Cognitive Flexibility Remote Learning Student Perspective

Students Speak: What is Cognitive Flexibility? 

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been asked to adapt, adjust, think flexibly, shift perspectives — in short, practice cognitive flexibility. Whether we’re balancing the shift between in-person and remote learning, working on a group project, or even cooking a meal, cognitive flexibility is key to success.

What do students think about cognitive flexibility? 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 cognitive flexibility means to them:

Students Speak: What does cognitive flexibility mean to you?

  • “Coming up with a different way to solve a problem.” 
  • “Ways to adjust to unexpected events.”
  • “For me, cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt to new situations and accept changes in my life, big or small.”
  • “Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt from one scenario to another.”
  • “Cognitive flexibility means to me that my mind can think of more than one way of doing something.”

Students Speak: What do you do when you get stuck and have to shift?

  • “When I get stuck I generally move onto a different thing. Some time away from the topic helps me think of different ideas.”
  • “I usually get stuck for a little while and keep doing the same thing. Then I try a new way. When I figure out the correct way, it’s like a light bulb lights up.”
  • “I step back and come back to it later.”
  • “Re-read or re-assess the problem.”
  • “I either try a new strategy, make a connection, or ask for help.”

How to Get Students Thinking Flexibly

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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Homeschool parent perspective Remote Learning

Parent Perspective: The Gap Between Home and School

Alana Bremers, parent and ResearchILD Intern, discusses how educators and parents can bridge the gap between home and school.

“My brother grew up with learning differences, and when my mom went to visit him in kindergarten, he was alone at a table with a pad of paper and a box of crayons. The rest of the class was on the floor listening to a story the teacher read.

My mom looked at the room. All the kids had their names self-written, decorated, and hung up on the wall; except, of course, my brother. No one thought to help him write his simple, three-letter name. He had dyslexia but could still participate. 

This was decades ago, but really it’s just the first chapter in a long story. My mom had to fight for everything he got out of school. If she had never visited him in school, he would have been ignored completely. Needless to say, he did not enjoy school.

In teacher training programs, we are trained to do better for students like my brother. We learn about behaviorism, conditioning, Pavlov, and Maslow. We design strategic interventions for struggling students and incorporate methods for scaffolding. We develop pride in our profession and power to help kids shape their futures. We have the best intentions, yet forget these kids belong to another world for most of their lives.

If a child is struggling, shouldn’t the first step be to ask the parents for insight? Is it appropriate to become a mentor to a student without becoming familiar with their parents? Wouldn’t it be helpful to make curricula available to parents and information about their children accessible? How do parents and teachers become team members in support of academic success?

As a future teacher, I want to positively transform the lives in my classroom. I want to be the teacher who inspires a generation of students to be kind and confident. Parents and teachers are on the same side: the side of happy, healthy, kind, intelligent, thoughtful kids. 

We know that relationships are fundamental to learning, and this is true both at home and at school. To be successful teachers, we need to forge positive relationships between home and school. Creating a consistent flow of information and sharing of strategies and ideas sends a message to our students that we are committed to setting them up for success. Especially for early learners, having a positive relationship with parents can help build trust and bring consistent messages from the classroom into the home.

Parents buy a lot of parenting books, read blogs, and ask for advice. They welcome partners in raising happy, healthy, successful, and kind children. Bridging parents and teachers, while respecting students, is rewarding for kids and will, therefore, help teachers achieve classroom goals.”

  • Alana Bremers, ResearchILD Intern

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Homeschool parent perspective Remote Learning

Parent Perspective: Reentry and Learning Loss

Alana Bremers, parent and ResearchILD Intern, shares her thoughts about school reentry and learning loss after homeschooling her children during the pandemic.

“Between not being able to access specific standards and curriculum from my local district and the uncertainty of this pandemic year, I have no way of knowing how my kid will fit into school next year. 

If I can believe the recent assessments that my daughter took from a free, online program that claims to track specific state standards, she will be a full year ahead in math and two to three years ahead in literacy. She is even passing science tests.

With hesitation, I feel great about this year of homeschooling my children. We appear to be managing a large amount of quality learning in a fraction of the time. While I was initially scared about failing my kids, I’ve instead reinforced bonds between my children and myself. I’m even lamenting our return to in-person schooling next year.

As I consider our school plans for next year, there are a few things I am keeping in mind. No matter what happens, I will continue to leverage free public curricula. These programs can be used to guide homeschool programs, and they also allow parents to be a productive part of any student’s learning experience. If parents can easily access information about where their children stand academically, we can be stronger advocates for high-quality education and more immediately recognize when our children fall behind.

I also think that parents need as much access to data as possible. Is the school providing professional development training opportunities and attracting quality teachers? If I leave a district and enter a new one, is there something I can do to prepare my kids to seamlessly transfer?

So many news stories discuss kids struggling in hybrid or remote learning; however, parents and schools need to learn from what worked this year if students are going to successfully re-engage with learning. One recent news story even reported students with ADHD are thriving in less distracting online learning environments.

How can we continue to apply the positive lessons we’ve learned over the past two years with hybrid and homeschool learning models? Teachers and parents should continue to make expectations, goals, and realities all easily accessible, public information.”

  • Alana Bremers, ResearchILD Intern

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Homeschool parent perspective Remote Learning

Parent Perspective: Learning to Homeschool

Alana Bremers, parent and ResearchILD Intern, explains how she learned to homeschool during the pandemic.

“While deciding to homeschool my kids wasn’t easy, once I made the decision, I took it very seriously. I wanted to make sure that I developed a plan that would support my new teaching responsibilities, both academically and socially.

The social dimension of homeschooling has been great as I’m able to teach both of my kids together. We can play games, read to each other, and spend time using online learning programs.

We also have more flexibility in our daily schedule, so I’m able to make sure we have time for swim lessons, socially distanced play dates, or general fun. We have two sports days a week and family time on weekends. Homeschool counts time reading and playing games as education, and we can even count play as physical education. As a mom, I felt confident in my ability to keep my kids engaged with their friends and enjoying life.

Structuring their academic lives was a bit more challenging. However, as a teacher candidate, I felt like I could do the research and get this done. I had an interesting experience trying to untangle the local standards for education. After a few frustrating hours, I gave up, instead focusing on the standards of New York because their curriculum is available online, for free, with interactive learning assistance. New York state is very open about exactly what kids are expected to learn.

Connecting with other homeschool parents has been invaluable. I have found tremendous support from the general homeschool community and administrators of various curriculum products I use.”

  • Alana Bremers, ResearchILD Intern

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Executive Function Metacognition Remote Learning

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

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Distance Learning Executive Function Remote Learning

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

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Distance Learning Remote Learning Training Webinar

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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.  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

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Remote Learning

Online Games for the Remote Elementary Classroom

In these days of remote learning, it can be challenging to motivate students and help them stay on top of the executive function demands of learning. Games can be invaluable for engaging students’ attention and fostering positive relations in the virtual elementary classroom.

Which games are the most fun and effective over services like Zoom? Edutopia has a terrific list of 13 Virtual Games to Play in Your Elementary Classroom. Here are a few of our favorites:

Connect Four, Trouble, Chess & Checkers

Liz Henneberry, a third-grade teacher in Franklin, Massachusetts, transformed Connect FourTroubleChess, and Checkers to Google Slides…Students click a board game shelved in a virtual recess room, which creates their own copy of the game. Students can then share the game with their friend using Google Drive so that the two can play a round together.


Robin Nahhas says her third-grade students have loved playing Multiplication Tic-Tac-Toe, a downloadable game she created on Google Slides so that they could practice their multiplication facts…She pairs up students and places them in breakout rooms on Zoom. Each student in the pair selects a set of color pieces, and when it’s their turn, they roll two digital dice, multiply the numbers shown, and place a piece onto the virtual board with the corresponding number…If students need help solving a problem, they can rely on their partner or click the “Ask for Help” button after trying one of the strategies they learned in class with pencil and paper first.

Scavenger Hunt

During morning meetings, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wood says she incorporates games like scavenger hunts that the whole class can play together while learning from home. When it’s time to play, Wood projects a word like blanket and a matching image on a slideshow, and then students run to find the item in their homes. When they find the object, they can share it on video or by typing in the chat box.


Teachers can use Blackboard Collaborate,, or the Whiteboard within Zoom for Pictionary. Students take turns drawing on a whiteboard—prompted by a word generator—while students call out their guesses.

What do you think of these games? Do you have any other virtual games that work well with elementary students? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

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Remote Learning

Remote Learning – Parent Perspective: Changing Schedules and Changing Them Again

Distance learning is forcing everyone to adjust. Teachers, parents, and students are adjusting to new schedules. Many students have no ‘live’ classes to attend, spending their day completing asynchronous assignments. Some classes meet once or twice a week, with students working on assignments independently between classes.

Learning a new schedule is hard for all students (and all teachers, for that matter), but the negative impact doesn’t affect all student equally. It’s especially hard on students with learning differences, such as ADHD or dyslexia. Without transition times and clear expectations of how the day will unfold, students with learning differences may struggle to stay engaged.

In this installment of the SMARTS Online Remote Learning stories, a parent of a middle schooler describes the chaos and stress caused by rapidly shifting schedules.

Just when I thought things were calming down a little bit with some routine and schedule in place, the school decided to change the whole schedule around.  Change for change’s sake? Now we have a whole new set of stress around figuring out what’s changing and what’s not, new uncertainties around what seems to be a much more complicated schedule, with more “fun” electives and book clubs (dyslexic torture, if they’re “good old-fashioned” book clubs).The email from our teacher says, “This school-wide schedule change was created to improve the functioning of the remote schooling experience for as many constituents across the whole school as possible.”  As usual, the goal is to make school work for the majority, with no concern for individualization or the needs of the minority. 

No one likes to feel out of control. Given how unexpected the shift to remote learning has been, a sense of chaos was probably inevitable. However, as schools shift and adjust their schedules, it will be important to communicate the rationale and to reaffirm the commitment to meeting the needs of all students, especially those with learning and attention differences.

There’s so much talk about this time of crisis as an “opportunity” to slow down and simplify and limit screen time — to do things in a more old-fashioned way.  But, that doesn’t work for everyone.My student needs technology and lots of activities that are dyslexic-friendly.Right now, it seems like there’s a good excuse for this teaching-for-most approach. But really, this is business as usual.

As educators, how can we help our students, who may be used to feeling like school is not for them, feel connected and valued? We can begin by:

Schedules and teaching practices have to change, but if we can build in opportunities to differentiate assignments, leverage technology, and build in transition times, we can help our students, and their parents, feel supported.

Remote Learning

Remote Learning: Keeping Kids Engaged

Teachers, parents, and students, with or without learning differences such as ADHD or dyslexia, have all learned a hard lesson during the past weeks: remote learning can be boring.
Keeping students engaged is essential for successful learning. Here are some practical strategies you can use to keep your students engaged and active during remote teaching.

Encourage fidgeting

Keeping your hands active is great for paying attention (one of the many reasons note taking is so valuable). Students with ADHD especially benefit from being able to fidget. Ask students to keep some fidgets on hand. From fidget spinners to a Rubik’s Cube to paper clips, the range of fidget toys is endless.

Make time visible

Students are still developing an accurate sense of time, and the dramatic shift to remote learning has completely upended their sense of the passage of time. Typical transitions that would normally structure their day, such as walking to a new class, have all but disappeared. Start your classes with an agenda and use timers to help students gain a more concrete sense of time passing. Give students time to plan and prioritize their tasks. Discuss ways they can use timers to structure their homework (my students like to use playlists with defined amounts of time as planners).

Promote active learning

Watching a video by yourself and then filling out a worksheet is not as engaging as learning with your classmates. Students learn best when they can actively contribute and learn from multiple perspectives. When possible, structure time for students to contribute actively to the instruction. Well-placed activators, discussion questions, and group discussions using breakout rooms are all great ways to encourage active learning.

Remember to reflect

One of the biggest challenges of remote learning is we can’t see our students face to face! Teachers are experts at noticing when something isn’t working and thinking on the fly about how to differentiate. Now, however, we are teaching blind. We can’t see our students, only the assignments that they do or do not turn in. Use weekly reflections to get your students’ perspectives on how their learning is going (ask parents to fill out a reflection, too). Student reflections will give you valuable information to help make your teaching more equitable. It will also help students feel more engaged with learning as they reflect on what’s working for them, what’s not, and what they would like to do differently moving forward.
This is far from an exhaustive list of strategies to engage students during remote learning. What are we missing? We’d love to hear from you.
You can also find some great strategies in this blog by Carey Heller, Psy.D., “Keeping Kids Engaged in Online Therapy/Coaching and Other Remote Sessions.