Tailoring Incredible Interventions

As a former teacher, I know that pedagogical innovations must be built as carefully as space technology; what seems good in the lab can easily explode on contact with the complex, dynamic environment of a classroom.

The solution is to partner with the experts, so I bounce back and forth between the lab and the classroom. I work with teachers to iterate and re-iterate an approach that integrates powerful psychology, is robust enough to survive its “entry” into the classroom, and, frankly, doesn’t annoy teachers. This last bit is key.

The innovation I’m working on is major. The design demands are extensive, because I believe we need a seismic shift. No more curricular add ons, special programs, and extra classrooms. No more clutter. We need to evolve the very way we see students, feel about them, motivate them, and speak to them. Open your psychology book to page one – motivation, mindset, and competence psychology works best when taught in applied settings.

We need an adaptive, integrated, ground level change, meant to be used every day, all day, so it has to fit like a glove. Or… a whole outfit. It can’t be too tight. It can’t ride up. It can’t have a falling down zipper or be like those socks that slip down into your shoes. It also can’t be like a giant Canada’s Wonderland puppy costume that you can’t even see out of, that is stifling, or that makes you clumsy and slow. Teachers are just too damn active and busy to use a sloppy intervention.

It needs to be like the outfits designed for superheroes. Remember Edna Mode from the Incredibles? Sometimes I feel like her – trying to create something incredible enough for a teacher.

Basic EF Knowledge Every School Staff Needs

Successful learners are self-aware and strategic. To understand oneself as a learner, a basic literacy in executive functioning is essential. Below, you will find everything needed to host three staff meetings worth of EF learning.

Meeting 1: How Executive Functions Impact Performance

In this one-hour meeting, do some critical viewing with your school team. Watch the following short videos, pausing for discussion in between each one. Remember that there are many different scholars studying EFs and that these videos are just the tip of the iceberg. That’s all. Nice and easy.

A 6 min basic primer from Harvard

A 3 min discussion about EFs at school and the link to ADD/ADHD

A 5 min discussion that describes the difference between EF and IQ, and gives examples of student behaviour

A cute 3 min animation that reinforces the basics

Meeting 2: Building Cognitive Literacy and True Self-Awareness

It can be hard for teachers to believe that the unexpected performance they observe from students is truly related to natural and normal variation in their executive functioning. Most people believe that children demonstrate poor attention, flexibility, or organization, for example, because of naughtiness or laziness.

Here’s an activity that can help: Print this self-evaluation checklist and get your staff to complete it in a meeting. Encourage teachers to discuss their results. Several important shifts will happen. Teachers will see that everyone really does have a different cognitive profile, and that this profile relates clearly to patterns of struggle and unexpected performance. Self-and other acceptance will grow among your staff, and it will be possible for teachers to truly understand and respond compassionately to the variation in student performance.

Meeting 3: Looking at Students Through an EF Lens

Now that your staff has the basics, take their expertise one step deeper into the classroom by thinking about how EFs impact specific students. Print and share this questionnaire, asking teachers to fill it in with a certain student in mind. This questionnaire works best for children over the age of 7, but teachers at any level will get the gist. As always, discuss, discuss, discuss!

Teaching Metacognition: An Evolution

Michael Fullan likes to characterize the movement towards deeper learning as optional, but inevitable. I agree. After 17 years of teaching in regular and special education, I am working to update the Ontario curriculum and teacher training so that metacognition is taught, trained, and regularly used as a vehicle for more powerful learning in schools. Using metacognition, students ask, “What obstacles will I face? How will I overcome them?”

I have been working with teams of teachers to develop a lean, mean tweak to pedagogy. Teachers agree, we must:  1) give children a basic cognitive literacy – some key vocabulary to describe the various facets of their cognitive function, 2) add short, snappy metacognitive strategy-planning sessions to everyday teaching, and 3) use feedback to help students connect their use of strategy to their success. Teachers who regularly “talk” to the most sophisticated part of the brain will bring it to life.


The tweak we’re  working on addresses an urgent and serious need. While the curriculum, technology, and aims of schools have evolved, teaching itself hasn’t changed much. A goal is set, and then, in many ways, everything falls apart. Students drift off task, they stall, they bicker, and they are disorganized. In response, teachers initiate an instinctive, age old response. Research tells us that, generally, teachers (1) express frustration or approval or (2) give specific instructions and “hints” about how to proceed. These ingrained pedagogical habits make up a huge proportion of what students get from their school experience. They are terribly outdated and fundamentally backwards, because:

  • students’ “stalled” behavior is almost always related to cognitive functions such as attention, flexibility, planning, etc, and not a lack of either ideas or the desire to do well;
  • expressions of teacher frustration are often interpreted as insults, disrespect, or existential condemnation, thus impairing student self-esteem and student-teacher relationships; and
  • appropriating the work or taking over control dramatically suppresses student engagement and motivation.

Even when teachers use the best new curriculums, outdated pedagogical habits often leave students bafflingly unproductive and “ill-behaved.” And, when students underperform, teachers retreat to more didactic lessons with tighter control and less risk-taking, which further suppresses student engagement and thwarts the intent of whatever costly retraining teachers have been lucky enough to receive.

The Brain’s Special Feature

The need to fire up metacognition as a vehicle for learning is way overdue. Are you familiar with the idea that the brain evolved from back to front? In gross generalities, the brain evolved from basic motor and sensory function toward unconscious language and informational processing. The prefrontal cortex, a highly powerful slab of special features across the forehead, developed last. The PFC is the brain’s manager, capable of self-awareness, strategic goal pursuit, and finesse. Surely, you’ve heard that humans don’t use X percent of their brains? This has been proven; the brain’s metacognitive management and oversight system cannot be relied upon to turn on automatically. Without special prompting, it often stays off.

For example, surgeons, when specifically prompted to activate their higher order thinking with a form that asks, “What mistake might you make today? What will you do to be strategic?” actually preform much better. It is a plainly empirical change – fewer perilous surgical errors are made when a metacognitive strategy-planning process is used. To keep pace with the complex, creative, and integrative demands of school, and to fulfill our potential as humans, our pedagogical habits need to turn ON the powerful capacity of the PFC.

Essential for All

This work is important at both the highest and the most marginalized levels of performance. On one hand, metacognition is a crucial life skill for children with learning disabilities, or for those who suffer from poverty or deprivation. These learners often demonstrate underdeveloped metacognition and cognitive function, the very skills they will need to navigate their obstacles and succeed in school. On the other hand, companies like Amazon and Google are scrambling to develop in-house curriculums to optimize the metacognitive performance of their top thinkers.

A deliberate focus on self-awareness, metacognition, and strategy-planning is necessary in any context in which there is an “expectations gap” – when expectations seem to exceed capability. This gap occurs at both the higher and lower ends of performance, and, if students are prepared, can and should be a thrilling part of every single school day.

World hunger? Poverty? Environmental threat? Sounds like an expectations gap to me! It is time for a big step in human evolution towards the activation of higher-order thinking,

Cultivating a Knowledge Building Community Using Twitter

I work at the University of Toronto as a Teacher Education Program Assistant, visiting our preservice teachers at their placement schools to observe lessons, provide feedback, and offer support. I wrote this piece about Twitter for the OISE/UT MA newsletter.

Many teachers cultivate expertise in certain areas of classroom practice. They join organizations, attend talks, focus their volunteer work, and gather with like-minded peers for meaningful conversations.

This is a great idea. If your dream is to be an expert math teacher, start now. Building your expertise and leadership in a certain domain of classroom practice is a cumulative process in which each small step teaches you something and helps articulate your unique path.

dont-need-to-be-an-expert-to-start-a-business-graphic-design-blenderConsider adding Twitter to your strategy. It’s different from most social media; steer clear of the kitten videos and Trump memes and go shopping for your dream collaborators. You can follow whoever you want! Many leading experts and important organizations are active users who tweet regularly about upcoming talks, new ideas, and important resources. Twitter will keep you informed of up-to-the-minute developments in your field, and will connect you to your people.

