Announcing the 2021 Executive Function Conference

Thirty-six years ago, while at Harvard Medical School, I founded the “Learning Disabilities Conference.” The first of its kind, this conference brought together theorists, researchers, and teachers to improve the lives of students with learning and attention difficulties.

Over the last three decades, we have worked to shift the paradigm in special education from an emphasis on deficits to an emphasis on strengths and resilience. Beginning this year and moving forward, ResearchILD’s annual conference will be titled the “Executive Function Conference, a natural transition for the mission and goals of our program.

From disabilities to differences

As ResearchILD’s Annual Conference, co-sponsored with the Harvard Graduation School of Education, evolved and changed over the years, we replaced the term “learning disabilities” with “learning differences.” We also emphasized the importance of fostering the strengths of students who think and learn differently through a lens that is both positive and affirming.

Executive function for ALL students

The one constant throughout has been a focus on executive function as the foundation of success for all students, not only for those with learning and attention differences. Our conference audience has expanded to include more superintendents, school principals, and general education teachers as our sessions reflect the importance of executive function strategies for ALL students.

2021 Theme: Attention and Stress

This year’s conference theme is “Executive Function, Attention and Stress: Promoting Resilience and Equity for ALL Students”. We have put together a wonderful slate of speakers on a range of important topics, and we are excited to welcome you to learn with us. Learn more about this year’s conference and register to save your seat.

  • Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D. Conference Founder and Chair, President, Institutes for Learning and Development (ResearchiLD and ILD)

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Executive Function at Home: Metacognition

When it comes to school (in person, remote, or homeschooling), parents know a lot about their children. They can often describe, in detail, the strengths and challenges of their children’s academics, and they know plenty about their child’s personality, interests, and other unique features. That makes parents a valuable partner in their child’s education!

Parents also have a strong sense of responsibility to help their children engage with their learning and become independent and self-aware. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, may not happen easily for many students, but the benefits of supporting metacognition in children are many. Students who understand their own strengths and challenges:

  • have more self-confidence because they don’t overgeneralize difficulties
  • know why they use specific strategies
  • can better monitor their own performance and behaviors. 

How can parents promote metacognition at home? Here are a few easy ways a parent can support the development of metacognition in their child.

Point out what you notice

In the beginning, lead the way by pointing out the things you are noticing about your child’s learning. Try to address the positive as much as possible and make sure your feedback is detailed and concrete. Whether you are monitoring homeschooling or homework, you may, for example, notice that your child has good sentence or paragraph structure or may need to work a bit more on using transitions. Specific feedback can help your child determine strengths and challenges and avoid making global statements like “I can’t write.” 

Ask questions

The simple act of asking questions can move your child toward a more metacognitive mindset. Ask your child, “What are you doing correctly on this math problem?” and “Where are you getting stuck?” When your child makes a less-than-great decision, ask “Why did you make that choice?” and “What could you do better next time?” Asking questions encourages students to reflect and explore their reasoning.

Help your child verbalize and document

Give your child a language to talk about metacognition. Teach what “metacognition” is and how to word strengths and challenges, how to talk about thinking, and how to explain why things are done or said by your child. Have your child create a “self” poster or write an autobiography, a great activity for homeschooling or any child really. Create opportunities to explore metacognition, make their thinking visible, and document your child’s thinking in words or pictures when possible.

Promote reflection

At the end of an academic or household task, ask your child to reflect on how it went: “What did you do well? How could you improve? What strategies did you use? What strategies could you use next time?” Following a social interaction, have your child look at the event critically. Was your child being a good friend? Reflection is the path to a growth mindset, defusing negative emotions, and instilling that kind of atmosphere in your home can benefit everyone in the family—at home and in other settings outside of the home.

Encourage positive self-talk

One important aspect of metacognition is acknowledging challenges with a focus on strengths. This translates to the type of self-talk our children use, encouraging them to be realistic but compassionate with themselves. Help your child to understand that thinking positively makes things easier. Encourage your child to say “I can” and to notice when negative self-talk comes around. Ask your child to reframe negative statements into positive ones so that the power of self-aware thinking can be used effectively.

You can support executive function development by making metacognition part of your home environment. Role model your own discovery of your strengths and challenges, why you do and say what you do, and your choice and use of strategies. Infuse the language of metacognition in your daily academic and household tasks. Become a more self-aware and reflective family, and then reap the benefits!

Empowering parents to support the development of executive function at home can support students in school and at home. If you want to learn more about building bridges between home and school, join us for “The Home-School Connection: Essential for Learning Executive Function Strategies” on August 3rd!

  • Mindy Scirri, Ph.D., SMARTS Trainer and Consultant

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Dr. Lynn Meltzer on Metacognition

Metacognition is the key to success in school and beyond, not to mention the use of executive function strategies. In SMARTS, we believe wholeheartedly that all students, with or without ADHD or learning differences, need explicit instruction in executive function strategies paired with opportunities to foster metacognition. Without these opportunities to promote reflection, students may develop unrealistic and unhelpful views of themselves as learners.

Dr. Lynn Meltzer, founder and president of the Institutes of Learning and Development and creator of SMARTS, explains:

“Metacognition at its core is thinking about how you think, learning about how you learn, and understanding who you are as a student.”

With training, students can develop a resilient and accurate view of who they are. In this video, Dr. Meltzer discusses the importance of metacognition.

Want to learn more about metacognition with Dr. Meltzer? Join her for our Summer Executive Function Summit!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Effective Study Tips

Everyone knows the importance of good study habits, but studying and test-taking look very different these days. With remote learning, students often have to figure out for themselves how to study, organize their time, and manage the added distractions at home. What study strategies are best during remote or hybrid learning?

There are many study strategies out there. When tests are a source of stress and anxiety, it can be hard to determine which strategy suits a student’s needs. In SMARTS,  we believe that students should be explicitly taught a range of strategies and then given the chance to reflect and decide which strategies are best for them.

Recently, one of our favorite websites Mind/Shift posted an article listing 13 study effective practices and tips for students. Here are a few of our favorites.

Change Your Space

One of the most important ways to study effectively is to create a space where you can work productively. Limiting distractions, such as phones or video games, can be a game-changer when it comes to fighting procrastination. Creating a quiet space, or a space with the right amount of ambient background noise, will help students save their brainpower for getting work done instead of fighting off distractions. If possible, students may benefit from finding another place to work that is not their bedroom, as many of the most potent distractions can be found there.

Practice Breaking Down Tasks

Students need to learn how to break down large tasks into bite-sized chunks. Teachers should explicitly model and practice this process with students. In SMARTS, we love to make personalized checklists out of study guides and test directions. Give students a blank checklist along with a practice test or a new project. Students can work in small groups to brainstorm strategies for dividing up tasks and filling out the checklist.

Create a Study Buffer

A student’s typical study plan may save all the work to the last minute, hoping to get a 100% on a practice test the night before so they feel ready for the actual exam the next day. Students should plan for a buffer between the practice test and the real event (you may have heard of this strategy called spaced repetition). This buffer time will reduce the likelihood of forgetting important information (sleep is an important part of memory) and allows for more time to analyze mistakes and review challenging concepts.

“Knowing” Means Being Able To Explain

Active study strategies are essential. Students might think they know a concept through a passive review of their notes, but they can’t be sure they have mastered it until they can explain it in some way — verbally, written, or otherwise. This is one reason note-taking strategies are so important. A strong study plan includes opportunities for students to actively explain what they are studying, either out loud to themselves, to a fellow student, or even to a parent or guardian. The act of explaining is a great check for understanding and ensures that the student is ready to explain their thinking on the test.

What study tips from this article do you think are the most useful? What other study habits do you find work best for your students? Let us know in the comments!

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

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Homeschooling: Building Executive Function Strategies, Part 2

Homeschooling is an ideal environment to address the executive function demands of both the home and school setting. Here are a few practical strategies for integrating executive function into homeschool teaching. (For more ideas, check out part 1 of this blog.)

Adapt Executive Function Strategies between Settings

As a homeschool teacher, you can help your child deepen their understanding of strategy use by applying strategies introduced in an academic setting to the home setting, and vice versa. For example, the strategy your child learns to estimate and prioritize their homework can be used to plan a weekend trip. Likewise, organizational strategies can be used for a bedroom closet or a homeschool workspace. 

Create Opportunities for Strategy Use

Since you are both teacher and parent, you have the opportunity to make time to help your child practice using executive function strategies and reflect on how effective the strategy was. Homeschool parents also have unique insight into the level of support that is necessary. For example, you can step back from planning your homeschool day and ask your child to take the lead. Provide support by adjusting the steps in a project to where your child can handle breaking it down and scheduling it for completion. You can offer calendars and other resources in the environment and then urge your child to use the tools available. These purposeful opportunities ensure that your child can successfully apply the strategies they are learning.

Role Model Your Own Strategy Use

One of the most important teaching strategies you can use to build executive functioning in your child is to role model when you are using your own executive function. (This true for both homeschool teacher and parent roles.)

Kids greatly underestimate the time parents and teachers spend doing tasks that require executive function processes. When students see parents and teachers, and parent-teachers, using strategies, they understand that even adults face executive function demands and need strategies to be successful. Share the strategies you rely on, such as your menu planning and agenda book, lesson plan schedule, and grading process. Make executive function visible and part of your daily conversation.

Using these methods, you are not teaching executive function strategies for the sake of teaching them. You are teaching them when a strategy is needed to help your child with a challenging academic or household task. This makes the learning of the strategy relevant, and a successful result can be very motivating for your child to use the strategy in the future.

By generalizing strategy instruction across academics and home, you can help your child build a strategy toolbox for any setting—home, school, clubs and activities, sports, college, career, and beyond!

  • Mindy Scirri, Ph.D., Educational Consultant and SMARTS Trainer

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Visible Thinking Routines to Support Students’ Learning

How can we help our students develop into flexible thinkers? Thinking routines from Project Zero can help make students’ learning processes visible, offering a way to sharpen thinking skills and reflect on learning.

A thinking routine is a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking. As students work out answers to a question or problem, they may struggle to describe how they came to their answer. Verbalizing or visualizing their steps to get there can deepen their own learning, not to mention their peers’ learning.

The key is to encourage students to think metacognitively. With dedicated time to reflect on their thinking processes, students can develop a deeper understanding of the strategies they used and the ideas they developed.

Project Zero has more than 40 thinking routines for you to explore. Here are a few of our favorites.

 Perspective taking: 3 Whys 

  1. Why might this [topic, question] matter to me?
  2. Why might it matter to people around me [family, friends, city, nation]?
  3. Why might it matter to the world?

The 3 Whys routine (also available in Spanish) ensures that students begin by establishing a personal connection. Next students are asked to switch perspectives and step into the shoes of the people and the world around them. This thinking routine aligns well with cognitive flexibility strategies featured in the SMARTS curriculum, such as the “I’m wearing your shoes” lesson.

Developing ideas: What Makes You Say That? 

  1. What’s going on?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?

Even seemingly simple questions can help students explore the patterns and ideas behind their thinking. What Makes You Say That? (also available in Spanish) pushes students to explain the “why” behind their answers, helping both teachers and students to explore the evidence. This thinking routine engages important executive function processes such as cognitive flexibility and exploring evidence from multiple perspectives. It also emphasizes organizing, as students sift and sort information to draw conclusions.

Question-asking: See, Think, Wonder

  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think about that?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

The See, Think, Wonder routine (also in Spanish) can help spark curiosity among students and encourage them to formulate their own questions. Many students struggle to know what to ask when they have difficulty understanding a concept. Encouraging students to practice developing their own questions can sharpen this skill.

Thinking routines are simple, yet powerful, tools you can use to help students develop into metacognitive and strategic learners. You’ll find they are easy to integrate into existing lesson plans, including content subjects or even executive function lessons from SMARTS. Executive function and metacognition are both at the heart of our curriculum, a subject we look forward to exploring more at our next free webinar, Getting to Know the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum!

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, SMARTS Intern

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Homeschooling: How to Build Executive Function Strategies, Part 1

Executive function is used everywhere! At home, school, the office — even on vacation — your executive function processes keep you moving along. Executive function demands and strategies, however, can vary across settings, especially at school and home. Here are some ways to integrate executive function strategies into academic tasks and everyday activities when homeschooling.

Executive Function at School and Home

An executive function process such as goal setting can look different in school and at home. Students set goals related to grades, projects, or extracurriculars at school, often using templates and scaffolds created by their teacher. At home, students set goals related to chores, extracurricular interests, and their unstructured time.

When executive function expectations and supports are different at home and school, executive function difficulties may arise. Students who receive direct executive function strategy instruction in school may find the connection to home gets lost. Students who have parents who support their executive function at home may not find those same levels of support at school. (Watch our free webinar “Executive Function: The Bridge Between Home and School” to learn how to understand and support your child’s executive function needs.)

Strategy instruction is most effective when children understand that strategies can be used across tasks, subject areas, and settings. Here are some ways you can connect executive function strategies between academic tasks and activities at home.

Promote Metacognition about Executive Function

As a homeschool teacher, you are constantly observing your child’s executive function strengths and challenges. When helping your child understand their strengths and challenges, focus on the positives and assure your child that there are strategies to help with the challenges. This sets the stage for strategy instruction as your child is aware of strengths but also knows that there is a reason for learning strategies that will help with challenges.

Teach Executive Function Strategies within Academic Tasks

Armed with the knowledge of your child’s executive function strengths and challenges, you can integrate strategy instruction into academic subjects as needed. For example, if your child struggles to manage time to get homeschool work done, teach your child to categorize activities into “have-to’s, want-to’s, and hope-to’s” to organize that day’s tasks. Integrating executive function strategies into projects or tests can also help set up your child for success. 

Introduce Executive Function Strategies in the Home

As a homeschooler, you know that learning is no longer limited to school hours and tidy school subjects. You have the flexibility to create teachable moments throughout your day. These are perfect opportunities for you to introduce executive function strategies within real-world applications. For example, if your child is struggling to keep a closet neat, bring in an organizational strategy—like the SMARTS 4C’s strategy—at that moment.

These are just a few ways to incorporate executive function into a successful homeschool. Check out Part 2 for more strategies you can try.

  • Mindy Scirri, Ph.D., Educational Consultant and SMARTS Trainer and Consultant

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Dr. Lynn Meltzer on Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to think flexibly, is one of the most important executive function processes to promote student success. Despite its importance, the concept of cognitive flexibility can be hard for students to visualize.

To help students understand the idea of thinking flexibly, we have come across many different ways of representing cognitive flexibility. Dr. Lynn Meltzer, president and founder of the Institutes for Learning and Development and the executive function guru behind SMARTS, often uses the example of standing on top of a mountain vs. being in the forest and looking at the trees.

The ability to switch between the big picture and the important details is essential for everything from note-taking and solving math problems to understanding jokes and deciding to go on a hike. When students do not know how to shift easily, they get caught in rigid and inefficient habits (e.g., re-reading material despite not understanding it or refusing to show their work in math despite repeatedly getting the wrong answer).

Check out the full clip below of Dr. Meltzer explaining the importance of cognitive flexibility. If you want to learn more about cognitive flexibility and the power of executive function strategies, join Dr. Meltzer and SMARTS team members at this year’s Executive Function Summer Summit. Hope to see you there!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Fidgeting and Executive Function

Students love to fidget, right? From fidget spinners to Rubik’s cubes to doodling, there is almost an entire industry dedicated to keeping students’ hands busy. But fidgeting is more than that; fidgeting might also help support executive function.

Fidgeting and the Brain

A recent study, led by Justin Fernandez at Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), is reinforcing the benefits of fidgeting. While the study looked at the brains of people with ADHD specifically, these findings have important implications for acknowledging how students actually learn, especially when it comes to executive function.

The study found that, when the subjects were allowed to fidget, the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex increased. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of your brain’s executive function processes. We all know that executive function is essential for successful learning, so the importance of fidgeting must be recognized.

Viewed in this light, fidgeting deserves another look. Seeing students doodling or tapping away with their pencil is often interpreted as being off task. However, if fidgeting is a way to power up the brain, then perhaps fidgeting is adaptive, a part of the problem-solving process.

Fidgets for All

While many students with ADHD have access to fidgets in their 504 plans, all students can benefit from well-timed fidgeting. The need to fidget is universal, especially during remote or hybrid learning. From a movement break or a quick doodle to fidget toys like the Fidgi Pen, there are many ways to let your students fidget. (Does note-taking count as a fidget? We like to think so.)

Use Fidgets Productively

Of course, a fidget free-for-all can be pretty distracting (some teachers might still have a few confiscated fidget spinners in their desk drawer). Take time to teach students how to use fidgets productively. Talk about the best time to fidget or what kinds of activities are less distracting to others. Help students see fidgeting as a productive step in completing their work instead of something to hide when the teacher looks your way.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

25 Cognitive Flexibility Jokes!

“I once worked at a cheap pizza shop to get by. I kneaded the dough.” Get it? Silly jokes and puns that play with the meanings and sounds of words offer fun ways to help students develop their cognitive flexibility.

Executive function processes such as cognitive flexibility, shifting, and flexible thinking are key to students’ academic success. Students who are rigid will struggle with tasks such as reading, taking tests, or even navigating non-school challenges (like snakes). The challenges of remote and hybrid learning have only increased the need for flexibility.

Teaching cognitive flexibility does not need to be boring! Many games rely on cognitive flexibility (check out these games we like, but watch out for games to avoid). We also love to link humor with cognitive flexibility. By analyzing jokes, students can practice examining language from multiple perspectives in a way that is engaging and low stakes. Classic stories such as Amelia Bedelia or Eats, Shoots, and Leaves are great resources, and you can find many examples online as well.

Here are 25 cognitive flexibility jokes that had us cracking up in the SMARTS office, and we think they would be great to use with students:

  1. Writing my name in cursive is my signature move.
  2. Why do bees stay in their hives during winter? Swarm.
  3. What do you call a pig with laryngitis? Disgruntled.
  4.  Dad, are we pyromaniacs? Yes, we arson.
  5. If you’re bad at haggling, you’ll end up paying the price
  6. Just so everyone’s clear, I’m going to put my glasses on.
  7. A commander walks into a bar and orders everyone around.
  8. I lost my job as a stage designer. I left without making a scene.
  9. Never buy flowers from a monk. Only you can prevent florist friars.
  10. How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buccaneer.
  11. I once worked at a cheap pizza shop to get by. I kneaded the dough.
  12. My friends and I have named our band ‘Duvet’. It’s a cover band.
  13. I lost my girlfriend’s audiobook, and now I’ll never hear the end of it.
  14. Why is ‘dark’ spelled with a k and not c? Because you can’t see in the dark.
  15. Why is it unwise to share your secrets with a clock? Well, time will tell.
  16. When I told my contractor I didn’t want carpeted steps, they gave me a blank stare.
  17. Bono and The Edge walk into a Dublin bar and the bartender says, “Oh no, not U2 again.”
  18. Prison is just one word to you, but for some people, it’s a whole sentence.
  19. Scientists got together to study the effects of alcohol on a person’s walk, and the result was staggering.
  20.  I’m trying to organize a hide-and-seek tournament, but good players are really hard to find.
  21. I got over my addiction to chocolate, marshmallows, and nuts. I won’t lie, it was a rocky road.
  22. What do you say to comfort a friend who’s struggling with grammar? There, their, they’re.
  23. I went to the toy store and asked the assistant where the Schwarzenegger dolls are and he replied, “Aisle B, back.”
  24. What did the surgeon say to the patient who insisted on closing up their own incision? Suture self.
  25. I’ve started telling everyone about the benefits of eating dried grapes. It’s all about raisin awareness.

Do you have any favorite puns or jokes that illustrate cognitive flexibility? Let us know in the comments!

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

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

h/t: https://www.skyline725.com/these-puns-are-so-bad-they-needed-to-be-published/