How to Help Learning Disabled Students with Writing

For neurodiverse students, writing can be a nightmare

Updated 2024.

When parents of children who learn differently reach out to The Writing Center of Princeton, they are often frustrated and concerned. Many are confused by the apparent discrepancy between their children’s verbal skills and their in-school and homework writing performance. 

“He speaks so well but it never translates onto paper.”

“She’s so smart, but her writing is so disorganized.”

“Will my child be able to go to college?”

What’s going on?

Most students with learning challenges/learning disabilities (including ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia) have executive functioning problems. And those problems can create a “perfect storm” when neurodiverse learners are asked to write. Why?

Of all the tasks students are asked to perform in school, writing is by far the most complex and the one that requires most of our executive functioning skills. To write well, all writers have to mobilize, remember, and organize ideas. At the same time, when we write, we need to elaborate and reconsider ideas. Simultaneously, we need to be mindful of the standard rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax. And at the same time that we are managing all that, we need to figure out how to compose or present those ideas in a way that will be meaningful for a reader.

Writing is not a linear process; rather it’s an ongoing recursive process. The act of writing requires that we initiate, consider, reconsider, and revise our ideas and the way we present them over and over again. When we write, we are engaged in a constant process of evaluating and reevaluating our thinking about the topic we are writing about and about the way we are presenting our ideas about the topic. All of these simultaneously engaged in tasks tax our executive functioning skills. It’s even tough for professional writers. And for neurodiverse students and students with learning challenges/learning disabilities, writing can be a tortuous.

Here’s how Aayush, one of our recent students with ADHD and dysgraphia described his writing misery. “When I first get a writing assignment, I get excited because I know that I have a lot to write about. But then I start to panic. Even though I know I have a lot of ideas, when I start to write, it’s hard to remember them all. And even when I do remember them, I have a hard time knowing what to include. And I never seem to put them in an order my teacher likes. It’s not like I’m not trying.”

We know that Aayush is trying. He’s trying really, really hard. But as with many atypical learners, he’s overwhelmed by the simultaneity of demands involved in the process of writing.

Like Aayush, students with executive functioning skills challenges often have trouble initiating writing assignments, generating ideas, and saying more or elaborating about their ideas. In addition, they frequently have difficulty organizing ideas, and their grammar and punctuation skills are often erratically and unconventionally displayed. Because of the complex demands writing makes on their brains, during the process of writing, they may begin to make what appear to be careless errors or get distractible and fatigued.

But those behaviors are generally an indication of the effort involved for the child; they are not manifest because the child doesn’t want to please and succeed.

All children want to please and succeed. But when writing is so difficult for a student, they can get demoralized and want to give up. As a consequence, their self-esteem gets dinged up.

If you are considering writing tutoring for your child, we want you to know that at The Writing Center of Princeton, we take a child’s self-esteem as importantly as we take skill building. And we know that self-esteem is repaired when they gain mastery of foundational and advanced writing skills.

Please let us know if we can help your child. Call me for your free, 20-minute consultation today and let’s strategize how we can help your child write independently, proficiently, and confidently.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

Your approach was so comprehensive, well-structured and delivered so masterfully, that we’d never be able to fit all we loved about working with you in one email. The process of developing the story, voice, etc., for the Common App essay was just amazing and even therapeutic for Ari. Your knowledge, experience, sense of humor, personal attitude, charisma resulted in powerful essays, and with Ari feeling better about how he is as a student and a person. Thank you!

Eugene K., Irvington, NJ

 I cannot thank you enough for how well you supported and prepared Nathan. Despite his ADHD, he got in everywhere he applied and all the schools offered excellent merit aid. He’s also received another independent scholarship which he tells me involved remixes of the writing you did together and more are pending. Thank you! Please know I am happy to give you the best recommendation to other parents. Having you as part of our team through this process was priceless!

Carolyn B., Hopewell, NJ

Your approach was a breath of fresh air. Helping Vivek write his story with humor and empathy, and with lots of encouragement brought out the best from him; after working with you, he ended up being a more confident and positive person, and a proud member of Cornell’s Class of 2025! Thank you!

Suparna S., South Lake, TX

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