the most important theme and put it into words.
We don’t stop at simple stories. We need to practice with longer and more abstract stories. The goal is for children to construct meaning when talking to other people, when reading, and when writing their own stories.
All executive functions are needed when working on construction of meaning:
- Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to listen and don’t get distracted by small details.
- Planning and organization – being systematic and organizing details into a complete picture.
- Working memory – keeping information in their working memory while they work to construct meaning.
- Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they understand the story.
- Cognitive flexibility – being ready to change their ideas about the meaning of the information as the story unfolds.