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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

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

Online Resources to Help Students Stay Focused and Engaged

The unpredictable shift between in-person, remote, and hybrid schooling has left many students (and their teachers) feeling unsettled and overwhelmed. Activities that promote movement and mindfulness practices can help students cope with anxiety and access the executive function processes they need to successfully engage in learning. Here are some of our favorites from GoNoodle, an online platform that offers videos focused on movement and mindfulness for elementary school students.

Finding Focus

Whether students are returning from recess or transitioning between classes, they may benefit from a brief activity that helps them stay on task. The Strengthen Your Focus video can serve as a reminder for students to use their self-monitoring and self-checking strategies as they work. If students need support focusing on the present moment, have them view From Mindless to Mindful, which is also available in Spanish.

Following Instructions

As students approach winter break, they may need a few reminders to follow instructions. This video from Blazer Fresh encourages students to follow instructions using a framework that includes pausing, looking at the person speaking, nodding to show you understand, starting the task, and asking questions along the way. When students struggle with task initiation, it may help to break down just the instructions and the first step so they know how to get started.

Cognitive Flexibility

Lastly, here is a fun video for students to say hello in 15 different languages. To greet their peers and teachers in another language, students will practice cognitive flexibility by shifting mentally between a familiar salutation and a new one. Students may be excited to learn about the international greetings their peers are familiar with or use at home.

Looking for more tips for hybrid learning? Check out these posts on keeping students engaged and creating transition times during remote learning.

  • 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

15 Relatable ADHD Memes to Brighten Your Day

ADHD makes life hard for students, teachers, parents, everyone! While executive function strategies can help students succeed, sometimes students with ADHD are going to have a tough time. That’s when it is important to let off steam and remember that others face similar ADHD challenges. Here are some of our favorite funny ADHD memes that will hopefully help you, or someone you know, have a good laugh and know that they are not alone.

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We hope that these make you laugh! What are your favorite ADHD memes? 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

Cooking a Turkey with Executive Function

Executive function strategies are essential for successful learning. But executive function processes are not just for school; we use executive function strategies in every aspect of our daily lives. With the holidays approaching, let’s explore how you can use executive function strategies to pull off a perfectly roasted Thanksgiving turkey.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is at the heart of executive function. You must understand the endpoint, and the steps it will take to get there if you are going to be successful. This holiday, since I can’t travel home to be with my family, my goal is to cook a delicious meal, complete with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and dessert. I know it’s important to eat healthy food (junk food is bad for my executive function) so I look for recipes that are healthy, tasty, and will feed a small group.

Cognitive Flexibility

Thinking flexibly as you adopt and apply strategies is essential to success. As students get older and take on more challenging academic work, they must shift and adopt new strategies that keep pace with the demands they face. You never know what real-life situations will test your flexible thinking. As I shift from someone who eats the turkey to the person who cooks it, I will need to adopt a new perspective. What new challenges will I face? What new strategies will I have to adopt, and what strategies will I have to leave behind?

Organizing and Prioritizing

Many students and adults may struggle with organization; however, the ability to break down tasks, create categories, and prioritize the steps is a must! As I peruse recipes for roasting a turkey, I review the ingredients and the steps to prepare and cook. My plan and time management rely on accurate time estimation and an organized approach.

Accessing Working Memory

Working memory allows us to access the information we need, whether from short- or long-term memory, as we complete our tasks. In school, we often talk about the working memory demands of following directions or completing a math problem. As I cook my turkey, I will use my working memory to keep up with the recipe.

Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking

Whether you’re cooking, completing your homework, or checking your taxes, self-monitoring and self-checking help us ensure that we are truly doing our best work. Working memory helps us make sense of what is happening around us. As I cook the turkey, I can use a variety of self-checking strategies from making sure I’m following the recipe steps to checking to make sure the turkey is fully cooked.

Metacognitive Awareness

Self-understanding is an often overlooked aspect of executive function strategy use. Developing metacognition is an active process. Knowing what our strengths and challenges are, reflecting on our performance, and deciding how we will apply this knowledge moving forward allows us to become truly independent and strategic, whether as students, teachers, parents, or chefs. As I reflect on my previous cooking adventures, I remember that one time I roasted a chicken and it was too dry. What did I do wrong? How can I apply that knowledge to my Thanksgiving turkey? Better yet, maybe this year we’ll just order a pizza.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the SMARTS Executive Function program! We hope you all have a safe and restful holiday.

  • 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

Classroom Strategies to Promote Executive Function Development

At our recent ResearchILD 35th Annual Learning Differences Conference, we brought together researchers and educators who shared ways to build classroom environments that support students’ executive function development. Here are a few takeaways that you can incorporate into any classroom.

Executive Function and Academics

Dr. Stephanie Carlson, who presented on executive functions and school readiness, described how her research findings have shown that strong executive functioning skills in early childhood are correlated with academic achievement. Cognitive flexibility is particularly important as children accommodate new knowledge and information into their mental schemata. Dr. Carlson shared a game called Bear and Dragon that early childhood educators can play with their students to increase cognitive flexibility and working memory skills.

Visualizing Strategies

Dr. Peg Dawson, author of the Smart but Scattered book series, shared ways of making executive function strategies visible in the classroom. Visualizing executive functions can be a way for students to create mental representations for completing their work. Dr. Dawson suggested displaying posters with questions to help spark students’ metacognition and posting the materials that children will need so they can prepare ahead of time. To help students think strategically, she recommended providing small cards that pair executive functions with descriptive images.

Slow Processing Speed in a Fast-Paced World

How quickly can your students “get things done”? Dr. Ellen Braaten shared her research on how students with slow processing speed may have difficulty processing, assessing, and responding to information. Many children with ADHD or slow processing speed may need support to build their perception of time. To help students form a more accurate sense of passing time, Dr. Braaten emphasized teaching students to use analog clocks and stopwatches. Teachers can also model what it looks like to estimate how long an activity may take.

What is your best classroom tip for promoting executive function development in your students? Check out these links if you’re looking for more ways to have fun with executive function, integrate executive function into your virtual teaching, and set up an EF-friendly classroom

  • 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

The Power of a Mentor

ResearchILD’s 35th Annual Learning Differences Conference brought together educators from across the globe to hear from speakers at the forefront of executive function research and implementation in schools. One idea that rang true across many presentations was the impact that an encouraging mentor or supporter can have on a student’s sense of self-efficacy and success.

Nurturing Resilience

Dr. Robert Brooks, who kicked off the conference, shared ideas about how to nurture resilience in students during challenging times. In order to help students cope effectively in the face of adversity, Dr. Brooks emphasizes that children need a “charismatic adult” from whom they can garner strength. Teachers, who often provide this role, must ensure that their students feel welcomed and supported at school before launching into the instruction of academics and executive function strategies.

This sense of security and community is a key ingredient in creating a classroom context that empowers students. Morning meetings and homeroom times can include opportunities for building student mentorships so students feel heard. Dr. Brooks reminds us that it is crucial to build relationships with students and help them feel a sense of purpose, especially in the era of virtual learning.

The Power of One

Dr. Anthony Bashir, a professor at Emerson College and co-founder of Architects For Learning, led one of the conference’s panels alongside two SMARTS alumni, Chace Nolen and William Warren. Dr. Bashir introduced the idea that a single mentor can help guide students through “liminal space,” a place of uncertainty and unknowing.

Supporting this concept, William described a teacher who never gave up on him, trying multiple strategies until he received the help he needed. Chace, recounting the ways he saw aspects of his younger self in his fifth-grade mentee, noted how the SMARTS program gave him a framework for understanding how his brain worked and how it could grow and change.

The importance of relationships for executive function learning and academic success is clear. Whether it is a “charismatic adult,” a peer in middle or high school, or a friend in elementary school, having someone who believes in us can truly change the story we tell ourselves about our self-worth and strengths.

  • 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

Maintaining a Growth Mindset in 2020

This year has been full of challenging moments that have disrupted our lives, making it easy to sink into negative thinking patterns and an apathetic mindset. By surrendering to apathy, however, we are yielding our sense of control. Believing that your effort matters is key to maintaining a growth mindset.

Time to Reframe

Many of the things that have made 2020 so challenging are beyond our control. However, rather than viewing our efforts to cope with these challenges as fruitless, we can reframe our approach. Even setbacks that we have no control over are an opportunity to learn how to persist.

Many of us, for example, have experienced disruptions in our daily and weekly schedules. We can reframe these disruptions as a newly allocated time to realign our lives with what matters to us. Whether we find new ways to re-energize or explore personal interests, finding small ways we can reclaim control allows us to move beyond bemoaning what we perceive to be missing out on. Small choices can allow us to regain our growth mindset, helping us be more resilient during tough times.

Ask Questions for Self-Understanding

We can also act on the internal monologue that drives our character by asking questions. For example:

  1. What challenges am I experiencing?
  2. What can I do to persist in the face of setbacks?
  3. What criticisms of me have I been indignant towards?
  4. How can I address them in a productive way to grow as a person?
  5. Who can I channel as a model for the traits I aspire to embody?

By asking these types of questions, we understand ourselves better (key to addressing challenges strategically) and avoid surrendering to a fixed mindset. Even as we encounter injustice and the unknown, we can choose to apply what we know about ourselves to charting a course through, promoting hope instead of despair.

We are not what we feel, but we feel many things throughout the day as a result of our mindset and approach to the world. By shifting our approach from something fixed to something more generative, we engage with the potential that has yet to be reached.

  • Iris Jeffries, SMARTS Intern

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