Cognitive Flexibility Learning Differences

Interviewing an EF Expert, Part 3

Top Tier Admissions(link opens in new tab/window), a company devoted to empowering students from around the world in the college and graduate school admissions process, recently interviewed ResearchILD’s very own Shelly Levy*, M.Ed., M.S., who is a leader in the field of learning development.

Shelly’s interview is a rich resource on executive function, and we will be diving into pieces of it here on the blog over the next few weeks. Check out part 1 and part 2.

What executive function skills should I expect to see in a high schooler? 

Shelly’s response: We know that the brain does not finish developing and maturing until the mid to late 20’s. One of the last regions of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for executive function processes such as planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. This developmental trajectory makes high school an important time for students to strengthen and improve their executive function skills, and the good news is that these skills can improve over time with explicit instruction. 

Biological and Developmental Aspects

Executive function processes are both biological and developmental. As we get older, the brain becomes more mature and more efficient. Executive function, governed by the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last things to fully mature.

When it comes to executive function, all students will improve as they get older, but sometimes our expectations for students are not developmentally appropriate. If a student is struggling in school and their academic grades do not reflect their intellectual ability, a lack of executive function strategies could be the culprit. As a result, they can feel as though their brains are “clogged” with information and they are unable to produce work that reflects their abilities.

Contextual Aspects

Executive function processes are also associated with the contexts in which children develop and learn. When trying to understand why one student is struggling while another is thriving, it’s important to define the executive function expectations posed by the environment of the classroom and examine whether students have the strategies and skills to succeed.

Context is one of the most important aspects to analyze when students are overwhelmed and can’t access executive function strategies because context is the one thing we can control. We can’t change our students’ brains or their developmental progression, but we can help create contexts that support our students’ successes.

For example, middle school and high school are times of tremendous change in students’ context. Students are doing many new and different things (multiple teachers, harder assignments, more independent work). It’s no coincidence that a lot of students become overwhelmed in these new contexts where they cannot keep up with demands.

Recipe for Success

Executive function strategies are developed in context. When executive function demands are matched by executive function strategies, students develop the executive function abilities they need to be successful. ALL students need to be taught how to engage and use executive function strategies to manage their work!

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

*Shelly Levy is the Director of SMARTS Training & an Educational Specialist at The Research Institute for Learning and Development in Lexington, MA. She has been in the field of Special Education for over 30 years.

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

College Executive Function Learning Differences

Interviewing an EF Expert, Part 2

Top Tier Admissions(link opens in new tab/window), a company devoted to empowering students from around the world in the college and graduate school admissions process, recently interviewed ResearchILD’s very own Shelly Levy*, M.Ed., M.S., who is a leader in the field of learning development.

Shelly’s interview is a rich resource on executive function, and we will be diving into pieces of it here over the next few weeks (read all posts). 

How does executive function impact learning?

Shelly’s response: Executive function processes are essential for academic success, and we use them every day. Starting from elementary school on, executive function processes affect many academic areas. They are critically important for reading comprehension, written language, math problem solving, long-term projects, studying, and taking tests. In other words, everything we expect our teenagers to do every day in school.

The role of metacognition

The ability to engage with these executive function processes relies on students’ metacognition (also known as self-understanding). Metacognition is a topic we cover frequently here on the SMARTS blog. It’s impossible to define executive function without also considering metacognition.

Metacognitive awareness refers to students’ understanding and beliefs of how they think and learn as well as the strategies they can use to complete specific tasks. When students do not have executive function strategies, they lack an understanding of the way they learn best, their belief in their ability to succeed suffers, and they are unmotivated to put forth effort. When students know what strategies they need to be successful, they learn more about their personal strengths and challenges, which improves their belief in their abilities and motivates them to put in more effort, particularly for challenging tasks.

How can you promote metacognition for your students?

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

*Shelly Levy is the Director of SMARTS Training and an Educational Specialist at The Research Institute for Learning and Development in Lexington, MA. She has been in the field of special education for over 30 years.

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

College Learning Differences parent perspective

Parent Perspective: Is It Time to Worry Yet?

My favorite literary father, Atticus Finch, tells his daughter, “It’s not time to worry yet.” Notice, he doesn’t say “don’t worry.” Instead, he counsels to only worry when there’s a valid reason.

For parents of a student with learning differences, anxiety is valid. The worry can be used to motivate action that will help a student, assuming it is not overwhelming (which it can be, understandably).

When a student struggles with reading, math, or executive function skills, schools often say “wait and see.” It’s a call for inaction. Wait and see is almost always bad advice.

When my daughter didn’t pass a reading assessment several years in a row, everyone said, “Don’t worry, she just needs more time.” After many years of unnecessary struggle, I learned that she is dyslexic.

What she needed was understanding and different instruction. Without that support and understanding, she developed severe anxiety and depression(link opens in new tab/window) at too young of an age. Waiting was educationally and emotionally damaging. I should have worried sooner.

Now in high school, my daughter still struggles every day. She manages to pull good grades so nobody seems worried. But I think I’d better start worrying that she’s not learning how she learns, not being prepared for college in a way that will work for her. And I’d better start worrying about helping her find a college that will accept her literally and figuratively.

“Don’t worry,” the college counselors say. “She’ll get in somewhere. Wait and see.” I’m sure that’s good advice for most kids, but nothing in my daughter’s educational experience has just magically worked out by waiting and seeing. It’s been hard work, motivated by worry.

Hopefully, it’s not paralyzing, but if you have kids with learning differences, it’s always time to worry.

  • Parent of LD High School Student
ADHD Dyslexia Learning Differences Student Perspective

Fixing a Broken Model, Part 2

This student-authored post is part of a series that highlights student perspectives around learning and executive function in the classroom. You can read part 1 of this post here

An article written in the National Library of Medicine says that when dyslexic students are misunderstood, it “leads to a struggle with the teacher, with the parents and with themselves. The result can be a child deemed to be ‘incorrigible,’ a judgment which can further traumatize the individual.” As a student, I’ve always been annoyed by these misconceptions. Throughout my education, my annoyance led to frustration, my frustration led to anger, and my anger led to despair.

A Broken Model

The current educational system is not working, as it is not acknowledging everybody’s differences. The education system needs to be modernized; schools have been using the same model for decades. Most traditional school practices are outdated, not preparing students for modern life. In the words of Sir Kenneth Robinson, an educator known for working to revitalize the education system, “reforming is no use anymore, because that is simply reforming a broken model.”


Schools need to work with their students to foster individualism. They need to create a place where students are able to explore what they want to learn in a way that they can learn it. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, so why are we torturing people by penalizing them for having weaknesses?

One of the easiest ways teachers can create a productive classroom environment is to engage with students and ask them how they feel. Making sure students feel comfortable interacting with their teacher and advocating for themselves is crucial. But it’s even more important that the teacher uses that information to help a student. If a student is struggling and has a solution, their teachers need to do everything in their power to make sure the student gets what they need.

A Path Forward

It’s becoming accepted that teachers must address all differences to create an optimal classroom environment. To truly welcome diversity, schools must accept diversity of thought. The goal of educational systems should be to create a world where students’ differences aren’t stigmatized but accepted; where it’s understood that everybody’s brain is just as unique as their physical appearance. We all have two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth—and we look unique.

To truly create change, schools need to acknowledge their shortcomings and try to fix them by listening to student voices. By doing this, schools can help students’ individuality become their strength.

  • C. Solomon, Student Contributor

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Cognitive Flexibility Learning Differences

Another Theory of Procrastination

In the executive function field, we think of organizing, planning, and prioritizing as the solutions to procrastination. However, in “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control),” Charlotte Lieberman (New York Times, 3/25/19) suggests that there are deeper reasons for these habits. She describes procrastination as the seemingly irrational choice that people make to think of the present, rather than the future, in order to avoid tasks that might expose our insecurities, provoke anxiety, or simply bore or frustrate us.

Basically, when we procrastinate, our inner six-year-old takes over. Some of this ‘now-oriented’ behavior is hard-wired; humans are programmed to think of their present needs and tend to see their future self as an abstraction. After all, we are often told ‘to live in the present.’ When viewed in this light, the choice to procrastinate makes a lot of sense.

The flaw in this logic is that it robs us of the joy of a job well done. The satisfaction of having completed a task lives in the future, but without this feeling of accomplishment, work becomes associated with negative feelings of self-blame, stress, and low self-esteem. Any short-term positive feelings we get from procrastinating are outweighed by these toxic emotions, which may cause us to procrastinate more to escape them, contributing to a cycle of chronic procrastination.
Lieberman offers several suggestions to overcome the desire to procrastinate:

Don’t be too hard on yourself! Accepting where you are instead of berating yourself helps break the negative loop.

Think of the first step, not the entire task, and take that action. Sometimes planning out each step can make a task appear overwhelming, so considering only the next thing to do may make it seem more possible.

Hide your temptations (or make them less convenient). Turn off or delete distracting apps, or give yourself a difficult password. Go someplace that’s free of distractions. Put a “Do Not Disturb” note on your door.

Open up the path for what you want to get done. Set out needed materials, open the document, and clear a workspace ahead of time.

Overall, don’t blame yourself for being lazy. Executive function strategies, including time management and prioritizing, won’t help if you become trapped in a cycle of feeling bad about your procrastination.

We all procrastinate, that’s not going to change, so accept it, pick your motivational strategy, and get going! Who knows, maybe you were doing something useful while you were procrastinating. So enjoy that clean refrigerator, and take the first step to starting the task you meant to complete. Your future self will thank you!

ADHD Learning Differences

Where Are All the Characters with ADHD? Here!

When kids read or watch a TV show or movie, they are looking for stories that in some way reflect or validate their own experience. That’s why it is so important to provide students with media that reflect the real-world diversity found in the classroom.

We have compiled a list of characters with ADHD diagnoses (or who probably should have a diagnosis). Some of these characters are more appropriate for adults (you may regret showing your kids The Hangover), but there are options for just about any age!

We’d like to say that this is THE comprehensive list of characters with ADHD, but we are really only scratching the surface. By sharing a book, show, or movie where a main character has ADHD, you are showing your students that not only is having ADHD perfectly normal, but oftentimes the traits of ADHD can come in handy as the characters navigate the challenges they face.

Characters with an official ADHD diagnosis
Characters that have many ADHD traits but no diagnosis (perhaps because the term ADHD did not exist)

So, what do you think? Did we miss any of your favorites?