Interviewing an EF Expert, Part 1

A lightbulb against a chalkboard with six thinking bubbles

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?

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:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: