Visible Thinking Routines to Support Students’ Learning

How can we help our students develop into flexible thinkers? Thinking routines from Project Zero can help make students’ learning processes visible, offering a way to sharpen thinking skills and reflect on learning.

A thinking routine is a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking. As students work out answers to a question or problem, they may struggle to describe how they came to their answer. Verbalizing or visualizing their steps to get there can deepen their own learning, not to mention their peers’ learning.

The key is to encourage students to think metacognitively. With dedicated time to reflect on their thinking processes, students can develop a deeper understanding of the strategies they used and the ideas they developed.

Project Zero has more than 40 thinking routines for you to explore. Here are a few of our favorites.

 Perspective taking: 3 Whys 

  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?

The 3 Whys routine (also available in Spanish) ensures that students begin by establishing a personal connection. Next students are 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.

Developing ideas: What Makes You Say That? 

  1. What’s going on?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?

Even seemingly simple questions can help students explore the patterns and ideas behind their thinking. What Makes You Say That? (also available in Spanish) pushes students to explain the “why” behind their answers, helping both teachers and students to explore the evidence. This thinking routine engages important executive function processes such as cognitive flexibility and exploring evidence from multiple perspectives. It also emphasizes organizing, as students sift and sort information to draw conclusions.

Question-asking: See, Think, Wonder

  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think about that?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

The See, Think, Wonder routine (also in Spanish) can help spark curiosity among students and encourage them to formulate their own questions. Many students struggle to know what to ask when they have difficulty understanding a concept. Encouraging students to practice developing their own questions can sharpen this skill.

Thinking routines are simple, yet powerful, tools you can use to help students develop into metacognitive and strategic learners. You’ll find they are easy to integrate into existing lesson plans, including content subjects or even executive function lessons from SMARTS. Executive function and metacognition are both at the heart of our curriculum, a subject we look forward to exploring more at our next free webinar, Getting to Know the SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum!

  • 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

Homeschooling: How to Build Executive Function Strategies, Part 1

Executive function is used everywhere! At home, school, the office — even on vacation — your executive function processes keep you moving along. Executive function demands and strategies, however, can vary across settings, especially at school and home. Here are some ways to integrate executive function strategies into academic tasks and everyday activities when homeschooling.

Executive Function at School and Home

An executive function process such as goal setting can look different in school and at home. Students set goals related to grades, projects, or extracurriculars at school, often using templates and scaffolds created by their teacher. At home, students set goals related to chores, extracurricular interests, and their unstructured time.

When executive function expectations and supports are different at home and school, executive function difficulties may arise. Students who receive direct executive function strategy instruction in school may find the connection to home gets lost. Students who have parents who support their executive function at home may not find those same levels of support at school. (Watch our free webinar “Executive Function: The Bridge Between Home and School” to learn how to understand and support your child’s executive function needs.)

Strategy instruction is most effective when children understand that strategies can be used across tasks, subject areas, and settings. Here are some ways you can connect executive function strategies between academic tasks and activities at home.

Promote Metacognition about Executive Function

As a homeschool teacher, you are constantly observing your child’s executive function strengths and challenges. When helping your child understand their strengths and challenges, focus on the positives and assure your child that there are strategies to help with the challenges. This sets the stage for strategy instruction as your child is aware of strengths but also knows that there is a reason for learning strategies that will help with challenges.

Teach Executive Function Strategies within Academic Tasks

Armed with the knowledge of your child’s executive function strengths and challenges, you can integrate strategy instruction into academic subjects as needed. For example, if your child struggles to manage time to get homeschool work done, teach your child to categorize activities into “have-to’s, want-to’s, and hope-to’s” to organize that day’s tasks. Integrating executive function strategies into projects or tests can also help set up your child for success. 

Introduce Executive Function Strategies in the Home

As a homeschooler, you know that learning is no longer limited to school hours and tidy school subjects. You have the flexibility to create teachable moments throughout your day. These are perfect opportunities for you to introduce executive function strategies within real-world applications. For example, if your child is struggling to keep a closet neat, bring in an organizational strategy—like the SMARTS 4C’s strategy—at that moment.

These are just a few ways to incorporate executive function into a successful homeschool. Check out Part 2 for more strategies you can try.

  • Mindy Scirri, Ph.D., Educational Consultant and SMARTS Trainer and Consultant

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

Dr. Lynn Meltzer on Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to think flexibly, is one of the most important executive function processes to promote student success. Despite its importance, the concept of cognitive flexibility can be hard for students to visualize.

To help students understand the idea of thinking flexibly, we have come across many different ways of representing cognitive flexibility. Dr. Lynn Meltzer, president and founder of the Institutes for Learning and Development and the executive function guru behind SMARTS, often uses the example of standing on top of a mountain vs. being in the forest and looking at the trees.

The ability to switch between the big picture and the important details is essential for everything from note-taking and solving math problems to understanding jokes and deciding to go on a hike. When students do not know how to shift easily, they get caught in rigid and inefficient habits (e.g., re-reading material despite not understanding it or refusing to show their work in math despite repeatedly getting the wrong answer).

Check out the full clip below of Dr. Meltzer explaining the importance of cognitive flexibility. If you want to learn more about cognitive flexibility and the power of executive function strategies, join Dr. Meltzer and SMARTS team members at this year’s Executive Function Summer Summit. Hope to see you there!

  • 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

Fidgeting and Executive Function

Students love to fidget, right? From fidget spinners to Rubik’s cubes to doodling, there is almost an entire industry dedicated to keeping students’ hands busy. But fidgeting is more than that; fidgeting might also help support executive function.

Fidgeting and the Brain

A recent study, led by Justin Fernandez at Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), is reinforcing the benefits of fidgeting. While the study looked at the brains of people with ADHD specifically, these findings have important implications for acknowledging how students actually learn, especially when it comes to executive function.

The study found that, when the subjects were allowed to fidget, the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex increased. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of your brain’s executive function processes. We all know that executive function is essential for successful learning, so the importance of fidgeting must be recognized.

Viewed in this light, fidgeting deserves another look. Seeing students doodling or tapping away with their pencil is often interpreted as being off task. However, if fidgeting is a way to power up the brain, then perhaps fidgeting is adaptive, a part of the problem-solving process.

Fidgets for All

While many students with ADHD have access to fidgets in their 504 plans, all students can benefit from well-timed fidgeting. The need to fidget is universal, especially during remote or hybrid learning. From a movement break or a quick doodle to fidget toys like the Fidgi Pen, there are many ways to let your students fidget. (Does note-taking count as a fidget? We like to think so.)

Use Fidgets Productively

Of course, a fidget free-for-all can be pretty distracting (some teachers might still have a few confiscated fidget spinners in their desk drawer). Take time to teach students how to use fidgets productively. Talk about the best time to fidget or what kinds of activities are less distracting to others. Help students see fidgeting as a productive step in completing their work instead of something to hide when the teacher looks your way.

  • 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

25 Cognitive Flexibility Jokes!

“I once worked at a cheap pizza shop to get by. I kneaded the dough.” Get it? Silly jokes and puns that play with the meanings and sounds of words offer fun ways to help students develop their cognitive flexibility.

Executive function processes such as cognitive flexibility, shifting, and flexible thinking are key to students’ academic success. Students who are rigid will struggle with tasks such as reading, taking tests, or even navigating non-school challenges (like snakes). The challenges of remote and hybrid learning have only increased the need for flexibility.

Teaching cognitive flexibility does not need to be boring! Many games rely on cognitive flexibility (check out these games we like, but watch out for games to avoid). We also love to link humor with cognitive flexibility. By analyzing jokes, students can practice examining language from multiple perspectives in a way that is engaging and low stakes. Classic stories such as Amelia Bedelia or Eats, Shoots, and Leaves are great resources, and you can find many examples online as well.

Here are 25 cognitive flexibility jokes that had us cracking up in the SMARTS office, and we think they would be great to use with students:

  1. Writing my name in cursive is my signature move.
  2. Why do bees stay in their hives during winter? Swarm.
  3. What do you call a pig with laryngitis? Disgruntled.
  4.  Dad, are we pyromaniacs? Yes, we arson.
  5. If you’re bad at haggling, you’ll end up paying the price
  6. Just so everyone’s clear, I’m going to put my glasses on.
  7. A commander walks into a bar and orders everyone around.
  8. I lost my job as a stage designer. I left without making a scene.
  9. Never buy flowers from a monk. Only you can prevent florist friars.
  10. How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buccaneer.
  11. I once worked at a cheap pizza shop to get by. I kneaded the dough.
  12. My friends and I have named our band ‘Duvet’. It’s a cover band.
  13. I lost my girlfriend’s audiobook, and now I’ll never hear the end of it.
  14. Why is ‘dark’ spelled with a k and not c? Because you can’t see in the dark.
  15. Why is it unwise to share your secrets with a clock? Well, time will tell.
  16. When I told my contractor I didn’t want carpeted steps, they gave me a blank stare.
  17. Bono and The Edge walk into a Dublin bar and the bartender says, “Oh no, not U2 again.”
  18. Prison is just one word to you, but for some people, it’s a whole sentence.
  19. Scientists got together to study the effects of alcohol on a person’s walk, and the result was staggering.
  20.  I’m trying to organize a hide-and-seek tournament, but good players are really hard to find.
  21. I got over my addiction to chocolate, marshmallows, and nuts. I won’t lie, it was a rocky road.
  22. What do you say to comfort a friend who’s struggling with grammar? There, their, they’re.
  23. I went to the toy store and asked the assistant where the Schwarzenegger dolls are and he replied, “Aisle B, back.”
  24. What did the surgeon say to the patient who insisted on closing up their own incision? Suture self.
  25. I’ve started telling everyone about the benefits of eating dried grapes. It’s all about raisin awareness.

Do you have any favorite puns or jokes that illustrate cognitive flexibility? 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

h/t: https://www.skyline725.com/these-puns-are-so-bad-they-needed-to-be-published/

Executive Function and Universal Design for Learning

Executive function is an essential part of integrating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into the curriculum. By using executive function strategies within the UDL framework, you can foster the development of expert, goal-directed learners.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to remove barriers to learning and build a flexible framework that is calibrated to each learner’s profile. A universally designed classroom welcomes learners to school just as they are. UDL recognizes that barriers lie in the learning context, not the learners. By offering multiple ways for learners to engage with, represent, and express ideas, UDL celebrates neurodiversity and learner variability.

While it is often assumed that UDL is only for students with learning differences, a universally designed classroom provides options for all learners to learn how they learn best.

UDL and Executive Function

One of the core goals of UDL is to develop expert, goal-directed learners. Unsurprisingly, executive function is key here! Just as the SMARTS curriculum teaches executive function strategies explicitly and prepares students to navigate the learning process, the UDL framework creates a context in which the teaching and modeling of executive function strategies is a priority.

One of the critical elements of UDL is starting with clear learning goals that learners can meet through a variety of means. In parallel, UDL emphasizes that learners should begin by setting their own personal goals (UDL checkpoint 6.1) and determining what they will need to reach those goals (UDL checkpoints 6.2 and 6.3).Self-monitoring one’s progress is an important step that enables learners to reach their goals (UDL checkpoints 6.3 and 6.4).

Finally, self-reflection is critical. After seeing teachers model strategy use and using the strategies independently, students must engage in self-reflection to determine if the strategy was successful or useful. If not, students can plan better for the next time they need to pull from their toolbox of strategies.

To learn more about UDL and executive function, view the UDL Principle of Action and Expression video that includes providing options for executive function. For more information about UDL, check out the UDL guidelines.

  • 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

Learning Recovery: Re-Engage Students with Executive Function

This spring, many students will return to school and in-person learning. Executive function strategies will be key to helping students re-engage and recover from the chaos of hybrid and remote learning.

Remote and hybrid learning has been challenging, from constantly changing schedules and the challenge of supporting students to just not being very fun. As a result, many students have gaps in the fundamental academic skills they need to be successful.

Now is the perfect time to bring the transformative power of executive function programs, such as SMARTS, into every elementary school, middle and high school classroom. By infusing executive function strategies into your curriculum, you can help students tackle challenging academic tasks, restore metacognitive awareness, and bolster their ability to get back on track.  

Build Academic Strength

Everyone is excited to get back to business as usual; however, gaps in fundamental academic skills are sure to haunt students for years to come. But don’t despair! Remember that executive function is the key to successful learning. To boost literacy skills and reading comprehension, use strategies such as the SMARTS Skim and Scoop, that help students identify the main idea and supporting details of what they are reading. The SMARTS Triple Note Tote strategy is a versatile strategy for organizing information, perfect for note-taking, studying for tests, and more. By teaching explicit executive function strategies, students will not only be able to cope with the demands of their schoolwork, but they will also learn HOW to learn, which promotes self-understanding and perseverance.

Promote Metacognition

The isolation and uncertainty of remote and hybrid learning have damaged many students’ beliefs in their ability to succeed. Even as we begin the transition back to in-person learning, these students are at risk of feeling hopeless and giving up when challenged. To recover their motivation, they need to develop a greater understanding of their academic strengths and challenges as well as the ability to face academic tasks flexibly.

Self-understanding is at the heart of the SMARTS program. Strategies such as Know Yourself Venn Diagrams, the Executive Function Wheel, and CANDO Goals help students identify their personal strengths and challenges and use this knowledge to set personally meaningful goals. In fact, every SMARTS lesson includes a reflection component, boosting student’s metacognition, their belief in their ability to succeed, and their willingness to use strategies.

Help Students Learn to Focus

Remote and hybrid learning have undermined students’ ability to focus on their work. Working all day on a screen, with limited face-to-face interaction and access to every distraction the internet has to offer, is enough to take anyone off-task. (Looking for strategies to engage students online?) As we return to in-person instruction, use strategies to model what it means to focus and how to organize time and belongings to minimize distraction. Teaching students strategies for setting goals and self-monitoring will help boost their ability to pay attention, track their progress, check their work, and stay engaged in learning.

  • 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

Professional Development Training: Reaching for Joy in Math

Are you looking to bring executive function strategies into your math classroom? Our upcoming webinar, Reaching for Joy in Math Learning: Embracing Executive Function Processes and Strategic Instruction for Students Who Struggle, offers practical and engaging ways to help diverse learners apply executive function strategies in math.

Led by John Steinberg, Director of Educational Services at the Institute for Learning and Development, this 75-minute session will explore important executive function processes as they pertain specifically to math. Through this lens, you will develop a deeper understanding of:

  • Ways to integrate strategy instruction into the math curriculum
  • How to establish regular teaching practices to support your students’ executive function skills including cognitive flexibility, memory, planning and organization, and self-monitoring

Math problem solving can be difficult, especially for students with attentional weaknesses, executive function weaknesses and/or learning disabilities. Using these approaches will boost student motivation, build confidence, and create more successful math learners. In short — increase the joy of learning math!

Register and join us for Reaching for Joy in Math Learning on Thursday, April 1 from 4:00 p.m. – 5:15 p.m. EST. We look forward to seeing you!

Reaching for Joy in Math Learning is part of our Executive Function Essentials training series.Let us know in the comments if there are other subjects you’d like us to cover in our next teacher training sessions! 

  • 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

Executive Function and Online Learning

In a typical school year, teachers may feel that by spring their students will fully understand the class expectations and be settled into their routines. This school year, however, has been anything but typical! It is important to remember that context matters for executive function, and the radically different expectations and systems of online learning context presents different challenges (and opportunities).

To help students succeed in an online learning environment, executive function demands must be consistent and transparent.

Where is my homework again?

Do not assume that students know how to find important information on their class websites or their school’s learning management system. While some students may seamlessly navigate these websites, even teaching you a few tricky, other students may run find seeming simple tasks quite challenging, giving up when they feel overloaded by information. Provide explicit modeling to ensure that all students can find their homework, participate in discussion, turn in their work, and check their grades. Some students may require more coordination and executive function support. Keep your communication systems simple and consistent; it makes a big difference. Teacher announcements should be in one designated spot, instead of mixing email announcements, discussion board posts, and in-person announcements.

I need help!

When teaching online, it can be difficult to determine when a student needs extra support and which aspects of the learning environment are posing challenges. Students are more isolated from their teacher and peers, making them reluctant to ask for help. Some students may not even know where to begin asking for help. By conducting brief check-ins (via a Zoom poll, Google form, etc.), you can discover how comfortable students are navigating the online resources for their classes or if they are still experiencing information overload. It is never too late to open up channels of communication and allow students to share their perspectives; this can ensure all learners feel heard and supported.

Our latest webinar, “Executive Function Challenges and Solutions: Shifting Between Remote to In-Person Instruction,” offers a number of tips and tools for teachers to support their students’ EF in the current learning context.

For more information about supporting students during remote learning, take a look at some of these posts.

  • 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

Top 5 Free SMARTS Webinars

The past year has been a real cognitive flexibility challenge for everyone! One big shift for us was moving from in-person to online professional development workshops. The benefit—now you can access our FREE executive function webinars on your own time schedule.

Here is the entire YouTube playlist of our free webinars, but let me highlight a few of our favorites:

1. Understanding Executive Function: The Key to Successful Learning

Why do so many students seem to struggle with executive function? And how can teachers and parents support students as they manage the executive function demands of everyday life? In this one-hour webinar, we explore how understanding executive function and working to provide strategies at school and at home can support students across grades and content areas. The presentation features strategies from local educational therapists as well as resources and materials from the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum.  https://www.youtube.com/embed/XaplK5jN7fk

2. Executive Function: The Bridge Between Home and School

Whether at home or at school, students need executive function strategies to handle challenging tasks as they set goals, shift flexibly, organize materials and information, and self-monitor and check their behavior and their work. When executive function expectations and supports are different at home and at school, executive function difficulties may arise. To truly support the executive function needs of students, executive function expectations and strategies must be clearly defined and accessible to everyone involved (teachers, parents, and students). In this one-hour webinar, educational therapists from the Institute for Learning and Development share strategies they use to help parents understand and support their students’ executive function needs.https://www.youtube.com/embed/9CozPKVB6yE

3. Executive Function and Reading

Students begin using executive function processes in literacy in the preschool years and continue as they progress through middle and high school and are expected to master complex skills in reading comprehension, summarizing, note-taking, and multi-stage writing projects. Beyond decoding spelling and vocabulary, successful reading requires that students be able to identify main ideas, topics, and supporting details in order to summarize and analyze what they are reading. Without strategies that help students meet the executive function demands of reading, students will struggle with reading comprehension, note-taking, essays, standardized tests, and more. In this one-hour webinar, Michael Greschler, M.Ed., director of the SMARTS Executive Function Programs, is joined by Wendy Stacey, M.S., director of Reading at the Institute for Learning and Development, to explore how executive function strategies can be used to help students tackle challenging reading material. The presentation features strategies developed at the Institute for Learning and Development and used in the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum. https://www.youtube.com/embed/IgvU1V3TgtM 

4. Executive Function and Math

In this one-hour webinar,  Joan Steinberg, M.Ed., director of Educational Therapy and an educational specialist at the Institute for Learning and Development, explores how executive function strategies can be used to help students tackle math. The presentation features strategies developed at the Institute for Learning and Development and used in the SMARTS Executive Function curriculum.https://www.youtube.com/embed/HhLAcp6j9VM 

5. Executive Function Challenges and Solutions: Shifting Between Remote to In-Person Instruction

The rapid shift to remote learning last spring turned students’, and teachers’, executive function strategies on their heads. As schools cycle between virtual, in-person, and hybrid instruction, it is becoming increasingly challenging for teachers, students, and parents to keep up. This webinar, led by Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS media manager, ResearchILD, and Caitlin Vanderberg, SMARTS intern, explores how various instructional models impact executive function demands and create executive function difficulties that undermine academic achievement. Through hands-on activities, attendees will learn strategies to help students shift flexibly and meet the executive function demands of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning. https://www.youtube.com/embed/EjISXth80pw  We love sharing executive function research and strategies with you! Stay tuned for upcoming executive function trainings and webinars. If you enjoyed our trainings and want to find out when we post new ones, subscribe to our SMARTS YouTube channel.

  • 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