Twitter is also a wonderful journal for professional ideas. Write an observation, share an article, document an idea, or post a picture of a project (with permission) that worked well. If you tag your favourite organization or thinker, they may recognize your work with a like or a share, and if you’re really lucky they’ll follow you back. Being an active participant in high-level knowledge building has never been so easy!

Start by looking up your favourite few thinkers or organizations and seeing who they follow. Add anything that looks interesting, see what kind of material they share, and then prune your list back to a lean, mean collection of your favourites.

Twitter connects classroom teachers with powerful stakeholders in a meaningful way. It has been a source of inspiration, reflection, community, and access in my career. Could it do the same for you?

@LCFaith  #respect #empower #share #grow #build #engage #transform



Universal Design for Optimal Executive Functioning

I am preparing a full-day workshop for the Northwest Autism Conference. The crowd could be upwards of 600 people, and no ordinary people either. They will be some of the most fiercely dedicated, well-informed, and experienced experts on this planet. I plan to bring my A-game.


To prepare, I have spoken to several of the participants. Turns out, the big problems are time and energy. How to meet the needs of many needy students without spreading oneself too thin?

Accordingly, my emphasis with this workshop will be efficiency. How to design and use UNIVERSAL interventions that are inexpensive, easy, powerful, and that benefit all learners. This suits me very well. My current obsession is the development of an embedded intervention I call executive skills feedback and assessment (ESFA). I plan to share that idea, along with a few others.

The workshop will be structured around setting, teacher, and task. We’ll discuss ways to optimize executive functioning and foster growth mindset in each facet of school experience. Basically, we’ll examine status quo classroom design vs. classroom design with executive functioning in mind.

After a discussion of the relationship between executive function and child development, participants in the workshop will work towards:

  1. identifying how executive skills impact performance and daily living at home and school;
  2. creating a learning environment that reduces the impact of weak executive skill;
  3. modifying tasks, feedback, and assessment to drive optimal executive functioning;
  4. optimizing teacher-student co-regulation with heightened self-awareness; and
  5. designing intervention strategies tailored to the needs of individual children and adolescents.

Interested in coming? Well, guess what – there are still tickets available! I think we can accommodate 601 participants, in a pinch.


EF Checker for Teachers

I am preparing to facilitate a ‘conversation’ for a very distinguished group of educators at the EDxED conference at the Hudson Highschool of Learning Technologies in New York City. I am eager to join this group of pace-setting, big-thinking teachers.


One of the things we’ll be talking about is the way teacher executive functions can impact what happens in the classroom. I believe that for teachers to truly understand and believe in EFs they have to make the connection between EFs and their OWN performance. Otherwise, it is all too easy to attribute a student’s unexpected performance to poor character or bad behaviour.

To that end, I have prepared a special EF questionnaire catered specifically to teachers. It was fun to make and I hope you enjoy it. If you are an educator and you do this survey, I hope you chuckle and shake your head and realize that we all have bad days. I hope it makes you aware of the way teaching challenges the EFS and proud of the way you’re able to perform.

Before you take this survey and get whapped in the face by how incredibly EF-dependent good teaching is, remember that EFs vary from day to day based on illness, hunger, thirst, and how rested you are. Also remember that exercise, meditation, sleep, good nutrition, and proper hydration will optimize your EFs. Finally, make the connection to how absolutely necessary it is to go for a walk on your prep, keep up a yoga practice, keep water on your desk, eat lunch and snacks, and put your phone away at 9pm so you sleep well. It really makes a difference.

Is teaching the most EF exhausting job out there? Maybe.



ES Based Coaching

I enjoy working with little ones. It’s something I really miss from the solitude of my writing desk during these two years away from the classroom. With what time I can spare, I am doing one-on-one ES-based coaching.

One of the children I coach is 7 years old, with some sensory integration issues and challenges with executive functioning.  He is bright, but has trouble following rules and meeting expectations at school. A sweet little monkey.

We have done about 6 sessions together. My first session with this student was spent first trying to calm his terrified tears as he separated from his mother and then trying to keep him safe as he ran away from me through the JCC. Oy vey. Now, after plenty of routine, trust building, and easy games, I am teaching him meditation and how to apply his new self-regulation skills to school tasks. It feels like a win.

So, because this experience has been so successful, I’ll take a moment to brag about all the neato stuff we’re working on. Here is today’s coaching plan. Perhaps you’ll find it useful.

Goals: Student will…

  • respond successfully to 1-2-3 prompt
  • do focused written ‘work’ similar to a school task
  • practice holding and shifting attention with ‘bring backs’
  • practice ‘bring back’ meditation on yoga mat
  • write personal example of 5 zones of regulation – use ‘bring backs’ to refocus
  • reflect on the outcome of UNexpected behaviour using Social Behaviour Mapping
  • reflect on success using at home sticker chart and calming strategies
  • use WOOP (wish, obstacle, overcome, plan) to strategize for greater success using calming strategies
  • play new cooperative games to build rapport, follow rules, and build trust


Yoga mat, ball flags, Relaxation thermometer copy, WOOP worksheet copy, feeling wheel copy, half-finished social behaviour map, Rory’s story cubes, Stickers, crayons, dice, beans, bowls, ball, soft brush, weighted sock, scratchy brush, chess game, timer, delicate wooden caterpillar, post it notes


Cycle through activity, break, snack.

Activities Menu: 

Bring Backs on Yoga Mat – Student lays on yoga mat with a beanbag on his eyes and is asked to breathe calmly. As he breathes in, he raises his hands (bend at elbow, arms at sides) as he breathes out he lowers his hands. Each time he recognizes that he has lost attention on his breath he is rewarded with 10 bops with the bopper sock and he puts up one finger. His goal is to do 5 bring backs.  

Relaxation Thermometer – Student is asked to sit quietly for 5 minutes and try to fill in the sheet independently, like a school task. Emphasis on ‘bring backs’ where coach notes ‘you lost your attention’ and quietly counts and tracks on a post it note how long the ‘bring back’ take.

Student’s Calming Strategies – If student has brought his sticker chart we can discuss his progress.

Social Behaviour Mapping – Student and I review his social mapping plan for playing Star Wars War with members of his family. Then we map out what happens when he does UNexpected behaviour. Discuss other’s feelings about the behaviour, how others will treat him based on how they feel about his behaviour, and how he will feel based on how he is treated. Use this to support the ‘wish’ stage for WOOP.

WOOP – Using the wish we established with social behaviour mapping, we discuss his wish-obstacles-ideas to overcome-and plans for overcoming. This is his second exposure to WOOP.

Relaxing, Connecting Transition Activities

Bopper sock – For a treat if he wants to. We do High 5 puzzle. He gets as many bops with the sock up and down both arms as High-5 responses he can get right in a row. He controls the number. For a special treat he can have bops to his back. If he asks to do it to me, we talk a lot about trust and he is allowed. SI therapeutic deep pressure patting and a lot of talk about trust and rule following.

High 5 Puzzle – For a treat or for transitions. I put my hands in different positions and he has to slap them in the right position. This is SI, proprioception and tactile. Also involves a lot of eye contact, trust, rule following.

Rough Brush / Gentle brush – For a treat if he wants to. Student is asked trivia questions. Behind my back are the rough brush and the gentle brush, but he doesn’t know in which hand. Right answers get the brush in the right hand. Wrong answers get the brush in the left hand. 10 strokes up and down each arm. We discuss what pressure he likes and when following his preference we talk about trust. Sensory integration and friendly touch.  

