Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is a big term that encompasses many skills including executive functioning, thinking, doing, and regulation.

Critical thinking is intentional thinking that is involved in the process of completing tasks. In this post, we will dissect critical thinking. This essential executive functioning skill helps us accomplish complex tasks. Let’s talk critical thinking for kids!

Critical thinking is a big term that encompasses many skills including executive functioning, thinking, doing, and regulation.

What is Critical Thinking

Let’s start with executive function. Executive function encompasses the critical thinking skills of planning, organizing, prioritization, time management, working memory, attention, and other skills. Critical thinking is similar and requires the use of executive functioning. Critical thinking includes observing and analyzing, self-reflection, interpretation of available information, evaluation and inference (based on working memory), problem solving (metacognition), and decision making.

Within the aspects of critically thinking are many thinking and doing processes that allow us to follow through with the completion of tasks.

We’ve discussed previously that executive function does not fully mature until adulthood. It is important to recognize that fact because many times, we expect kids and teenagers to exhibit maturity in their decision-making and meta cognition.

Critical thinking or strategic thinking? Which is it?

Strategic Thinking and Critical Thinking

Strategic thinking may be commonly known as a business term that describes savvy business decisions to lead a business to success. But, there are similarities between the strategic planning of a business and critical thinking involved in executive functioning tasks. In business, strategic thinking involves using a business plan as well as past successes and failures in order to reach business goals. Strategic thinking requires initiation, planning, prioritization, observation, and self-assessment.

Similarly, critical thinking in order to self-analyze, create goals, initiate tasks, and plan out a task follows along with the same process.

Critical thinking for kids is essential to accomplish tasks and learn. Here is how to help kids build these brain skills.

Critical thinking for kids

Critically analyzing given information so we can strategize a plan and follow through with that plan based on what we know sounds a lot like executive functioning, right? We know that executive functioning doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood. But, we ask a lot of our kids when it comes to integrating critical thinking/executive functioning/regulation.

These skills, together, allow us to integrate the areas of strategic thinking that we need to accomplish tasks:

-Regulate emotions and behaviors

-Pay attention during tasks

-Complete tasks with an awareness of working memory

-Initiate tasks when it can be hard to decide on the best “first step”

-Transition between tasks

Some of our kids really struggle with this process on a daily basis! Critical thinking in kids can be a real struggle, but we can help by breaking things down into bite-sized steps.

Critical thinking skills involves integration of thinking, doing, and regulation to analyze and make decisions.

Critical Thinking Broken Down

When it comes to accomplishing a task, there are two parts that we need to separate. The first is the thinking of the task. The second is the actual doing of the task.

We’ll break down all of the specific pieces of critical thinking by dissecting the task of writing a book report.

Say you know a child who has a book report to write and it’s due on Monday. They’ve known about this project for some time and have read the book (mainly in class), but haven’t actually done any of the actual book report work. They have this weekend to get it completely finished to turn in on Monday morning, while going through the routine of a typical weekend: activities, events, chores, relaxation/down time…(sound like a familiar situation, parents?)

Let’s pull apart the process of knowing there is a book report due on Monday to the completion of that assignment. Talk about executive functioning skills and critical thinking, right??

Think of it this way: When a child has a book report to do, they know they need to do it. It’s been talked about in the classroom for a few days. The assignment might be in the back of their mind. So, when the child has the weekend to complete the book report, they know they need to start thinking about actually sitting down to do it. But, what about the Friday night time with friends? And the Saturday morning sleep-in time? And the baseball practice Saturday afternoon? And the family party that’s planed for Saturday evening? And, and, and? We are all well aware of exactly HOW FAST a weekend can slip away from us in the blink of an eye. There is a lot going on during a typical weekend! So pulling out time to actually break away from the “fun” and initiate a book report?? It’s not easy. It takes some skills: planning, prioritization, and task initiation. Then, they need to consider other things they have on their schedule during that weekend so they can plan ahead. (More Planning Skills)

Next, They need to plan out what they are going to write about. (Planning Skills)

They need to gather all of the materials they need to complete the task, like pencils, paper, and the book. (Organization Skills)

They need to recall important facts from the book and pull out that information. They need to recall how they’ve written a book report in the past or the assignments they’ve done in preparation for this project that will help them. They need to gather their thoughts to know where to even begin on this report and start thinking about a topic or a viewpoint they are taking with this report. (Working Memory)

Finally, they need to think about how they can use those facts and prior experiences to write statements that make sense in their book report. They need to think about what they’ve written in if they might need more information. They need to be self-reflective in their writing. (Metacognition Skills)

All of those tasks involved thinking about actually writing the book report. It didn’t involve the writing portion and accomplishing the task to fruition.

The next part of accomplishing the task of writing a book report involves the “doing”.

The child needs to regulate behaviors and emotions so they can stay on task without having an attitude or tantrum. They need to inhibit the desire to refuse to write the book report because they would rather check their phone or go play video games. (Response Inhibition)

They need to start the process of writing the report by sitting down and getting started on the book report and not get angry or upset by the task at hand. (Emotional Control)

They need to maintain attention during the entire task. (Sustained Attention)

There is a need to be flexible, as well. The student needs to adjust to other tasks that need accomplished during that weekend, and be flexible in their thinking and task completion. (Flexibility)

Finally, they need to actually complete the report to completion while retaining focused on their goal of getting that book report done so it can be turned in on Monday morning. (Goal Oriented Activity)

These critical thinking examples and tips will help kids build critical thinking skills to learn and develop.

Critical Thinking Examples

It’s a lot to process, right? That project, when broken down, has some major skill building lessons within the assignment. Here are those specific skills again:

The thinking skills:

  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Time Management
  • Working Memory
  • Metacognition

The doing skills:

  • Response Inhibition
  • Emotional Control
  • Sustained Attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Flexibility
  • Goal-directed Activity
How to develop critical thinking in kids and teens using real strategies that work.

How to improve critical thinking

So, how can we take a major project like a book report and make it an assignment that helps kids build each of these critical thinking skills? By breaking down that assignment into bite sized pieces and working on each area!

Critical thinking activities for kids and teenagers to help with executive functioning needed for multi-step tasks like completing a book report.

Kids with executive functioning skill challenges really struggle with critical thinking. And vice versa. Here are some ways to help teach kids impulse control for improved attention, self-regulation, and learning so they can do hard things:

  • Goal tracker
  • Reduce clutter
  • Make goals
  • Break big tasks or projects into smaller steps
  • Make a schedule (picture-based or list)
  • Social stories
  • Act out situations beforehand
  • Count to three before answering/responding
  • Self-rewards
  • Self-talk
  • Reduce time to complete tasks
  • Increase time to complete tasks
  • Think through and predict social interactions before going into a situation
  • Control buddy
  • Ask for help
  • Habit tracker
  • Use a strategy checklist
  • Carry a goal list
  • Positive thought notebook

All of these strategies are built and monitored in our resource, The Impulse Control Journal.

The Impulse Control Journal has been totally revamped to include 79 pages of tools to address the habits, mindset, routines, and strategies to address impulse control in kids.  More about the Impulse Control Journal:

  • 30 Drawing Journal Pages to reflect and pinpoint individual strategies 
  • 28 Journal Lists so kids can write quick checklists regarding strengths, qualities, supports, areas of need, and insights 
  • 8 Journal worksheets to pinpoint coping skills, feelings, emotions, and strategies that work for the individual
  • Daily and Weekly tracking sheets for keeping track of tasks and goals 
  • Mindset,Vision, and Habit pages for helping kids make an impact 
  • Self-evaluation sheets to self-reflect and identify when inhibition is hard and what choices look like 
  • Daily tracker pages so your child can keep track of their day 
  • Task lists to monitor chores and daily tasks so it gets done everyday  
  • Journal pages to help improve new habits  
  • Charts and guides for monitoring impulse control so your child can improve their self-confidence  
  • Strategy journal pages to help kids use self-reflection and self-regulation so they can succeed at home and in the classroom  
  • Goal sheets for setting goals and working to meet those goals while improving persistence  
  • Tools for improving mindset to help kids create a set of coping strategies that work for their needs

This is a HUGE digital resource that you can print to use over and over again.

 Read more about The Impulse Control Journal HERE.  There are so many strategies to address attention in kids and activities that can help address attention needs. One tactic that can be a big help is analyzing precursors to behaviors related to attention and addressing underlying needs. 

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to