Learning Challenges

The Common Problems that Lead to Writer’s Block — and How Parents Can Help

Many kids with ADHD find writing assignments torturous. Here’s a six-step plan to get the words flowing.

study break winter school

On the way home from a practice SAT exam, my daughter asked my son, who has ADHD, what he wrote for his writing section. He went into enthusiastic detail about his essay, concluding, “It was probably one of the best things I’ve ever written!”

My daughter sat in stunned silence for several moments, and then blurted out, “But that had nothing to do with the writing prompt they gave us!”

It was my son’s turn to sit in stunned silence before asking, “What prompt?”

Students with ADHD have built-in challenges in writing tasks. Writing takes concentration, and if the topic isn’t interesting to the student, it is hard for him to sustain effort and focus. The act of writing takes deliberation in order for a distractible child to produce meaningful words.

Fortunately, there are tips that can encourage struggling writers to stick with it. The first thing is to remove the common problems and obstacles that may be affecting your child’s concentration.

Get a Grip

Is she holding the pen or pencil correctly? If the child has an uncomfortable or awkward grip on her pencil, it will interfere with the formation and flow needed for good writing mechanics. If the act of writing seems laborious or painful, try a few different pencil grips to see if they help the student write more easily and comfortably. There are firm pencil grips, called Stetro grips, that help the fingers stay in position. The Stetro grip fits near the tip of the pencil and has indentations for the thumb, index, and middle fingers. It trains the student to hold the pencil correctly, and has a built-in reminder, so that it becomes awkward and uncomfortable to write while holding the Stetro grip incorrectly.

Some students write better with softer grips to relax the white-knuckle pressure that they put on the pencil. The Pencil Grip is made of a rubbery, slightly squishable material that allows for a little squeezing on the pencil without discomfort to the hand.

Pencil Pressure Fixes

Is your child having trouble controlling the pencil as he writes? “Grading” is the term used by occupational therapists to describe the degree of pressure or lack of adequate force when doing fine motor tasks. If your child has trouble controlling pencil pressure, his writing may be light in some areas and dark in other areas. In some cases, he may even tear through the paper. Your student may resist writing because it is hard for him to erase errors.

When you observe this difficulty, have him use a mechanical pencil. Because the sharpness is more consistent than with a regular pencil, many students prefer writing with this type of pencil.

Visuals to Encourage Writing

If your young student with ADHD has strong visual skills, allow him to illustrate what he is writing about. When my son was learning to write sentences and paragraphs, he resisted writing letters and numbers, but he loved to draw. I found paper that was blank on the top half and had lines on the lower half for the student’s writing. My son was enticed by the promise of using colored pencils to illustrate his written work. Being able to draw whatever he wanted was his reward for writing about topics he was assigned. By giving him permission to draw, I decreased his resistance to pencil-writing tasks.

Good Graphic Organizers

I have used a number of different printable graphic organizers to help my students plan and jot down their thoughts for what they wanted to write. A Google search for “graphic organizers” will provide a variety of free printables. Some are detailed, so select one that best fits your child’s functioning level. I suggest printing out several different formats to see which one your child feels most comfortable using.

I favor a couple of iPad apps to help with organizing and planning writing projects with my students. Popplet ($4.99; iOS) is a tool that helps students who learn visually to document facts and thoughts in a way that facilitates making connections and generating plans. It offers the best features of a graphic organizer and is easily edited if needed. A student can use color, change the size of the font, and make multiple boards. Completed Popplet boards can be saved as pictures or emailed from the app.

The Co:Writer app ($34.99; iOS) is useful for writers who have difficulties with grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. Co:Writer has a word prediction feature, and its suggestions can be read aloud through a text-to-speech option. Co:Writer is designed to help with inventive or phonetic spelling as well.

The Right Paper

Using colored paper, not standard white-and-blue lined pages, will ease the task of writing. For some students, white paper reflects light, which makes it harder for them to focus on the writing task. Pastel-colored paper, on the other hand, is easier on the eyes, and will reduce glare on the page. Students may find that using a specific color paper, such as light blue or green, makes it easier for them to read and write. The use of color adds a bit of novelty to the stimulation-loving ADHD brain. Likewise, allowing the students to use special pens — gel pens or themed or patterned pencils — for a final draft of their writing projects is an incentive that keeps them engaged.

Because students with ADHD are overwhelmed by lengthy writing assignments, use paper with wider spacing between the lines, so that there are fewer lines on the page. My daughter liked writing on this type of paper because the task appeared easier.

Keyboarding to the Rescue

Older students find it easier and more enjoyable to type their assignments on a keyboard. This alleviates some of the challenges of paper-and-pencil tasks, and students can quickly check and correct spelling and grammar errors. Encourage creative students to experiment with different fonts, and challenge them to find clip art or add graphics to keep them interested.

By the time my son entered high school, he expressed himself well through writing, and discovered that he had an interest in writing fan fiction. During his final years of high school, writing became his passion, and he continues to write science fiction novels as an adult. It was a gradual and incredible transformation to see him go from being a reluctant writer to being a prolific and enthusiastic author.