Monthly Archives: June 2022

Brain networks with words written on it.

The Stories Students Tell: Narrative Building to Shape Neural Networks

At ResearchILD’s 37th Annual Executive Function Conference this November, we are honored to feature a session on “Building Meaning Builds Students’ Brains: Implications for Re-inventing Schools” from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D, Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE).

About Dr. Immordino-Yang

Dr. Immordino-Yang studies the psychological and neurobiological development of emotion and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive and moral development in educational settings. She uses cross-cultural, interdisciplinary studies of narratives and feelings to uncover experience-dependent neural mechanisms contributing to identity, intrinsic motivation, deep learning, and generative, creative and abstract thought. Her work has a special focus on adolescents from low-SES communities, and she involves youths from these communities as junior scientists in her work.

Narratives that Shape Neural Networks

Dr. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues are investigating how patterns of thinking and feeling influence the growth of students’ brain networks(link opens in new tab/window). Analyzing students’ narratives reveals their dispositions of mind. When students effortfully deliberate on their internal narratives and engage in deep thinking for themselves, their patterns of brain activity demonstrate developmental effects over time. These changes in their brain networks were driven by students making meaning of their lives in both concrete (here-and-now) and abstract (big picture, systems level) ways.

How can we recognize, model, and promote deep thinking? It is important to focus more on the way that students think instead of focusing on what they know as well as to empower adolescents to build strong relationships with their peers and teachers. At the 37th Annual Executive Function Conference, Dr. Immordino-Yang will discuss these concepts and how we can reinvent schools by redefining what is relevant to our students.

Learn More

You can learn more about Dr. Immordino-Yang and her work:

Looking to build your executive function toolkit? Join us for the Executive Function Summer Summit (July 26, July 28, August 2, and August 4) and the SMARTS Executive Function Summer Workshop (August 9, August 11). All summer professional development opportunities are available online via Zoom and through recorded sessions.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Student reading book with math symbols and numbers in background

Metacognitive Strategies for Math

Teaching students to actively think about their thinking and monitor their comprehension of concepts and procedures is an important part of becoming a successful math student.

It is no secret that metacognition is an integral component of academic and lifelong success. When students think about their thinking and learn about their learning, they are better able to understand their strengths and challenges. When it comes to math, there are a number of ways that teachers can help their students become strategic learners and promote students’ self-awareness.

Find What Works

When you find a strategy that works for you, stick with it. Write it down and keep using it. This is a simple and often overlooked strategy, but it helps to stick with what makes sense for each student.


Acronyms can help students remember organizational processes. Here are a few examples:

RAPS Math Strategy - read and rephrase, art, plan and predict, solve
RAPS Math Strategy


  • Read and rephrase
  • Art
  • Plan and predict
  • Solve


  • Circle the numbers
  • Underline the question
  • Box the key words
  • Evaluate and eliminate
  • Solve and check
Two column chart that has know in the first column and need to know in the second column
Know/Need to know Chart


  1. What do you KNOW?
  2. What do you NEED to KNOW?
  3. Which Equation will you need?
  4. Substitute and solve

Brain Dumps + Self-Checking

Many students may be familiar with brain dumps as the first step in the writing process, but they can also be used in a math context. Encourage students to write down their remembering tricks for procedures and formulas to use as a reference at the top of a test or quiz.

One effective way to help students check their work for the most common errors is to teach the SMARTS lesson Top 3 Hits. In this lesson, students use previously graded assignments to check for their most common errors. Then, students generate a list of their personal Top-3-Hits and create a funny phrase to check their own future assignments. Interested in trying out the Top 3 Hits lesson? Request your free Top 3 Hits lesson plan (please indicate the grade level you teach).

Metacognition is the key to success in school and beyond, not to mention the use of executive function strategies. Thanks to Joan Steinberg, Director of Educational Therapy at ILD, for sharing her expertise and tips for this blog post.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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:

A person sitting in a box with a lightbulb above their head

Parent Perspective: Student Accountability

What do schools mean when they say students should be held accountable? Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, “accountability” can sometimes be a euphemism for a one-size-fits-all, standardized education that works on average, but not for many students for many reasons. To achieve a more inclusive version of accountability, educators may need to sharpen their own executive function skills.

The Limits of Accountability

Holding students “accountable” can sometimes be code for testing and grading and punishing with no exceptions. “Accountability” may not account for the diversity of students’ strengths and weaknesses.

As a parent of a neurodivergent student, it seems that “accountability” may lead to exclusion. The notion that all students think and learn the same way is marginalizing for quite a few students. What’s insidious is when the limitations of testing are disregarded.

Flexibility & Self-Checking

Luckily, by sharpening their own executive function skills, educators can implement a better version of accountability. Two executive function processes are particularly relevant:

  • Cognitive flexibility allows for a variety of perspectives and incorporation of new information. Teachers can think flexibly about accountability by considering various methods to test different students’ skills and knowledge. Cognitive flexibility is at the heart of effectively differentiating curricula and offering tools to best support each student. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is also critical; educators must be flexible and offer students multiple means of engagement, representation, and action & expression.
  • Self-checking is used to find, fix, and learn from mistakes in our own work. When it comes to testing and grading, educators can hold themselves accountable by practicing and modeling self-checking. If you are interested in more information about self-checking, you can access Top 3 Hits, a free SMARTS lesson on self-checking.

“Accountability” is inextricably linked to tests and grades, with the best of intentions, euphemistically to “hold students to a higher standard.” The idea is to give everyone an equal chance at education. Unfortunately, equal is not equitable; let’s all model cognitive flexibility in these trying times.

  • Parent of LD High School Student

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: