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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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Remote Learning

4 Essentials for Distance Learning

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, schools across the country and around the world are turning to distance learning as a way to keep teachers and students connected.
Technology can be a double-edged sword; for every benefit there are unexpected glitches and headaches. Like most classroom teachers, you may have minimal experience teaching remotely, which makes distance learning seem daunting.
To all you teachers out there, you’ve got this. And we’re here to help! Here at SMARTS we’ll be hard at work to provide advice on best practices for distance learning, teaching resources, and tips from the student perspective.
Let’s kick things off with 4 essentials for successful distance learning.

1. Maintain Relationships

Trusting relationships between teachers and students are the bedrock of successful learning. One of the biggest risks of online learning is the loss of a sense of human connection. Motivating relationships, like friendships and peer support, are essential to supporting students’ executive function. Find ways to keep those relationships alive.

  • Use video chats to make sure students see your face, and the faces of their peers
  • Incorporate ice breakers and other engaging activators at the start of a lesson
  • Find ways for students to express and acknowledge the anxiety and fear of the unknown to keep your virtual classroom feeling relevant and important to your students

2. Keep Learning Active

Online learning can easily lend itself to more passive forms of learning like watching videos and listening to lectures. However, not only is passive learning less interesting, students will retain less information, and you, as their teacher, won’t be able to gauge student understanding. Find opportunities throughout your lesson to actively engage students.

  • Call on specific students to share their thoughts
  • Use a survey to test students’ understanding of a topicHave students share their notes with you

3. Use Tech Wisely

Technology should serve the learning outcomes. Identify what you want to achieve, then select the technology best suited to help students reach the outcomes. There are plethora of online learning apps, sites, and programs (here are some of our favorites). Before students begin, help them understand how or why they are using a given program.

  • Demonstrate how to use the technology successfully
  • Check that all students understand the directions

4. Reflect

Here at the SMARTS program, we are big fans of self-reflection and not just for the students. Take time to reflect on how your distance learning teaching is going and adjust accordingly.

  • Keep a journal and jot down notes at the end of each online session. What worked well? Any surprises? What might you do differently next time?
  • Schedule a meeting with a colleague to share ideas and brainstorm
  • Don’t forget your growth mindset. Expect mistakes, analyze them, and learn! The more you reflect, the more you will be able to accurately identify the parts that are going well and areas you can improve.

Thank you for checking out our 4 essential tips for distance learning. Stay tuned for more information and resources you can use.

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Remote Learning

Remote Learning and Learning Differences: Are We Going to Learn Anything New?

As teachers continue to adapt their curriculum to meet the demands for remote learning, technological solutions, whether programs or apps, are sure to play a major role. However, it’s important to make sure that the technology is not driving the lesson, and that all students understand not only how to use the technology, but why it matters.

Here’s another installment of our “Remote Learning for Learning Differences” series, written by an anonymous 8th grader with dyslexia who is in her first week of remote learning.

For math, we got an assignment on Google Classroom.  The assignment really didn’t have anything to do with math and more had to do with learning about how to use the graphing calculator app Desmos.  I really don’t think we’re going to learn anything new in math over the next couple of weeks. Overall, the assignment – although it was pretty easy – was pretty stressful because it had to be done in an hour without any guidance.  One kid in my class asked for guidance but didn’t get it until the last 10 minutes of class. Now it’s our homework as well. Although I’m not sure.  I think it is.   I wish that he had told us that before and it would have been less stressful.

After a lunch break, I went back online where there were instructions saying that they would post more instructions soon.   But they never did, so I had to text one of the kids in my class to figure out what was going on.  She seemed to know, but I’m not sure if I misread something or missed something – it turns out an email was sent.  The email was sent by my science teacher for an assignment.  This assignment was similar to the homework he usually sends us.  It was ok but I wasn’t really getting a lesson and the teacher was also not online, as in my English class.  At this point I felt that I can’t live like this!  I have no one to talk to! I’m a social creature! it’s not good for me!!!!  Anyway, I figured out what I needed to do, but it would have been nice to be able to ask questions.

While apps like Desmos and Google Calendar can be very helpful, they may create more problems than they solve. Make sure students have the support they need to navigate these sophisticated tools, that may been designed with adults in mind. Model how to use the technology explicitly and make sure students have access to support as needed. Stay tuned for more insight into the trials and tribulations of remote learning.

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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!