New, Fun Games

Ball flags bring back – Student gets to try using the rainbow coloured ball flags on the other side of the room. When I say, “Student, bring back” he has to drop the flags and come and play high 5 puzzle with me. To develop shifting and flexibility and to reinforce mastery of attention developed during meditation practice.  

New, Fun Game – Bean Bowl Story Dice – Student and I tell stories together using story dice. Each time he participates cooperatively I tell him which feeling I felt on the feeling wheel and move two beans to the target bowl. The goal is to move all the beans from one bowl to another before the timer runs out. Each time one of us contributes helpfully and co-operatively to the story we can move two beans.


Constructive Dismissal


I’m preparing a talk for some instructors at St. Lawrence College in Kingston. My goal is raise awareness about the effect of executive functions on success in college, and to suggest that the instructors consider using whole-class EF coaching in their feedback and assessment systems. I’ve never spoken to college instructors before. I hope they’re not in the middle of a horrible contract dispute or a broken coffee machine. I hope they get up on the right side of the bed and I hope they come with an open mind.

As I develop my presentation, I find myself focusing on the obstacles faced by bright kids with poor executive functions. Maybe you’ll be interested in the ideas I’m planning to share.

Consider this, if you are so inclined. Perhaps the students who are pulling ‘A’s in college classes are not the students in the college classes with the most creative and innovative solutions to problems that have been presented. Necessarily. They might be. But those kids who make the high marks *might* just the kids who can execute best. They may be creating great things, but they may also just be feeding their teachers ideas that are 100% safe, clear, tidy, and good enough.

Fact is, those ‘A’ students might be the kids who managed to start a month ago, secure good peer support, find a killer study group, arrange for their uncle (who is an engineer) to look it over, and get their sister to grammar check it five times. They might just be the ones who manage to exercise, eat, and sleep, and just generally keep their shit together. And they win. Fair enough, and jolly good for them, but it might be interesting to consider that the skills we are valuing with marks are much more related to execution than design, engineering, marketing, or whatever else we are intending to teach. The people we are promoting and encouraging with marks are the executors.

The guys that are not valued, promoted, and encouraged are the kids with a few unusually weak executive functions. The rubric does not control for executive functions so their marks stink. Sometimes they are utterly immobilized by anxiety or depression. Or they submit incomplete, unpolished work that has flashes of greatness – a 6 pager when you asked for a 12. They are the ones who get terrible grades because they avoid and avoid and avoid and then finally have a breakdown and start two nights before and don’t sleep for 48 hours trying to get things done. They do not, generally, sleep well, wake up on time, eat sensibly, or get any exercise. Their executive functions are a straight up mess.

This guy and gal fill college classrooms, and my advocacy for them is passionate. I’m passionate because I know that every single kid in our classrooms has something important to offer. I’ve worked with kids with weak EFs and I know that more often that you might suspect, they have dynamic and original minds and big contributions to make. These kids with poor executive functions tend to lose. It is worth noticing that although so much of the marked performance relies on execution, it is rarely taught directly.

Darn it, how can we get these kids up to speed? This question is turning into my life’s work because the more I get to know kids and adults with weak EFs the more I notice a disturbing pattern. People with weak EFs are a group who think divergently, imaginatively, and deeply AND they rarely get their act together quickly and efficiently enough to join the conversation. They are sort of ‘constructively dismissed’ by the way we run our classrooms – hopelessly unprepared to participate and resigned to the sidelines. All those unusual thinkers are sidelined. That’s a big deal. It’s a problem.

I wonder what is lost in the wholesale ‘leaving behind’ of poor executors? Do smart but scattered people generate a brand of solution that is underrepresented in the way we do business on earth? Do our complex and unruly problems require complex and unruly problem-solvers? Wouldn’t it be interesting to pull these guys back into the conversation and see what they could do with an early start, and a study group, and strategies for being flexible, and well-fed, exercised, and slept? Jeepers. Gosh darn it. It would.

The book I’m writing, and the finale of most of my talks is related to my idea for a flipped feedback and assessment system that focuses on whole-class EF-based coaching. I’m encouraging educators to slow down and reflect on goals with students before the work begins, anticipate challenges in execution, make tangible plans for working around those obstacles, and then hold their students accountable (with marks) for following their plans. In practice, at St. Lawrence College, it might sound something like this…

Hi guys. Sorry I’m late but there was a contract protest and the coffee machine is broken. No matter… let’s get started. Here is the target – work with a group to design this widget. What do you know about yourself? What do you know about your executive functions? So, what’s going to stop you from hitting this target? What are you going to do to prevent that, exactly? Great. I’m writing that down. You write it down. Let’s document your plan. You will be marked on your use of that strategy. Now get to work, you bunch of loveable rascals.

Best I can figure, at a time like this, we need all hands on deck. Let’s figure out how to do that.


Meditation – Plain and Practical

When something dramatic has happened in your life, or you’re struggling with a transition, or you’re having a period of low mental health, meditation might become more relevant to you. Hard times might be your chance to learn the lifelong skill of meditation.

In the past month, two of my oldest and dearest friends suffered the loss of a loved one. As they mourn, they have good days and they have days when they really struggle. On the hard days it is hard to turn off the constant blurry tumble of sadness, memories, longing, worries, and regret. I heard recently that mourning is like trying to go about your day with a body filled with rocks. It is certainly a challenge to recover a calm and steady frame of mind.

I asked my friends, “Do you meditate? Can I give you a very quick and practical plan to start?”. What I shared with them is the stripped-down beginner’s protocol I have taught my sons, aged 8 and 11. It is the perfect place to start for anyone who wants to try meditation.

Here is what I told them, plain and simple:



If YOU’RE having a rough time, I hope you’re okay. I hope you know you’re not alone. Maybe you’ll try this simple strategy to feel stronger, steadier, and more in-control in your everyday life.


Executive Functions and School

IMG_7967 (1)

For the sake of simplicity, let us boil down the list of EFs that affect children at school to the list proposed by my Toronto colleagues at Montcrest School and EFs2theRescue :

Emotional Control – the ability to recognize and regulate emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, and direct behaviour

Flexibility –  the ability to revise a plan in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes; involves adaptability to changing conditions

Goal Directed Persistence – the capacity to persevere and follow a task through to completion

Metacognition – the ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate by asking; “How am I doing?” or “How did I do?”

Planning & Organization – the ability to create a roadmap, make decisions, and prioritize for task completion; the ability to design and maintain systems for tracking information and materials

Response Inhibition – the capacity to stop, evaluate, and think before you act

Shifting and Time Management – the ability to move appropriately from one situation to another; the capacity to estimate and to use time effectively

Sustained Attention – the capacity to attend to a situation or task, in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or lack of interest

Task Initiation – the ability to begin a task in a timely fashion

Working Memory – the ability to hold information and past experience/learning in mind while performing complex tasks

Guiding children towards better executive functioning is a special challenge because children are often totally overwhelmed and confused by their struggles. They can often tell you things like, “I’m terrible at math” or “I’m not a good friend” or “I get in trouble for being a bad partner”. The way they explain it reveals their theory about why it is happening. Did you catch it?

I’m terrible  *  I’m not good  *  I am bad

Children are often all muddled up about the antecedents and consequences of their behaviour. Sometimes they know what triggers their difficulty (antecedent) – “My memory is horrible”. They might be able to tell you which aspect of their performance is the hardest (behavior) – “I can’t do presentations”.  They often know the way people respond to them (consequence) after they mess up, “Kevin! You’re ruining everything!”


They RARELY know and connect all three steps of the ABC model. They can almost never say, “Memory tasks are hard for me so I struggle with presentations which can be frustrating for my groupmates”.

Kids and EFs are complicated. It takes a well-trained teacher or coach to help a child understand and command their EF platform.