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Writing: The Perfect Storm for Students with ADHD

“I hate writing,” announced a high schooler during a coaching session in my office. After years of struggle and failure to successfully complete research projects, essays, and other writing assignments, she came to coaching discouraged and feeling like she was the only person to “not get it” when it comes to writing.

But she is far from alone. According to research published in Pediatrics in 2011, writing difficulties are five times more common in students with ADHD than in those without. In my coaching practice, I would say most of my clients share similar struggles. And based on my experience in education and coaching, most teachers and parents report that writing is one of the most common triggers for disruptive behaviors. To make it all worse, writing doesn’t go away; it only gets harder.

The problem with writing is that it requires the coordination of many different complex neurological processes. It is the executive function equivalent of trying to prepare an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner and drive through downtown New York City – at the same time.

Think about it…when we express ourselves in writing, we must be able to have the foresight to know and plan what message we want to communicate, organize and prioritize abstract thoughts, self-regulate long enough to sit ourselves down to put ideas on paper, use working memory to retrieve the words we need and the appropriate conventions required, sustain our attention to stick with the task, and utilize perspective to know how our words will be perceived by a reader.

For neurotypical students, this is a tall order. For students with ADHD or other executive functioning challenges, just the thought of writing even relatively simple pieces is beyond daunting. It is no wonder writing is often the antecedent for emotional meltdowns.

So how can we make writing easier for students with ADHD? One step is to provide students a system to break down the writing process into a series of steps that are clear, simple, and prioritized. This reduces the anxiety that results from seeing a writing assignment as one, insurmountable, overwhelming job, rather than a series of do-able small tasks. Students also need planning tools that provide structure for foresight, brainstorming, and organization to make abstract thoughts more concrete and visual. Above all, students need self-regulation strategies to calm their brains and allow them to access creativity, working memory, and other neurological processes.

The dread students with ADHD feel when faced with a writing assignment makes it difficult to even begin the task. Students often see a research paper or essay just as impossible as trying to eat an elephant. Fortunately, elephants can be eaten – one bite at a time.


If you are in the Kansas City area, enroll now in Easy Writers minicamp this summer to help high school students discover the way to painless papers! Click here for details and for information on other executive function minicamps.


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