Executive Function and Online Learning

In a typical school year, teachers may feel that by spring their students will fully understand the class expectations and be settled into their routines. This school year, however, has been anything but typical! It is important to remember that context matters for executive function, and the radically different expectations and systems of online learning context presents different challenges (and opportunities).

To help students succeed in an online learning environment, executive function demands must be consistent and transparent.

Where is my homework again?

Do not assume that students know how to find important information on their class websites or their school’s learning management system. While some students may seamlessly navigate these websites, even teaching you a few tricky, other students may run find seeming simple tasks quite challenging, giving up when they feel overloaded by information. Provide explicit modeling to ensure that all students can find their homework, participate in discussion, turn in their work, and check their grades. Some students may require more coordination and executive function support. Keep your communication systems simple and consistent; it makes a big difference. Teacher announcements should be in one designated spot, instead of mixing email announcements, discussion board posts, and in-person announcements.

I need help!

When teaching online, it can be difficult to determine when a student needs extra support and which aspects of the learning environment are posing challenges. Students are more isolated from their teacher and peers, making them reluctant to ask for help. Some students may not even know where to begin asking for help. By conducting brief check-ins (via a Zoom poll, Google form, etc.), you can discover how comfortable students are navigating the online resources for their classes or if they are still experiencing information overload. It is never too late to open up channels of communication and allow students to share their perspectives; this can ensure all learners feel heard and supported.

Our latest webinar, “Executive Function Challenges and Solutions: Shifting Between Remote to In-Person Instruction,” offers a number of tips and tools for teachers to support their students’ EF in the current learning context.

For more information about supporting students during remote learning, take a look at some of these posts.

  • 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

Top 5 Free SMARTS Webinars

The past year has been a real cognitive flexibility challenge for everyone! One big shift for us was moving from in-person to online professional development workshops. The benefit—now you can access our FREE executive function webinars on your own time schedule.

Here is the entire YouTube playlist of our free webinars, but let me highlight a few of our favorites:

1. Understanding Executive Function: The Key to Successful Learning

Why do so many students seem to struggle with executive function? And how can teachers and parents support students as they manage the executive function demands of everyday life? In this one-hour webinar, we explore how understanding executive function and working to provide strategies at school and at home can support students across grades and content areas. The presentation features strategies from local educational therapists as well as resources and materials from the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum.  https://www.youtube.com/embed/XaplK5jN7fk

2. Executive Function: The Bridge Between Home and School

Whether at home or at school, students need executive function strategies to handle challenging tasks as they set goals, shift flexibly, organize materials and information, and self-monitor and check their behavior and their work. When executive function expectations and supports are different at home and at school, executive function difficulties may arise. To truly support the executive function needs of students, executive function expectations and strategies must be clearly defined and accessible to everyone involved (teachers, parents, and students). In this one-hour webinar, educational therapists from the Institute for Learning and Development share strategies they use to help parents understand and support their students’ executive function needs.https://www.youtube.com/embed/9CozPKVB6yE

3. Executive Function and Reading

Students begin using executive function processes in literacy in the preschool years and continue as they progress through middle and high school and are expected to master complex skills in reading comprehension, summarizing, note-taking, and multi-stage writing projects. Beyond decoding spelling and vocabulary, successful reading requires that students be able to identify main ideas, topics, and supporting details in order to summarize and analyze what they are reading. Without strategies that help students meet the executive function demands of reading, students will struggle with reading comprehension, note-taking, essays, standardized tests, and more. In this one-hour webinar, Michael Greschler, M.Ed., director of the SMARTS Executive Function Programs, is joined by Wendy Stacey, M.S., director of Reading at the Institute for Learning and Development, to explore how executive function strategies can be used to help students tackle challenging reading material. The presentation features strategies developed at the Institute for Learning and Development and used in the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum. https://www.youtube.com/embed/IgvU1V3TgtM 

4. Executive Function and Math

In this one-hour webinar,  Joan Steinberg, M.Ed., director of Educational Therapy and an educational specialist at the Institute for Learning and Development, explores how executive function strategies can be used to help students tackle math. The presentation features strategies developed at the Institute for Learning and Development and used in the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum.https://www.youtube.com/embed/HhLAcp6j9VM 

5. Executive Function Challenges and Solutions: Shifting Between Remote to In-Person Instruction

The rapid shift to remote learning last spring turned students’, and teachers’, executive function strategies on their heads. As schools cycle between virtual, in-person, and hybrid instruction, it is becoming increasingly challenging for teachers, students, and parents to keep up. This webinar, led by Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS media manager, ResearchILD, and Caitlin Vanderberg, SMARTS intern, explores how various instructional models impact executive function demands and create executive function difficulties that undermine academic achievement. Through hands-on activities, attendees will learn strategies to help students shift flexibly and meet the executive function demands of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning. https://www.youtube.com/embed/EjISXth80pw  We love sharing executive function research and strategies with you! Stay tuned for upcoming executive function trainings and webinars. If you enjoyed our trainings and want to find out when we post new ones, subscribe to our SMARTS YouTube channel.

  • 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

Supporting Students with Dysgraphia in the Classroom

Do you have students who struggle with dysgraphia? These tips and tools can help students manage handwriting tasks and gain confidence in their writing abilities.

Dysgraphia Defined

Dysgraphia is a learning difference that causes an unexpected difficulty with writing, spelling, and letter formation. Students with dysgraphia are often misunderstood, and their parents and teachers may attribute their struggles with handwriting to laziness. This is inaccurate and can cause students to lose confidence in their writing abilities. The process of writing can be laborious for students with dysgraphia; they may spend so much energy on the physical act of writing that they struggle to transfer their complete thoughts to paper.

Writing Support

There are many ways to help students with dysgraphia show what they know. Typing and speech-to-text apps can help students express their thoughts and develop writing assignments. Offering students guided notes can reduce the amount of writing during class and ensure that students are capturing the main ideas of lessons.

Classroom Tools

There are also a number of classroom tools that can benefit students with dysgraphia. Paper with raised lines or paper with the bottom portion highlighted can provide visual and tactile guides for letter formation. Grips may help students find a more comfortable way of holding a pencil, and a slant board can help support proper wrist placement and posture. Pencil obstacle courses or mazes can help students develop fine motor control, as can sculpting with clay.

For more tips on how to help kids with dysgraphia, check out this article, explore our many resources on integrating executive function into writing, or watch the video below from Edutopia (one of our favorite blogs).

  • 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

Reader’s Theater and Executive Function Strategies

When it comes to reading, working in groups can be problematic, especially for students with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning differences. Reader’s theater is a fun way to let all students collaboratively engage with texts as they strengthen executive function strategies.

Reader’s Theater & Executive Function

Reader’s theater is a multisensory instructional strategy designed to help students develop fluency and comprehension by reading scripts based on grade-level texts. Reader’s theater is not only limited to language arts—it can be a useful instructional strategy for science, social studies, and second language classes.

Executive function is often overlooked when it comes to reading instruction. The informal performances of reader’s theater allow students to work collaboratively, craft a character or tone, and use their executive function strategies.

Let’s break down how reader’s theater can provide opportunities to teach strategies that will help students overcome executive functioning challenges. 

Working memory

Reader’s theater asks students to use their strategies for working memory. Students will need to maintain their spot in their script and keep track of their peers’ lines as they progress through their performance. Reader’s theater offers a natural opportunity for repeated reading, and students can practice their lines multiple times as a group. This provides students with many chances to employ their strategies for remembering when it is their turn to read.  

Cognitive flexibility

Once students are assigned their character or role, they must craft certain voices or gestures to match their lines. While performing, students will have to shift between their own perspective and their character’s perspective. Playing a different character provides a concrete opportunity to understand how to shift in real or imagined scenarios. They will also have to shift between listening to their peers’ lines and reading out their own.  

Self-monitoring and self-checking

As students embody the characters they are portraying, they must use their self-monitoring strategies to ensure that their gestures and voices match the text. They might ask themselves: How is the character feeling here? How might I communicate this character’s emotions? Are there words I don’t know? Encourage students to prompt each other to ask themselves these questions; this will help keep everyone on track.

Reader’s theater is a fun way for all students to participate in activities that promote literacy, reading comprehension, and executive function strategies. For more resources about theater-related activities, check out this post about theater games that help build flexible thinking.  

  • 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

Executive Function Essentials: A toolkit for remote and in-class learning

We’re excited to announce Executive Function Essentials 2021, our newest training series that focuses on teaching executive function strategies for remote and in-person classroom settings. Presented by Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., and the staff of the Institutes for Learning and Development, this four-session series will help you build your executive function toolkit by:

  • Deepening your understanding of metacognition, organization, flexible problem solving, motivation, engagement
  • Developing a practical appreciation of the latest research
  • Gaining strategies and activities to use when teaching remotely and in-person

Session Overviews

Depending on your teaching goals, choose the sessions that are right for you. All presentations will be recorded if you cannot attend live.

  • In addition, we will offer two application-based presentations on the subjects of dyslexia on March 4 and math on April 1, 2021.

Start your 2021 with the resolution to teach essential executive function strategies across all teaching and learning formats. Learn more and register today!

We look forward to having you join us. If you have any questions, 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

Executive Function Strategies Vs. Skills: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to supporting students’ executive function needs, the terms “skill” and “strategy” are often used interchangeably. In the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum, we believe it is important to underscore the difference between such seemingly similar terms.

Skills refer to abilities that may be enacted without much thought from the individual. Strategies, on the other hand, are intentionally employed by an individual to accomplish a specific task, such as reading a book or studying for an exam.

When it comes to teaching executive function, it is important to promote a strategic approach for many reasons.

  1. Strategy instruction is a strengths-based approach, that focuses on students achieving personally meaningful goals, supported by teachers’ explicit teaching and modeling of strategy use. Students who struggle may internalize their failures and come to believe that their efforts will not lead to success. However, when armed with strategies, students have options for how they can respond to an academic or organizational challenge.
  2. Strategy instruction promotes self-understanding. Using strategies is an intentional and deliberate process; students become active learners who engage in self-reflection about which strategies were most successful in specific situations. This metacognitive process is an important part of teaching students to understand how they learn most effectively. When students feel valued and involved in their learning, they are more likely to be motivated.
  3. Strategy instruction is beneficial for all learners. Every student can benefit from having a larger set of strategies to pull from when they face challenges in academics and in their everyday lives.

The SMARTS Executive Function curriculum helps students understand their areas of strength and challenge and explicitly teaches executive function strategies. Learn more about the three key tenets at the heart of the SMARTS program.

  • 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

Online Games for the Remote Elementary Classroom

In these days of remote learning, it can be challenging to motivate students and help them stay on top of the executive function demands of learning. Games can be invaluable for engaging students’ attention and fostering positive relations in the virtual elementary classroom.

Which games are the most fun and effective over services like Zoom? Edutopia has a terrific list of 13 Virtual Games to Play in Your Elementary Classroom. Here are a few of our favorites:

Connect Four, Trouble, Chess & Checkers

Liz Henneberry, a third-grade teacher in Franklin, Massachusetts, transformed Connect FourTroubleChess, and Checkers to Google Slides…Students click a board game shelved in a virtual recess room, which creates their own copy of the game. Students can then share the game with their friend using Google Drive so that the two can play a round together.

Tic-Tac-Toe

Robin Nahhas says her third-grade students have loved playing Multiplication Tic-Tac-Toe, a downloadable game she created on Google Slides so that they could practice their multiplication facts…She pairs up students and places them in breakout rooms on Zoom. Each student in the pair selects a set of color pieces, and when it’s their turn, they roll two digital dice, multiply the numbers shown, and place a piece onto the virtual board with the corresponding number…If students need help solving a problem, they can rely on their partner or click the “Ask for Help” button after trying one of the strategies they learned in class with pencil and paper first.

Scavenger Hunt

During morning meetings, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wood says she incorporates games like scavenger hunts that the whole class can play together while learning from home. When it’s time to play, Wood projects a word like blanket and a matching image on a slideshow, and then students run to find the item in their homes. When they find the object, they can share it on video or by typing in the chat box.

Pictionary

Teachers can use Blackboard Collaborate, Whiteboard.fi, or the Whiteboard within Zoom for Pictionary. Students take turns drawing on a whiteboard—prompted by a word generator—while students call out their guesses.

What do you think of these games? Do you have any other virtual games that work well with elementary students? We’d love to hear about them 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

4 Questions to Promote Student Reflection

Helping students to reflect on their executive function strategy use is essential to building their metacognition. When students reflect on the strategies they are using to plan, prioritize, break down tasks, and achieve their goals, they develop their ability to use strategies independently in the future.

Too often teachers skip over student reflection, not because they think it’s unimportant but because they run out of time. How can you integrate strategy reflection from day one? Make these four questions a part of your practice.

How do you think you did?

Instead of asking a yes-or-no question (“Did you like this activity?”), ask students to rate their work on a scale. You might consider using a numbered scale (1 = poor and 5 = great) or use emojis (frowning face, neutral face, smiling face).

Why did you pick that rating?

Next, ask students to explain their rating. What went well? What didn’t go so well? In SMARTS, we usually provide a checklist with positive options (“I worked productively” or “This fits my learning style”) as well as negative options (“I had a hard time focusing” or “This type of assignment is hard for me”).  By including both positives and negatives, we can help students understand that we all have strengths and challenges that impact our performance.

What did you learn about yourself?

Developing an accurate picture of our strengths and challenges is the bedrock of metacognition. Without opportunities to reflect, many students have global views of their abilities (“School is always easy for me” or “I guess I’m dumb”). Ask: What was the hardest part?  What was the easiest part? Reflection helps students develop a more nuanced self-understanding of their abilities.

What will you do next time?

Figuring out what to do next time should always be the goal of reflection. Ask: How can you take what you have learned and apply it in the future? What would you do differently? What would you keep the same? By thinking through their plan as part of reflection, students can connect what they’ve learned to future assignments and even goals or projects outside of school.

By integrating these four types of questions into strategy instruction, your students will become more metacognitive in their approach to learning. Whether these questions are part of a written strategy reflection assignment or a class strategy share, reflection will help your students develop into resilient and flexible learners!

  • 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

Goal Setting for 2021

The New Year offers a fresh start, a great time for setting goals and teaching executive function goal-setting strategies. Try this ten-minute activity to help students reflect on their year and set meaningful and doable goals for the year ahead.

Make Time for Setting Goals

As this whirlwind year comes to a close, students and their teachers have high hopes for 2021. It’s important to keep hope alive, so taking time to self reflect and set goals can help students carry some much needed positive energy into 2021. Goal setting helps students to recognize that their biggest power lies in themselves! Spending time talking about goals and using strategies (CANDO goals anyone?) will help turn New Years’ Resolutions into concrete goals for a fresh chapter.

What, Why, and How

Goal setting refers to the ability to identify the desired outcome based on an awareness of personal strengths and challenges. Goal setting without self-reflection can lead to dangerous goals that undermine motivation. We can better accomplish our goals when we understand our internal “why” of what drives us and make a plan for how we will get there. Here is a brief activity you can do with your students, or yourself, to reflect on goals for the new year.

  1. Create a list of outcomes you would like to see.
    Think about specific big moments during the year (e.g., AP tests or trying out for a play) or parts of your life (at school or your job). What would you like to see happen? Make your vision as clear and realistic as you can.
  2. For each outcome or goal, ask yourself why you want that outcome to be true.
    Jot down a note about what is motivating you. For example, perhaps you want to lose weight so that you can wear your favorite pair of jeans again. Maybe you want to achieve a higher GPA this semester to showcase on your college application or resume. Acknowledging the motivation behind your goal setting will keep your goals grounded and in view as you work towards them.
  3. Identify how you will reach your goals.
    Now that your list of goals is clear and you understand why you wish to accomplish them, develop your individualized approach to how you will reach your goals. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, clarify that you will do this by watching your meals and exercising five times per week. If your goal is to increase your GPA this semester, try to estimate how much time this will require, set a weekly goal, and identify your production time. The more specific you are about how to accomplish your goals, the more your why will drive you, so that your outcomes become a reality.

This activity can spark discussion about the importance, and challenge, of goal setting, as well as plant seeds for meaningful and strategic goal setting in a new year. Happy goal setting!

  • Iris Jeffries, 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

Stressful Times? A Growth Mindset Can Help

We’ve talked before on this blog about the important role growth mindset plays in boosting executive function skills and strategies. Sometimes the hardest moments, like a difficult transition to remote learning or getting a bad grade, test our students’ growth mindset beliefs, making it difficult for them to develop and use the executive function strategies they need to be resilient. How can we help our students persevere and exercise their struggle muscle

You can start by teaching students about what having a growth mindset looks like and how it can be applied to day-to-day challenges. As always, explicit instruction and self-understanding are key. We are huge fans of Carol Dweck’s work on the subject; however, the growth mindset concept can be hard for students to grasp. This video from BrainCraft offers a succinct and entertaining explanation of growth mindset and why it’s important, especially during this pandemic. 

I think this video can be a great tool for educating the people we work with about the importance of having a growth mindset. What did you think of the video? 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