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Executive Function Webinar

Strategies Matter: Harnessing Best Practices from the Neuroscience of Learning to Improve Post-Pandemic Teaching

Recently Dr. Lynn Meltzer, president of our parent organization ResearchILD,  participated with Sucheta Kamath, CEO and Founder of ExQ, in a webinar about executive function.

They shared their insights from the science of learning how to learn that can empower learners to connect with strategies that matter to them.

“The brain’s Executive Function skills provide tools for effective self-assessment and intentional capacity for self-redirection. Considering that every child and educator is going through unprecedented times with looming unknowns, it has become even more critical that we highlight the process of intentional learning and strategic thinking so that educational experiences for our children become more meaningful.”

We invite you to watch the webinar recording to learn how to:

  • Help learners assess their self-efficacy
  • Apply the science of metacognition to develop strategies based on self-understanding and self-assessment
  • Cultivate a community of learners who can adapt their learning approaches and subsequently enhance their learning experiences

We hope you find this webinar useful and look forward to hearing your comments. And be sure to check out EQ, a research-informed system designed to enhance the brain’s executive function through game-based personalized training.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager
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Executive Function

Executive Function and the Superintendent’s Office

Executive function is increasingly becoming a district-wide issue. All students, with and without a diagnosed learning difference, benefit from executive function support. And, as the need for executive function strategy instruction becomes better known, administrators are having to decide how executive function support takes place in their school.

Should executive function be taught explicitly only in special education settings? Should teachers in content area classes receive training in executive function? How does executive function align with other school-wide initiatives or with mandated standardized testing?

The answers to these questions matter. Executive function is becoming an increasingly common goal on students’ IEPs and 504 plans, yet schools often do not have programs in place to help students meet these goals. Teachers are hungry for executive function training and programming, yet professional development and coaching plans rarely address executive function.

Through our work at SMARTS, we have seen administrators tackle this issue in many ways. Some schools may opt to infuse executive function into special education services by teaching SMARTS strategies in academic support settings. Some schools approach executive function school-wide, creating frameworks that establish executive function objectives and corresponding strategies for each grade, which are instituted in general education classes.  (Learn how one district is using  district-wide executive function as a powerful tool for equity here).

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but schools can be successful when they are able to clearly define the executive function demands they are placing on their students and articulate how they will support students to meet these demands.

The truth is that, because executive function is so essential to successful learning for ALL students, it is crucial that school leaders find a way to integrate executive function strategies into the systems and processes of teaching and learning. As schools struggle to adapt to the demands of remote learning and hybrid models, here at SMARTS we will remain dedicated to helping all educators to develop approaches to teaching executive function strategies that meet the needs for all students, their teachers, and their administrators!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director
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Executive Function

Executive Function and Helicopter Parenting

When children are young, parents do almost everything for them. Young children are not capable of organizing, self-checking, or thinking flexibly about the challenges they face.  As children get older and become developmentally ready to tackle the executive function demands of life, they take on increased responsibility, eventually emerging as full-fledged adults.

This process is far from smooth. When teenagers begin to take on the executive function demands of the world, there are sure to be fits and starts and a few outright disasters. It can be hard to watch as a parent, or a teacher, and sometimes it might seem easier to just keep doing everything for the student. This desire is at the root of the rise of the “helicopter parent.”

Helicopter parents are parents who monitor every little thing in their childrens’ lives, from homework and extracurricular activities to socializing and beyond. While the motivation may be understandable (no one likes to watch someone they love fail or struggle), the long-term consequences of helicopter parenting can have a negative impact on the development of executive function.

Research shows that students who have more unstructured time develop strong executive function abilities later in life. Why is that? Shouldn’t students who spend more time playing sports, participating in clubs, and getting all of their homework done on time be better at executive function tasks? Not if the student has no choice in the matter. Students develop their executive function abilities when they are able to create their own structures and strategies to pursue goals that are personally meaningful to them. This process does not happen in a vacuum, and parents are important partners in their children’s lives. But autonomy and self-awareness are crucial for this process.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, makes a passionate case against the dangers of helicopter parenting. Check out her TedTalk below.

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Executive Function

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.

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.

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.

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!

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Executive Function SMARTS Strategies Uncategorized

Free Webinar: Executive Function and Math

Why is math so hard for some students? If you ask them, you might hear answers such as, “It’s too complicated” or “It’s boring.” However, many students struggle with math because of weaknesses in executive function processes.
To help all students succeed in math, educators must understand the role executive function plays in successful math learning as well as strategies they can use to make math learning a more joyful process for students who struggle. This important topic will be the focus of our free webinar below.

Complex calculations and problem solving in math are challenging for many typically developing learners, and even more so for students with attentional weaknesses, executive function weaknesses, and/or learning disabilities. In addition, the Common Core math standards are placing higher demands on our students than ever before, adding stress and reducing the joy of learning.

Part of the problem may be the current trend towards emphasizing a constructivist approach to learning math. Students are expected to notice patterns and deduce mathematical rules from their observations. This can be extremely challenging for students with learning differences, who may struggle to sequence information or focus for extended periods. Without differentiated instruction, these students may fall further behind and lose confidence in their ability to succeed.

By understanding best practices for supporting student’s executive function needs, especially as they pertain to math, teachers can integrate strategy instruction into the curriculum and establish regular teaching practices to support their students’ executive skills (self-regulation, working memory, planning and sequencing, organization, flexible thinking, and self-monitoring). Using these approaches will increase student motivation, build confidence, and create more enthusiastic math learners.

We will be exploring important executive function processes as they pertain to math in our free webinar, “Executive Function and Math. Replay is available below:

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Executive Function Remote Learning

3 Zoom Features that Promote Executive Function

Are you using Zoom to video conference with your students? Here are 3 ways you can address best practices for executive function strategies to support all students, especially those with learning differences such as ADHD or dyslexia.

1. Share your screen

Zoom makes it easy to share a window on your computer with your class. Use this feature to display an agenda at the start of class to help students envision the layout of the lesson. In order to engage executive function, students must be able to envision the end product of what they are working on, as well as the steps to get there. By sharing your agenda, students can keep the scope of the lesson in mind, helping them stay on track and use effective strategies.

2. Use the whiteboard

Zoom has a whiteboard feature that you can use to sketch and take notes. Executive function strategy instruction is most successful if students have been explicitly taught how to use it. This means modeling the strategy yourself. Use the whiteboard to model how you want students to break down an assignment, and they will be more successful with it.

3. Poll your students

The polls feature of Zoom is ideal for reflection. Use a poll at the beginning or end of a Zoom session to help students reflect on their approach to learning. Are their strategies working for them? What goals might they set for themselves moving forward? There are many different ways to engage in strategy reflection. Be sure to ask questions that build on students’ awareness of their strengths and challenges and encourage reflection and planning for next time. 
Remote learning poses big changes for teachers and their students (and parents!). By knowing how to integrate best practices for executive function strategies into technology, you’ll make online learning easier, and more impactful, for everyone.

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Executive Function News

Executive Function and Junk Food

There’s no question that what we eat has a major influence on our day to day behavior and our long term health. But how does what we eat affect our executive function processes? Unsurprisingly, research has found that healthy foods are correlated to boosted executive function performance, and unhealthy foods are not. Personally, I was very happy to hear that blueberries and smoothies high in antioxidants appear to boost performance on executive function tasks.

The bad news, especially after an indulgent holiday season, is that sugar is not good for executive function. In the short term, eating sugar sends a pleasurable rush to the brain. As the brain seeks out this reward, it undercuts our inhibition to say no to sugary treats, undermining the executive function processes that allow us to delay gratification. Check out this great TedTalk for more on the neuroscience of sugar.

Even worse, unhealthy eating appears to have negative consequences  for our long-term brain health. A study done by Fania Dasseen and Katrijn Houben at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, found a link between obesity and lower reported levels of executive function performance, implying that individuals who struggle to maintain their weight also struggle with executive function tasks.

It is important to note that the study did not find a causal link; it is possible that being obese impedes executive function development, having executive function difficulties predicts the risk of being obese, or a third factor, such as genetics, could explain both.  Regardless, the risk to brain development is real. Another study by Amy Reichelt, at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, found that a diet high in fat and sugar impeded the neuroplasticity of adolescent rats.

The good news is that, by pairing executive function strategies with healthy eating programs, both diet and executive function abilities may be improved. A study by researchers at Curtin University in Australia taught strategies for cognitive flexibility and improved metacognition and found that participants improved both their eating habits and their performance on executive function related measures

As more research is done to explore the role that food has on our application and development of executive function processes, and the influence executive function strengths and challenges have on diet, educators should be aware and look for opportunities to explore the relationship between diet and executive function in their students’ lives. When discussing healthy eating habits, find ways to teach strategies for eating healthy systematically and explicitly, providing opportunities for students to develop greater self-awareness. When teaching executive function strategies, ask students to reflect on how their diet influences their food choices.

Personally, now that the Christmas cookie season is safely behind us, I’ll be taking some time this January to reflect on the role of junk food in my own diet.

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Executive Function

Making Time to Teach Executive Function

Executive function is becoming recognized as an essential component of successful learning for all students, from reading and setting goals to leading a Fortune 500 company. Despite the mounting research on the importance of strong executive function strategies, instruction has not become widespread.

Why? Part of the problem is teachers’ age-old enemy, time. Teachers are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Executive function, as with other non-academic topics like mindfulness and social and emotional learning (SEL), can feel like just one more thing.The truth is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to teach executive function strategies. While there are executive function strategy curriculums, such as SMARTS, that can fill an entire semester, integrating small bits of executive function instruction into existing content can save time and be extremely effective.

This idea of teaching small bits of executive function, or other non-academic and ‘brain-based’ skills such as empathy or self-control, is a powerful one. A study funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and led by Dr. Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that teachers were not often addressing SEL explicitly in their teaching due to time constraints. In response, Dr. Jones “… began to think about the problem of implementation by brainstorming ways to do SEL in little bites, in small, routine, structure-based ways that you could imbed in a school in a way that is harder to do with a curriculum.”

Dr. Jones and her team developed what they call “kernels,” 10- to 20-minute activities aligned with the day-to-day routine of a classroom but addressing SEL outcomes explicitly.For example, a teacher might play an icebreaker game or ask a thought-provoking discussion question, then take time to explicitly address the importance of making your thinking visible and being able to shift perspectives.

In SMARTS, we work with teachers to develop “extensions” to executive function, finding natural moments within instruction to introduce an executive function strategy. When introducing a new project, for example, a teacher might model a strategy for breaking down the directions and creating a checklist.

By finding time to share this strategy, the teacher is helping students navigate a challenging aspect of the assignment. What’s more, teaching the strategy in the context of a content assignment helps students to understand how and why to apply it.Making time to address non-content outcomes can make a difference. Dr. Jones’ study showed that schools that adopted “kernels” for addressing SEL noted a significant reduction in suspension and discipline rates. In SMARTS, our extensions have been an effective way to help all teachers, whether general education or special education, take responsibility for addressing the executive function needs of their students.So, no matter what subject or age you teach, take some time to reflect. Can you find 20 minutes to teach an executive function strategy your students could use? You won’t regret it if you do.

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Executive Function Goal Setting

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.

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.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.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!