Coping with Executive Function Deficits in the Context of Writing

Updated: Apr 25, 2018

Staring at a blank screen. Tapping a pencil incessantly. Crumpling up a draft out of frustration. We’ve all witnessed a student struggling with writing. There are many reasons a student may demonstrate difficulty with writing, including attention difficulties, aversion, dysgraphia, or executive function deficits. In this blog, we are going to focus on how executive function impacts writing.

Executive function skills, including the ability to initiate, break down, and follow through on multi-step tasks, are critical in attaining academic success. While executive functioning deficits are known to impact a student’s ability to organize and execute tasks, they can also adversely affect a student’s ability to write.

Let’s break down the writing process by looking at the executive functions required to successfully complete each subtask. We are going to focus on take-home essays, as in-class writing requires a different approach. Writing requires students to have all executive functions intact, as one must be able to plan, set goals, and self-start to draft a well-written essay. The ability to chunk and “backwards plan” is essential to completing a writing assignment in a meaningful, timely manner. All students, and especially those with impacted executive functioning, would benefit from a structured task list for writing assignments.

I’ve included a general task list below. Let’s look at how many executive functions play an integral role in each step of the writing process:

As you can see, executive function skills and writing go hand in hand. The steps of the writing process, including prewriting, need to be taught through direct instruction, modeling, and independent practice. When told “write a paragraph,” students with executive function deficits may feel that they do not have enough information to self-start. Although many students skip prewriting, this is an essential component of the process that makes writing coherent, logical, and well-developed. Additionally, the thesis and topic sentences provide a roadmap for the student to self-monitor and stay on topic.

Some students benefit from working with an executive function coach or another adult on prewriting, including generating ideas and crafting an outline. Once the student has a completed outline, she may think she’s all set. However, sometimes the student doesn’t know how to initiate drafting when left to her own devices. This is when micro goal setting becomes essential. While we ultimately want the student to write independently, this process needs to be scaffolded to allow the student to learn effectively. We can remove that scaffolding later, once the process becomes automated.

When a child feels “stuck,” sometimes the physical act of typing or handwriting can be challenging. The executive function coach or other adult can support the student by allowing her to think aloud and dictate her thoughts. A student with a weak working memory may have difficulty typing her thoughts before forgetting them, which can be frustrating. The adult can take notes as the student talks to facilitate the organizational process. This will build the child’s confidence and help her initiate the writing task. Seeing her thoughts on paper provides visual evidence that the child is on the right path. In addition, hearing her writing read aloud allows the student to self-monitor and edit. Acronyms, such as COPS (Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, and Spelling), can support students with a systematic, learned approach during the self-editing process. In addition, it’s important that the student refer back to the directions, a rubric, and an example throughout the writing process.

With so much to consider, it’s no wonder that writing is such a laborious skill to master! There are so many valuable apps available to guide students through the writing process. Here are a few of our current favorites:

Brainstorming & Prewriting Tools

Further Reading

  • Executive Functions: Foundations for Learning and Teaching by Patricia W. Newhall

  • Executive Function in Education by Lynn Meltzer

  • Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare

~Courtney Wittner, M.Ed

Director, Hayutin & Associates

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