Making Time to Teach Executive Function

No time to teach executive function? It takes less time than you may think. In fact, weaving small bits of executive function strategy instruction into content can have a big impact.

Executive function is becoming recognized as an essential component of successful learning for all students, from reading and setting goals to leading a Fortune 500 company. Despite the mounting research on the importance of strong executive function strategies, instruction has not become widespread.

Why? Part of the problem is teachers’ age-old enemy, time. Teachers are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Executive function, as with other non-academic topics like mindfulness and social and emotional learning (SEL), can feel like just one more thing.

The truth is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to teach executive function strategies. While there are executive function strategy curriculums, such as SMARTS, that can fill an entire semester, integrating small bits of executive function instruction into existing content can save time and be extremely effective.

This idea of teaching small bits of executive function, or other non-academic and ‘brain-based’ skills such as empathy or self-control, is a powerful one. A study funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and led by Dr. Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that teachers were not often addressing SEL explicitly in their teaching due to time constraints. In response, Dr. Jones “… began to think about the problem of implementation by brainstorming ways to do SEL in little bites, in small, routine, structure-based ways that you could imbed in a school in a way that is harder to do with a curriculum.”

Dr. Jones and her team developed what they call “kernels,” 10- to 20-minute activities aligned with the day-to-day routine of a classroom but addressing SEL outcomes explicitly.

For example, a teacher might play an icebreaker game or ask a thought-provoking discussion question, then take time to explicitly address the importance of making your thinking visible and being able to shift perspectives.

In SMARTS, we work with teachers to develop “extensions” to executive function, finding natural moments within instruction to introduce an executive function strategy. When introducing a new project, for example, a teacher might model a strategy for breaking down the directions and creating a checklist.

By finding time to share this strategy, the teacher is helping students navigate a challenging aspect of the assignment. What’s more, teaching the strategy in the context of a content assignment helps students to understand how and why to apply it.

Making time to address non-content outcomes can make a difference. Dr. Jones’ study showed that schools that adopted “kernels” for addressing SEL noted a significant reduction in suspension and discipline rates. In SMARTS, our extensions have been an effective way to help all teachers, whether general education or special education, take responsibility for addressing the executive function needs of their students.

So, no matter what subject or age you teach, take some time to reflect. Can you find 20 minutes to teach an executive function strategy your students could use? You won’t regret it if you do.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

3 Tips for Teaching Executive Function and Goal Setting in Schools

As the first quarter of the school year comes into sight, it’s a great time for teaching goal-setting strategies.

Promoting Growth Mindset

By now, students have received their first set of grades and progress reports, giving them some idea of their level of academic performance. By linking grades and progress reports to goal setting and self-reflection, teachers can promote a growth mindset in their students.

Those students whose grades are low are at risk for internalizing a sense of hopelessness; goal setting can help them create a proactive plan to do better. Students whose grades are high are at risk as well; if they are not engaged in reflection, they could easily fall into a fixed mindset, seeing their good grades as a result of being ‘smart’ rather than due to their effort and persistence.

Teaching goal-setting strategies using report cards and progress reports will engage students in the process of reflecting on their strengths and challenges, while creating a plan for how to improve in a way that is meaningful to them.

3 Tips for Goal-Setting Strategies

  • Make sure that students’ goals are appropriately challenging. No matter how successful a student has or hasn’t been, they should select a goal that is hard but not too hard. Encourage students to use “at least” language when they define goals. For example, a student could aim to get “at least a B- on all of my math tests” instead of aiming for “all A’s.” This leads to increased confidence and success.
  • Ensure that students’ goals are connected to their day-to-day lives. While being famous or rich are fine daydreams, they make poor, even dangerous, goals because they do not motivate students in their daily activities. Even if the goal relates to success as an actor, musician, or athlete, make sure that the student has developed ways to work on this goal now, and not in some distant future.
  • When teaching goal setting, address students’ fears directlyToo often students will say that they “don’t have any goals.” To me, this is a sign that the fear of failure prevents them from even naming their goals. Whether you use students’ fears to help set the goals or not, by normalizing this fear, you can help your students begin to create detailed goals and cope with strong feelings such as fear and worry.

Learn More

Follow these three tips and your students will be on the way to creating systematic goals that can guide them throughout the rest of the school year. And remember, it’s not too late for teachers to set their own goals for the year!

Looking to learn more? Check out our Goal Setting overview video, watch a recording of our “Executive Function and Goal Setting” webinar, or check out the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum for strategies to use with your students.

Happy goal setting!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Meet Our New EF Conference Partner: Fusion Academy!

We are excited to announce that Fusion Academy is partnering with us to bring you ResearchILD’s 2019 Executive Function Conference.

Fusion Academy is a national network of schools that specialize in individualized, one-to-one learning. We love their commitment to mentoring and personalized instruction. From their website:

For students struggling in traditional schools, Fusion Academy’s personalized, one-to-one approach to education provides a life-changing middle and high school experience for your child.

Our teacher-mentors meet their students where they are and seek first to understand their unique strengths, interests, and learning style. Once trust is established, they are able to personalize course material and their teaching style so students truly master the subject matter. Students can move at their own pace, whether accelerated or with additional support in our one-to-one classrooms.

Fusion Academy representatives will be on-site at the conference to answer questions and share information about their Burlington and Newton campuses.

There’s still time to register for ResearchILD’s 2019 Executive Function Conference on Friday, October 25, 2019, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Burlington, MA. View the conference agenda and register today!

We look forward to seeing you there!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager

EF Conference Speaker: Dr. Christopher Willard on Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the focus of ResearchILD’s 2019 Executive Function Conference, and we are excited to feature Christopher Willard, PsyD., psychologist and educational consultant specializing in mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a powerful and practical tool to use to empower students to engage with their emotions. All students may struggle with anxiety and emotional regulation when facing challenges in school. Students with learning and attention differences are especially at risk; struggles to maintain focus or sensory processing issues can have a toxic effect on a student’s emotional state. Their mental health and academic performance may suffer if they do not have tools to recognize and cope with powerful negative emotions through strategies that promote self-compassion and resilience.

Dr. Willard works with parents, educators, and counselors, teaching them to embody and teach mindfulness skills to promote resilience in students of any age. His presentations are filled with accessible exercises and ideas for how to adapt mindfulness for the individual needs of children and teens.

You can learn more about Dr. Willard from his interview on Full Pre Frontal Podcast and through his books, Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience and Alphabreaths: The A, B, C’s of Mindful Breathing.

Take advantage of this opportunity to hear Dr. Willard speak at ResearchILD’s 10th Annual Executive Function Conference on Friday, October 25, 8:30 am-3:30 pm. Learn more and register today!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager

Project-Based Learning and Executive Function

Thinking about bringing project-based learning to your classroom? You can help students succeed by weaving executive function strategies into every step.

Project-based learning is a hot topic in education these days. By actively engaging in real-world projects, students often experience higher motivation and deeper learning. Students are able to explore issues that are personally meaningful, such as bullying, or make an impact on the community by helping out someone in need, like a homeless shelter or animal rescue. The skills and strategies needed to engage in project-based learning (e.g., organizing, public speaking, research) are essential for success in college and the real world.

Unfortunately, projects don’t always go smoothly and learning opportunities are lost. When we work with schools that are implementing project-based learning, it’s not unusual to hear stories of projects gone wrong: students who don’t understand the point, materials that got jumbled up or lost, or a timeline that left everything to the last minute.

To be successful when implementing project-based learning, executive function must be addressed explicitly. Students need to organize their time and materials, sift and sort information when conducting research, and self-monitor and check their progress.

Here are three steps to follow when thinking through how to integrate executive function into project-based learning.

  1. PLAN – A successful project takes thoughtful time management. This includes both long-term management (setting the timeline for each phase of the project) as well as short-term management (identifying work time and helping students use that time efficiently). Students must be engaged in the planning part of the project. While the teacher may need to do most of the calendar planning, students can create their own personal timeline to gain a sense of the scope of the project.
  2. DO – Project-based learning relies on academic tasks with a high executive function demand (note taking, reading comprehension, breaking down directions). This is the perfect opportunity to teach executive function strategies in the content of an engaging project! Model the successful use of an executive function strategy, and then let students practice this strategy on their project.
  3. REFLECT – Take time to ask students to reflect on how they used executive function strategies within their projects. This helps them to make connections between the problems they are exploring or to apply strategies they used on their project to other areas of their lives.

By explicitly embedding executive function into every step, you’ll increase the success and impact of your students’ project-based learning experience.

Want to learn more? Join us at the 10th Annual Executive Function Conference for a session on “Designing and Assigning Projects through an Executive Function Lens.” We’ll see you there!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

The Real-Life Inspiration for Percy Jackson

The Lightning Thief and the subsequent installments in the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series have long been some of our favorite books and movies that portray characters with ADHD and dyslexia. (For more media with great characters who have learning differences, check out this blog post!)

Percy Jackson starts the series as a student who struggles to focus in class and read at grade level, yet everything changes when he discovers that he is a demigod. Jackson’s adventures inspire many of our students because they show characters solving problems and succeeding not in spite of their learning differences but because of them. At the same time, the books don’t gloss over the real frustrations and challenges that kids with ADHD and dyslexia face.

