A few weeks ago I introduced my girlfriend to the new Headspace for Kids content, a set of fun and engaging exercises that teach children of different age groups the basics of mindfulness. 

One of the activities instructs the listener to think about how it would feel to give themselves or a loved one something they want and to really focus on that feeling. After the exercise, my girlfriend said with curiosity, “I wonder how good kids are at understanding their own thoughts and feelings?”

I thought this was a really pertinent question, and it got me doing some research of my own. It turns out that I had probably underestimated children’s capacity for self-reflection. There’s good evidence to suggest that, on average, by age 3 children will have acquired an awareness of themselves and others, and begin using verbs such as ‘think’ and ‘know’. By age 4 or 5 they will likely have fully developed the ability to think about their own thoughts, something that’s referred to as metacognition. It’s around this same age that children also begin to understand that others’ behavior is guided by beliefs and desires, and that these may not necessarily be the same as their own.

More than being just intellectually interesting, studies are increasingly showing that kids who are taught to improve their own metacognition early on are more resilient and become better learners.

When it comes to schoolwork, metacognitive ability has been linked to mathematical performance, and numerous intervention studies have demonstrated that low mathematics performers benefit substantially from metacognitive instruction. Broadly speaking, metacognitive instruction really just means increasing your child’s awareness of the progress they’ve already made, helping them understand what they need to know to solve a problem, and empowering them to use their existing skills to tackle new questions. In other words, having them think about the way they’ve been thinking.

So how does this work in practice? If you’re a parent and your child is struggling to spell a word or solve a math problem, try asking them whether they have a particular strategy in mind. If it’s spelling a word, perhaps they could try closing their eyes and visualizing the word, or listening to the individual sounds that make up the word and then representing each sound with a combination of letters. By making them aware of different potential strategies, they can figure out which one works best for them and apply it in the future. It might also inspire them to come up with their own unique approach. If they’re still having trouble figuring it out, make sure you work through the answer with them aloud, so they can model their future thought process on yours.

Metacognition plays an equally important role when it comes to processing emotions. If your child is feeling nervous about trying out for a play or going on a school trip, try asking them what it is about the situation that is making them nervous and what they could do to feel more comfortable. Similarly, if they throw a tantrum every time you turn off their favorite TV show, ask them to think about why it makes them so upset and whether their reaction is appropriate or justified. This line of questioning can help children understand the source of any negative feelings and facilitate self-regulation when faced with challenges.

You may have noticed that increasing one’s ability to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings is not a million miles away from mindfulness, and I suspect that exposing children to mindfulness and metacognitive strategies in tandem will have synergistic benefits. It could help your kids to slow down, become better problem-solvers, and enhance their understanding of their own innate character and abilities. It might also set them up for a healthier and happier life as an adult. But it’s important not to feel as though you have to force any of these techniques upon them. Some kids will naturally respond to specific approaches better than others, so make sure to have fun exploring them with yours.