How to help your child with writing a paper (when you aren’t “good at writing”)

girl sitting at a computer, waiting for writing help

If the phrase “writing homework” gives you an instant headache, you’ve come to the right place. I know it’s a cliche to say that “school is different than when we grew up,” but it really, really, is. When I was a kid, writing assignments were an event. Once a quarter, or once a year, we would drop everything and focus on writing for a few weeks. After we produced our essays and typed them in the computer lab with great ceremony, it wasn’t writing time anymore! And I rarely, until maybe high school, needed to ask my parents for help with writing a paper. It might happen sooner these days.

In the years since I put my first report in one of those slippery plastic covers, we have learned a lot about the brain, and the reasons that lots of writing practice is important. For one thing, writing helps us clarify and examine our own thinking on a topic. Because writing is more formal than speaking and we can’t watch the listener to see if we’re doing a good job, we have to have better organized ideas to communicate successfully in writing. For another thing, if a student has gaps in their understanding, seeing their ideas laid out on paper can help both the student and the teacher uncover and correct misunderstandings. Writing also calls on our knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and discourse in ways that reading does not. In other words, we learn lots of valuable things about how writing works when we practice it – more than we learn by just reading good writing.

Still, what can you do, as a parent, to give your children help with writing a paper? It feels hard! But even if you don’t feel confident in your own writing skills, you can still lead your child through the challenge. Here are some roles for a parent in the writing process:

Assignment Clarifier

One problem that can keep a student from starting a writing assignment is that they don’t understand what the teacher wants. Sometimes an assignment has a lot of detail, including directions for how many sentences, or how many words, the student should write. [link how long is a paragraph] Other times, you might see teacher jargon like “complete thought,” “topic sentence” or “analyze the evidence.”

Even if you don’t know what these terms mean, your child might have something helpful in their notebook. Or, in the worst case scenario, you and your child figure out the troublesome terms and seek help from the teacher (Or the parents in the local FB group if the deadline is too close. Who among us has not crowd-sourced some thinking to these neighbors? Someone else must have heard the same confusing instructions your child brought home!)

You can help your child understand and plan this assignment by writing out the steps you identify together. By giving them a short, simple checklist of the first few steps they will do, you can guide them to focus their attention on first things first. Looking at the whole project can be overwhelming, but a couple items on a sticky note or whiteboard is achievable.

Time Keeper

This role can be contentious because sometimes kids who hear they are running out of time blame the person who tells them about the problem. In my house, reminding my kids to set timers for themselves helps them more than when I set the timer for them.

Another part the time keeper plays in writing is helping the student to find chunks of writing time in their schedule. Estimating time requirements is an executive functioning skill that many adolescents are still developing. You can help by suggesting how much time they should set aside for this assignment. This helps to avoid the problem of staying up late to finish writing at the last minute!

Zookeeper

No, I’m not saying your children are zoo animals. But when a child is struggling through a difficult writing assignment, it can really help to have another brain thinking about their care and feeding. Have you ever been so busy with a task that you look up to realize hours have passed? Your knees are stiff, your stomach is empty and your bladder is full. Be available to help your kids take care of themselves while they write.

Adolescents (Remember their emerging executive functioning skill! It’s all a bit precarious!) can have difficulty switching their attention from one thing to another. That’s also why it can be difficult to turn off the games or videos and start their homework in the first place. You can minimize these tough transitions by keeping your child supplied with nutritious quick meals and snacks. Encourage them to take breaks for water, food, fresh air, exercise, and sleep! While it can feel urgent to ignore these things and push through until the work is done, our brain just won’t work right if our basic animal needs aren’t met.

Be the zookeeper by observing your creature in their habitat. Are they restless? Grumpy? On a roll with ideas flowing out of them? Decide if it’s time for food, water, or even enrichment. It can feel risky to send your child out to play before the writing assignment is done, but you may find that they come back refreshed and able to work again. Experiment with different kinds of breaks.

Master of Ceremonies

When the work gets done, even a small chunk of it, don’t forget to celebrate with your child!

You probably know by now, but it is so important that I’ll say it again: your kids – even big kids, even teens, even grown-up looking people who roll their eyes and grunt when you speak to them – need to hear that you see their hard work.

This assignment will get finished, turned in and graded. This, too, shall pass. But the support you give your child while they work through this challenging writing assignment shows that you trust them. You believe in their abilities. And you are there to help them succeed.

While you may not feel like you have the writing expertise to help your child with their assignment, you are on expert on the child. Your praise, and patience, and support, can make a tremendous difference in the way your child tackles this challenge – and the next one.

And if you need a little more specific advice, try my FREE Revising and Editing checklists to help your child polish their writing before they turn it in. Grab them below!

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