Category Archives: Teaching EF Tips

Three young students working at a table below a sign that says "KINDNESS"

Teaching Metacognitive Talk in the Classroom

Students are often told, “Complete the assignment independently and quietly,” or “Be quiet. Your peers are trying to focus.”

Encouraging students to think in their heads and work quietly can suggest an air of academic and behavioral success. It also raises a question: Does this silent way of thinking benefit student learning?

Thinking Out Loud

Metacognitive talk is a concept that encourages students to think aloud as they work through their ideas. When students work through the steps of a task out loud, they gain a deeper understanding of their thinking processes.

For students to learn this method of deeper thinking, it is essential to see people modeling the behavior. In the classroom, teachers can show metacognitive talk in action by verbally breaking down a problem into smaller steps.

Asking questions is a vital aspect of metacognitive talk. When teachers model and then explicitly teach how to ask questions and what questions to ask, students can build a “question toolkit” to aid their metacognitive understanding.

Questions to Promote Metacognition

Some questions that could be used are:

  • What previous knowledge do I have on this topic?
  • What am I trying to find out?
  • What do I need to do first?
  • Who could I ask for help?
  • What strategies can I use? (Think about the EF toolkit)
  • What can I do differently next time?

While a classroom full of students talking and exploring their ideas could be perceived as raucous to an outsider, I challenge you to rethink this perception and look closer at the possibilities of creative collaboration and metacognitive talk.

  • Julia Ronkin, SMARTS Student Intern

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

August calendar with blank to do list

Hack Your To-Do Lists with EF Strategies

Do you create to-do lists with the intention of organizing your tasks and relieving stress? According to research and interviews(link opens in new tab/window) , it turns out that to-do lists can actually make us more stressed because they don’t account for how long tasks take. There are tips for making the lists in planners more effective–as Michael Greschler, director of SMARTS, says, we should use planners as planners and not just as due daters

While brain dumps or listing out all our tasks are good first steps in organizing ourselves and our schedules, it is important to take time to prioritize tasks, break down tasks into steps, and estimate how long they will take.

Step 1: Prioritize

After a brain dump, take time to categorize your list into obligations (have to’s), aspirations (want to’s), and negotiations. Sorting tasks and activities in this way helps make it clear where to begin. Once you know your starting point, you can move on to step 2.

Step 2: Break Down Tasks

It is easy to create to-do lists without considering that each task could contain multiple sub-tasks. When tasks go unfinished, it can create unneeded stress and pressure. According to the Zeigarnik Effect(link opens in new tab/window) , unfinished tasks tend to linger in our minds and interfere with our ability to move forward. One way to counteract the Zeigarnik Effect is to break down each task into parts and schedule each sub-task into a planner or calendar.

Step 3: Estimate

When scheduling sub-tasks into a planner, remember to estimate how long they will take. This is a step that is often missed when using a planner as a due dater. Estimating the time pays off—we are more likely to complete a task if we know exactly when we will start and how long it will take. 

While setting up to-do lists with executive function strategies may take time upfront, you will reduce stress and save time in the long run. For more information about these lessons, check out the SMARTS Curriculum

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Student leaning over book with thought bubble

Motivation Monday: Attribution Theory

Attribution theory asserts that motivation depends on learners’ interpretations of their past successes and failures. Specifically, learner conceptualizations of the locus, stability, and controllability of past successful or failed outcomes influence if and how hard learners will try on similar tasks going forward. Here are some examples of what these characteristics(link opens in new tab/window)  might look like:

  • Locus: Was I successful on that test because I studied hard (internal factor) or because I got lucky (external factor)?
  • Stability: Will my effort/luck stay the same (stable) or change (unstable) over time?
  • Controllability: Can I control whether I do well on the next test (controllable) or is my success out of my hands (uncontrollable)?

Why it matters for education

Educators can play a critical role in helping students foster adaptive attribution styles. The benefits of certain attribution patterns are situationally relative. For example, an external attribution for a disagreement with a friend (“They were just having a tough day”) may benefit a student’s mental health. Contrarily, an external attribution for poor performance on a test (“It was my teacher’s fault”) may be maladaptive to a student’s motivation to put in effort on future assignments.


In education contexts, students are most likely to adaptively approach setbacks when they see challenges as internal, unstable, and controllable. A student with this attribution pattern might tell themselves after they perform poorly on a test, “I didn’t study in the best way for me, and I can make adjustments to how I prepare in order to improve next time.”

To help learners adopt adaptive attribution styles, consider the following approaches:

  • Teach students to see their success and failure as a product of their own effort (rather than ability). Statements like, “Great work—I can tell you studied a lot!” can go a long way.
  • Give students specific feedback. For example, when handing back a math worksheet, say, “It looks like you struggled most with dividing fractions on this assignment.”
  • Help students understand that failures can be addressed with appropriate strategy use. For the math worksheet example above, you might follow up with, “What strategy has worked for you in the past for mastering multiplying fractions? How can you apply a similar strategy to division?”
  • Create a classroom culture that values effort and persistence over being smart or good at a subject. If your students enjoy public praise, recognize students who you can tell work hard to improve their learning.
  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., SMARTS Intern

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Two students giving a presentation about reptiles and amphibians while holding a reptile.

Motivation Monday: Constructivism

Constructivism is a theory of learning (link opens in new tab/window) that revolves around the idea that learners construct their own knowledge based on personal experiences and within their sociocultural contexts. In other words, knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs. Constructivists also believe that the motivation to learn is inherent within the learner, personal, and a prerequisite to successful learning.

Why it matters for education

Constructivism posits that many people learn best when they are allowed to discover essential information for themselves after working through a partially guided segment or lesson. (In the SMARTS curriculum, students engage in a metacognitive activator, guided instruction, independent practice, and reflection).

Constructivism also has clear connections to real-world learning across the subjects. For example, one study found(link opens in new tab/window) that students were more motivated to learn science topics when they had more opportunities to relate their learning to real-world issues. 


  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Motivation Monday: Expectancy-Value Theory

Expectancy-value theory, developed by Jacquelynne Eccles, Allan Wigfield, and their colleagues, posits that motivation (M) is the equal to the product of expectation of success and value of the goal:

Expectancy-Value Theory posits that motivation is equal to the product of a student’s expectation of success times how much the student values the task or goal.

In this equation, expectation of success (E) can be understood as how competent a student feels in completing the task or meeting the outlined goal. Eccles and Wigfield break value (V) into four sub-components:

  • Intrinsic value: How much do I enjoy this task?
  • Attainment value: How important is it that I do well on this task?
  • Utility value: How useful is this task for my life?
  • Cost: What am I giving up to complete this task?

If either factor (expectation or value) of the equation is equal to zero, then the product (students’ motivation) will also equal zero.

Why it matters for education

While expectancy-value theory does not account for all aspects of motivation, it can begin to reveal the reasons why a student is feeling unmotivated.

Students might not articulate that they do not feel like they can succeed at the task (expectation). Instead, they might see a difficult problem and not attempt to complete it. If a student feels that they won’t get the question right, this would negatively impact their motivation.

There are many reasons why a student might not value a task. Getting to the “why” behind a student’s reluctance to complete a task can determine a path forward (e.g., Does the student not have appropriate executive function strategies? Can the length of the assignment be adjusted? Can the task be made more enjoyable or relevant?). 


  • Ensure students have the strategies and scaffolds necessary to succeed at their assigned tasks. Do they know how to get started on the problem or task at hand? Can they break down what is expected of them into a checklist?
  • Sweeten the task: When it is challenging for students to see the utility value of an assignment, or if they feel it will take too much time and that they could use that time for something else, try to “sweeten the task.” At the outset of an assignment, encourage students to select a reward for themselves (e.g. snack, video break, acknowledgment that they are independently accomplishing their goals) for when they accomplish challenging or “boring” tasks.
  • Help students see the “big picture” and model your own experiences. If students can’t see the value of a certain task at the moment, show them how you (or favorite celebrities/sports stars) use the skill or executive function strategy.
  • Focus on students’ effort over ability. Remind them of their capacity to grow and persist, even when they face challenges.  
  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Parent Perspective: I Wish Teachers Knew That Executive Function Isn’t Just Planning

In seventh grade, my daughter’s teacher gave everyone in the class a big paper planner calendar. Voilà, executive function problem solved.

Except, for my dyslexic daughter, it wasn’t. Luckily my daughter’s tutor suggested using a digital planner with voice recognition. This simple but essential change allowed my daughter to use her excellent planning skills without having to write quickly and neatly in tiny paper planner boxes.

I know that many students truly struggle with planning. But, without the right instruction and tools, many students will be labeled poor planners. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but please don’t assume that “all students are…” simply because you have a proverbial hammer.

When teachers start using language such as “all students benefit from…” or “every student should…,” I know that my child will be excluded from learning and progressing, and sometimes subject to the public humiliation of being called out for being different from “all” the other students.  

Thanks to Research Institute for Learning and Development (ResearchILD), my daughter recently took an executive function assessment (MetaCOG Online) that identified her primary executive function strengths and challenges. The results showed that planning and organizing are strengths for her.

MetaCOG Online also identified what I’ve struggled to explain to tutors and teachers for years—that her biggest executive function struggle is with flexible thinking, which impacts so many aspects of school and learning. When my daughter is struggling with inflexibility, people assume she doesn’t understand some concept, she is disorganized, or something much worse.

Educators have been led to believe that executive function is just planning and organizing. What a shame. It hasn’t just been a waste of time and money for us. Being misunderstood and under-supported has caused my daughter endless frustration and distrust of the educational system overall.  

When my daughter started high school last year, we met with a learning specialist who said, “We focus heavily on planning and organizing to help all freshmen transition into high school….” I know my daughter has a lot of executive dysfunction, but please don’t assume that she’s a nail just because you have a hammer. 

–Parent of LD High School Student

Free MetaCOG Online Webinar

Interested in learning more about MetaCOG Online? Join us for our free MetaCOG Online webinar on January 13, 2022.

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

36th Annual EF Conference Spotlight: SMARTS Strand Concurrent Speakers

This post is part of a series that highlights the events and speakers of this year’s 36th Annual Executive Function Conference, which will focus on promoting resilience and equity for ALL students.

At ResearchILD’s conference this November, you can learn practical strategies to bring into your classroom on Monday morning. SMARTS experts are offering three pre-recorded concurrent sessions that will be available starting on November 5. Conference attendees will have unlimited access to all concurrent sessions and the recordings of the live plenary sessions through January 31, 2022.

Concurrent Presentations: SMARTS Strand

Executive Function and Organization: Unlocking Students’ Ability to Stay Organized
Michael Greschler, Ed.M. and Shelly Levy, M.Ed., M.S.

Michael Greschler is the director of the SMARTS program for ResearchILD. Over the past 7 years, he has worked to develop and grow the SMARTS program, collaborating with teachers and administrators in schools and leading a nationwide pilot of SMARTS Online in its first year. Shelly Levy is the SMARTS curriculum coordinator, teacher trainer, and educational specialist at the Institutes of Learning and Development. She has over 25 years of experience in the field of Special Education. 

The session will emphasize practical classroom approaches that integrate strategy instruction and self-understanding into day-to-day classroom activities through the organization of materials and time management.

Flexible Thinking: Practical Strategies to Improve Academic Performance and Reduce Stress
Donna Kincaid, M.Ed.

Donna Kincaid, M.Ed., is the assistant director and director of outreach and training for ILD and ResearchILD. Donna holds certification in Elementary/Special Education K-9, a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and a Supervisor/Director Certification in the area of Special Needs.

In this session, participants will learn about the importance of cognitive flexibility, one of the cornerstones of executive function, and its critical role in school performance, growth mindsets, and reduced stress in school and life. This session will also focus on evidence-based strategies for promoting students’ cognitive flexibility so that they learn to shift and think flexibly in academic and social situations. 

Self-Monitoring and Self-Regulation: From School to Home and Back
Mindy Scirri, Ph.D.

Mindy Scirri, Ph.D., is a learning (dis)ability specialist and consultant in private practice and former chair and professor of education. Dr. Scirri also homeschools her daughter and is a content writer for homeschooling curriculum and resource websites.

In this workshop, Dr. Scirri will explore how expectations impact self-monitoring and self-regulation, how different contexts affect these expectations, and how various executive function components play a role. Participants will learn strategies from the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum, as well as other strength-based strategies, to help students build self-monitoring and self-regulation skills both at school and at home.

Learn More

You can learn more about the concurrent speakers and their work by attending ResearchILD’s 36th Annual Executive Function Conference on November 11th and 12th. 

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: