Category Archives: Cognitive Flexibility

Two dogs sitting facing the ocean

EF in the Dog Days of Summer

Long days, peak temperatures, and high humidity…we are officially in the dog days of summer! During this time, humans and their canine companions in the Northern Hemisphere will do their best to rest and avoid extended exposure to the sun and heat.

Over the summer you might have more time to observe your dog’s daily patterns. Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking and how they learn? This is the perfect time to explore new research around the similarities in cognition among humans and dogs.

Over the summer you might have more time to observe your dog’s daily patterns. Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking and how they learn? This is the perfect time to explore new research around the similarities in cognition among humans and dogs.

Executive Function and Dogs

According to a recent study from La Trobe University (link opens in new tab/window), dogs and humans regulate their behavior in similar ways. Researchers focused on a few executive function processes: the ability to follow instructions, control physical impulses, and use working memory.

Over thousands of years of domestication, the survival of dogs has depended on their ability to obtain sufficient food and care by regulating their behavior to suit the human environment. Just as considering the context is crucial when examining executive function processes in humans, the same concept applies when observing dogs and their processes.

Working dogs, such as farm dogs or assistance dogs, have demonstrated highly developed executive function processes. For example, seeing-eye dogs have the ability to inhibit urges to chase other animals and closely follow sequences of instructions.  

Developing EF Strategies

Research in humans has shown that a structured, systematic, and explicit approach to teaching executive function strategies (the foundation of the SMARTS curriculum) fosters self-understanding and empowers students to learn how to learn. Training, it turns out, is the key factor in dogs’ development of executive function processes. Next time you want to teach your dog a new trick, consider using a SMARTS strategy!

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: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Students reaching in to touch hands

Harnessing the Power of Micromoments

At ResearchILD’s 37th Annual Executive Function Conference this November, we are honored to feature a session on “The Power of Micromoments in Our Lives and the Lives of Our Students” from Robert Brooks, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, faculty member of Harvard Medical School (part-time), and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital.

About Dr. Brooks

In addition to the appointments listed above, Dr. Brooks has lectured nationally and internationally and written extensively about motivation, resilience across the lifespan, psychotherapy, education, parenting, and a positive school and work environment. He is the author or co-author of 19 books including Raising Resilient Children, Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Understanding and Managing Children’s Classroom Behavior: Creating Sustainable, Resilient Classrooms, and more.

The Magic of Micromoments

Over the years, Dr. Brooks has examined the importance of empathy as an essential element necessary to form positive interpersonal relationships. More recently, Dr. Brooks has investigated the impact that micromoments(link opens in new tab/window)↗ (microaffirmations and microaggressions), especially between teachers and students, can have on students’ well-being and the emotional culture of a classroom or school.

Sharing emotions and perspective taking are at the heart of receiving and offering expressions of empathy. At the 37th Annual Executive Function Conference, Dr. Brooks will discuss how brief moments in our everyday lives can communicate empathy and have a lifelong impact.

Learn More

You can learn more about Dr. Brooks and his 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: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

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: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Image with increasing bar graph, piggy bank, and coins

Teaching Financial Literacy with EF Strategies: Part 3

This post is part of a series that highlights ways to teach financial literacy with executive function strategies. It’s never too early to teach your students financial literacy and EF strategies that can have a lasting impact(link opens in new tab/window)

Goal Setting Continued

In the second post of this series, we covered tips for encouraging students to set goals for life beyond high school. Once students set their goals, it is important to self-monitor and self-check to track their progress over time. When it comes to long-term goals, we can’t just set and forget! 

Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking for Personal Finance

Because each financial situation depends on myriad factors, we can teach students to approach their personal finances flexibly. Employment, medical expenses, inflation, and interest rates are just a few examples that can affect one’s budget and spending.

With multiple financial factors to manage, self-checking and self-monitoring are keys to success. For example, students may need to complete financial forms or loan applications with a careful eye for details. Setting aside time to check their forms for accuracy can ensure a smooth process. Likewise, students can use self-monitoring strategies to assess how their actions and behavior are affecting their spending and aligning with their budget goals.

SMARTS Strategies for Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking

Self-monitoring and self-checking are two executive function areas that are often overlooked and not explicitly taught in school. In the SMARTS curriculum, these areas are clearly defined and modeled for students.

  • Self-monitoring is an ongoing process of noticing what one is doing.
  • Self-checking is the process of finding and correcting mistakes in one’s work.

By learning to monitor and check themselves, students can develop essential skills for successful goal-directed behavior. To learn more, visit our SMARTS videos on Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

A clock next to piles of coins

Teaching Financial Literacy with EF Strategies, Part 1

According to a study by FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Investor Education Foundation(link opens in new tab/window), four in five young people are not able to successfully complete a financial literacy quiz. Since the Great Recession in 2008, financial literacy has declined across all demographics, but it is especially true for Millennials and Generation Z. One approach to boost your students’ financial literacy is teaching executive function strategies that foster skills in organizing, prioritizing, self-reflection, and flexibility.  It’s never too early to teach your students financial literacy and EF strategies that can have a lasting impact(link opens in new tab/window)

Planning + Loans 

Taking out a loan to help pay for college or a car is a substantial decision that can affect a person’s financial status in the long run. Teaching your students strategies for long-term organizing and prioritizing of materials and time (Unit 4 in SMARTS) is an excellent place to start. Encourage students to explore their obligations (have to’s), aspirations (want to’s), and negotiations when it comes to their time, activities, and lifestyle. Loans, interest rates, and inflation also offer real-world scenarios that can be explored in math classes across the grades

Some ideas for helping students plan for loans include:

  • What are the terms and fees associated with the loan? 
  • Are there prepayment penalties? 
  • Have they considered options to lower the interest rate, such as enrolling in automatic debit payments? 
  • Are they eligible to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan?

Shifting Flexibly + Budgeting

Strong budgeting skills are at the heart of setting oneself up for financial success. In order to create and maintain an accurate budget, students can first engage in activities that promote self-reflection and self-understanding. This is another element of personal finance where students can determine their spending “have to’s” and “want to’s”. What interests, hobbies, and activities are priorities that students should budget for? Playing games that encourage real-life budgeting(link opens in new tab/window) is a fun and low-stakes way to explore what it means to budget. When it comes to budgeting, students will need to remain flexible; unexpected costs can arise, so encouraging students to set aside a monthly stipend for last-minute emergency costs can prepare them for the unexpected.  

Stay tuned for part 2 of our EF and Financial Literacy series. 

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Preparing Students for Global Citizenship

As the world grows more interconnected and interdependent, how can we prepare our students for global citizenship? Help them to develop their skills in metacognition and cognitive flexibility.

Preparing Global Citizens

In the Curriculum for Global Citizenship, Oxfam proposes key knowledge, skills, and values students need in order to thrive as global citizens.

. asking questions and critical thinking 2. exploring local-global connections and our views, values and assumptions 3. exploring the complexity of global issues and engaging with multiple perspectives 4. exploring issues of social justice locally and globally 5. applying learning to real-world issues and contexts 6. opportunities for learners to take informed, reflective action and have their voices heard Global citizenship is not... 1. telling people what to think and do 2. only about far away places and peoples 3. providing simple solutions to complex issues 4. focused on charitable fundraising 5. abstract learning devoid of real-life application and outcomes 6. tokenistic inclusion of learners in decision-making

Many of these elements, such as exploring the complexity of global issues, engaging with multiple perspectives, and self-reflection, ask students to shift perspectives, XXX and XXX. In short, they rely on metacognition and cognitive flexibility.

Metacognition and Cognitive Flexibility 

Metacognitive awareness is an integral component of academic and lifelong success. You can promote students’ self-awareness by helping them think about their thinking and understand their strengths and challenges.

Students also use metacognition and flexible thinking to develop the social awareness and relationship skills that are essential for connecting with others. It is also important for students to develop self-awareness of their values and judgments–they understand the world through the lens of their cultural identity, experiences, and personal values. Students should understand that conflict arises out of misunderstanding and that exploring multiple perspectives on a situation is a path towards mutual understanding or resolution. When students can step into their peers’ shoes XXXXXX.

 Perspective Taking: 3 Whys 

The 3 Whys thinking routine (also available in Spanish) from Project Zero can get students thinking beyond their own experience.

  1. Why might this [topic, question] matter to me?
  2. Why might it matter to people around me [family, friends, city, nation]?
  3. Why might it matter to the world?

This routine ensures that students first establish a personal connection to the issue at hand. Students are then asked to switch perspectives and step into the shoes of the people and the world around them. This thinking routine aligns well with cognitive flexibility strategies featured in the SMARTS curriculum, such as the “I’m Wearing Your Shoes” lesson.

For both the elementary and secondary SMARTS curriculum, the lesson focus sorter (available under “tools” when logged in to SMARTS) is a great resource for selecting lessons that address areas such as flexible thinking, perspective taking, self-advocacy, social awareness, and self-understanding.

For more information on global citizenship, check out these resources: 

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Students Speak: What is Cognitive Flexibility? 

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been asked to adapt, adjust, think flexibly, shift perspectives — in short, practice cognitive flexibility. Whether we’re balancing the shift between in-person and remote learning, working on a group project, or even cooking a meal, cognitive flexibility is key to success.

What do students think about cognitive flexibility? Throughout ResearchILD’s Student Ambassador Program this fall, students were encouraged to collectively think about their thinking and how executive function processes impact their day-to-day experiences in school and at home. Here are some of their ideas about what cognitive flexibility means to them:

Students Speak: What does cognitive flexibility mean to you?

  • “Coming up with a different way to solve a problem.” 
  • “Ways to adjust to unexpected events.”
  • “For me, cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt to new situations and accept changes in my life, big or small.”
  • “Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt from one scenario to another.”
  • “Cognitive flexibility means to me that my mind can think of more than one way of doing something.”

Students Speak: What do you do when you get stuck and have to shift?

  • “When I get stuck I generally move onto a different thing. Some time away from the topic helps me think of different ideas.”
  • “I usually get stuck for a little while and keep doing the same thing. Then I try a new way. When I figure out the correct way, it’s like a light bulb lights up.”
  • “I step back and come back to it later.”
  • “Re-read or re-assess the problem.”
  • “I either try a new strategy, make a connection, or ask for help.”

How to Get Students Thinking Flexibly

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

Build Your Executive Function Toolkit in 2022

Are you interested in building your Executive Function Toolkit? Join us in February and March to hear from EF experts on topics such as metacognition and motivation, strategies to support students with long-term projects and project-based learning, embedding EF in the general education curriculum, and the intersection of EF and social-emotional learning. Learn more and register today

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Executive Branch: Executive Function Strengths

What does it take to be a successful president? Many historians have studied the presidents of the United States to determine what qualities and characteristics lead to a prosperous tenure in office. Unsurprisingly, a well-developed sense of self-understanding and executive function strengths are key! 

A Vision for the Future

While successful presidents must understand the past and remain grounded in the present, they must also look forward to the future. What will they accomplish while in office? What will their legacy be? When campaigning, presidential candidates set many goals that they promise to carry through if elected. While many of these promises are long-term goals, they are made up of short-term goals along the way. To get students thinking about setting their own goals, check out these frameworks for goal setting. These frameworks (including CANDO goals in SMARTS, Unit 2) help students set realistic goals with built-in plans for reaching success. 

Balancing Multiple Opinions and Perspectives

A successful presidency relies on the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives. When balancing many different opinions, it can be easy to get stuck. It is inevitable that all presidents will face opposition to their initiatives, whether from other politicians or from citizens across the country. It is critical that presidents think flexibly and shift perspectives to understand the perspectives of their constituents and gain bipartisan support. 

MetaCOG Online

Are you looking for a way to help students understand their executive function strengths and challenges? MetaCOG Online, an interactive executive function survey system, helps students develop an understanding of their learning profiles (including their EF strength, EF challenge, strategy suggestions, and SMARTS lesson recommendations). MetaCOG Online also provides tools for teachers to collect data about students’ EF strategy use at multiple points throughout the school year. 

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

Build Your Executive Function Toolkit in 2022

Are you interested in building your Executive Function Toolkit? Join us in February and March to hear from EF experts on topics such as metacognition and motivation, strategies to support students with long-term projects and project-based learning, embedding EF in the general education curriculum, and the intersection of EF and social-emotional learning. Learn more and register today

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Check Out Flexible Mindsets!

We are excited to share that our friends Julie Dunstan and Susannah Cole have recently released their book, Flexible Mindsets in Schools: Channelling Brain Power for Critical Thinking, Complex Problem-Solving & Creativity.

Developing Flexible Mindsets

Today’s students will face complex challenges and uncertainty in their futures. How can we prepare our students to become self-directed learners who know how to ask questions, solve problems, and unleash their creativity?

The key lies in helping students develop flexible mindsets, which arise from periods of trial and error over searching for one “right answer.” Drawing from research and practice, Flexible Mindsets in Schools offers educators a roadmap for creating educational environments that promote deep learning and resilience

Tools for the Classroom

Dunstan and Cole’s book is a how-to guide for teachers to help students develop the three C’s: critical thinking, complex problem solving, and creativity. By developing adaptive strategy use, students will be more prepared to shift flexibly as they navigate our ever-changing world. Flexible Mindsets in Schools offers practical tools for creating equitable learning environments and realizing that small, manageable changes can lead to an educational revolution. 

Books about executive function and cognitive flexibility make a great holiday gift for teachers. Consider giving Flexible Mindsets in Schools or a selection from ResearchILD’s publications to your favorite teacher.

About the Authors

Julie Dunstan is a developmental psychologist and founding director of reFLEXions®, an initiative designed to develop Flexible Mindsets for self-directed learning. Susannah Cole is an executive function coach and managing director of reFLEXions®.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

Build Your Executive Function Toolkit

Are you interested in building your Executive Function Toolkit? Join us in February and March to hear from EF experts on topics such as metacognition and motivation, strategies to support students with long-term projects and project-based learning, embedding EF in the general education curriculum, and the intersection of EF and social-emotional learning. Learn more and register today

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Thanksgiving Executive Function Toolkit

From all of us on the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum Team, we wish you a very happy Thanksgiving! We hope you find time for moments of tranquility and reflection while you connect with family and friends. For those of you who host Thanksgiving meals, here are some tips to ensure a successful celebration!

Prioritizing Time

The days leading up to Thanksgiving can be overwhelming. Between work, school, travel, and meal planning, it can feel like there isn’t enough time to get everything done.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, it can help to sit down with a blank weekly calendar to schedule when you will complete certain tasks. (If you are interested in learning more about the SMARTS approach to planning production time, you can sign up for the free lesson here). For example, if you’ve ordered a turkey or dessert, when and where is your scheduled pickup? For all the sides you’ll prepare at home, do you have a time blocked out when you can scan through the grocery store aisles for all the ingredients? Finally, plan time to gather the necessities for your Thanksgiving table including place settings for every guest, extra chairs, and dishes for all the sides. 

Shifting Flexibly

Expect the unexpected. Maintaining a flexible mindset and considering multiple solutions to a problem is essential for getting back on track after a setback. If you find that your turkey is taking too long to cook, consider carving it into smaller sections so that it cooks more quickly. You could also offer guests time to enjoy more appetizers, play a game such as charades, or tell some jokes or riddles!

Schedule Reflection Time

When it comes to teaching executive function strategies, strategy reflection helps students develop a deeper understanding of their strengths and areas of growth. The same concept applies to hosting Thanksgiving! Take some time after the holiday to debrief on what went well and where you could improve next year. Would you go food shopping earlier? Where did you need an extra set of hands? Would you swap out any of the sides you prepared? Write your ideas on a sticky note and add it to your planner to revisit next year.

What strategy is an essential part of your Thanksgiving celebration? We’d love to hear about it!

Build your Executive Function Toolkit

Are you interested in building your Executive Function Toolkit? Join us in February and March to hear from EF experts on topics such as metacognition and motivation, strategies to support students with long-term projects and project-based learning, embedding EF in the general education curriculum, and the intersection of EF and social-emotional learning. Learn more and register here

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org