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

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!

Finish more writing homework in less time

Sometimes it seems like writing homework can take an infinite amount of time! Unlike a math worksheet, which is pretty clearly either done or not done, writing can be an endless process of adding, rereading, fixing, and revising. It seems like we could just keep working on it until the moment it is due. No wonder adolescents sometimes wait until the last minute to start a writing assignment, or to ask you for writing assignment help! It feels like a life sentence!

Watch the clock (and the calendar!)

One of the best ways to free up more time from school writing assignments is to measure the time it really takes. I get stuck in the belief that something is going to take forever. Like this blog post, for example. I’ve been staring at it for a while. I like to set a timer for a short, focused, period of work. For me, I use a 25-minute timer from pomofocus.io. But for younger students, or sometimes older students when they are really struggling, I use a shorter timer. Ten minutes is enough time to plan the basic outline of a paragraph! A 5-minute stretch could be enough to write a main idea sentence or brainstorm examples.

I am always stunned to see that the task I have been putting off really only takes X minutes. If your child enjoys a timed challenge, set a goal and start a writing sprint of 15 minutes, or set a brainstorming timer. If setting a timer is stressful, try this: Set a ridiculously long timer. Marvel at how little of it you actually use to finish the thing. Wow, just 45 minutes? We thought it would be two hours!

The calendar can give you important information about how to get your writing assignment done, too. The common wisdom is to split a big task up and do bits of it over time. I hate that advice because it makes me feel like this writing assignment is just part of my life now, instead of a project with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Instead, I recommend some short, focused sprints, starting when you get the writing assignment and scheduled regularly (at least one or two a week, even if you have all semester to finish!). Even if you have 10 days to write a short paper and you think you could do it in about an hour and a half, total, two or three 30 minute time blocks are probably more efficient than 9 ten-minute stretches. Likewise, writing the whole thing 2 hours before the deadline is probably too concentrated.

Experiment with the length of a writing task or session. Does your child come up with the best ideas in short bursts? At random moments while she’s doing something else? When she sits and works through the ideas for a while?

Re-purpose

Once in a while, a students gets assigned a paper or essay that is truly open-ended. Students are asked to pick a topic from a list, or generate their own topic. More often, a writing assignment comes at the end of a unit of study in school. Students are often asked to write about what they have discussed in class.

So class notes, study guides, annotations in a book, and other incidental info from the class can be very helpful sources of information. Anything that was a topic discussed in class might end up belonging in your child’s essay. Have your child look through their book, notes, and completed classwork. You may find your child has already developed some of the ideas they will need to write, and they can focus on consolidating those ideas into a paragraph.

Know when to fold ‘em

Kenny Rogers said it best in his song, “The Gambler:” You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Writing is open-ended and it feels like you could go on forever tweaking it and improving it bit by bit. But at some point, you have to call a piece of writing DONE. To figure out when an assignment is done, check the teacher’s instructions. Look for:

  • word count – is it long enough?
  • sentence count – does it include enough ideas?
  • example count – does it cite enough examples or facts?
  • on topic – does it stick to one main idea throughout?
  • complete explanation – does the writing explain why each example is relevant to the topic

At a certain point near the end of the writing process, we reach a point of diminishing returns. We have looked at the same piece of writing so many times that it loses its meaning. At that point, the value of any words or ideas that your child manages to squeeze out of his fatigued brain may not be as beneficial as another hour of sleep will be.

Sometimes, students stay on a piece of writing too long out of anxiety. They don’t feel good about what they wrote so far. They also don’t know what else to do to improve it, so they just try to add more. This can be more words, more examples, more adjectives. Sometimes it’s related to making the writing long enough but sometimes it’s just not knowing when to stop! Help them figure out what the teacher expects by looking at the details of the assignment.

Another option for students who fuss with an assignment for too long out of anxiety is for them to arrange with the teacher to turn it in early. Some teachers are willing or able to review a draft and give feedback for revising if the student turns it in early enough. If that’s not available, students could give themselves a “do” date that is early enough for them to send the draft to a parent, tutor or trusted friend for an review.

Either way, help your child wrap up their writing when the time comes, so they can turn their attention to other parts of life. This might mean setting a “family deadline” for a long writing piece before dinner on the day before it is due. It also might mean checking in as the clock ticks down in the evening to make sure your child is aware that bedtime is approaching. Time management relies on executive functioning skills that even the smartest and most capable teens are still developing. Your check-ins (or neutral tools like timers, if your child is bothered by in-person interruptions) are helping them to become more aware of the passage of time, which is knowledge they need as they learn to plan their own work time!

Conclusion

If writing homework is taking too long, here’s my plan of attack:

  1. Figure out what the assignment means and what the teacher expects.
  2. Make it concrete by using the calendar, and a timer, to keep track of how long it takes.
  3. Make a plan for what “done” will look like, and what time that has to happen for the assignment to be on time, and for the student to be rested and ready for tomorrow.

And when the writing is done, make sure your child leaves some time to revise and edit. Grab my FREE revising and editing checklists below.

5 Simple steps to beat writing homework overwhelm

The thing about adolescents is: they are often elusive, independent creatures…until they aren’t. They often want to be independent, but they don’t realize they lack the executive functioning skills to get the job done alone.

So when the teen in your life gets overwhelmed by homework or falls behind in school, it can feel really overwhelming for you, too. Maybe for a couple months now, school has seemed fine. A late assignment or missed homework here or there, but kids are only human. And then BAM! The progress report hits you like a ton of bricks. Your child has some catching up to do.

And while I do believe that teens should experience age appropriate consequences for their choices, I also don’t think we learn by failing. Struggle, yes. Failure, no. So if you find your family in this situation, here’s what I recommend.

Make a list

Gather all the information you need in one place.

Start with the progress report. Every worrisome grade tells a story of some assignments that need follow up.

Log into your school’s parent portal, or have your child log into their system. Some schools use Canvas, others use Google Classroom or another platform. And unfortunately, some schools use more than one, with can complicate this process. Teachers tend to use these platforms in unexpected ways, so here are some things to look for:

“Gradebook” listing of assignments and their status. If the assignment isn’t described, check the assignment date against other info sources.

  • Notice/Memo/Announcement fields. Sometimes these are used for due date reminders or important assignment info.
  • Daily posts. Google Classroom calls this the Stream. It’s where you can see the history of assignments in chronological order, including any comments or details from the teacher.
  • If there’s information you can’t find, it’s time for an email to the teacher. I strongly recommend that kids, from about 6th grade on, participate in the writing of that email. By high school, it should come from them, even if you have to sit by them and help with the wording.

Quick wins

Take the list of missing assignments and do some triage. Is anything too old to turn in for credit? Let it go!

Are there things in there that are done, but not turned in? Turn them in now! If it’s work that can be turned in digitally, do it! If it’s on paper, I suggest snapping pictures and emailing them to the teacher, before filing them in the folder. That way, if the backpack gremlins attack, or if your kid is like mine and tunes out at the most inconvenient times, the teacher will at least know to ask about it.

OK, the rest of the stuff on this list is real work. If you’ve been sorting through the piles for a while, it might be time for a break. But is there some piece of work that could be finished tonight? Something that’s half-finished? Something that’s just a couple of days old and fresh in their memory? You want your child to walk away from this planning session feeling calmer and more confident that they can sort this out.

Do the dumb stuff

Next time you sit down with your child to work through the homework backlog, start with the low hanging fruit. Because of the way grading works, there are some points in a class that are much easier to earn than others. Like class participation. In some classes, that’s remembering to say “present” when they call your name and not audibly snoring. In others, the teacher has specific criteria for the quantity and quality of participation.

And sometimes homework points can be easier to earn than test grade points, or project points. Take a look at the small things, like notebook checks, worksheets, study guides, that are quick to complete. The points add up! Unfortunately, those “dumb” assignments can seem like they aren’t worth your student’s time on a day-to-day basis, but over time they make a difference.

Due dates? Do dates.

All that homework comes with a due date (or maybe it came with a due date, but that ship has sailed and you’re trying to catch up). That date is based on the teacher’s plans – other lesson plans, school events, marking period dates – along with his estimation of how much time students need to do the work.

What the teacher doesn’t know when he writes the due date is what your week looks like. That’s why, next to every assignment on the list, you need a DO date. This is the date you are planning to do the thing. This takes into account your family’s schedule and the student’s capacity for taking on more work. Sometimes this means rearranging family responsibilities, temporarily. Can someone else unload the dishwasher tonight if it means your kid can turn in a missing Spanish assignment? If your family needs some tools for better time management, to fill in some gaps in executive functioning skills, read more here!

Guard against next time

Well, this isn’t fun. I have been in many of these situations, as a teacher, as a tutor, as a parent, as a friend or family member, and as the struggling student, too. One thing all those experiences have in common is that no one had a good time! This is a painful, embarrassing, overwhelming problem to solve. Kids would avoid it if they could.

I can hear you now: But it’s their work, and I’m busy too! I know it feels like a huge step backwards to go back to checking your teen’s homework every night. And you probably don’t have to go that far. But remember bumper bowling? A 50-pound kid’s 5-pound ball would wobble down a regular bowling lane and into the gutter 9 times out of 10. He’d never get a chance to knock down the pins! You have to be your kid’s bumpers here. Adolescents are still developing their executive functioning skills. What seems obvious to you, including how they should spend their study time, may completely elude them.

To help prevent problems and catch them earlier next term, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Take that list of info you gathered at the beginning. Where does most of the info come from?
  2. Make a daily and weekly checklist to help your student collect all the work they need to do (until they are doing it independently).
  3. Schedule a very quick after school check in. Your goal isn’t to tell your child what to work on. It is to ask them if they have made a plan for what they need to work on.
  4. Consider a whiteboard for your student’s wall where they can list the assignments for today and erase them as they are done. That way they (and you) can see at a glance what kind of evening lies ahead.
  5. Plan a more substantial weekly checklist. I like to do either a Friday afternoon debrief or a Sunday evening planning session at home. But for my students, we check in when I see them, even if it’s the middle of the week. Include planning for the week ahead (sports, appointments) and checking in about any homework or ongoing projects. Remember to set “do” dates!

Hang in there

Your kids have come so far over the years! Remember when you had to hold their hands when they walked, or they would fall over?

They don’t need that anymore. But there was a time when they really, really, did. Think of this kind of homework support as that. While your child’s executive functioning skills are still developing through the teen years, you are there to provide structure, guidance, and balance, while your child does the hard work of learning to stand on their own. This too shall pass!

Checklists are a great tool for getting and staying organized. Grab my free checklists for editing and revising writing right here:

When grades start to drop

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There is nothing worse than seeing your child work hard and go to school every day, only to watch their grades drop. Working harder isn’t solving the problem. Your child needs some new strategies for conquering this year’s new school challenges! d it’s a time of year where I often hear from concerned parents, worried because “my child’s grades are dropping!”

Why does this happen and how can we support students to help them finish the term strong?

Why are my child’s English grades dropping as the quarter goes on?

It’s partly the kid…

In most middle schools and high schools in the US, the school year is divided into 3 marking periods – the first ends sometime in October or November, the second sometime in January, and the third at the end of the year. Eight or 9 weeks is a long time for a student that age to focus on and work toward a goal like getting an A in English.

For young students, teachers set very short-term goals – read this chapter today, or learn these vocabulary words by Friday. As students enter middle school and high school, the deadlines get farther out and the assignments get bigger. But their brains don’t necessarily grow at the same pace. Sometimes students’ grades drop because they don’t understand (or can’t do) what it takes to get a good grade on an essay, or a mid-term exam, or a large project.

If your child’s grades are dropping, sit down with them and look at the grade book. Make a list of any missing assignments they can still turn in, and look at the big projects ahead. If this month is busy with sports, holidays, and social commitments, it’s a good idea to take the calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.

A word of warning: teens don’t always appreciate it when parents help with homework. Some do. Some appreciate help with schoolwork because they are truly in over their heads. But it can be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for teens to admit they have fallen behind. No one likes that! Please make sure you’re helping your teen through this with empathy and patience (or find them someone who can!) because if they are upset about the kind of help they are getting, their brain just doesn’t work as well and it can be counterproductive.

Then look at the list of what needs to be done and plug that work into the “white spaces” on the calendar. If there’s a math test on Wednesday, but your child has events on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll have to make sure he does most of his studying the weekend before. This type of planning doesn’t come naturally to adolescents (or to me, for that matter!) so using concrete tools like paper and different colored pens or highlighters, or a post-it note for each task, is much more effective than just saying it out loud.

If there’s no way to fit everything in, it’s time for triage! It may be that your student has fallen behind this term, or that her courseload is just overwhelming right now, or she has overcommitted to activities. It does happen that sometimes there is just more work than time. Some things to think about as you prioritize together what work absolutely needs to get finished:

  • Value of the assignment – If making and studying flashcards will take hours, but the Spanish quiz is only worth 5 points, that might be low on the list. On the other hand, if a large history project will make the difference between passing and failing the class, it should get a lot of time on the calendar, even if it’s not due for a few weeks.
  • Grade goals – if your child is a straight-A student, you probably stopped reading this post a while ago. Students who are struggling in a few classes might need to prioritize to get the grades they need. If they are failing one class but could turn in missing work and get the grade up to a C-, that’s probably more urgent than doing great on the math test that could take them from a B to a B+. Every teacher will say their class is important, or they are all important, but if your child’s grades are dropping, you need to do the math yourselves and find the true priorities.
  • Motivation – Sometimes it’s a teacher they don’t get along with. Sometimes it’s a subject that they just hate! For some students, the idea of pouring all their effort and time into their most hated class just feels like torture. Pick your battles. If they understand the consequences of neglecting that awful class, and it’s the best way to get them to move forward in their other classes, that may be the best option. As a parent, it’s very difficult to say “well, don’t do that one, then.” But if they are making the choice between a bad grade in one class, or bad grades in multiple classes, the choice is pretty clear. If putting aside the requirements for their hardest class gets them moving on other things, it can be the right tradeoff – in the short term.

It’s partly the school…

Isn’t it weird that one summer, we pick up an elementary schooler at the end of the last day of school, and somehow, magically, we send a middle schooler back to school in the fall? All of a sudden, they enter this new world of junior high with lockers, and changing classes, maybe a new device, and new people. But they are the same kids!

Nothing magical happens during that summer, so it makes sense that lots of kids are still learning skills they need to succeed in a more challenging junior high environment. Too many middle and high school teachers have an attitude like “they need to be more responsible” or “they need to understand that they can’t wait until the last minute” but they haven’t taught the skills that lead to “being more responsible.”

Some skills and tools schools should be offering include:

  • One consistent system for notifications/reminders and assigning work. Students shouldn’t have to check Google Classroom and Canvas and that one teacher’s website and the school calendar to find out everything that’s going on.
  • A practice of consistently and effectively using planners. Students need to be taught what to write on today’s planner page, what to write on the assignment’s due date, and how to use all that white space to, well, plan their week. Learning to do this can take up a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it pays for itself for the rest of students’ lives by giving them a set of tools for managing their work through school and into adult life.
  • Instruction on goal-setting and planning. Not everyone is shooting for 100% in every class. But students need to understand how to calculate their average and understand what a poor test grade or missing assignment can do to their grade for the term.
  • Models and templates. Especially at the beginning of the year, students need their teachers to model what an organized notebook looks like. Also, a clean locker, a completed page of homework, an effective paragraph. We cannot take for granted that kids just know what we mean when we tell them to produce these things!

It’s partly the world around us…

My focus isn’t at its best all the time, either. We are still recovering (medically, educationally, financially, emotionally) from a pandemic, even though things are looking “back to normal” in most places, most days. Parents are working at least as much as they ever did to keep their kids fed, safe and housed. There is not a lot of quiet space and time in our 21st century lives. The pressure on teens is very real and they can feel overwhelmed!

With so much going on around us, it’s especially important to go back to basics. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting some time to rest and relax. We can combat stress the world throws at us by keeping the predictable routines that work for us. Those routines will give them the support and structure they need to focus on their school work.

This, too, shall pass

It’s temporary, this academic stress. The marking period will end. The soccer season will end. Even this difficult English class will end. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. The lessons you take from this situation will help your child avoid the pain and stress of getting overwhelmed by poor grades. Next year, instead of “my child’s grades are dropping,” I hope you’ll be saying, “OK, the hard part of the school year is coming. Here’s our plan for prioritizing, using tools from the school and managing our energy so we can all make it through in one piece!”

Do you love checklists? I love checklists so much that I made these Revision and Editing checklists for finishing written work. And I love you all so much that they are free! Grab them below.

Make a paragraph longer in 30 minutes with better writing skills

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Dr. Seuss told the story of the home-invading Cat in the Hat in just 1,626 words. So how can the English teacher expect a 300-word essay on something as brief and simple as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech? If you find your child staring at a blank screen when they have writing homework, or if you know the pain of eking out a paragraph one sentence fragment at a time, you may be wondering what to do to make a paragraph longer. Let’s help your child boost their writing skills and make their paragraph longer, and more complete!

Why it’s hard to make a paragraph longer

Many of us know all the tricks. You can use a slightly bigger font (12.5? 13?), add adjectives (very, really, and unfortunately are three common and particularly tired ones) and replace words with longer synonyms (use becomes utilize, tried is now endeavored). Once in college, a guy tried to impress me (yikes!) by telling me you can just make the punctuation font larger. Professors can spot an essay with large print or wide spacing, but are they measuring your punctuation!?

OK, but all these goofy hacks don’t make a paragraph better, only very slightly longer. They ignore the fact that (hopefully!) the teacher is reading this paragraph and looking for important ideas or particular writing skills. The real problem when writing is too short is that it doesn’t have enough ideas in it!

Teachers give a word count with a writing assignment because, in their assessment, that is the number of words needed to express the ideas that they want to see students write about. It’s actually a giant clue from the teacher about the kind of writing they want to see. “Write a paragraph about the causes of the Civil War” will get a very different kind of answer from “Write a 5-8 page report about the causes of the Civil War.”

What may start as a quest to make a paragraph longer will hopefully lead to making a paragraph more interesting, more detailed, and more clear.

Who cares if it’s 300 words exactly?

Let me tell you a secret. If you turn in a crisp paragraph with a clear thesis statement and relevant examples, explained thoroughly, the teacher is not going to take points off your 300-word assignment if it has 275 or 325 words.

If you turn in a paragraph that has the same idea three times, or if your details aren’t related to each other, the teacher isn’t going to use your word count to decide the grade, either. When a paragraph is too short, it’s usually because the student ran out of ideas.

That means that instead of focusing your attention on adding word and visual tricks to make your writing longer and longer, you need to focus on your writing skills and the content if you want to make your paragraph longer.

Writing skills to make a paragraph longer

OK, OK, so any way we measure it, your paragraph isn’t long enough yet. Check and make sure it has all its parts:

  • Main idea/topic sentence
  • Examples/supporting details
  • Quotes or examples from the reading, if needed
  • Your own words about the topic (not just quotes, in other words)
  • A conclusion that reminds readers of your main point

Once you have the basic parts in place, you can make your paragraph longer by adding more (related, important) ideas to your paragraph. Here’s how.

Ask yourself “Why?”

Many sentences can be improved by adding a “because.” It is also a great way to put more of your own words into a paragraph that has too many quotes. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” OK, sure. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” because he was struggling to understand the meaning of life. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Other sentence extenders

One of my favorite writing exercises is called “because, but, so.” I got it from the excellent book The Writing Revolution and I use it with students from grade 2 up through high school. You can try this to figure out the right way to expand an idea in your paragraph.

First, pick, or write, a short sentence about the topic.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative because the founding fathers wanted a system of checks and balances among the powers.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative but many decisionmakers disagree about exactly which powers should be held by which branch, which leads to conflict.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative so no one person or group has the power to make decisions affecting the whole country on their own.

Would you look at that?!

Each of those extended sentencers is at least DOUBLE the length of the basic sentence. So make your paragraph longer by finding several places to add because, but, so, or another conjunction, to more fully explain your ideas.

Still not happy with your paragraph?

If this kind of writing is new to you, or if you find that you think you’re writing everything, only to get feedback that your writing is unclear or disorganized, I have a tool for you.

My Editing and Revising checklists will take you through the steps of clarifying and expanding your thoughts, and catching spelling and punctuation errors, too. Oh! And they’re free. Grab them below!

How do I help my child write an essay?

In a perfect world, students build their writing skills bit by bit over time, writing good sentences, then good paragraphs, and then combining those paragraphs into an essay. Kids can do this with support starting around third grade but it’s a project that might take weeks in class. 

Unfortunately, teachers don’t always build in all these steps, or not all students in the class are ready to be independent at the same time. Either way, the result is an essay that your child has to write on their own and they have no idea where to start! 

Break it Down, Build it Up

Chunk the assignment

Some teachers think about turning their assignments into a step-by-step checklist, while others write a dense paragraph with all the detailed directions buried inside. If your child gets an assignment that seems like a pile of complex instructions, the first step is to help them break it down and decide where to start.

Turn the teachers directions into a checklist. If the directions for the essay say, “Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence, supporting details, and uses transition words,” turn that into a checklist:

  • Body Paragraph
    • Topic Sentence
    • Supporting Detail 1
    • Supporting Detail 2
    • Supporting Detail 3
    • Transition words

No matter how obvious a detail might seem to you as an adult, like “Make sure your name is on the first page.” or “Number your pages,” include those on your child’s checklist. Those details easily get lost in the shuffle of trying to actually write the content of the paper.

Develop a Plan

Even if your child is full of ideas and could discuss a topic all day, the idea of writing it down in a formal essay can be overwhelming. Start by having your child write down what they know. Everyone has personal preferences for this brainstorming process. Here are some options:

  • Write a formal outline, listing the topic for each paragraph and any known details. (I haaaated this as a student and used to write my paper early just so I could go back and write the outline after and turn it in.)
  • Write each idea on a sticky note or index card so they can be shuffled and grouped differently as the plan develops.
  • Draw a mindmap or web, with the main idea in the center and details in branches around it. You can use a tool like Mindmup to make a digital mindmap or draw one on big paper.

Download my Revision and Editing Checklists to help your child polish their paper.


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Write a draft

I grew up writing drafts on paper (dingy manila paper in elementary school and notebook paper in middle and high school) and having to turn in and edit a draft to earn the opportunity to write a typed final draft. While there are arguments on the subject of handwriting vs typing essays, I can’t justify asking kids to spend their time writing and rewriting an essay when the time could be better spent strengthening their ideas!

I recommend having kids start to organize their notes right on the computer screen. It’s so easy to cut and paste sentences and even whole paragraphs that, as long as we keep in mind that this a draft and it will change, putting first drafts on the screen can work great!

Edit and Revise

Editing and Revising are two different, but related, processes. Revise has 2 parts re (again) and vise (look at/see). So to revise a piece of writing is to look at it again and make meaningful changes. This can include adding missing ideas, using more precise and descriptive vocabulary, or rearranging sentences or paragraphs so they are in a logical order. Many students struggle with this process because they think, “I already wrote this. There’s nothing more to say.” It helps to give them choices or a specific action they can take. For example, “This sentence is too short. You could add the word because at the end and explain more about why this event happened.”

Editing is more about the process of correcting errors in the writing. Like many teachers, I use the acronym COPS to remind writers what to look for when they edit. Grab my Editing and Revising checklist for more detailed steps.

  • Capitalization
  • Organization (this includes how the text looks on the page: fonts, sizes, line breaks, indenting, etc.)
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

What’s the point of the assignment?

Remember that your child’s teacher assigns an essay for a reason. Your child may be writing it at home because the teacher believes they can do it independently and show their sklls. The teacher may want to assess their knowledge of some content or build their reading stamina. 

So as much as you want to reduce your child’s frustration or make the essay-writing process easier, make sure your role is to facilitate, not to do the work. Make sure the words on the page, and any final decisions about revisions or editing, belong to your child. You can remove barriers, like unclear directions or not being able to find a starting point, but you have to let them struggle sometimes so they can grow as writers.

Too Much Homework and Not Enough Time

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Homework comes and goes as a hot topic in the news. Sometimes the focus is on what percent of students stay up late doing homework. Other times it’s on the idea that too much homework can be harmful, that kids aren’t playing outside or spending time with their families. Sometimes it’s about how students are suffering, other times it’s about the burden on parents. But it is all pretty murky. I don’t think the data are conclusive on whether homework is, on balance, a good or a bad thing for students. What I do worry about more, though, is the impact of too much homework and not enough time on students who are struggling. 

Child keeps forgetting homework
Boy bent over papers on a table in a dark room

Why too much homework is bad for struggling students

I asked my son’s first grade teacher how long homework should take. Her answer? “Not too long.” It’s usually a math worksheet that’s totally within his capabilities. If I look at it with my teacher eyes, I’d say it’s a 10-minute task for any kid who understood and remembers that day’s math lesson. But there are so many other things that can interfere with that quick 10-minute task. At my house, my child keeps forgetting his homework – like literally forgets it exists between the time he puts it down (on the couch? in the bathroom? by the fridge?) and the time he wanders into the next room.

By the time we defeat the many distractions and get him seated, with a pencil, in the general vicinity of a parent, we might already have 30 minutes on the clock! And that was 30 minutes of nagging, negotiating, prompting, reminding, and sometimes whining (although I try not to whine at the children…).

My point is that the teacher is planning homework with the best-case scenario in mind. She’s imagining routines like in her classroom: Everyone takes out their pencil from their desk while she passes out papers. She reads the instructions out loud. And then, just like that, everyone begins quietly scratching away with their pencils.*

* It is painfully clear to me that classrooms rarely actually run this way, but we teachers are often optimistic about what we can get done on that perfect unicorn of a school day!

In real life, struggling students might not remember how to do this work because they didn’t master it in class. They might not be able to read the directions. Kids might not be able to articulate to their parents what exactly they are supposed to do with an ambiguous worksheet. Often, kids are just plain exhausted from working on the things that are hardest for them all day long. 

Maybe homework is hard because of lagging skills

If a child is struggling with academic skills, it makes sense that they would resist homework! Find out how we can help your child build better literacy skills and more confidence. Check out our tutoring services here and request a consultation!

How to talk to the school about homework problems

Sometimes, because parents asked, or the principal expected it, I have had to give homework. The deal was, I would assign it and review it. But how much time kids spent was always, always, up to parent discretion. When students get difficult homework from other teachers, I encourage parents to write a note on the homework or send an email to the teacher with information about what the child struggled with. Teachers don’t know that homework took hours. They can’t tell an assignment was hard if it comes in looking perfect (or doesn’t come in at all!).

Child keeps forgetting homework
Here are some things about homework that the teacher needs to know to help your child:
  • “It’s taking X amount of time.” If you are working with and supervising your child, and homework is taking hours, something is wrong. There is some kind of mismatch between the child and the assignment. 
  • “He doesn’t know what the word __ means.” If the directions don’t make sense, or if he doesn’t remember how to do the assigned work, he may need a quick review or more extended support.
  • “She cries every time she has to read.” Maybe she’s tired or sad to be missing out on time with friends. But if the problem is specific to one academic area (reading, writing, math), there may be weaker skills in that area. Read about how tutoring can help. 
  • “I had to type/write it myself to get it done.” Some teachers don’t care who is holding the pencil when those vocabulary sentences get written. Sometimes the focus of homework is the thinking and idea generation. Other times (and the older students get, the more true this is) teachers expect full independence in the area of homework, and may be grading the results. If it’s not possible for your child to do the homework on their own, find out if there’s a way to shorten the writing, or an option for them to type if that would make it go more smoothly. 

Remember, you and the teacher have the same goal. For your child to learn the content and skills for this year’s classes. If your child is struggling with homework more than their peers, you need to ask more questions than the other parents and try to figure out the best path through the challenges.

If your child is having trouble keeping track of homework all together, check out my 7-part free email series, “Academic Planners for Success” for strategies for using a planner to identify and prioritize homework.


