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!
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.
“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:
Writing my name in cursive is my signature move.
Why do bees stay in their hives during winter? Swarm.
What do you call a pig with laryngitis? Disgruntled.
Dad, are we pyromaniacs? Yes, we arson.
If you’re bad at haggling, you’ll end up paying the price
Just so everyone’s clear, I’m going to put my glasses on.
A commander walks into a bar and orders everyone around.
I lost my job as a stage designer. I left without making a scene.
Never buy flowers from a monk. Only you can prevent florist friars.
How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buccaneer.
I once worked at a cheap pizza shop to get by. I kneaded the dough.
My friends and I have named our band ‘Duvet’. It’s a cover band.
I lost my girlfriend’s audiobook, and now I’ll never hear the end of it.
Why is ‘dark’ spelled with a k and not c? Because you can’t see in the dark.
Why is it unwise to share your secrets with a clock? Well, time will tell.
When I told my contractor I didn’t want carpeted steps, they gave me a blank stare.
Bono and The Edge walk into a Dublin bar and the bartender says, “Oh no, not U2 again.”
Prison is just one word to you, but for some people, it’s a whole sentence.
Scientists got together to study the effects of alcohol on a person’s walk, and the result was staggering.
I’m trying to organize a hide-and-seek tournament, but good players are really hard to find.
I got over my addiction to chocolate, marshmallows, and nuts. I won’t lie, it was a rocky road.
What do you say to comfort a friend who’s struggling with grammar? There, their, they’re.
I went to the toy store and asked the assistant where the Schwarzenegger dolls are and he replied, “Aisle B, back.”
What did the surgeon say to the patient who insisted on closing up their own incision? Suture self.
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!
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 classroomprovides options for all learnersto 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 progressis 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.
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.
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.
The isolationand 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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Do you have students who struggle with dysgraphia? These tips and tools can help students manage handwriting tasks and gain confidence in their writing abilities.
Dysgraphia is a learning difference that causes an unexpected difficulty with writing, spelling, and letter formation. Students with dysgraphia are often misunderstood, and their parents and teachers may attribute their struggles with handwriting to laziness. This is inaccurate and can cause students to lose confidence in their writing abilities. The process of writing can be laborious for students with dysgraphia; they may spend so much energy on the physical act of writing that they struggle to transfer their complete thoughts to paper.
There are many ways to help students with dysgraphia show what they know. Typing and speech-to-text apps can help students express their thoughts and develop writing assignments. Offering students guided notes can reduce the amount of writing during class and ensure that students are capturing the main ideas of lessons.
There are also a number of classroom tools that can benefit students with dysgraphia. Paper with raised lines or paper with the bottom portion highlighted can provide visual and tactile guides for letter formation. Grips may help students find a more comfortable way of holding a pencil, and a slant board can help support proper wrist placement and posture. Pencil obstacle courses or mazes can help students develop fine motor control, as can sculpting with clay.
When it comes to reading, working in groups can be problematic, especially for students with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning differences. Reader’s theater is a fun way to let all students collaboratively engage with texts as they strengthen executive function strategies.
Reader’s Theater & Executive Function
Reader’s theater is a multisensory instructional strategy designed to help students develop fluency and comprehension by reading scripts based on grade-level texts. Reader’s theater is not only limited to language arts—it can be a useful instructional strategy for science, social studies, and second language classes.
Executive function is often overlooked when it comes to reading instruction. The informal performances of reader’s theater allow students to work collaboratively, craft a character or tone, and use their executive function strategies.
Let’s break down how reader’s theater can provide opportunities to teach strategies that will help students overcome executive functioning challenges.
Reader’s theater asks students to use their strategies for working memory. Students will need to maintain their spot in their script and keep track of their peers’ lines as they progress through their performance. Reader’s theater offers a natural opportunity for repeated reading, and students can practice their lines multiple times as a group. This provides students with many chances to employ their strategies for remembering when it is their turn to read.
Once students are assigned their character or role, they must craft certain voices or gestures to match their lines. While performing, students will have to shift between their own perspective and their character’s perspective. Playing a different character provides a concrete opportunity to understand how to shift in real or imagined scenarios. They will also have to shift between listening to their peers’ lines and reading out their own.
Self-monitoring and self-checking
As students embody the characters they are portraying, they must use their self-monitoring strategies to ensure that their gestures and voices match the text. They might ask themselves: How is the character feeling here? How might I communicate this character’s emotions? Are there words I don’t know? Encourage students to prompt each other to ask themselves these questions; this will help keep everyone on track.
Reader’s theater is a fun way for all students to participate in activities that promote literacy, reading comprehension, and executive function strategies. For more resources about theater-related activities, check out this post about theater games that help build flexible thinking.