Speech and Language

Writing Difficulties and ADHD… And How You Can Help!

October 18, 2021

Does your child struggle with writing? If so, you are not alone! When kids come to my (Katie’s) office for testing, they are usually happy to play with toys and look at pictures… until I get out a pencil and tell them we are going to write! Writing can be challenging for so many reasons. […]

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Does your child struggle with writing? If so, you are not alone! When kids come to my (Katie’s) office for testing, they are usually happy to play with toys and look at pictures… until I get out a pencil and tell them we are going to write! Writing can be challenging for so many reasons.

I constantly talk with parents who are stressed and overwhelmed every time their child brings home a writing assignment. Don’t worry, we are here to help you understand why this is happening and how you can support your child! 

Writing and language are connected

There is a strong link between writing and language. In many ways, writing is the academic form of speaking, so children who have a language disorder are much more likely to struggle with writing. One longitudinal research study revealed that “among children with speech and language impairment, the cumulative incidence of a writing disorder was 61.4% for boys and 55.1% for girls at age 19 years” (Katusic et al., 2009). 

If you are worried about your child’s language or their writing, a thorough speech language evaluation is essential to understanding (and supporting) your child’s needs! A speech language evaluation would look at essential tools for writing, including:

  • Vocabulary and your child’s ability to quickly find the “right words”
  • Grammar in structured tasks and spontaneous conversation
  • Memory for language (very important while writing!)
  • Organization of thoughts and ability to understand or explain a story
  • Perspective taking ability which is essential when writing with the reader in mind

Executive Function: The missing piece 

Children with ADHD also struggle with writing at a much higher rate than their peers. The Katusic et al. 2009 study mentioned above showed a significant difference between children with and without ADHD. 

64.5% of boys with ADHD presented with writing difficulties by the time they were 19, while only 16.5% of boys without ADHD had these challenges. 57% of girls with ADHD had issues expressing themselves in writing by age 19. Writing disorder was only seen in 9.4% of girls without ADHD.

 Many of the challenges for children with ADHD come from issues with executive function. These are brain-based skills that help us set a plan, determine the steps, and stay on task while we work. They also help us to be flexible, regulate emotions, and remember the details (like editing our work!) Writing requires A LOT of executive function, so it is often a struggle for kids with ADHD. Let’s break down the task of writing, and how this relates to executive function:

  • For many kids with ADHD or executive function challenges, getting started is the hardest part. Writing has many steps, from planning to editing, which can be completely overwhelming! While it may look like your child is “procrastinating” or “being lazy” this can actually be a sign of paralyzing overwhelm, not knowing where to start.
  • To write, you need to have the big picture in mind. What is the end result? What do you want your reader to think/feel/know? At the same time, you need to be focused on the details (spelling, punctuation, grammar). This means constantly shifting focus while staying on task.
  • Children with ADHD often have difficulty regulating their attention to detail. This means they may be overly attentive to details, or they work so slowly  that they don’t finish on time! On a different day, that same child may also rush through their work and ignore the important details, which results in careless errors.
  • Handwriting is another area where many children with ADHD struggle. We have some recommendations below to help support your child, but an occupational therapy evaluation can give you specific insight and strategies for your child’s development.

 How you can help your child with writing? 

First and foremost, set reasonable expectations for yourself and your child. Yes, writing is important – but so is your relationship with your child. It’s hard when your child is struggling with school, and you are not alone. Take a deep breath, give yourself and your child a lot of grace, and let’s dive into some strategies that can help you at home.

  • Allow your child to select the topic of writing assignments whenever this is possible. We all do better when we are interested in the topic because it is more motivating!
  • Help your child draw the “future picture” of what the completed writing assignment will look like. This helps children see the goal, rather than explaining it to them in words. While it may seem obvious to you, many children with ADHD have difficulty visualizing what the finished product will look like.
  • Use graphic organizers, like a story web or flow chart, to help your child organize their thoughts. Again, these visual supports make it easier for children to understand how the ideas should be connected, giving them an overall organizational structure to follow.
  • Whenever possible, break tasks into smaller and more manageable chunks. From there, spread them across the day or over the course of the week. It can be helpful to write things down on a calendar so that your child can visualize the tasks and cross them off as they complete each stage (brainstorming, planning, writing, editing, etc).
  • During the “brainstorming” stage of writing, give your child several sticky notes. They can write each idea on the sticky note (no idea is a bad one!) and then once they have all of their ideas down, they can organize them into groups. This can be helpful for kids who know what they want to say, but quickly lose their idea if they don’t “get it out” fast enough.
  • Have your child dictate their ideas to you while you type or write.
  • Teach keyboarding skills or dictation software if your child is ready. Along with this, spell check and other editing tools can be useful to support your child with the process.
  • Allow your child to write with print or cursive, whatever is easiest. Use graph paper to help with spacing and alignment if handwriting is an issue. An evaluation with an occupational therapist can also help with fine motor skills, such as handwriting.

Does your child need more help at school?

If your child is really struggling with writing, it would be helpful to have them evaluated for an IEP or 504 Plan. These plans give structured support to your child beyond the general curriculum. The first step to getting these specialized accommodations and services is to request testing from your school district. Check out our sample letter which you can use to make this request.

Please know that these challenges are incredibly common. Many children have trouble with writing, especially children with ADHD and/or a learning disorder.

We are so glad you are here today! Make sure you subscribe to our email list so you don’t miss a thing. And if your child has a diagnosis of ADHD (or suspected ADHD), you cannot miss our parenting course, Creating Calm. You can watch this course from anywhere in the world, on your own time, no babysitter required! We give you lots of tools and tips for managing ADHD in your home, so that you can raise an independent and confident child with ADHD!


Have a wonderful week!

Katie

Reference: 
Katusic, S. K., Colligan, R. C., Weaver, A. L., & Barbaresi, W. J. (2009). The forgotten Learning Disability: Epidemiology of Written-Language disorder in a Population-Based birth Cohort (1976-1982), ROCHESTER, MINNESOTA. PEDIATRICS, 123(5), 1306-1313. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-2098
Disclaimer: The contents of this site are opinions of The Childhood Collective PLLC partners unless otherwise noted. The information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any type of medical condition and is not intended as personalized medical/psychological advice. Any decision you make regarding you and your family’s health and medical treatments should be made with a qualified healthcare provider.

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