Executive Function Recommendations ResearchILD

Interviewing an EF Expert, Part 1

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 SMARTS blog over the next few weeks.

What is executive function and how does it impact learning?

Shelly’s response: If you Google the term “executive function,” you might notice that EF is a hot topic. There are a lot of resources and definitions out there, with doctors, neuroscientists, researchers, psychologists, teachers, and parents all claiming that they have the official definition of EF and the best approach. Some researchers claim that there is only one executive function process while others say there are up to 39 executive function processes!

It can be quite difficult to define executive function (EF), and this has a considerable impact on students who struggle with executive function, and especially those who learn differently.

The concept of executive function is interdisciplinary in nature; it is influenced by neuroscience, psychology, and education, and each field has interpreted and explained executive function differently. In addition, various components of executive function often overlap, and this confusion is reflected in the varying definitions of executive function offered by leading researchers in these fields.

Defining executive function the SMARTS way

When it comes to supporting the success of all students, it’s important to use approaches to EF that are clear to everyone. The definition we use as the core of the SMARTS curriculum is based on the work and research of Dr. Lynn Meltzer, who stresses the importance of translating theory and research in a way that is easy to access for practitioners.

Dr. Meltzer defines executive function as a broad term used to describe the complex cognitive processes that are the foundation for flexible, goal-directed behaviors.

Key executive function processes include:

  • Shifting flexibly (cognitive flexibility)
  • Goal setting
  • Organizing and prioritizing
  • Accessing working memory
  • Self-monitoring and self-checking.

Each of these executive function processes plays a crucial role in success, whether in school or in life. When teachers and their students can easily see how these processes are involved in learning, they can create strategies to address them.

Where do you see these processes arise for your students?

  • 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:

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Recommendations Teaching EF Tips Writing

Enhance Project-Based Learning with EF Strategies

In a recent article from Harvard’s “Usable Knowledge,”(link opens in new tab/window), the authors point out that project-based learning is not worthwhile if students are only engaged but not taking away something meaningful.

One way to boost the benefits of project-based learning is to embed executive function strategies. Executive function strategies can not only help students engage with subject-area content, but also engage in high-order metacognitive thinking processes.

Set Up a Plan

Helping students develop a plan can explicitly address executive function strategies in the areas of organizing/prioritizing time and information. Teachers and students can collaborate to determine the timeline for each project step and identify dedicated slots for “production time.” When students actively engage in the planning portion of a long-term project, they can learn to use the strategy and apply it to future assignments.

Support the Development of Research Skills

The research skills portion of long-term projects requires a high executive function demand. This could include taking notes, understanding multi-step directions, determining which resources are trustworthy, and shifting between many pieces of information. As “guides on the side,” teachers can provide students with support and resources to research their area of interest. These may include graphic organizers, project planners, calendars, and more.

Reflect and Assess Progress

As students complete their long-term projects, it is helpful to take a few minutes for self-reflection. Students can fill out surveys to reflect on the executive function strategies they learned and used. Ask them to think about what aspects of completing a long-term project were challenging or exciting and decide what they might do differently next time.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

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EF Conference Recommendations Social-Emotional Learning

Creating Sanctuary Classrooms

At ResearchILD’s 37th Annual Executive Function Conference this November, we are thrilled to feature George Scott, Ed.S., LMFT, who will share ways educators can create nurturing classrooms for students facing developmental trauma and toxic stressors in his presentation titled, “Creating Sanctuary Classrooms: The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Learners.”

About Mr. Scott

In addition to practicing as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at the Center of Counseling Services LLC in New Jersey, Mr. Scott is certified in Post Traumatic Stress Management (PTSM) and serves as a state-wide Resource Coordinator for the Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth Program and Rutgers University Behavior Health Care (UBHC). Mr. Scott’s accolades also include his roles as Adjunct Professor at the Counselor Education Department at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and Senior Presenter for his affiliate business practice Minding Our Children↗(link opens in new tab/window), which focuses on fostering understanding in adults regarding how to raise healthy and resilient children.

Creating Healing Classrooms

Mr. Scott has over 50 years of experience working in the field of special education and sharing his expertise in youth mental health with educators and administrators across the country. His philosophy that “all adults have the power within them to improve the lives of children” drives his belief in the power of educators to be effective and transformative “minders(link opens in new tab/window)”↗ of student well-being.

With decades of experience partnering with schools, Mr. Scott knows educators face intense demands in numerous aspects of their jobs. In his presentation at the 37th Annual Executive Function Conference, Mr. Scott will share with attendees practical ways educators can provide children spaces to heal and thrive.

Learn More

You can learn more about George Scott and his work:

  • Visit his personal webpage(link opens in new tab/window) and Minding Our Children’s website↗(link opens in new tab/window).
  • Watch his interview(link opens in new tab/window) with the New Jersey School Boards Association on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on students.
  • Attend ResearchILD’s 37th Annual Executive Function Conference to hear Mr. Scott speak about “Creating Sanctuary Classrooms: The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Learners.”

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.

  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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Executive Function Quick Tip Recommendations

Quick Tip: End-of-Year EF Lessons

When is the best time to introduce or reinforce an executive function strategy? Any time — even at the end of the school year. Our SMARTS Curriculum Extensions require little preparation and are flexible enough to fit into what you’re already teaching. 

What Are Extensions?

SMARTS Curriculum extensions (found at the end of each SMARTS lesson plan) are easy and efficient ways to teach executive function strategies. SMARTS extensions allow you to weave bits of executive function instruction into existing content. Small but mighty, SMARTS extensions:

  • Stand on their own as quick mini-lessons or serve as a way to review and reinforce a strategy taught in the full lesson
  • Require little to no preparation
  • Offer various options to embed executive function strategies in natural moments within instruction and to extend the learning from a single lesson over time

SMARTS Secondary Extensions

SMARTS Secondary offers over 400 extensions, which are organized into six categories:

  1. Creating strategic learning communities
  2. Reflection/self-advocacy
  3. Test strategies
  4. Projects
  5. Math/science
  6. ELA/social science

These categories offer a way to easily align strategy instruction with your unique teaching setting and learning goals.

SMARTS Elementary Extensions

SMARTS Elementary features extensions for every lesson. You can also use our new lesson sorter to curate lessons by areas such as active reading, flexible thinking and problem solving, self-understanding, perspective-taking, and more.

Got Time? Run a Full Lesson

If your end-of-year schedule allows for full lessons, there are a number of strategies that students can use to set themselves up for summer success. Goal setting is an appropriate strategy to help students think about how they can make the most of their summer break. Purposeful highlighting is useful for test taking and summer reading. 

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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Recommendations Social-Emotional Learning

Parent Perspective: Why Our Kids Say “Can’t”

As a student with ADHD and dyslexia, my daughter started hearing about all the ways she was “bad” at a very young age. She was told she can’t sit still, can’t be quiet, can’t read, can’t write, can’t complete worksheets, can’t do grade-level work, and more. Every day in the classroom, she took in these negative messages and her reaction was expectedly negative. She developed anxiety and depression, and then was told she can’t control her emotions. 

She was punished and excluded at school. She was put in the corner, in isolation, in the hallway, in pull-out classes, and even suspended once in fourth grade. The message was clear: she can’t be included. 

Now in high school, it is difficult for her to have a growth mindset, and she is shamed for feeling pessimistic. She’s told she just shouldn’t say “I can’t”; she should say “I’ll keep trying!” Although most people can’t see it, she is trying, and trying really hard

Like my daughter, many students with learning differences have had negative experiences in school that have shaped their beliefs and attitudes about themselves and school. To undo this requires complicated, long-term hard work. She needs more than sound bites about grit and growth mindset; she needs real support for her differences, including her emotional differences.  

It’s been a challenging year for everyone. Modeling resilience for students can help them feel hopeful and like they “can.” 

  • Parent of LD High School Student

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Motivation Recommendations Teaching EF Tips

Motivation Monday: Attribution Theory

Attribution theory asserts that motivation depends on learners’ interpretations of their past successes and failures. Specifically, learner conceptualizations of the locus, stability, and controllability of past successful or failed outcomes influence if and how hard learners will try on similar tasks going forward. Here are some examples of what these characteristics(link opens in new tab/window)  might look like:

  • Locus: Was I successful on that test because I studied hard (internal factor) or because I got lucky (external factor)?
  • Stability: Will my effort/luck stay the same (stable) or change (unstable) over time?
  • Controllability: Can I control whether I do well on the next test (controllable) or is my success out of my hands (uncontrollable)?

Why it matters for education

Educators can play a critical role in helping students foster adaptive attribution styles. The benefits of certain attribution patterns are situationally relative. For example, an external attribution for a disagreement with a friend (“They were just having a tough day”) may benefit a student’s mental health. Contrarily, an external attribution for poor performance on a test (“It was my teacher’s fault”) may be maladaptive to a student’s motivation to put in effort on future assignments.