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My child won’t do his homework

If the child isn’t even attempting the homework, there can be a few things going on. It could be a pure “behavior” situation. But I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Ross Greene that “Children do well if they can.” If your child is refusing to do homework, think about what that behavior is telling you about them and what they need.

If the child refuses to attempt the homework, consider:

  • The timing: Fatigue and hunger make it hard to work.
  • Amount: If they don’t see any light at the end of the homework tunnel, why begin?
  • Directions: Where and how should they start? What does that even look like?
  • And content: Did they understand it in class?

My child keeps forgetting homework

Forgetting homework goes along with the “won’t do his homework” problem in many cases. Leaving everything at school can be an attempt to avoid the unpleasant situation of facing homework at the end of a long day of school.

In other cases, though, children forget their homework at school because they are overwhelmed or rushed through routines. 

Here are some troubleshooting steps:

  • Set up a simple homework folder. Label the two sides “Keep at home” and “Return to school.” Homework goes in the “Return to school” side and comes home.
  • Find a planner system that works for your child. It might be paper or digital
  • Use the school’s online resources. For older children, many schools use Canvas, Google Classroom, or another website to post assignments. Find out from your child’s teachers how they notify students of assignments, and create a home routine of checking it with your child.
  • Make a locker or backpack checklist for your child. Laminate it and put it in the homework folder or backpack, or hang it on the inside of their locker. 
  • Have them find a buddy. Brainstorm a reliable friend (or a few) who always have their homework done. This will be the person to ask if they’re not sure what page the homework was on, or if they forget a due date.
  • Make homework part of the daily routine. Ask about it when you see them at the end of the day, and establish a time and a place for getting it done.

Whose homework is it, anyway?

Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. “Good” homework can be a helpful way to reinforce skills taught in class. But “bad” homework steals a student’s personal time and causes stress.

Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. Share on X

At the end of the day, homework is part of the academic relationship between students and teachers. If you find that your child’s homework is causing you stress and taking as much of your time as it is your child’s, it’s time to talk to the teacher and work on a plan to make homework more effective.

II your child is struggling with reading and writing, contact us today for a consultation to see if online tutoring works for your family.

For more about homework, check out these other blog posts:

Too much homework and not enough time
Is homework helping your child or harming them? What to do if the burden of homework is ruining your family’s evenings.

Google Docs for Struggling Students

Google for Education has become a popular and affordable way for school districts to give all their students access to file storage, productivity tools (through G Suite) and collaboration capabilities, using Chromebooks, tablets, or traditional desktop computers. But how can Google Docs be used to help students that struggle in writing, like those with specific learning disabilities in writing or spelling, or students with dysgraphia? And what can it do for students who struggle with attention and executive functioning, like students with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders?

My Experience with Google for Education

When my school converted all of us to Google Drive, there was resistance and skepticism from lots of the staff. People were comfortable with Microsoft Office, and did not want to learn a new system. But once we got it in the hands of the students, it was clear that it was an amazing tool for learning.

Elementary students quickly learned to share documents with each other and collaborate in real time. (Of course, they used their powers for good as well as evil, and I had to explain to several kids that there is a permanent record of whatever you put in an email or Google document, and that it is a school tool, and not personal or private.)

Kids who constantly lose their papers now have an un-lose-able record of their written work. And if you accidentally delete a document, or clear your page? IT’S NOT GONE!! You can revert to a previous version of a document, or recover it from the trash can. It has been a game-changer for the students I work with!

Supporting Struggling Writers Using Google Docs

Writing can be frustrating for students unless they have the right support.

For students who struggle with writing, a lot of the features embedded in Google Docs are great for providing accommodations or scaffolding their learning. Here are some of my favorite features of Google Drive (and Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets) as a teacher of students with learning disabilities and executive functioning challenges.

Sharing

I either create a template for an assignment and share it with the students, or I have them share the document immediately when they create it, so I can check in while they work (and they can’t accidentally delete).

Who does it benefit: Students with ADHD can have frequent, subtle, check-ins without a teacher standing over them in the classroom. Students with auditory processing challenges or memory deficits get instructions in written form. Students with dysgraphia and other writing disabilities get a format to follow with features like a word bank or sentence stems, if needed.

Bonus: I get digital copies, instead of a pile of paper in my inbox!

Collaboration

Students can work at the same time on a shared document, on their own devices. Structured carefully, this type of assignment can engage more students simultaneously than other types of group work where I read, she records, and he presents our findings at the end of the class.

Who does it benefit: Students who need more processing time can benefit from starting with a silent work period, where everyone works on their own part of the document. Students who are easily distracted have less wait time and are more able to stay engaged in the lesson. Students with lower writing achievement have peer models in their group who are demonstrating how to tackle an assignment, both through group discussion and by typing in the shared document.

Comments

When I move the mouse cursor to the right margin of a document, a little comment icon pops up. When I click it, the line of text is highlighted, and I can type a comment. I use comments for revision suggestions. I find that when I give my comments in writing, students can reread them, reply to my comment, or make the change and click “Resolve” to make the comment go away. I can also write a lot more than I could with a pen in the margin of a draft. (Plus, my handwriting stinks, so typed comments are better for everyone!)

Who benefits?: Struggling writers of all kinds benefit from written feedback. Getting comments digitally means students can take as much time as they need and refer to the comments as they may corrections. I can also give feedback in real time from my own computer while students are writing. Students are able to revise their writing while it’s fresh in their minds.

Add-Ons

Click “Add-Ons” in the menu at the top of Google docs, then click “Get Add-Ons” to see the library of tools available for mind-mapping, spelling and grammar support, document templates, and many more! Two of my favorites are:

Change Case – This add-on lets you change the capitalization on a selection of text. You can choose “sentence case” which capitalizes just hte first word of each sentence, all capitals, all lowercase, or “title case,” which capitalizes the important words in a title. This is a great tool for students who don’t consistently capitalize while they are writing.

Highlight Tool – With this add-on, you can create different colored highlighters and label them, then use them to highlight the text in your document. You can “collect highlights” at the end and gather all your highlighted bits into one table. I use this to help students revise their work as well as to choose examples in text they are reading. For example, they can highlight all their topic sentences in green, and visually make sure that each paragraph is well structured.

Speech-to-text

Google Docs has voice recognition (called Voice Typing) available to anyone with a microphone using the Chrome browser on a Chromebook or computer. You speak your sentences (and a variety of punctuation and formatting commands) and they appear on the screen. Students need practice and support to use this feature effectively, but it has been a huge benefit to my students with poor spelling or with executive functioning weaknesses.

Text-to-Speech

This is not a native feature of Google Docs, but there are a range of free Chrome extensions that will read your writing to you. Select and Speak is my favorite, right now.

Read and Write for Google, by TextHelp, is another amazing suite of tools that works with Google Drive. It is available with a paid subscription. In addition to text-to-speech, it offers word prediction, and a range of tools for highlighting and extracting notes, and developing vocabulary lists. At the time of this writing, it is being offered free to teachers who register using their school email addresses.

The Takeaway

With all the free tools available as part of Google Docs, it’s a great starting point for students who need writing support. It is an easy way to introduce assistive technology for students with poor handwriting, dysgraphia, specific learning disabilities in reading or writing, or ADHD or other executive functioning deficits.

If your child needs help getting started with assistive technology, or developing his or her writing skills, contact me for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 2

In my last post, I showed you how to create a Google calendar for the purpose of using it to keep track of homework. In this post, I’ll show you how to set up that calendar and record homework. Open Google calendar. Click anywhere on today’s date, and a small box pops up so you can create a new event. I like to set these up so they match the student’s class schedule, so type “1 – Math” if the first period class is math. Then click “Edit Event.” On the “Edit Event” screen, you have 2 areas to edit.
  1. Click the box that says “All day.” That takes away the time options, and also causes this event to show up at the top of the calendar, which is what we want. Next to it, click “Repeat” and from the “Repeats” dropdown, select “Every weekday (Monday to Friday).”
  2. Pick a color for that class. I use the same color coding system as I do for notebooks and folders, so I checked red for math. This adds an extra layer of visual cueing to the planner.
  3. Click Save.
When you’ve added repeating, all-day events for each academic class, your calendar will look like this. That is the one-time setup part. Now you have your planner ready for the year or semester.

Using Your New Planner

Now it’s time to record an assignment. To write down tonight’s homework, click on the math line for today’s date, and click the “Edit Event” button. Here is the Edit Event screen. It looks just like the screen where you created the event, right up until the last step. For a homework assignment, you should edit:
  1. The name of the assignment. You can do this right in the box with the subject name, so it’s visible when you look at the whole calendar.
  2. The location and/or description. This can be physical (homework folder), virtual (www.homework.com), or geographic (library). The description box is great for adding details like “only odd numbered questions” or “answer in full sentences” that don’t fit on that top line.
  3. Attach a file, if the teacher has sent a worksheet, or if you have a Google doc with your notes. If you’re working on a device that takes photos, you can also attach a picture you have saved that shows the page number, or the details written down in your notebook. (It’s best to ask permission from teachers/administration if you would like to take photos in the classroom so that your intentions are clear.)
When you click save, you will have to answer one more question. Because this is a repeating event, the calendar wants to know whether to edit just this one (1/30/17), all future events (from today on) or every repeating event. For homework, click “Only this event.” That’s it! You have saved tonight’s homework to your homework calendar. When you sit down tonight, log in to your computer or pull up Google calendar on your phone to see the assignment, and get to work!

What’s next?

If your child needs individualized help with writing, check out our writing tutoring services. We also offer small-group classes for middle and high school students.