Is Your Teenager’s Writing Anxiety Ruining Family Time?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.




March Madness: Why is Everything I Bought My Kid for School in September Now Totally Gross?

Some kids are messy, and it does have an impact on school performance if they cannot find the work they’ve completed, or if their organizational skills are so poor they cannot locate teacher-created assignments, and they cannot assemble their essential tools and materials in a timely fashion.  The mess takes up too much time and too much mental space.  (Who wants to cook dinner when there are dirty dishes in the sink, the dishwasher hasn’t been unloaded and the garbage needs to be taken out?  The task is magnified by the mess.)  Ditto homework.  Kids do not have the energy to dig themselves out of a garbage heap in order to tackle challenging tasks–so things pile up, and all those beautiful school supplies you bought him are now just a part of the problem.  There is no hopefully gleaming binder, no brilliant color-coded folders.  After all, it’s nearly March…and these objects have all gotten pretty tired…and so have you!

So, what to do?  Obviously the backpack filled with grime, old apple cores and power bar wrappers doesn’t spark joy.  But is it right to chuck it?  His phone screen is broken.  That’s not a joyful site, but you already got it fixed for him twice.  Isn’t there a lesson to be learned here?

First, take a deep breath.  Like all lessons, this one is best learned over time and with whatever compassion/humor you can muster.  Have him empty the book bag completely.  Tell him you won’t shame him.  You can vacuum inside it, if necessary.  Help him wash it so it looks pretty good.  There are all kinds of sprays, and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser may even scrub those disgusting doodles off the binder.  Salvage the larger, more expensive items, but do invest in new folders.  I personally prefer clear plastic envelope style folders because kids can see what they have in there!  In fact, clear plastic everything can really help disorganized kids, and they can be color coded with Sharpies if necessary.  Naturally, writing implements can also be purchased anew.  I like gliding and thicker pens for kids with poor handwriting–nothing makes life harder for a kid with poor small motor skills than nubby pencils and cheap plastic pens that are too skinny to get a decent grip on.

The phone screen is another matter.  I do like to use phone timers and phone calendars as back ups to paper planners, and my personal experience is that the glass fragments eventually work their way into the guts of the phone.  He may need to pay you back for that one—but do choose your battles!  He’ll be more respectful about the expensive stuff, if you agree to refresh the cheaper things.

Isn’t buying him new supplies simply “enabling” this gross-out behavior, you ask?  Many parents have this concern.  My answer is usually that the young teen’s response to his own squalor is rarely to change his habits, so he is not learning through natural consequences.  What is happening is, consciously or not, he feels ashamed of his situation and simply does not want to look at how bad it’s gotten.  I think we’ve all been there!  So, no.  I don’t think buying new supplies a bit more than halfway through the year is enabling grossness.  It’s demonstrating that people generally tackle work with more ease and a better attitude when they do not feel shame about the state of their things.  Hence, clean houses stay clean, and messy houses stay messy.

Only change brings change.




(Late)Birthdays and Middle School Success

In Andrew Solomon’s ground-breaking Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Solomon investigates, among other fascinating subjects, the mysterious world of Canadian youth hockey teams.  What has this to do with school success?  Solomon discovers that kids recruited to play hockey in prestigious youth leagues due to observed early talent are selected in part because these agile young athletes are simply older than their peers (and not necessarily more talented).

I’ve been waiting for (years) now for this fact to resonate with parents and educators EVERYWHERE!

Yet there’s been little follow up in education circles…This is probably due to the simple fact that schools cannot do much about kids’ birthdays.  There will always be a cut off date, and some kids (like those with birthdays this month and last) who will be oldish for the grade, and some kids who will be youngish.  Life just isn’t fair.

Yet it matters…It matters socially, emotionally and academically, and it matters especially in the awkward middle years when kids perceive very clearly how they rate in comparison to their peers in terms of academic success. So, what’s a parent, tutor or teacher to do?

  1. If your child is struggling academically or has discipline issues and is young for the grade say something–mention this fact to the classroom teacher, principal and guidance counselor. Especially if your child is among the very youngest in the room.  Compassion and understanding can go a long way and educators may not know to think about student age, especially in middle school.
  2. Try not to engage in exceptionalism–that way of thinking that says, my daughter is so bright it will not affect her that she is the youngest child in her class.  It really may…Even kids who are early readers may have issues with handwriting, spelling, stamina and following directions–simply because they are young.
  3. Talk to your pediatrician about maturity and attention issues before you begin evaluating for issues like ADD.  Of course, a child could be young and have ADD-type issues, but it does make sense to make age a part of the conversation.
  4. Avoid judgment.  Your son may not read on grade level in third grade, but he may become a fantastic reader by the end of sixth grade.  Give him time, and don’t remind him of his slow start by commenting on how he resisted reading at first.  These characterizations stick with kids and do affect self esteem.
  5. Encourage stamina more than correctness at home in tasks that require writing.  Many parents worry that their kids are not learning to spell and punctuate correctly by middle school.  Writing is a highly complex task that involves small motor skills as well as brain development.  Stamina and fluency must be in place for kids to grow as writers.  Correctness can and will be taught in school. (I put the above sentence in bold because I want to say this all the time to everyone I know.)  Stamina is the perfect place for parents to intervene.  It requires kindness and space and time and is a critical component of school success.  Conversely, when parents give feedback about multiple errors, kids feel more reluctant to share, and can feel ashamed of what they have not yet learned.  Many kids spell common words incorrectly–relying on ear more than visual memory.  Common, “small” words are sometimes harder to learn to spell (and read) than longer words that have more distinct visual cues.
  6. Teach your child that thinking hierarchically about school success is not your approach.  No one is actually “the best” reader or writer in the class.  Language skills are highly personal.  With effort and through increased stamina, your child will continue to explore and develop his talents and abilities throughout his lifetime.  By senior year, no one will care (or recall) that your son was not in the top reading group in sixth grade!

Is Telling My Kid What a New Word Means ‘Cheating?’

In a word, no!

Many parents are unaware that studies show that THE BEST WAY to learn new vocabulary words is through talk with an adult, NOT the dictionary.  Many classroom teachers do assign vocabulary lists for homework, and they may require students to copy down dictionary definitions.  This work is often followed up with a quiz, requiring kids to match definitions and words.  This is a simple way to expose students to new vocabulary, but it is not particularly helpful in boosting a child’s expressive vocabulary, while only superficially (and perhaps temporarily) expanding her receptive vocabulary.

Receptive vocabulary is our ability to comprehend a word  in context, either in conversation or in reading.  Expressive vocabulary includes those words we use conversationally and in our own writing.  Naturally, one’s receptive vocabulary is larger than one’s expressive vocabulary.  Both, however, become robust through years of formal education and through consistent exposure to high level reading and talk.  The problem is that dictionary definitions are themselves difficult to understand, especially for kids.  Furthermore, the dictionary is not a person.  People can easily (and interestingly) explain the differences in tone and meaning between similar words, while dictionaries merely list synonyms that are not truly interchangeable.  Take, for exampe, the words generous and magnanimous.  Generous connotes a willingness to give of oneself, and carries the meaning of being willing to donate or give money to those in need.  Magnanimous carries the connotation of being generous with oneself, one’s reputation, time and influence.  These shades of meaning and subtle differences in usage are BEST conveyed through talk and example.

So, a robust vocabulary curriculum at any grade level should include lots of talk and synonym posters around the classroom.  Kids delight in learning new words and in understanding shades of meaning, but almost always find classroom vocabulary learning dull.  Yet a strong expressive vocabulary is absolutely necessary for college-level writing, and a strong receptive vocabulary is necessary regardless of a student’s field of study.

So, yes, yes, yes!  Even if your kid has to copy out dictionary definitions for homework, talk about his word list, and help him understand the connotations of synonyms.  Kids, especially teenagers, love learning about shades of meaning and nuances of words.  Talking about words and modeling how adults think about meaning has the added benefit of lessening the anxiety older kids often feel about appearing foolish or ignorant when they do not know a word.  When adults share their word knowledge freely kids learn the joy of finding just the right word to express their thoughts in both speech and writing.