Rick Riordan, the author of the series, has a son with ADHD and dyslexia. In this beautiful and touching blog post, he describes how his son’s learning differences inspired him to write the Olympians series. I particularly love this passage:

I thought about Haley’s struggle with ADHD and dyslexia. I imagined the faces of all the students I’d taught who had these same conditions. I felt the need to honor them, to let them know that being different wasn’t a bad thing. Intelligence wasn’t always measurable with a piece of paper and a number two pencil. Talent didn’t come in only one flavor.

This message is crucial for our students to hear. Too often students who have learning differences lose faith in their ability to be successful, when the truth is that “talent doesn’t come in only one flavor,” and if they hang in there, who knows what adventures they may have.

I recommend you read the entire post. What do you think of the Percy Jackson series? What do your students think? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross M.A., SMARTS Media Manager

Fear and Goal Setting with Teenagers

Back to school is the perfect time to set goals, but goal setting can be a challenge for many students, especially those with learning differences or those struggling in school. Too often their goals are vague (e.g., I want to be famous) or unrealistic (e.g., I want to get into Harvard with a full-ride scholarship).

What’s the downside to setting vague, unrealistic goals? These dangerous ‘goals’ contain inherent self-criticism (e.g., If I’m not famous yet, there’s something wrong with me, or I’m not smart enough for Harvard.). Instead of motivating students to work hard, unrealistic goals can make students feel demotivated and inadequate. (The upside — these emotions, though negative, are a powerful message about what’s going on in your students’ minds.)

To help students who set unrealistic goals, we must help them address negative emotions. Instead of running from them, we can help students define their self-criticisms and fears, and incorporate them into effective goal setting.

Tim Ferriss, a motivational speaker and podcaster, gave a TED Talk titled, “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.”In his talk, Ferriss defines a useful concept known as “fear setting.

Instead of starting with a goal, fear setting starts with a fear. Students acknowledge something they are afraid of (e.g., “failing a test”) and then explore it fully in three steps: Define, Prevent, Repair.

  1. In the Define step, students define in detail what would happen if their fear came true. A student who fears getting an F on a test might say, “What if I fail the class?” or “What if I can’t get into college?” By giving a name to these fears, students will be ready to make a plan to prevent them.
  2. Next comes Prevent, where students brainstorm all the ways to prevent their fears from coming true. The more detailed this section becomes, the more prepared students will be to set concrete, planful goals to address their fears.
  3. In the Repair stage, students acknowledge that sometimes bad things do happen. They have to think through possible ways to help heal from something bad happening. This step helps students think success flexibly, which will help them approach their goals with greater persistence.

So, while “fear setting” starts with a fear, by the end students have realized a detailed goal backed up by a plan that takes into account potential obstacles. This strategy is similar to our favorite goal setting strategy, CANDO goals.

Want to learn more about how goal setting affects students’ motivation, persistence, and executive function? Check out a free recording of our “Executive Function and Goal Setting” webinar!

Have you tried any good goal-setting strategies with your students? We’d love to hear!

  • Michael  Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Dyslexia Advocacy: A student perspective

Note: Acadia Connor, Lexington HS 2017, has been an articulate dyslexia advocate throughout her high school years. She is currently a marketing communications intern at ResearchILD and plans to attend Skidmore College in the fall. Here she speaks passionately about her experience with dyslexia and her recent appearance at the MA State House on the topic of dyslexia advocacy and the need for Massachusetts funding support for programs that address the dyslexia challenge.

My Journey with Dyslexia by Acadia Connor

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid.” – Albert Einstein

My journey with dyslexia started in elementary school. Many teachers knew I had difficulty reading, but with my expansive vocabulary I went undiagnosed for years. In middle school, I was called stupid and laughed at by my peers for not reading aloud correctly by my peers. For example, I might read the word ‘car’ and then say ‘automobile’.
In 6th grade, my English teacher luckily recognized my dyslexia and spoke to my parents. I met with a neuropsychologist, who concluded I had moderate dyslexia-two of the three types.
I was stunned. I thought that dyslexics were unintelligent, and saw everything backwards, both attributes with which I did not identify. I felt mislabeled, but actively learned about dyslexia. I do not read backwards. I might be thinking “b” and then write “d” but I don’t see “b” and “d” as each other. My brain manipulates information differently and that is what makes the letters seem backwards.
I was told by many to “work harder,” and I do. Sometimes I go home and watch videos, such as Crash Course US History, to support in-class lessons. I just need the information presented in a different way.
The school provided me with an Independent Education Program which levels the academic playing field. For example, the school gives me extra time because my brain takes longer to process questions. Open responses are always the hardest for me.Taking languages as a dyslexic is horrible! I had a hard enough time understanding English without learning how to conjugate irregular verbs in French.
Despite stress, many tears, and hours of tutoring I find myself in high school doing well academically. I am taking two honors courses – something I never thought I would or could do.
I am working to reduce my accommodations because in the work force I will not be given extra time to write a report for my boss. I have began to take less time on tests and take more quizzes in the classroom.
Having dyslexia has connected me to a larger community. For two summers during middle school, I attended The Carroll School, a school with a special dyslexia summer program. I was with other teens who were exactly like me and had the same struggles. Given that 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, I am constantly finding new members of this community rather than in a separate room.
I am inspired by how successful dyslexics are. Richard Branson, the CEO of the Virgin brands, is dyslexic and owns his own island! Branson has a positive outlook on dyslexia and how it helps you see things most people do not. He is the reason I am proud to be a dyslexic.
As the years go on, I have developed a love for being dyslexic. Dyslexics are special in how they see the world and can come up with ideas “normal” people don’t. Dyslexia is a constant journey. I will always struggle with writing coherently in one draft, and I will have to check my b’s from my d’s. But I know that I have gone through a lot of adversity and that has only made me more prepared for the world. Do not underestimate dyslexics because that kid you laughed at in class could be your boss someday.
A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to speak to the school committee at the state house. The room was filled and people were spilling out into the hall. The committee seemed extremely engaged and concerned about the issue of dyslexia. The event once again demonstrated the amazing community of dyslexics. Watch the rest of my talk below:

Ten Ways to Tame the “Worry Monster”

If the kids are stressed out, there are 10 Ways to “Tame the Worry Monster”

Parents may feel like June is easy at school, but from a child’s perspective the end of the school year can be stressful! In this Huffington Post blog, Dr. Dan Peters gives concrete advice for parents to help their children manage worries and stress:
Dr. Peters is a psychologist and a self-proclaimed parent of worriers. His advice is geared toward younger children, but many of the exercises can be used by older kids as well. If your child is becoming anxious about the transitions that come with the end of the school year, you may want Dr. Peters guidance as he goes into more detail about these steps you can take:

1. Teach how our brain and body work when we are scared
2. Identify body feelings
3. Externalize the problem
4. Make a worry list
5. Make a success ladder
6. Identify worrisome and fearful thinking
7. Change and modify thinking
8. Practice, practice, practice
9. Develop a coping toolbox
10. Don’t give up

What’s on your child’s “worry list”?
This time of year can be particularly anxiety-inducing for children of all ages, with the thoughts of upcoming changes and less structure for the summer. Some anxious kids may already be worrying about next fall. Maybe the worry is about final exams and projects, new schools or new classrooms next year, summer reading lists, summer camp and that swimming test. For some, the need for summer school or tutoring may be stressful.

If you can find out what your children are worried about (it may not be what you think!) then you can prioritize where they need the most help, and begin to address some of their concerns.

Many children with learning difficulties also struggle with anxiety. While most learning challenges are identified in elementary school, an unidentified issue may create a very stressful day-to-day existence for a student. Even children who have been receiving support may suffer additional worries if those supports are not helping them quickly enough. But, remember the last step #10: Don’t give up!

If your kids are stressed out about the end of the school year, they may need extra help over the summer. Check out ILD’s full range of services, including 1-to-1 remedial instruction, 1-to-1 executive function coaching, educational therapy, summer classes, and neuro-psychological assessments:

How to Identify “Shut-down” learners: What parents need to know

 Struggles in school?  See the following article from the Greatschools website, about kids who are struggling at school 

 The article notes that “Shut-down learners are children who become academically discouraged and disconnected from school over time”.  The early warning signs range from academic issues, such as “dislike of reading” or “hatred of writing” to more behavioral and emotional manifestations such as “increasing anger toward school” or “a sense that the child is increasingly disconnected, discouraged, and unmotivated”.

 Seven points are noted for parents to help prevent shut-down learners:

1.       Trust your gut

2.      Know what you are targeting

3.      Take the heat out of the interaction

4.      Turn down the [emotional] temperature

5.      Find someone to connect with and mentor your child in school

6.      Maintain a sense of equilibrium

7.      Support your child

Is your child showing any signs of shutting down?  Trust your gut!   Then, get support for you and your child.  The first step might be a consultation with an educational services provider like ILD:

At ILD, here’s what you might expect at an initial consultation: You will meet with a psychologist, educational specialist, or language specialist to review their child’s educational background and developmental history, and to find out the main concerns.  This consultation is the first step to understanding their child’s unique situation and is the beginning of a relationship with the whole family.  You’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire to bring to the meeting, along with other relevant information, such as report cards and samples of student work.  Your concerns will be heard, specific questions will be addressed, and suggestions will be made for next steps.

Outside support, in collaboration with your child’s team at school, can also help you through the process of understanding your child’s needs and targeted strategies to help your child succeed.   A full service provider includes psychologists, as well as reading & math specialists, speech-language therapists, learning disability specialists, and executive function coaches.

Check out ILD’s full range of services, including comprehensive neuro-psychological assessments, remedial instruction, strategy instruction (educational therapy), executive function coaching, and counseling: