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Executive function skills: writing support for students with ADHD


Why do students with ADHD struggle with writing?


For one, writing is an incredibly complex task that many students struggle with in school and at home. And for a student with ADHD, the demands that writing places on their cognitive load (brain capacity) can be overwhelming.


Strong executive function skills are a crucial part of writing. These skills take time to develop so younger children may need extra scaffolding and guidance.


Middle and high school students with ADHD will likely need to learn strategies in order to achieve academic success.


Before we begin, please note that a student's ability to write and their perceived intelligence are not at all correlated. Students with ADHD genuinely want to succeed but need to develop better self regulation, self monitoring, and self awareness.


This challenge does not make them any less smart. Writing is an enormous cognitive task and requires steps to be chunked, sustained attention, and it is essential that students have a supportive environment.


Keep reading to learn how you can help your student with ADHD learn how to write.


This is an image listing 6 executive function skills needed for writing: planning, metacognition, organization, time management, attention and self-regulation
Executive skills for writing

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What are common challenges with writing for kids with ADHD?

Writing difficulties in students with executive function deficits can look like racing to finish assignments the night before it's due, seemingly drawing a blank when sitting down to write, or just plain avoiding writing tasks.


Many kids with executive skill deficits are visual learners and visual thinkers, so expressing themselves using written expression is not always easy.


If you notice any of the following issues for your child with ADHD when they are asked to write, read on:

  • Avoidance around writing tasks

  • Being able to verbally explain their thoughts, but not write them down

  • Confusion and challenges following the writing process

  • Drawing a blank when asked to write (especially open ended prompts)


What do kids with ADHD struggle with underneath the surface?

Underneath the struggle, the student is possibly dealing with low frustration tolerance as well as perfectionism.


Yes, perfectionism.


Perfectionism is often observed in people with ADHD and can lead to perfectionist paralysis.


This is when people feel like they can't start a task because the demand (whether internal or external) to be perfect, flawless, magnificent, is too great.


In reality, the best way to move forward is just to start!


Tiny steps with permission to mess up.


To learn more about what is going on below the surface for kids with ADHD, check out the article, Parenting Students with ADHD: What Is The ADHD Iceberg? (2022).


What are the executive skills required for writing?

Students with ADHD typically have challenges with their working memory.


Working memory is like your brain's mental scratchpad. It's where you hold and manipulate pieces of information that are then either funneled to long term memory or forgotten (think: Pixar's Inside Out).


For someone without working memory challenges, they can usually hold 4 pieces of information. Many children with ADHD typically have fewer working memory slots contributing to poor working memory. This is one reason your child (or you) may be so forgetful.

In contrast, more recent meta-analytic evidence indicates...that up to 85% of children with ADHD have working memory deficits (Kasper et al., 2012)

1. Planning

When we write, we must think about the topic, the organization, eloquently tying ideas together, all while regulating our attention long enough to stick to the task.


Planning from beginning to end is often a struggle for people with attentional challenges. Students have told me that planning out writing can feel like extraneous work since they want to just get the writing task done and out of the way.


2. Organizational skills


This is an image of a web of ideas for a writing task

People with executive dysfunction have an underdeveloped frontal lobe which can lead to being disorganized as well as an indifference to organization.


Their brain is scattered and so is their space- a phrase I often hear from frustrated parents. Organizing thoughts, ideas, and then written expression is no different. It can seem random and scattered and all over the place.



3. Attention

Attention deficits are a hallmark of ADHD, though most people with ADHD are actually paying attention to TOO many things and have trouble self regulating.


In his most recent book, ADHD 2.0, Dr. Hallowell talks about VAST which stands for variable attention stimulus trait.


It is a pattern of behavior that professionals within the field of ADHD are seeing that appears similarly to ADHD but without the neurochemical imbalance. It is likely caused by technology, social media apps, and our increasing demand for immediate gratification.


You can read more about VAST here.


4. Time management

When we get an assignment, we need to ask ourselves, "how long will this task take us?" You need to think about the entire assignment but also the smaller pieces that must be completed.


If you manage your time well, you might start a week before the assignment is done and do 30 minutes each night. Low stress, efficient, and effective. Most students with executive challenges will not plan their time ahead like this without help.


5. Metacognition

Metacognition in this case would be self talk. It is a key skill for self monitoring and self regulation.


How does your student feel about themselves as a writer?


You can read more about and EF skills here.


This is an image of a student working with her teacher on schoolwork

How does this impact school performance?

Sitting down to write, especially about something that they are not inherently interested in can feel extremely difficult.


If a student with executive function deficits is assigned writing assignments for homework , especially without graphic organizers to support their writing (see below for more), they might feel overwhelmed, anxious, tempted to avoid the task until the last minute.


They may wait until the night the assignment is due and frantically try to get it done. This may or may not result in a late assignment. This is usually the result of time blindness and poor time management skills.


This will result in stress. Probably for the student. Probably for the parent.

How does stress impact executive function skills? It wipes them out. If you want an article about that, let us know in the comments.



This is an image of a male student working on a writing task on the computer

Case study: Brian

I had a client who was a freshman in college. He was extremely social, well spoken, a wonderful artist but when it came to writing, he immediately shut down. He would say "I am a terrible writer. Writing is so hard."


When his first writing assignment came around he said he would work on it a little bit the days leading up to the deadline. He did not.


When we met, he shared that he had not actually worked on it and felt anxious about the assignment. He liked the topic, he had picked it, but couldn't think of anything to write. The process of writing felt overwhelming and the attention and self regulation it took to actually sit down, brainstorm, write, and edit was just too much to do independently.


My solution was:

  1. Help him find sources- this helped him think about what else to write and include

  2. Type for him while he said what to write. This alleviates the cognitive load pressure to think, write, organize, and edit.

  3. We outlined the rest of his paper together so he had structure

  4. I checked in with him daily via text

  5. He met with his teacher to get an extension

Executive dysfunction will look different for each student. It is important to listen to your student with compassion and not shame them for struggling.


Potential Solutions to writing challenges

Planning

* Brainstorming before writing * Outlining the structure of the writing task before starting

​Organizational skills

* Follow planning steps (above) * Write, read aloud, edit, rewrite * Write on Google Docs and have a parent/tutor use the "Suggest" feature * Read aloud and rewrite at least twice

Attention

* Put on music that is familiar but fun * Take a deep breath before starting * Try binaural beats * Use the Pomodoro technique * Think: What is the best environment for me to focus? * Body doubling- ask a friend or parent to sit with you without helping

Time management

* ​Using a planner to schedule writing time across multiple days * Aim to complete the assignment at least two days before its due

Additional supports

* ​Someone typing while the student explains their thoughts verbally * Using speech to text software * Graphic organizers


What else to look for?

As a word of caution, it is possible for students to have a specific learning disability in written expression, sometimes called dysgraphia.


This neurological condition is entirely different than ADHD and a student would require different supports and accommodations.


According to medical professionals, If you observe any of the following, it may be beneficial to consider further testing for dysgraphia:

  • Difficulties writing in a straight line.

  • Difficulties with holding and controlling a writing tool.

  • Writing letters in reverse.

  • Having trouble recalling how letters are formed.

  • Omitting words from sentences.

  • Incorrectly ordering words in sentences.

  • Using verbs and pronouns incorrectly.

Conclusion

Students with executive dysfunction often struggle with written expression and homework assignments that involve writing, and getting their thoughts onto paper.


As a parent or coach, it is of the utmost importance that you first preserve their self esteem and secondarily support their writing skills.


Students with ADHD can often verbalize their thinking but the process of writing is hard because of the cognitive load and the complex process of thinking, writing, editing, and rewriting.


Do you feel your student still needs improvement in writing but you simply don't have the time or ability to address it? An executive function coach may be a great next step!


Check out our article: Executive Function Coaching -The definitive guide, and sign up for executive function coaching to make sure you get the help you need.


Book recommendations:

About the author

Ella Holton-McCoy is an Executive Function Coach and Educational Therapist at EF Specialists. She is a firm believer that executive functioning skills are the key to success in education as well as in life. Her speciality is working with college aged students who are interested in exploring how mindfulness can reduce stress and improve their executive functioning. In her free time, she enjoys playing frisbee golf, swimming, reading, and spending time with her family.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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