You are not alone. Many families develop a crisis-management style of togetherness around issues related to homework, especially when a child develops a real aversion to writing. Often, this writing-avoidance behavior begins by fourth or fifth grade, and worsens through the early years of high school, when expectations for both content and correctness rise. If your teen is ambitious and engaged, he may sign on for honor’s level and Advanced Placement classes in History and English, classes that have at their core a writing curriculum that is designed to develop college-level writing ability. These are often excellent, but demanding classes that will challenge even reasonably confident young writers.
Many students with writing issues are also relatively laconic. If that is the case with your child, you may have had him evaluated for expressive language deficits, and he may already be receiving extra help and extra support in his classes. (Of course, there are many learning disabilities that affect writing skills; I am for now focusing on kids without diagnosed LDs.) Conversely, your child may be verbal and quick-witted and still hate to write. This fact confounds many parents and educators and leads many to believe, erroneously, that students who have writing anxiety issues are simply lazy, or under-instructed in writing domains. For many students, writing is a performance task that triggers feelings of overwhelming anxiety, even if they have been well-taught and have grade-level competencies. Being verbal simply does not necessarily correlate with ease with the written word. Writing is a highly complex task that requires multiple cognitive processes. It is a synthesizing task, and a task that requires a deep fluency along with word and punctuation accuracy, fact retrieval, and a feel for language.
So, how do we move them forward? As with most complicated skill sets, there is no silver bullet, and parents and educators need to employ a variety of supports. The following are tips that can help to defuse tension, and provide coping skills that will result in a more positive mindset for both students and caregivers:
- Believe he is doing the best he can, even if it looks like he’s just sitting there waiting for you to lose your mind.
- Try to open lines of communication so you have some idea of when his or her work is due. It’s upsetting to watch a child procrastinate. It’s incredibly anxiety provoking to find out his essay is due the following day, and he has nothing on paper (or on screen).
- Don’t critique his pre-writing heavily. If he seems to know what he’s talking about, but barely fills in a graphic organizer, or produces minuscule outlines, don’t sweat it. Some middle school teachers will grade pre-writing assignments. Feel free to discuss this issue with the teacher. I have had many students who barely fill in organizers who are able to get the job of writing an essay done with concision and accuracy, and even some style, if you can accept a natural tendency toward minimalism (which I do).
- Encourage drafting without editing. Many anxious writers worry too much about correctness when they are drafting. This is because a) they are taught in grade school that good writing=correct punctuation b) they don’t intend to re-read or re-write. This is a huge issue (which is why I put it in bold). Good writing requires revision and editing. They are distinct processes. Revision involves seriously re-envisioning one’s work, and editing involves sentence and paragraph level corrections. If your child is an anxious writer and expects to get it all done in one night and in one draft, he is setting himself up for a sleepless night and a disappointing outcome. Furthermore, the best writers write fluently and in the zone. This means they are thinking in written language, not translating thoughts into writing sentence by sentence, idea by idea. Many anxious writers get into the “translation” habit early on, due in part to poor motor skills. Hence, these writers write very slowly, even once they begin key-boarding. If your kid can accept they need time to revise and edit, they can get into the practice of writing more quickly, and letting ideas come to them, rather than stopping and correcting every sentence. Writing is a more joyful and exciting practice when one does it freely. Writing freely is what first drafts are for.
- Set him and yourself up for success by ensuring he has time for all of the above (assuming he has not procrastinated himself into a full-blown panic-state). Sometimes kids attempt complex tasks during the hour between tennis practice and the math tutor. Or dinner and the art show at school. Even professional writers have difficulty getting into a piece of writing that quickly. If a paper is due, don’t signal to him to panic but DO allow for a two-hour window (at least) of quiet, peaceful work time. If this means sometimes NOT doing everything you/he planned, that’s okay. A part of being a good student is to have realistic goals and to manage your time accordingly. Time management sometimes means disappointing others/ making difficult choices.
Remember that writing anxiety is real and difficult to break through. Kids who hold the belief that they are not good writers struggle with his belief whenever they face a blank page. It takes time to conquer this notion. Be patient, relax, and try to focus on his brilliant ideas, and not his confounding inability to spell or use commas. Strength-based instruction (focusing on what he does well) is helpful whenever anxiety enters the mix.