Category Archives: Posts

Frameworks for Goal Setting

It’s summer break for many students, which means it’s time for summer goals! As camps are canceled and pools stay closed, many teenagers are facing the challenge of wide-open summers. This is especially difficult for students with ADHD who may do poorly with unstructured time.

Time for Exploration

Students may tell you that their favorite part of summer is “no homework” or “no tests,” but the truth is that summer is an important time in their development. Summer is when students explore who they want to be beyond school. This could take the form of building leadership skills in a summer job or developing social identity at sleepaway camp.

When students feel they have nothing to do, cut off from the chance to explore, they are prone to feeling depressed and isolated. The “fresh start” of summer is an ideal time to set some goals and salvage their summer.

Use Goal-Setting Frameworks

This goal-setting framework, from Maurice Elias, director of Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, is a great place to start.

Dr. Elias proposes pushing students to think about the many dimensions of their lives and to set goals in eight areas.

  1. Academics
  2. Social life
  3. Sports and exercise
  4. Healthy eating
  5. Family and community
  6. Hobbies and interests
  7. Screen time
  8. Long-term plans

Each of these areas represents an important part of a student’s identity. Too often, students may only focus on a few of these priorities, perhaps only thinking about areas of strength or weakness. With the slower tempo of summer, students can pay attention to often neglected areas like healthy eating and long-term plans.

Set Realistic Goals

Watch out for vague or idealized goals; instead, encourage students to use CANDO goals (Unit 2 in SMARTS) to set a realistic goal in each area. By using the CANDO goal-setting acronym, students’ goals will be more realistic and have a built-in plan for reaching success.

In the words of Dr. Elias, “goals provide anchors, especially valuable in high winds and rough seas.” Take the time to help students create meaningful goals, and they will find the motivation and direction they need during these turbulent times.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Tips & Tricks to Make Your Online Classroom More Engaging

One of the most difficult things about distance learning is keeping students engaged and creating a warm, inviting atmosphere for online classes.

Edutopia.com recently outlined tips for engaging students when teaching online. Here are a few of my favorites.

Show Yourself

  • Your physical presence, warmly represented, provides key support to your students, so maintain eye contact and talk in a relaxed, friendly tone.
  • Set up your physical space so that your face is easily visible and warmly lit.

Relationships are the foundation of learning, and humans naturally look at each other’s faces in order to understand what is happening. Make sure your students can see your face to foster connection and engagement.

Ask Questions

  • Survey your students often on what they need to feel engaged and connected. Provide ways for them to give anonymous feedback and to be heard.
  • Build in frequent opportunities for engagement during your lesson by asking for thumbs up, thumbs down, or one-word answers in your meeting’s chat window, for example. Pause and ask students to check in with how they are feeling, and let them provide a silent gesture or signal that reflects how they are doing. Check-ins do not need to be long to be effective.

The more we ask students to share their opinions or provide feedback, the more engaged they will be. Zoom has a number of features that promote active learning, including polls, reaction icons, and the whiteboard. You can also use timers and encourage fidgeting to keep students engaged.

Stay Organized

  • If you’re distracted during your lesson, students will pick up on that, so have everything you need ready. Struggling to find files, links, or browser tabs can cause your stress level to rise, which students will feel and mirror.

Staying organized is a common challenge when teaching, whether in your classroom or online. Your students will benefit from clearly defined organizational strategies that keep the lesson moving fluidly.

If something goes wrong, own it. Students often do not understand how adults create and maintain organizational strategies. Share how your systems for organizing time and materials are evolving. Ask students how they are adapting their own organizational strategies.

Have you found it difficult to engage students online? What strategies have helped you create a more inviting online classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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

Free Webinar: Executive Function and Math

Why is math so hard for some students? If you ask them, you might hear answers such as, “It’s too complicated” or “It’s boring.” However, many students struggle with math because of weaknesses in executive function processes.

To help all students succeed in math, educators must understand the role executive function plays in successful math learning as well as strategies they can use to make math learning a more joyful process for students who struggle. This important topic will be the focus of our free webinar, “Executive Function and Math on May 14th at 3:30 EST.

Complex calculations and problem solving in math are challenging for many typically developing learners, and even more so for students with attentional weaknesses, executive function weaknesses, and/or learning disabilities. In addition, the Common Core math standards are placing higher demands on our students than ever before, adding stress and reducing the joy of learning.

Part of the problem may be the current trend towards emphasizing a constructivist approach to learning math. Students are expected to notice patterns and deduce mathematical rules from their observations. This can be extremely challenging for students with learning differences, who may struggle to sequence information or focus for extended periods. Without differentiated instruction, these students may fall further behind and lose confidence in their ability to succeed.

By understanding best practices for supporting student’s executive function needs, especially as they pertain to math, teachers can integrate strategy instruction into the curriculum and establish regular teaching practices to support their students’ executive skills (self-regulation, working memory, planning and sequencing, organization, flexible thinking, and self-monitoring). Using these approaches will increase student motivation, build confidence, and create more enthusiastic math learners.

We will be exploring important executive function processes as they pertain to math in our free webinar, “Executive Function and Math on May 14th at 3:30 EST. We hope you can join us!

  • Joan Steinberg, M.Ed., Director of Educational Services, Institute for Learning and Development

Remote Learning – Parent Perspective: A Moment of Gratitude

The challenge of remote learning can take its toll on students, parents, and teachers alike. From confusing directions, mounting frustration, or even a sense of despair, it can be easy to feel hopeless. Change, however, also brings opportunities.

In this installment of SMARTS Online  Real-Life Experiences with Remote Learning, a parent shares some moments of gratitude for unexpected moments of growth that remote learning has offered her daughter.

Because of the low self-esteem that often goes along with learning differences, my child will not always try new things, especially at school where teachers and students are not supportive and do not understand the struggle. In the safety of home, my child tried something new this week! It was just a quick musical project, but was a meaningful little victory. 

Isn’t that great! For this student, like many others, home is a place of safety. Students with learning differences might be anxious at school, nervous to try new things in front of their peers. Learning at home offers more freedom to explore things they might avoid in school. 

Also, after years of trying to get her interested in yoga, which could help her stress level, finally she has become interested. The remote yoga sessions that her school is offering have somehow sparked an interest. Now, she is doing yoga all the time, which may be reducing the stress of today’s various challenges. 

Many students, and their parents, are struggling with the monotony of being stuck at home. Why not try to adopt some new, healthy habits? Yoga, meditation, and arts and crafts are just some of the habits that students might have rejected before but would provide welcome entertainment and relief now that they are stuck inside.


I hope everyone out there is finding moments to smile and even be grateful during this very trying time.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

This post is part of SMARTS Online’s Real-Life Experiences with Remote Learning series.

Remote Learning and Equity

The stress and chaos of the rapid shift to remote learning is hard on everyone: teachers, students, and parents. However, the impact doesn’t affect all students equally.

Students are now expected to do their learning at home, self-regulating their schedule and their productivity, while navigating new tech platforms and learning to engage in an entirely new way.

Students with learning and attention differences, those exposed to trauma, or students living in poverty all have unique risk factors that may be amplified by the demands of remote learning. (Check out SMARTS’ Remote Learning series for students’ perspectives on remote learning.)

Tracey A. Benson, professor, activist, and consultant, hosted a webinar entitled, “Developing Virtual Learning Plans with an Eye on Equity”. He laid out a number of tips for designing remote learning lesson plans that can support all students. The following three strategies are especially relevant when we consider the executive function demands of remote learning.

Weekly Surveys

Benson recommends sending a weekly survey to all parents to collect data. Parents will have unique insight into how well their student is able to handle the time management and homework demands of remote learning. This is also a great way to make sure parents are aware of the executive function expectations and the strategies students are learning. I love this idea, and why not also have a weekly student survey? Ongoing reflection is key to promoting self-understanding (for students and adults) and surveys will give students a voice during a challenging and chaotic time.

Minimize Independent Work

When students are assigned independent work, there is a lot that can go wrong. With asynchronous learning becoming an increasingly popular option, many students are struggling alone as they attempt to break down the directions, manage their time efficiently, overcome tech problems, and persevere when they are feeling stuck. By minimizing the amount of work students have to do on their own, and making sure students feel supported, we can reduce the risk that students will get stuck.

Aim for a 0% Failure Rate

A big part of equity is maintaining high expectations for all students and helping them achieve those expectations. While many schools are turning to pass/fail grading during distance learning (which is fine), we need to make sure we do not adopt a pass/fail approach to supporting our students. This means finding ways to differentiate our support and help every student to engage with remote learning materials and develop the strategies they need to be successful.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Parent Perspective: How to Support Remote Learning

As schools move to remote learning, parents are being asked to support students at home. Support can range from time management and academic help to regulating emotions and organizing materials. But how do you know when to help and how much to offer?

Many parents, especially those students with learning differences such as ADHD or dyslexia, are unsure of how much help to give. After all, school is a place for students to begin to develop their independence from parents. At the same time, no parent likes to watch their student struggle or give up.

Here are observations from a parent of an eighth-grade student during the first few days of remote learning (read some of her students’ blogs here).

After about an hour of school, I hear her chatting with her friends, cracking jokes, and being by far the loudest voice on the video conference. My blood pressure is going up, but I tell myself not to interfere. I’m actually sort of glad she is socializing as she was feeling so isolated after day one.

Later in the day, I hear sounds of extreme frustration. This can halt all progress, so I tried to help and we got into a big fight! When the storm calms, she says thanks, actually that was helpful, and she dives back into her schoolwork. In our house, there’s no point in holding a grudge.

As is typical, sometimes my daughter just needs a tiny push to get her over the hump of hyperactive inaction. Then she can work independently for hours. I see now that my “helpfulness” is interpreted by my daughter as if I said she’s “wrong”!  Note to self: find a better way to help.

Remote learning is challenging for everyone, including parents. Keep in mind that relationships are more important than any homework assignment. This mom knows her daughter and knows how to support her, and that is the most important thing.

Parents can also help by reminding their student to do the things that they enjoy.

Although the hands-on project was just arts and crafts, my daughter started listening to an audiobook while she was doing the project. Since we don’t want to go to the movies right now, she found and started listening to Emma. This was awesome as she’s been so busy and stressed lately that she has not had time to just relax and read (ear reading).  

Students may be too caught up in their online schooling to make time for things like reading, listening to music, and exercise. Helping students take time to relieve stress and anxiety can help them better understand the role that anxiety plays in their lives and how to manage it.

Finally, parents can help by reminding students to take advantage of available supports.

After the school day ended, my daughter did not want to “meet” with her Executive Function coach! However, after doing some note-taking practice, they discussed the challenges of remote schooling. From that, her EF coach put together a summary table of four challenge areas and solutions for each. For instance:

  • Problem: Reading the assignments is difficult
  • Solution: Reach out to the teacher via email or Google Classroom, keeping in mind that teachers are not always immediately available

Her coach also offered to do a quick review of the reading via Skype, but, timing may not work out. One key solution is to acknowledge that remote schooling is hard – for teachers, too – and it’s only Day 2, so try to give it a little more time.  Good advice for me, too.

Many remote learning models rely on the student to reach out to the teacher when they need help. This may be a challenge, especially for students who struggle with motivation or who have experienced academic failure.

If your student was seeing an executive function coach, educational therapist, or a tutor, try to see if they can maintain that connection. These professionals can help students develop concrete strategies for adapting to online learning. They also provide one more supportive relationship that students can rely on as they adapt to their new remote learning lifestyle.

Looking for more resources? Check out these free executive function resources for parents.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

3 Zoom Features that Promote Executive Function

Are you using Zoom to video conference with your students? Here are 3 ways you can address best practices for executive function strategies to support all students, especially those with learning differences such as ADHD or dyslexia.

1. Share your screen

Zoom makes it easy to share a window on your computer with your class. Use this feature to display an agenda at the start of class to help students envision the layout of the lesson. In order to engage executive function, students must be able to envision the end product of what they are working on, as well as the steps to get there. By sharing your agenda, students can keep the scope of the lesson in mind, helping them stay on track and use effective strategies.

2. Use the whiteboard

Zoom has a whiteboard feature that you can use to sketch and take notes. Executive function strategy instruction is most successful if students have been explicitly taught how to use it. This means modeling the strategy yourself. Use the whiteboard to model how you want students to break down an assignment, and they will be more successful with it.

3. Poll your students

The polls feature of Zoom is ideal for reflection. Use a poll at the beginning or end of a Zoom session to help students reflect on their approach to learning. Are their strategies working for them? What goals might they set for themselves moving forward? There are many different ways to engage in strategy reflectionBe sure to ask questions that build on students’ awareness of their strengths and challenges and encourage reflection and planning for next time. 

Remote learning poses big changes for teachers and their students (and parents!). By knowing how to integrate best practices for executive function strategies into technology, you’ll make online learning easier, and more impactful, for everyone.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Student Perspective: Are We Going to Learn Anything New?

When adapting your curriculum for remote learning, technological solutions (programs or apps) are sure to play a major role. For greater student success, make sure that the technology is not driving the lesson, and that all students understand how to use the technology and why it matters.

Here’s another look at remote learning from a student’s perspective. This is from an eighth-grader with dyslexia who is in her first week of remote learning.

For math, we got an assignment on Google Classroom. The assignment really didn’t have anything to do with math and more had to do with learning about how to use the graphing calculator app Desmos. I really don’t think we’re going to learn anything new in math over the next couple of weeks.

Overall, the assignment – although it was pretty easy – was pretty stressful because it had to be done in an hour without any guidance. One kid in my class asked for guidance but didn’t get it until the last 10 minutes of class. Now it’s our homework as well. Although I’m not sure. I think it is. I wish that my teacher told us that before and it would have been less stressful.

After lunch, I went back online where there were instructions saying that they would post more instructions soon. But they never did, so I had to text one of the kids in my class to figure out what was going on. She seemed to know, but I’m not sure if I misread something or missed something – it turns out an email was sent. The email was sent by my science teacher for an assignment. This assignment was similar to the homework he usually sends us. It was ok but I wasn’t really getting a lesson and the teacher was also not online, as in my English class. At this point I felt that I can’t live like this! I have no one to talk to! I’m a social creature! it’s not good for me!!!! Anyway, I figured out what I needed to do, but it would have been nice to be able to ask questions.

While apps like Desmos and Google Calendar can be very helpful, they may create more problems than they solve. Make sure students have the support they need to navigate these sophisticated tools, which likely were designed with adults in mind. Model how to use the technology explicitly and make sure students have access to support as needed.

Stay tuned for more insight into the trials and tribulations of remote learning.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

4 Essentials for Distance Learning

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, schools across the country and around the world are turning to distance learning as a way to keep teachers and students connected.

Technology can be a double-edged sword; for every benefit there are unexpected glitches and headaches. Like most classroom teachers, you may have minimal experience teaching remotely, which makes distance learning seem daunting.

To all you teachers out there, you’ve got this. And we’re here to help! Here at SMARTS we’ll be hard at work to provide advice on best practices for distance learning, teaching resources, and tips from the student perspective.

Let’s kick things off with 4 essentials for successful distance learning.

1. Maintain Relationships

Trusting relationships between teachers and students are the bedrock of successful learning. One of the biggest risks of online learning is the loss of a sense of human connection. Motivating relationships, like friendships and peer support, are essential to supporting students’ executive function. Find ways to keep those relationships alive.

  • Use video chats to make sure students see your face, and the faces of their peers
  • Incorporate ice breakers and other engaging activators at the start of a lesson
  • Find ways for students to express and acknowledge the anxiety and fear of the unknown to keep your virtual classroom feeling relevant and important to your students

2. Keep Learning Active

Online learning can easily lend itself to more passive forms of learning like watching videos and listening to lectures. However, not only is passive learning less interesting, students will retain less information, and you, as their teacher, won’t be able to gauge student understanding. Find opportunities throughout your lesson to actively engage students.

  • Call on specific students to share their thoughts
  • Use a survey to test students’ understanding of a topic
  • Have students share their notes with you

3. Use Tech Wisely

Technology should serve the learning outcomes. Identify what you want to achieve, then select the technology best suited to help students reach the outcomes. There are plethora of online learning apps, sites, and programs (here are some of our favorites). Before students begin, help them understand how or why they are using a given program.

  • Demonstrate how to use the technology successfully
  • Check that all students understand the directions

4. Reflect

Here at the SMARTS program, we are big fans of self-reflection and not just for the students. Take time to reflect on how your distance learning teaching is going and adjust accordingly.

  • Keep a journal and jot down notes at the end of each online session. What worked well? Any surprises? What might you do differently next time?
  • Schedule a meeting with a colleague to share ideas and brainstorm
  • Don’t forget your growth mindset. Expect mistakes, analyze them, and learn! The more you reflect, the more you will be able to accurately identify the parts that are going well and areas you can improve.

Thank you for checking out our 4 essential tips for distance learning. Stay tuned for more information and resources you can use.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Another Theory of Procrastination

In the executive function field, we think of organizing, planning, and prioritizing as the solutions to procrastination. However, in “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control),” Charlotte Lieberman (New York Times, 3/25/19) suggests that there are deeper reasons for these habits. She describes procrastination as the seemingly irrational choice that people make to think of the present, rather than the future, in order to avoid tasks that might expose our insecurities, provoke anxiety, or simply bore or frustrate us.

Basically, when we procrastinate, our inner six-year-old takes over. Some of this ‘now-oriented’ behavior is hard-wired; humans are programmed to think of their present needs and tend to see their future self as an abstraction. After all, we are often told ‘to live in the present.’ When viewed in this light, the choice to procrastinate makes a lot of sense.

The flaw in this logic is that it robs us of the joy of a job well done. The satisfaction of having completed a task lives in the future, but without this feeling of accomplishment, work becomes associated with negative feelings of self-blame, stress, and low self-esteem. Any short-term positive feelings we get from procrastinating are outweighed by these toxic emotions, which may cause us to procrastinate more to escape them, contributing to a cycle of chronic procrastination.

Lieberman offers several suggestions to overcome the desire to procrastinate:

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself! Accepting where you are instead of berating yourself helps break the negative loop.
  2. Think of the first step, not the entire task, and take that action. Sometimes planning out each step can make a task appear overwhelming, so considering only the next thing to do may make it seem more possible.
  3. Hide your temptations (or make them less convenient). Turn off or delete distracting apps, or give yourself a difficult password. Go someplace that’s free of distractions. Put a “Do Not Disturb” note on your door.
  4. Open up the path for what you want to get done. Set out needed materials, open the document, and clear a workspace ahead of time.

Overall, don’t blame yourself for being lazy. Executive function strategies, including time management and prioritizing, won’t help if you become trapped in a cycle of feeling bad about your procrastination.

We all procrastinate, that’s not going to change, so accept it, pick your motivational strategy, and get going! Who knows, maybe you were doing something useful while you were procrastinating. So enjoy that clean refrigerator, and take the first step to starting the task you meant to complete. Your future self will thank you!

  • Nancy Trautman, M.A.T., Learning and Educational Specialist