10 tips to boost executive function

Every day in the classroom, students are expected to engage in tasks such as paying attention to and remembering information, completing their work on time, waiting to speak until they’re called upon, and asking for help when they need it. If a child has difficulty with these tasks, executive function (EF) may be at the root of the issue.

EF is a set of mental skills or processes that help a child or an adult work toward objectives and accomplish tasks. The role of EF in a student’s thinking and behavior is similar to that of an air traffic controller. For example, an air traffic controller must safely and efficiently manage the arrivals and departures of several aircraft on multiple runways, directing each plane and keeping pilots informed of any potential issues. To carry out their daily responsibilities, air traffic controllers must be able to focus their attention, filter out distractions, set and achieve goals, prioritize and juggle multiple tasks, and control impulses. A student has to do this as well.

In fact, effective learning depends on core EF skills. By building these skills, educators can improve students’ academic learning and their social emotional development.

Core components of EF
EF includes three core components: inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These functions are interrelated and often work in conjunction with each other.

  • Inhibition is the ability to control inappropriate behaviors or responses and resist distractions. Attentional control is a core component of inhibition. One type of attentional control, selective attention, acts as a filter on learning. This filter allows a child to focus on the teacher’s instruction or a book while ignoring the whispers of classmates, the chirps of birds outside the window, the colorful posters on the classroom walls, and the pitter-patter of footsteps in the hall.
  • Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate pieces of information for short periods of time. This includes phonological and verbal working memory, and the visuospatial sketchpad. Working memory is essential for everything from language learning to following a book chapter from beginning to end.
  • Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to shift between activities, change perspectives, and adapt to different contexts. Research has indicated that this capacity to shift is especially critical for reading achievement.

In the brain, all three of these components are regulated by the frontal lobe. EF begins developing in the first year of life, and it can be impacted by physical changes in the brain and a child’s experiences, including their relationships and home environment. Factors such as poverty, neglect, or abuse can also create toxic stress, which can delay or impair the development of the brain and EF.

Common misconceptions
A common misconception is that EF skills are inherently developed rather than taught. The good news for educators and parents is that because a child’s brain continues to mature and develop into adulthood, EF can be developed and strengthened.

Another misconception is that EF affects only cognitive operations. In reality, it affects social and emotional competencies as well, including the self-regulation of emotion. Learning is a social and interactive process. Children who are able to regulate their emotions and inhibit disruptive behaviors are better able to engage in learning in the classroom. These skills can also help them develop stronger relationships with peers and teachers, which can contribute to a more positive school experience.

Strategies for strengthening EF
Here are a few ways educators can help students improve their EF skills and positively impact their academic learning and social-emotional learning (SEL).

1. Provide supportive role models and environments. Psychologists have found that access to at least one supportive adult in a child’s environment can reduce the effects of toxic stress. Not only can a supportive teacher provide relief from toxic stress, the school itself can provide a safe haven as long as the child feels protected and respected.

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5 grants to address digital inequities and fund classrooms

School leaders consistently identify high costs and shrinking budgets as a top barrier to implementing new technology tools and programs.

As back-to-school approaches, many educators are faced with budgets that force teachers to buy school supplies with their own money. The stark realities of the homework gap and the digital divide also become more apparent during the school year, when many students are left without home internet access or without the right device to complete assignments at home.

Budget challenges won’t improve right away, but school districts can boost their available funds with grants that are targeted to different areas of need.

If you need help with a grant application, check out this resource to get started.

If you’re searching for grants to address digital inequities or to help teachers fund their classroom priorities, look no further:

1. The Kajeet Homework Gap Grant: Within every district, there are hundreds, or even thousands, of students who do not have internet access once they leave the classroom, creating an unintended Homework Gap between those with internet and those without. Nationwide, 5 million households with school-age children lack internet access at home. Ultimately, this lack of connectivity jeopardizes students performances, grades, and even graduation rates. Kajeet is giving away 15 Homework Gap Grants to districts and/or schools looking to provide their students with either 10 Kajeet SmartSpot devices or 1 Kajeet SmartBus device. With the Homework Gap Grant, a school or district can have the opportunity to roll out or expand on its technology program by providing additional connectivity opportunities for students. Winners will be selected based on the district’s or school’s current technology program (goals, expectations, plans for expansion, and parent/student involvement) and the determined need for connectivity. Winners cannot be current Kajeet clients. Applicants must illustrate plans for a comprehensive program with goals and metrics in place that will show success after the school year is complete. Winners will be notified by email and/or phone by Friday, Aug. 31, 2018.

Deadline: August 10, 2018

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3 outstanding tips for training new and veteran teachers

Research tells us that students’ attention spans correlate to their ages, but did you know that this applies to adults as well? In fact, humans have less of an attention span than goldfish. (A human has an average attention span of eight seconds, whereas a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds.) What does this mean? For one, it’s hard to capture someone’s attention. As educators, we know this all too well. But we also know there are tried-and-true tactics we can take to engage and motivate learners—no matter their age.

The same strategies can be applied to professional development. The live, onsite trainings must be welcoming, engaging, and informative from the get-go. As the advanced academic & interventions coordinator for Marshall (TX) Independent School District, I take this into account each time I present to teachers in the district. Located in rural Texas with a diverse student population, our district sees a large influx of fresh-faced teachers coming out of college into the classroom each fall. Though it’s wonderful to have so many young teachers, the first couple of months can be overwhelming. Between mastering new software programs and building out lesson plans, there’s a lot to learn. That’s where professional development (PD) plays a crucial role in helping our new teachers and veterans alike.

1. Lay the groundwork for an “I do/we do/you do” approach
So how do I captivate an audience? I start each of my PD sessions with a welcome, similar to what I do with my students each morning. A simple “hello” can make others feel welcome and comfortable. While teachers come in and get situated, I play classical or instrumental music in the background. After everyone is settled, the rest of my sessions follow an “I do/we do/you do” pattern. For instance, I lead with a 15-minute lesson (“I do”) and describe the topic at hand, what’s new, and so forth. Then, I split the room into groups of three or four for a collaborative piece (“we do”) to encourage small-group discussions. After the session, I follow up with each teacher and talk about their own personal data or conference one-on-one with them before releasing them back into their classrooms to implement what they’ve learned (“you do”). This makes the sessions more personalized for each teacher.

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A 3-step recipe for personalized learning

What are the ingredients and directions in a recipe for personalized learning?

Take one learning platform (because we want only one place to go for everything) and add a variety of digital content and learning applications from all different sources.

Next, whisk the content until it’s broken down into discrete learning objects that can be made available to the right student at the right time for the right learning objective.

Sounds like a great technique for achieving individualized and differentiated learning, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s break this down a little bit further because it involves quite a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to make possible everything in that little “recipe” that might not be so obvious.

Step 1: Authentication and rostering
Student, teachers, and classes need to be set up in the learning platform and accounts have to be correctly assigned. To save teachers or tech departments from manually creating roster files, school districts should adopt standard ways of rostering students.

It’s not just rostering in the learning platform, it’s rostering all of the different instructional software being used in a district. How are students going to get access to all of those systems? How can we keep from having a list of unsecured passwords that is as long as the instructions for filing federal tax forms?

Think of this as everyone being able to use the same front door to access all the instructional software and never having to wait in line. No more going to different login screens; no more remembering different user names and passwords. This concept of standardization—or having an agreed-upon way to handle a technical thing like rostering—is called interoperability.

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It’s time to change our learning model

As a 22-year-old first-year teacher, I was introduced to one of the biggest challenges within our schools. While setting up my classroom, my principal came by to deliver a set of fifth-grade textbooks and an analysis of the starting points for each of the 28 students in my class.

While all of my students were in fifth grade, they were individuals starting at varying places academically.
I worked hard, cared a lot, and spent lots of late nights developing lessons. I tried to learn how to keep the classroom orderly and motivate my students to learn. And I tried to learn all I could from my colleagues who had far more experience, knowledge, and skill than I had.

It was the most rewarding job I ever had … and also the toughest.

When I reflect on why the job was so hard, at the top of the list was the challenge of meeting the unique needs of each of my students each day, specifically the expectation that I was to do this on my own.

What I didn’t realize at the time—and do now—is that the challenge of meeting the needs of each student each day is simply a reflection of the predominant model of schooling: one teacher and 30 or so students in a single classroom. Given how different each student truly is, differentiated instruction can be nearly impossible to pull off.

Despite these clear limitations, far more energy and attention is aimed at improving outcomes within the existing school model than at imagining and developing new ones. Thankfully, that’s changing as educators take the lead both in challenging long-standing structures and embracing new ways to support student learning.

How we’re changing education
Perhaps the best example of educators redesigning schoolwide structures comes from the movement around small learning communities. Often used in high schools, this approach might take a 1,000-student school and break it into four 250-student learning communities all working together on the same campus. It’s a daunting task when one considers all of the scheduling, staffing, and logistical implications (the cafeteria alone!) of breaking up a large high school into smaller ones. But because educators believed that smaller learning environments would more readily enable a more personalized approach to learning, they tackled and addressed the barriers head on.

In many communities, schools and districts that once worked to design and implement small learning communities are now exploring more ways they can redesign the school model to better meet the strengths and needs of each student.

Changing a learning model raises questions: What is the curriculum? How does this change the role of the teacher? How does this change the overall experience for students?

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10 districts with awesome brands

No one is great at everything, but everyone is great at something. These 10 school districts identified why their district is awesome, then structured everything they do around it to produce a noteworthy brand. Let’s take a peek into their worlds and identify some methods K–12 districts are using to build a great brand.

First, a quick note: I have not worked for nor do I live near these districts. My perceptions as a complete outsider only serve as testament to the strength of the branding we’ll showcase. If a total stranger can understand your brand without ever visiting, you’ve probably nailed your social media and website messaging.

1. Camas (WA) School District

Brand differentiator: We are all about student experiences.

It’s a great sign to land on a district homepage with glowing testimonials from families. The district really showcases its dedication to sustainability and community pride on their website, and the welcoming brand extends to a YouTube channel that greets viewers with an enchanting depiction of edtech journeys.

2. Wayzata Public Schools (MN)

Brand differentiator: Excellence for every student.

What stands out immediately about Wayzata’s digital presence is the deliberate use of inclusive imagery and messaging. They depict diversity in multiple ways on their website, in social media, and in local publications. It’s all supported by tons of information about how the district is structured, funded, constructed, and more. Their transparency is staggering and captivating; you’ll be invested in learning more about the ways of the Wayzata community. There’s even a specific microsite for community education and outreach. Use #trojanpride or #wearewayzata.

3. Castleberry (TX) Independent School District (ISD)

Brand differentiator: Libraries are the best!

How inspirational is it to see a district website offer a list of their libraries literally front and center on their homepage? Each library, connected to a school in the district, has a page to share their offerings (which include much more than books and periodicals). Exploring further, visitors will find an interactive district map, timely news updates, a website easy to navigate by persona, and much more. Use #castleberryisd + individual school hashtags.

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Get the most out of LinkedIn

Until recently my professional social media presence was exclusively on Twitter (@matthewxjoseph). That was until I had a conversation with a successful and reputable professional—Rita Oates—who told me I was missing out by not being on LinkedIn. I knew of the site but had never joined. When I started to investigate, I realized LinkedIn is the top online site for professional, social, and career networking; it has millions of members in more than 200 countries. Once I signed up, I quickly recognized that LinkedIn functions as an online directory of professionals and organizations and facilitates the process of professional networking.

I joined to grow my professional network as I expand my reach and excitement for writing and presenting. Because I was a little late to the party, I spent a great deal of time getting started. LinkedIn can be intimidating for new users, so I’d like to share strategies to encourage others to join and grow their professional networks. Here are a few steps to help you grow your professional learning network (PLN).

Create a strong profile
People will check out your profile as the first step in connecting. That’s their first impression, so make it a good one. A professional-looking picture is a must-have. Next, create a summary statement to serve as an “elevator pitch” that speaks to your skills, motivation, and interests. People want a quick sample of who you are so get to the point and make it memorable. Once that’s complete, add your education, certifications, and publications. You are building your online cover letter and resume, not just for a job but for all the opportunities out there. Think of your LinkedIn profile as your professional brochure.

Keep your profile active
The advantage of an online profile is that it can change or expand daily. If you want to stand out, add to your profile as often as you can with examples of your work. Blogs or reports you’ve written, presentations you’ve delivered, and any publications are all good options.

Post content
Similar to other social networks, LinkedIn lets you publish regular posts and even write articles. If you want to build your portfolio and reach your target community, make sure your posts are closely related to your skills and profile summary. This will give you a well-rounded summary and a more detailed and complete profile that shows your “professional” best and is focused on what you can offer the community and are willing to share.

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Are virtual schools failing students?

A new in-depth analysis of school performance measures for full-time virtual and blended schools indicates they might not be as successful as traditional public schools.

The data comes from the National Education Policy Center’s (NEPC) Sixth Annual Report on Virtual Education, Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance.

Virtual schools continued to under-perform academically, including in comparison to blended schools. Overall, 36.4 percent of full-time virtual schools and 43.1 percent of blended schools received acceptable performance ratings.

Despite the data, virtual school enrollment has continued to grow, particularly as more school districts open their own virtual schools, although those district-run virtual schools remain smaller in size.

District-run virtual schools seem to perform better than charter virtual schools, the study finds. District-operated schools saw acceptable performance ratings of 53.8 percent, compared to charter-operated schools with 20.7 percent.

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Does your district’s PL measure up?

Is your current professional learning (PL) program aligned with the federal definition of professional learning?

Can you measure your progress against your organizational goals?

How does your organization stack up to the rest of the nation?

The Frontline Research & Learning Institute set out to answer these questions in our four-part Bridging the Gap report series. We started with building a common understanding of the criteria recognized by Learning Forward and ESSA as measurements of effective professional learning (PL): sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. Next, we paired each criterion with metrics and data collected from more than 200 school districts across 27 states over the last five years. While these are not the only metrics districts might measure, it gives us a starting point for measuring the effectiveness of professional learning.

The startling findings suggest that 80 percent or more of PL falls short of criteria for effective professional development (PD). This knowledge and the comparison against national norms provides a baseline from which schools can develop a strategy for improvement.

So, what can we learn from national data on PL effectiveness? And more importantly, how can you use the findings to measure your own program effectiveness and determine strategies for improvement? Let’s take a closer look.

Defining sustained PL
Sustained PL takes place over an extended period of time, which includes activities with more than three meeting dates or with start and end dates more than seven days apart. According to our data, only 13 percent of PL enrollments met this definition. But, growing sustained PL can happen with incremental changes like the ones being made by Pitt County (NC) School District.

Since 2014, the district has been steadily working to increase the average length of time its 1,600 faculty members spend on individual PL. They first focused on whether educators had adequate time to develop key competencies necessary to improve instruction for the district’s mostly minority student population. From there, the district began offering a variety of learning designs and extended individual learning opportunities. For example, they augmented initial activity by adding follow-up sessions with an instructional coach or principal, provided initial induction training for new teachers, and added ongoing, weekly reflection to identify lessons learned. Teachers and principals in the district have reported thinking differently about the design and utility of their PL, leading to improvements in satisfaction with learning experiences that can clearly have in-classroom impact.

Defining intensive PL
Intensive PL is focused on a discreet concept, practice, or program. Establishing school or districtwide goals is essential to achieving truly intensive PD. Leaders must also be clear with educators about their skills targets and set goals for each individual’s improvement.

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5 things districts are doing to close the homework gap

Despite a brighter spotlight on digital equity, gaps still remain, including the troubling and persistent homework gap–but a newly-relaunched digital equity toolkit aims to highlight the important work districts across the nation are taking to address equity differences.

The 2014 E-rate modernization helped a majority of schools meet the FCC’s short-term connectivity goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students, according to CoSN’s relaunched Digital Equity Initiative toolkit. But because classroom use of technology and digital resources is growing, a gap has continued to grow between students who have internet access at home and those who do not.

Because it tends to impact low-income and rural students harder than others, the homework gap can intensify other income or access issues these students and their families face. And even if a family has internet access, students don’t necessarily have access to a device–or the right device–with a large enough screen or enough data to complete homework.

CoSN’s toolkit is updated with new strategies and examples regarding how to best address the larger implications that come with a lack of home internet access. The toolkit also highlights five strategies districts are leveraging to address those challenges.

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