Project-Based Learning and Executive Function

Thinking about bringing project-based learning to your classroom? You can help students succeed by weaving executive function strategies into every step.

Project-based learning is a hot topic in education these days. By actively engaging in real-world projects, students often experience higher motivation and deeper learning. Students are able to explore issues that are personally meaningful, such as bullying, or make an impact on the community by helping out someone in need, like a homeless shelter or animal rescue. The skills and strategies needed to engage in project-based learning (e.g., organizing, public speaking, research) are essential for success in college and the real world.

Unfortunately, projects don’t always go smoothly and learning opportunities are lost. When we work with schools that are implementing project-based learning, it’s not unusual to hear stories of projects gone wrong: students who don’t understand the point, materials that got jumbled up or lost, or a timeline that left everything to the last minute.

To be successful when implementing project-based learning, executive function must be addressed explicitly. Students need to organize their time and materials, sift and sort information when conducting research, and self-monitor and check their progress.

Here are three steps to follow when thinking through how to integrate executive function into project-based learning.

  1. PLAN – A successful project takes thoughtful time management. This includes both long-term management (setting the timeline for each phase of the project) as well as short-term management (identifying work time and helping students use that time efficiently). Students must be engaged in the planning part of the project. While the teacher may need to do most of the calendar planning, students can create their own personal timeline to gain a sense of the scope of the project.
  2. DO – Project-based learning relies on academic tasks with a high executive function demand (note taking, reading comprehension, breaking down directions). This is the perfect opportunity to teach executive function strategies in the content of an engaging project! Model the successful use of an executive function strategy, and then let students practice this strategy on their project.
  3. REFLECT – Take time to ask students to reflect on how they used executive function strategies within their projects. This helps them to make connections between the problems they are exploring or to apply strategies they used on their project to other areas of their lives.

By explicitly embedding executive function into every step, you’ll increase the success and impact of your students’ project-based learning experience.

Want to learn more? Join us at the 10th Annual Executive Function Conference for a session on “Designing and Assigning Projects through an Executive Function Lens.” We’ll see you there!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

The Real-Life Inspiration for Percy Jackson

The Lightning Thief and the subsequent installments in the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series have long been some of our favorite books and movies that portray characters with ADHD and dyslexia. (For more media with great characters who have learning differences, check out this blog post!)

Percy Jackson starts the series as a student who struggles to focus in class and read at grade level, yet everything changes when he discovers that he is a demigod. Jackson’s adventures inspire many of our students because they show characters solving problems and succeeding not in spite of their learning differences but because of them. At the same time, the books don’t gloss over the real frustrations and challenges that kids with ADHD and dyslexia face.

Rick Riordan, the author of the series, has a son with ADHD and dyslexia. In this beautiful and touching blog post, he describes how his son’s learning differences inspired him to write the Olympians series. I particularly love this passage:

I thought about Haley’s struggle with ADHD and dyslexia. I imagined the faces of all the students I’d taught who had these same conditions. I felt the need to honor them, to let them know that being different wasn’t a bad thing. Intelligence wasn’t always measurable with a piece of paper and a number two pencil. Talent didn’t come in only one flavor.

This message is crucial for our students to hear. Too often students who have learning differences lose faith in their ability to be successful, when the truth is that “talent doesn’t come in only one flavor,” and if they hang in there, who knows what adventures they may have.

I recommend you read the entire post. What do you think of the Percy Jackson series? What do your students think? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross M.A., SMARTS Media Manager

Fear and Goal Setting with Teenagers

Back to school is the perfect time to set goals, but goal setting can be a challenge for many students, especially those with learning differences or those struggling in school. Too often their goals are vague (e.g., I want to be famous) or unrealistic (e.g., I want to get into Harvard with a full-ride scholarship).

What’s the downside to setting vague, unrealistic goals? These dangerous ‘goals’ contain inherent self-criticism (e.g., If I’m not famous yet, there’s something wrong with me, or I’m not smart enough for Harvard.). Instead of motivating students to work hard, unrealistic goals can make students feel demotivated and inadequate. (The upside — these emotions, though negative, are a powerful message about what’s going on in your students’ minds.)

To help students who set unrealistic goals, we must help them address negative emotions. Instead of running from them, we can help students define their self-criticisms and fears, and incorporate them into effective goal setting.

Tim Ferriss, a motivational speaker and podcaster, gave a TED Talk titled, “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.”In his talk, Ferriss defines a useful concept known as “fear setting.

Instead of starting with a goal, fear setting starts with a fear. Students acknowledge something they are afraid of (e.g., “failing a test”) and then explore it fully in three steps: Define, Prevent, Repair.

  1. In the Define step, students define in detail what would happen if their fear came true. A student who fears getting an F on a test might say, “What if I fail the class?” or “What if I can’t get into college?” By giving a name to these fears, students will be ready to make a plan to prevent them.
  2. Next comes Prevent, where students brainstorm all the ways to prevent their fears from coming true. The more detailed this section becomes, the more prepared students will be to set concrete, planful goals to address their fears.
  3. In the Repair stage, students acknowledge that sometimes bad things do happen. They have to think through possible ways to help heal from something bad happening. This step helps students think success flexibly, which will help them approach their goals with greater persistence.

So, while “fear setting” starts with a fear, by the end students have realized a detailed goal backed up by a plan that takes into account potential obstacles. This strategy is similar to our favorite goal setting strategy, CANDO goals.

Want to learn more about how goal setting affects students’ motivation, persistence, and executive function? Check out a free recording of our “Executive Function and Goal Setting” webinar!

Have you tried any good goal-setting strategies with your students? We’d love to hear!

  • Michael  Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

Dyslexia Advocacy: A student perspective

Note: Acadia Connor, Lexington HS 2017, has been an articulate dyslexia advocate throughout her high school years. She is currently a marketing communications intern at ResearchILD and plans to attend Skidmore College in the fall. Here she speaks passionately about her experience with dyslexia and her recent appearance at the MA State House on the topic of dyslexia advocacy and the need for Massachusetts funding support for programs that address the dyslexia challenge.

My Journey with Dyslexia by Acadia Connor

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid.” – Albert Einstein

My journey with dyslexia started in elementary school. Many teachers knew I had difficulty reading, but with my expansive vocabulary I went undiagnosed for years. In middle school, I was called stupid and laughed at by my peers for not reading aloud correctly by my peers. For example, I might read the word ‘car’ and then say ‘automobile’.
In 6th grade, my English teacher luckily recognized my dyslexia and spoke to my parents. I met with a neuropsychologist, who concluded I had moderate dyslexia-two of the three types.
I was stunned. I thought that dyslexics were unintelligent, and saw everything backwards, both attributes with which I did not identify. I felt mislabeled, but actively learned about dyslexia. I do not read backwards. I might be thinking “b” and then write “d” but I don’t see “b” and “d” as each other. My brain manipulates information differently and that is what makes the letters seem backwards.
I was told by many to “work harder,” and I do. Sometimes I go home and watch videos, such as Crash Course US History, to support in-class lessons. I just need the information presented in a different way.
The school provided me with an Independent Education Program which levels the academic playing field. For example, the school gives me extra time because my brain takes longer to process questions. Open responses are always the hardest for me.Taking languages as a dyslexic is horrible! I had a hard enough time understanding English without learning how to conjugate irregular verbs in French.
Despite stress, many tears, and hours of tutoring I find myself in high school doing well academically. I am taking two honors courses – something I never thought I would or could do.
I am working to reduce my accommodations because in the work force I will not be given extra time to write a report for my boss. I have began to take less time on tests and take more quizzes in the classroom.
Having dyslexia has connected me to a larger community. For two summers during middle school, I attended The Carroll School, a school with a special dyslexia summer program. I was with other teens who were exactly like me and had the same struggles. Given that 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, I am constantly finding new members of this community rather than in a separate room.
I am inspired by how successful dyslexics are. Richard Branson, the CEO of the Virgin brands, is dyslexic and owns his own island! Branson has a positive outlook on dyslexia and how it helps you see things most people do not. He is the reason I am proud to be a dyslexic.
As the years go on, I have developed a love for being dyslexic. Dyslexics are special in how they see the world and can come up with ideas “normal” people don’t. Dyslexia is a constant journey. I will always struggle with writing coherently in one draft, and I will have to check my b’s from my d’s. But I know that I have gone through a lot of adversity and that has only made me more prepared for the world. Do not underestimate dyslexics because that kid you laughed at in class could be your boss someday.
A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to speak to the school committee at the state house. The room was filled and people were spilling out into the hall. The committee seemed extremely engaged and concerned about the issue of dyslexia. The event once again demonstrated the amazing community of dyslexics. Watch the rest of my talk below:

