Did you know that writing well is actually harder for students with ADHD? You can read a study with more information about it here. The study found that ADHD student writing is” less coherent, well structured, and ideationally rich.” In simple terms, this means that their writing may be harder to understand, their thought process harder to follow, and they may communicate fewer ideas overall. ADHD students don’t do poorly because they want to, but because some writing skills are harder for them. This is even more challenging if they have dysgraphia or dyslexia.
Let’s break down a few of these issues and let me tell you how you can help your ADHD child be a better writer. Each of these steps can be used for writing complete sentences, paragraphs, or essays. Remember to work from where your child is. First, they need to be able to write a good sentence, and you may need to work on that word by word with them. Next comes a good paragraph. Once they have the ability to put good sentences in good paragraphs, they can work on essays.
Talk it through
Remember that if you want your child to be able to write well on a topic, they first need to be able to discuss it. An essay is a discussion with the reader. So, when assigning your student a writing assignment, discuss it with them first. Ask questions, and take notes. Note the important facts or dates they may want to use in their writing.
Take notes for them
Why would you take notes? Because one of the challenges of ADHD is working memory. A student with ADHD can say something brilliant one minute, and forget what they said when they go to write it down. By writing down for them the important parts of what they say when discussing the topic, you help them create a written record of their thoughts they can reference when they start to write. Asking leading questions can also help them come up with what they want to say. So, you help them with the parts that are hardest for them.
But why not have them write their own thoughts as they go? Because they can’t write as fast as they can talk or think about a topic. This means that to write a paper, they need to slow down their brains to their handwriting speed, and that can mean they lose their train of thought. If your student struggles with writing, typing, or spelling, slowing down to try to spell a word can derail an entire train of thought.
Eventually, your student may be able to talk through what they know on a topic by using dictation, either to software or a recording device. Then they will be able to create their own set of notes to work from. However, most people find it easier to talk to a person. So let them talk to you and you can write down the parts they will need for their paper at first. Help them develop the skill they need to deal with their brain first. Later you can help them move towards independence. Hopefully, by college, they will be ready to use technology to replace you.
Help them organize their thoughts
Next, help your student figure out how to organize their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs. One way to do this is to put those good thoughts on note cards or sticky notes and help your student literally arrange their thoughts into a logical order for their paper.
Group the similar ideas together. Figure out if there is a chronological order that should be followed and help your student put their thoughts into that order. When explaining how a plant grows, starting with a seed and ending with a mature plant would make the most sense. The trouble with an ADHD brain doing this is that the thoughts don’t happen in order. They all just happen, and if your student is trying to write while they think, all the ideas can come out in the wrong order. Putting them on note cards means they are easy to rearrange.
If your student types their work on a computer, teaching them to edit their work by looking for sentences or paragraphs that are out of place is helpful. A great sentence can be copied and pasted where it will make the most sense, instead of feeling randomly dropped in where it doesn’t. Sometimes an entire paragraph needs to be moved inside a paper to create the right flow.
Look at the writing as a whole
Let your student see they have to create a journey for their reader. Writing isn’t just throwing words at the paper, but also organizing them for your reader. This is what makes a good sentence, paragraph, or essay. The reader can understand what you are trying to tell them. Let them know that it is okay that their brain throws out words and ideas and that they will then need to edit those to work best.
As you go through this process, be sure to praise your child for good word choices, clever analogies, or unique ideas. Those are the gifts of the ADHD writer. They have a unique style and you don’t want to crush that out of their writing. Those are the good parts! Let them know when they have a great idea, and that you support them working to communicate their unique thoughts and ideas.
One last thing to remember is that ADHD students often need extra time to complete written assignments. Because they need to take extra steps they will need longer to write and rewrite their paragraphs or papers. If you use a curriculum with lots of writing assignments, you may want to skip some of them. While practicing writing is important, letting your child write poorly just to get something done is worse than not doing it. Only do as many writing projects as you and your student can do well. Doing a single assignment really well each month can improve your child’s writing far more than doing many assignments that are rushed or just because you feel you should.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.