Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why does my student avoid writing? How can I help?

It's common for students with anxiety, emotional/behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and ADHD to struggle with writing. Some students may avoid, retreat, or straight out refuse to complete writing assignments. Why does this happen?

Simultaneous Brain Processing

First, it's important to understand how the brain works when processing is affected by environmental stress and/or anxiety-related disabilities and disorders. As I noted in ADHD and Anxiety: The Vicious Circle, anxiety related disabilities and ADHD can impair brain processing. Impaired processing causes anxiety. Anxiety further impairs processing. Further impaired processing causes more anxiety. The cycle will often go on as long as the student is presented with the anxiety-producing task-- which often is paper-pencil or writing.

Writing is such an interactive, challenging task, because writers must process so many things at once. They must process the prompt or task, establish a purpose, brainstorm and convey ideas, organize, choose effective vocabulary, establish a rhythm and flow, write with voice, and use proper mechanics and presentation. Writers with ADHD and anxiety related disabilities often struggle with applying and maintaining multiple thought processes simultaneously. Writers with ADHD may also "hyperfocus," or over-focus on one particular part of the writing. Similarly, writers with autism spectrum disorders may perseverate, or "get stuck" on one component of the writing. Many writers may feel overwhelmed with the number of thoughts that pop into their heads at once.

Imagine doing all of these things under stress and with a disability or disorder that impairs processing, while trying to cope and write. Hiding under a desk might not seem like such a bad idea, right?

So how can we help?

Fortunately, with patience and understanding we can help students to manage writing-- and even enjoy it. It all starts with breaking down the process into simple, manageable segments. Here are some ideas to try.

  • Provide extended time and a workplace with limited distractions. Privacy folders and noise-blocking headphones can help with this. Ask teachers and librarians in your school to donate old headphones that don't work anymore. Simply cut off the wires and use them for noise blocking.
  • Allow students to verbalize their answers to you, an aide, a partner, or into a voice recorder.
  • Allow students to use text-to-speech, word processing, or word prediction software. Many of these are available as iPad apps.
  • Scribe or transcribe for the student.
  • Scaffold with a sentence starter. For example, take a question like, "What is a community?" and turn it into, "A community is _____________." 
  • Use "fancy pens for fancy words." Have students edit writing for word choice after they have finished writing. Have them erase 1-4 words and re-write a "fancier" synonym using a pen.
  • Start small. Look for quality over quantity. Keep in mind that writing one sentence is as much work for some students as writing a paragraph. Sometimes when quality and effort are present, less is more.
  • Use graphic organizers, such as Four Square paragraph writing and the ACE strategy for answer writing. These are designed to break the multiple steps into manageable bits. Many students find them easier to use than outline writing.
  • Provide specific praise and encouragement-- not only for the writing, but also for the effort.
  • Talk to the student. Get feedback, and have the student self-monitor his or her feelings toward writing. Brainstorm ideas together. What works? What doesn't? What can be improved or simplified?
  • Make writing fun. Help the student by scribing or transcribing on assessments, but also provide fun writing practice where the student can write independently. Have them write to create books, menus, posters, letters to friends or favorite celebrities, postcards, newspapers, magazines, television show or movie scripts, video game or DVD/CD covers, banners, classroom labels, or double entry journals with friends, family, or teachers.
What are some strategies you use to help your students with writing? Share in the comments below!

Happy writing,

A Peach for the Teach


  1. Excellent suggestions! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. My teaching partner and I were just talking about this on Friday. I will share your information with her on Monday.

  2. Hi, Kim!

    Thanks so much for your comment! I'm glad this was helpful! If you two come up with any new ideas, please share them with me. Thanks again!


  3. I LOVE reading your blog! You touch on topics that so many bloggers do not cover. Your points are spot on, and I know I'll gain at least one new "trick" each time I stop over. Thank you so much!

  4. Hey, Heather!

    You're very welcome! Thank you so much! Your comment made my day! If you ever have any ideas for things you'd like to read on here, feel free to let me know.