Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Metacognition and Executive Functioning

I am facilitating a forum on metacognition, which means I am reading a lot about it and about strategies to help teach it or at least promote it in learners. I wouldn't get into in the forum, but I can't help but think about how difficult it must be to keep on top of one's own learning if one's executive functioning skills are lacking.

I have an almost-11-year-old son who struggles with organizing his thoughts and actions, largely due to a generalized anxiety disorder. I know there is a big school of belief that says anxiety is a symptom of something bigger, but that's just it: there is nothing bigger. Just a big ball of anxious thoughts in his mind that distract him from everything else.

Anyway, consider someone who is so distracted by worry, the information they intake in day to day is consistently disorganized and muddled, without clear, logical connections. My son understands finite subjects: sports, science (unless he makes a "mistake"), math, and physics because the line from A to B is clear and there is no place to get lost along the way.

He struggles with applying old information in new situations (ie; remembering the things you do at swimming lessons are to be applied when you are in the ocean trying to stay afloat); following more than two directions (brush your teeth, make your bed, and pick up your book -- off he goes to pick up the book); and in social referencing (laughing means good right? no, not always).

If he has this much trouble processing the everyday world, how can he manage layered, compounding learning principles like history or literature, which require referencing old material, analyzing, and forming opinions? Truth be told, he doesn't and it terrifies him. And just to keep things interesting, he is deeply aware of how he processes information differently and will do anything to escape being exposed for not understanding. He is the kid that touches the item the teachers says "Don't touch" so he can get over the anxiety of not knowing why he can't touch it. He will talk your ear off to get out of an assignment, or flat out refuse instead of saying, "It is just too much for my brain." You can see how teachers begin to see him ...

So, what does this have to do with Engagement Strategies in and adult education blog? For one thing, this is not a phenomenon restricted to children. Adults struggle with executive functioning, anxiety, and sensory processing (a whole other part of the equation I don't have the finger strength to get into at the moment), but whereas kids are easy to label and "punish" adults learn to cope -- sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes not.

I think it is really important to learn about non-traditional ways of learning and thinking and to watch for these in our classrooms of all ages. We learn to judge because it is a survival mechanism so I am not saying we reserve judgement at all costs, but that maybe before we lay blame, we ask a question:

Rather than, "Why on earth would he do something so stupid?" we ask, "I wonder why he did that. What might be going on?" When we replace scorn with empathy great things can happen.

As for strategies, I have had to teach my son the basic art of keeping record of his day, making lists, scheduling his time, rehearsing what he says on the phone, etc. At first he hated those records and lists -- I once found his planner in the woods behind our house. But I had to hold my reaction (frustration) and see deeper (with empathy) that he hated these so-called helpful items because they were reminders of what he sees as inadequacies.

In my world, we don't run from deep feelings; we sit together and push through them so we become stronger. That meant going out to the woods, getting that book, and dealing with the anxiety of knowing he needs a little bit more. It means making news lists, but putting them in private places with a promise to refer to them. And it means staying positive and normalizing the process -- if we were injured we would wear a brace to play hockey -- the notes are the brace for your brain.

I could see a great deal of shame permeating the learning process in adults struggling with these issues. I have met a few adults like this and can spot them a mile away. It means I have to think about the kinds of strategies should I keep in my teaching tool box to deal with the relationship between learning awareness and executive functioning.

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