In education contexts, students are most likely to adaptively approach setbacks when they see challenges as internal, unstable, and controllable. A student with this attribution pattern might tell themselves after they perform poorly on a test, “I didn’t study in the best way for me, and I can make adjustments to how I prepare in order to improve next time.”

To help learners adopt adaptive attribution styles, consider the following approaches:

  • Teach students to see their success and failure as a product of their own effort (rather than ability). Statements like, “Great work—I can tell you studied a lot!” can go a long way.
  • Give students specific feedback. For example, when handing back a math worksheet, say, “It looks like you struggled most with dividing fractions on this assignment.”
  • Help students understand that failures can be addressed with appropriate strategy use. For the math worksheet example above, you might follow up with, “What strategy has worked for you in the past for mastering multiplying fractions? How can you apply a similar strategy to division?”
  • Create a classroom culture that values effort and persistence over being smart or good at a subject. If your students enjoy public praise, recognize students who you can tell work hard to improve their learning.
  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., SMARTS Intern

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Recommendations Self-Checking Self-Monitoring Student Perspective

Students Speak: What Is Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking?

What exactly does it mean to monitor and check our work? Self-monitoring and self-checking are two executive function areas that are often overlooked and not explicitly taught. 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.

What do students think about self-monitoring and self-checking? 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 self-monitoring and self-checking mean to them:

Students Speak: What do self-monitoring and self-checking mean to you?

  • “Checking my language and tone while speaking with various people/making sure I recall certain facts.”
  • “Correcting and checking your own work.”
  • “Self monitoring and self checking is how to act in different environments.”
  • “Self-monitoring means having the ability to change how you act in different places or situations. Self-checking means the ability to make a list to keep you organized for whatever activity you are doing.”

Students Speak: What is one way that you monitor your progress or self-check?

  • “I look back on myself and my actions and try to think if they were smart or not.”
  • “I make a list.”
  • “Plan ahead and adjust accordingly by making mental checks to complete each day.”
  • “One way that I monitor my own progress or self-check is by saying to myself what I have to do for the activity I am doing.”

How to Encourage Students to Self-Monitor and Self-Check

Students struggle with self-monitoring when they don’t check what they are doing and have trouble setting goals for themselves. Strategies that improve self-awareness can help strengthen students’ ability to self-monitor and refocus.

  • Be clear about which materials students need to bring to and from school.
  • Set aside time for self-checking at the start and end of the school day and after students complete assignments.
  • Utilize theater games and literacy activities, such as Reader’s Theater, to help students monitor their tone, voice, and actions. 
  • Attend our free webinar on May 10: Executive Function and Self-Checking: Helping Students Learn from Their Mistakes. Learn more and register
  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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Equity Motivation Recommendations

Motivation Monday: Cultural Responsiveness

Why we need to consider culture when assessing student motivation

As educators, we talk a lot about using research-based practices. However, data shows(link opens in new tab/window) that 96% of participants in educational psychology research are from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)(link opens in new tab/window) countries, even though only 12% of the world population live in WEIRD areas. In light of this stunning disparity, 21st-century researchers have begun investigating whether patterns of motivation vary across diverse populations.

So far, the answer to this question has been a resounding yes; it is inequitable to solely rely on models of motivation based on WEIRD research. The distinctions in motivational forces across Western and Non-Western, collectivist and individualistic(link opens in new tab/window), and even generational and community cultures call for student and family-centered adaptations of motivational theories to classrooms.


You may be wondering, what can I do if “research-based practices” might not apply to my students?

 The good news is that many motivation experts, administrators, and educators have suggestions for how to account for and embrace cultural diversity when addressing student motivation in the classroom. These suggestions include:

  • Reflect on your own biases and assumptions regarding whether and why some students are “inherently” motivated or unmotivated. How can you challenge any assumptions you identify?
  • Consider using a beginning-of-the-year questionnaire(link opens in new tab/window) to ask caregivers what motivates their children. You might be surprised by the variety of extrinsic, intrinsic, relational and aspirational motivators parents and guardians name.
  • Adopt culturally sustaining teaching practices. Culturally sustaining pedagogy extends beyond the reach of culturally relevant pedagogy by incorporating rather than simply complimenting students’ diverse wealth of cultural knowledge into classroom instruction.

Interested in more information about theories of learning and motivation? Take a look at our posts on Behaviorism, Goal Orientation Theory and Growth Mindset, Expectancy-Value Theory and Self-Determination Theory.

  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., SMARTS Intern

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

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The Institute for Learning and Development: