The Making of a Good President: EF and SEL Strengths

Picture of Mount Rushmore among trees

Last year on the SMARTS blog, we explored what it takes to be a successful president. For decades, historians have examined the actions, speeches, and personalities of US presidents to determine what qualities and characteristics lead to a prosperous tenure in office. It comes as no surprise that a well-developed sense of self-understanding and executive function strengths are key!

In addition to a vision for the future and the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives, it turns out that there are a number of social and emotional strengths that contribute to a successful presidency. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who has spent 50 years researching, analyzing, and writing on American politics and the US presidency, described these qualities in an interview with the Aspen Institute(link opens in new tab/window)↗:

“The most important leadership qualities are empathy, resilience, listening skills, humility, and self-reflection.”

But it’s not just presidents who need to develop these strengths. These qualities are important for all students no matter what career path they choose.


When it comes to empathy, it’s never too early to start teaching students to consider others’ perspectives. The SMARTS Elementary Curriculum has a number of lessons about stepping into peers’ shoes and understanding why they see something a certain way (e.g., Lesson 3.2. I’m Wearing Your Shoes).

The ability to be flexible and shift perspectives can contribute to positive interpersonal relationships. As described in the CASEL Framework on relationship skills, having a greater capacity for empathy means being able to “communicate clearly, listen actively…work collaboratively to problem solve, and negotiate conflict constructively…”


Self-reflection is essential for students to think metacognitively, understand their strengths and challenges, and begin to plan their future strategy use. When teaching executive function strategies through the SMARTS curriculum, it is important that students keep strategies all in one place. For elementary students, the SMARTS Elementary Workbook allows students to quickly and easily access all the handouts and strategy reflection sheets they’ll need. Older students can use strategy notebooks or a digital resource to collect handouts and reflections from each lesson.


Another tool to develop students’ self-reflection is the MetaCOG Surveys & Toolkit, an interactive executive function survey system that features the STRATUS (Strategy Use Survey) and ME (Motivation and Effort Survey). The MetaCOG Surveys & Toolkit also dives into the topics of motivation, effort, and resilience, and students are asked to reflect on what helps them push through and what makes them feel like giving up. They can see over time how they are growing as resilient and strategic learners.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

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SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development: