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Executive Function Strategies Blog

Why Can't My Child See the Big Picture?

Has your son ever lost points on a test or assignment because he did not follow all the directions? Does Seeing the big picture.jpgyour daughter highlight everything when she reads and as a result can’t figure out what to study? Does your son complain about how his teacher is “torturing him” because he does not see the point of the assignment? If any of these common scenarios sound familiar, you may find yourself wondering, “Why does my child miss the big picture?”

First, let’s look at the skills involved in seeing the big picture, or the gestalt. The term gestalt means realizing that something is more than the sum of its individual parts — viewing the parts together allows you to see the full picture. Say, for example, a student is writing a paragraph in a lab report on the methods she used for a biology class experiment. First, the ability to shift her focus from a small detail (“Use the correct punctuation in this sentence.”) to a wider lens (“Keep this paragraph on-topic and use the correct sequence.”) requires the Executive Function skill of cognitive flexibility. When students can fluidly zoom in and out of small detail to big picture thinking, they successfully understand not only what is expected, but why they are doing it. They can put themselves in a teacher’s shoes and infer what she is looking for. Second, to go a step further, the ability to accurately see the gestalt involves another Executive Function skill: metacognition, which is the ability to self-monitor our thinking and problem solving. In the example of the lab report, the student uses her metacognitive skills to zoom out and look at the big picture in terms of deeper self-assessment. She may ask herself, “Does this contain enough information so that the experiment can be replicated exactly?” or “Did I set myself up for addressing sources of error in my discussion section later in the lab report?”

To recap, the ability for your child to see the big picture relies upon his ability to understand what is expected of him and why it is relevant, in addition to being able to self-assess along the way.

No wonder it’s so hard for many students to see the big picture — cognitive flexibility and metacognition are evolving skills for children throughout their school years. Moreover, students vary in the rate at which they develop Executive Function skills. Add in challenges such as ADHD, autism spectrum, or other learning differences and you can start to imagine why big picture thinking is difficult for many students, yet it is so important for success in school.

The explanations for the common scenarios posed at the beginning of this article are as varied as your son or daughter’s unique learning profile. One reason your son may have trouble following all the directions on an assignment is that he rushes through the task and does not check his work because he would rather watch YouTube videos for the rest of the evening. He is not self-monitoring his work and seeing the task to completion. Your daughter may highlight everything because she has difficulty identifying important details or paraphrasing information to determine the main idea. She may have trouble with her working memory which affects her reading efficiency. Your son may think his teacher is torturing him with pointless assignments because he may have difficulty with perspective-taking skills. If he cannot put himself in his teacher’s shoes then he may have difficulty understanding why the task is relevant, what he is expected to learn, or predict what will be on a test.

How to help your child see the big picture

Here are some of our favorite tips to help your son or daughter understand the gestalt. As Executive Function coaches, we often prompt students to answer these questions before they start an assignment:

Why am I doing this?

Be sure this is skill-based answer, such as “to review my spelling words for the week and get ready for the test” as opposed to “to waste time before karate class.” If your child is unsure, teachers (especially middle school and beyond) often provide this information on the assignment sheet.

What is my task?

Emphasizing this information can be helpful to the child who spends more time making her homework look colorful and attractive than achieving the real objective, such as “write original sentences using this week’s vocabulary words.”

How will I know I’m on track?

Here’s where rubrics rule. When there’s no rubric, such as for a reading assignment, this might be “I can retell the main ideas of the chapter in my own words.”

Our favorite way to help students remember this information is writing the answers to the questions above on a post it note on the top of the assignment, on a bulletin board or dry erase board, or any other place that is easily referenced while the student is working.

How to tackle multi-part questions

Another way to help your child is by underlining key words in directions or test questions. We consistently see students lose points because they did not include all the required parts of a given question. We sometimes recommend using different colors to highlight or underline each part of the question so each component is easily identifiable. Some students prefer to color code the question and the answer in the same color so it is easy to find. This also supports their comprehension by explicitly linking the question with the answer. Your child will have the most buy-in for a strategy like this if he or she is the one choosing the system. Finally, your daughter can put her collection of sparkly gel pens to good use with this method!

If you find your child still has trouble seeing the big picture despite trying these strategies, he or she may benefit from consistent expert support to build the skills needed.

photo credit: bionicteaching IMG_4873 via photopin (license)


Preparing for essay tests requires both big picture thinking as well as detail oriented thinking. Our free guide to effectively preparing for open-ended assessments contains step-by-step instructions to help your child.

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