Ten Ways to Tame the “Worry Monster”

If the kids are stressed out, there are 10 Ways to “Tame the Worry Monster”

Parents may feel like June is easy at school, but from a child’s perspective the end of the school year can be stressful! In this Huffington Post blog, Dr. Dan Peters gives concrete advice for parents to help their children manage worries and stress:
Dr. Peters is a psychologist and a self-proclaimed parent of worriers. His advice is geared toward younger children, but many of the exercises can be used by older kids as well. If your child is becoming anxious about the transitions that come with the end of the school year, you may want Dr. Peters guidance as he goes into more detail about these steps you can take:

1. Teach how our brain and body work when we are scared
2. Identify body feelings
3. Externalize the problem
4. Make a worry list
5. Make a success ladder
6. Identify worrisome and fearful thinking
7. Change and modify thinking
8. Practice, practice, practice
9. Develop a coping toolbox
10. Don’t give up

What’s on your child’s “worry list”?
This time of year can be particularly anxiety-inducing for children of all ages, with the thoughts of upcoming changes and less structure for the summer. Some anxious kids may already be worrying about next fall. Maybe the worry is about final exams and projects, new schools or new classrooms next year, summer reading lists, summer camp and that swimming test. For some, the need for summer school or tutoring may be stressful.

If you can find out what your children are worried about (it may not be what you think!) then you can prioritize where they need the most help, and begin to address some of their concerns.

Many children with learning difficulties also struggle with anxiety. While most learning challenges are identified in elementary school, an unidentified issue may create a very stressful day-to-day existence for a student. Even children who have been receiving support may suffer additional worries if those supports are not helping them quickly enough. But, remember the last step #10: Don’t give up!

If your kids are stressed out about the end of the school year, they may need extra help over the summer. Check out ILD’s full range of services, including 1-to-1 remedial instruction, 1-to-1 executive function coaching, educational therapy, summer classes, and neuro-psychological assessments:

How to Identify “Shut-down” learners: What parents need to know

 Struggles in school?  See the following article from the Greatschools website, about kids who are struggling at school 

 The article notes that “Shut-down learners are children who become academically discouraged and disconnected from school over time”.  The early warning signs range from academic issues, such as “dislike of reading” or “hatred of writing” to more behavioral and emotional manifestations such as “increasing anger toward school” or “a sense that the child is increasingly disconnected, discouraged, and unmotivated”.

 Seven points are noted for parents to help prevent shut-down learners:

1.       Trust your gut

2.      Know what you are targeting

3.      Take the heat out of the interaction

4.      Turn down the [emotional] temperature

5.      Find someone to connect with and mentor your child in school

6.      Maintain a sense of equilibrium

7.      Support your child

Is your child showing any signs of shutting down?  Trust your gut!   Then, get support for you and your child.  The first step might be a consultation with an educational services provider like ILD:

At ILD, here’s what you might expect at an initial consultation: You will meet with a psychologist, educational specialist, or language specialist to review their child’s educational background and developmental history, and to find out the main concerns.  This consultation is the first step to understanding their child’s unique situation and is the beginning of a relationship with the whole family.  You’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire to bring to the meeting, along with other relevant information, such as report cards and samples of student work.  Your concerns will be heard, specific questions will be addressed, and suggestions will be made for next steps.

Outside support, in collaboration with your child’s team at school, can also help you through the process of understanding your child’s needs and targeted strategies to help your child succeed.   A full service provider includes psychologists, as well as reading & math specialists, speech-language therapists, learning disability specialists, and executive function coaches.

Check out ILD’s full range of services, including comprehensive neuro-psychological assessments, remedial instruction, strategy instruction (educational therapy), executive function coaching, and counseling:


Help for parents to avoid the back-to-school slump after winter vacation!     

In this New York Times Parent-Teacher Conference blog, Jessica Lahey  noted 7 tips to help parents deal with the “January humdrum”:

 1.       Reassess rules

2.       Talk about work space and study habits. 

3.       Check in on long-term projects. 

4.       Make reading a part of your daily life. 

5.       Set new goals. 

6.       Get outside. 

7.      Give in to the season. 

 As you read Jessica’s tips, keep in mind some of the key executive function skills needed to succeed at school and in life such as Goal setting, Thinking flexibly, Organizing, Memorizing, Self-correcting.  Each of these helpful tips reminds us of the importance of executive function skills in school and at home.  For each of Jessica’s tips, there is an executive function connection.   Executive function processes are a part of every goal-oriented behavior in school and out of school! 

 ·         Following  rules requires working memory and  self-monitoring. 

·         Cleaning up a work space requires children to break down big tasks into smaller ones, and organizing materials or time.

·         Studying and completing long-term projects involves planning and time management.  

·         Reading is a complex process which includes decoding, as well as remembering, organizing and synthesizing.    

·         Setting reasonable goals requires self-reflection, thinking into the future, planning how to achieve those goals in small steps, and self-monitoring.

·         Lastly, the need to get outside and give in to the season is so important for all kids, but especially those who struggle with attention, learning and executive function difficulties.  Physical movement and time spent with activities they enjoy are crucial. Children with learning differences work harder than others to self-regulate and cope with changing schedules throughout the year! 


If your kids are struggling to get back to school after the holiday, they may need extra help.  Check out ILD’s full range of services, including executive function coaching, educational therapy, and neuro-psychological assessments:


How does my Executive Function function…

…in different situations?

(Part 1)

donna_kincaid-133x200By Donna Kincaid, M. Ed., Educational Specialist, Coordinator of Professional Development

Last year, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Tom Brown, PhD join us at ResearchILD’s Learning Differences Conference. Dr. Brown is a clinical psychologist, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine and the director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders. His words have stuck in my head since then. I related to Dr. Brown’s points in his talk on the role of Motivation and Emotions in Executive Function.  He reminded me that EF difficulties are “situationally specific”.  Individuals can have great executive functioning in some settings but perhaps not in others.  This shows how important it is to look at the conditions under which one is working.  Our students here at ILD are courageous in the way they confront their learning differences and develop strategies so they can reach their potential. But, the relationships they cultivate are also a crucial part of the process; we are here to help them build self-esteem and realize their goals. Often, they succeed within the therapeutic environment of our office. His talk reminded me that we must continue to ensure that the strategies they learn here are flexible, so that their successes can extend beyond the walls of ILD

One piece of that extension, about which I’m quite proud and upon which we’ve worked very hard for the last few years, is the creation of our SMARTS curriculum. SMARTS allows students everywhere access to many of the strategies we teach right here at ILD. It is the natural extension of our many years of clinical work and expertise. We hope that with its launch last year, and our continued workshops with teachers and educators throughout the country, we will be encouraging the creation of strategic classrooms that allow for and encourage those flexible approaches to learning. This is one small way for us to cultivate safe, therapeutic environments that extend beyond our walls.

ILD Student Named Read Naturally’s Star!

Now that the end of the school year is in sight, it seems especially appropriate to highlight one of our ILD Students, Katie, who was recently chosen as Read Naturally’s Star Student. Her Educational Therapist, Wendy Stacey nominated her because, through their work together, Katie jumped nearly three reading levels. Here is what Wendy had to say:

Wendy_smTwo years ago, I evaluated Katie and determined that her reading skills were below grade level. As a result, she qualified for an IEP and began receiving reading support twice a week in school. I also tutored Katie once a week outside of school at our Institute. I chose to use Read Naturally because Katie needed reading fluency practice, which she wasn’t getting in school, and I knew she would be motivated by charting her progress. 

She has continued to amaze me with her progress over a relativelKatie S(1)y short period of time. She started with Level 0.8 and is now on Level 3.5! Not only has the program helped improved her reading skills, she is also writing 5-sentence summaries with ease. Now, she also no longer qualifies for an IEP!  I am really proud of Katie’s drive to improve and willingness to stretch herself with more difficult passages. She is quite a super star!

We are thrilled for both Wendy and Katie that all their hard work during Ed Therapy sessions at ILD was so fruitful. We are continually inspired by the immense progress that both hard work and the therapeutic relationship here at ILD can produce.

Check out the original Read Naturally post here!

The Dreaded F

How can I support my child through a failed test?

MichaelBy Michael Greschler, M.Ed.,

Educational Therapist, ILD and Director of SMARTS, ResearchILD 

While there is no way to take away the sting of watching your child suffer from poor grades and dashed hopes, there are ways you can help you child cope with failure in a constructive and resilient way. This list provides tips on how to respond that will be productive and help your children develop resilience, rather than fear.

“I can see you’re feeling frustrated about your report card this term”

  1. Acknowledge negative emotions–It does not feel good to fail at something. Acknowledge that negative emotion in whatever form it takes (sorrow, anger, hopelessness). Maybe relate a time when you failed at something and how that made you feel.

“What can we learn from this?”

  1. Turn failure into an opportunity to learn life lessons— Failure is important. When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn what we can do differently to be more successful. This is key tenet of Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, and this philosophy has been reiterated by countless famous scientists, celebrities, politicians etc. While step one is acknowledging the hurt that was caused by the failure, step two is encouraging your child to see their poor grade as a learning opportunity. A poor grade is not a ‘good’ thing, but it is an ‘interesting’ thing. You can relate this to the story you told your child about failures you have faced, or you can think of an example pertinent to your child’s interests (sports, music, etc.)

“Let’s look at the items you got right and those you got wrong.”

  1. Try to understand what went wrong— Do a simple analysis. What did the student do well? Where did the student miss points? You can create a checklist and tally up repeated errors. This is much easier if your child has to do test corrections, hopefully for credit, but it is worthwhile regardless. FullSizeRenderAt ILD we call this strategy the Top-3-Hits. We make a list of the 3 most common errors a student makes. We then ask students to memorize this list using an acronym or a crazy phrase (e.g. if a student makes errors on fractions, absolute values and negative numbers, they could use the acronym F.A.N. or a crazy phrase like Fabulous, Awesome Neptune. (For more on the Top-3-Hits, check out Chapter 11 of Executive Function in Education or check out SMARTS Online, an Executive Function curriculum developed by ResearchILD).

“How would you change your approach next time?”

  1. Help your child understand how to use that knowledge to make changes for the future— Now that you’ve had a chance to look for common errors, it’s time to come up with a plan for how to address them proactively. What can your child do differently on the next test? On a math test, they might need to spend an extra minute double checking to ensure that when they multiplied two negatives they ended with a positive. On a science test, they might need to be extra careful when they see a problem with a diagram. If they can identify the challenging areas beforehand, they have a much better chance of succeeding next time. At ILD, we encourage them to take the mnemonic they created to help them remember their Top-3-Hits and to write it on the top of every test before they begin. This will help them stay aware of their common errors throughout the course of the test.

No one enjoys failing, and we need to acknowledge that, but failure is not fatal. It is a call to be courageous and to learn more about ourselves. Help your child face this challenge, and they will learn a lesson that will not only assist them on their next test, but in all the tests that life sends their way.