Declutter your brain to improve your writing skills?

Christopher Paolini was 15 when he started writing Eragon, the first book in his bestselling fantasy series.

About 3/4 of employers are looking for candidates with strong written communication skills.

Harvard Business School describes how reading good writing actually impacts the circuits of our brains.

It’s easy to see how strong writing skills can open doors for people, even those who don’t plan to write for a living. But did you know that writing can help a student learn more right now? Reflective writing is a tool for laying out and examining one’s thinking. It can be helpful early in the learning process for capturing our thoughts and questions. Writing is also beneficial along the way as we start to make connections between ideas we are learning and things we have learned before. And after we master an area of learning, writing about it can help us clarify and solidify our knowledge. For this reason, writing skills are essential learning skills.

I would go so far as to say that writing can do for your thinking what a closet cleanout can do for your wardrobe.

Photo of a cluttered clothing closet with many items hanging close together. There are hat boxes on the shelf above, and other items hanging on the walls to the side.

No, wait, hear me out!

Why a closet cleanout?

I compare writing to learn to cleaning out your closet because they both involve taking things that already belong to you (sweaters or thoughts about Shakespeare), examining them, discarding the ones that don’t really work, and putting it all back together more neatly. And both processes can help you notice which things hanging around your closet/brain are useful, which need mending, and which are ready to be replaced with something new.

Oh, and both tasks can be totally overwhelming! So it helps to have help. If I don’t plan carefully, a closet cleanout could result in me turning the whole house upside down. I do my best cleaning when I have a partner, or when someone gives me a checklist to follow. One way to quickly improve writing is to give students some tools or structure. Knowing how to do the task makes it a lot easier to focus on what to write.

Examining your “wardrobe” of ideas

We think of learning as the process of taking in information. But learning is not passive. We use our existing knowledge to understand new ideas and form links between concepts. If we just keep adding new facts without organizing and connecting them, they aren’t very useful. It’s like your closet: Some old favorite items get worn all the time, but things can get shoved to the back, or buried under your winter coat. If you take some time and look at all of it, you may find some surprises!

By helping students develop strong writing skills, we give them tools to get their own thinking organized independently in the future.

One writing activity that can help us to clarify our understanding, or find out what we think about a topic, is a freewrite. In freewriting, you set a timer or other goal and write everything you can about the topic at hand. It may be short phrases instead of sentences. It may be repetitive. It may be missing details. Part of it might be a sketch or a diagram. But the purpose of a freewrite is to brainstorm all the things that are floating around your brain about the topic, and get them all together in one place.

I find that students can be rather stingy with their ideas in a freewrite. At first, they avoid writing things that aren’t “good.” I encourage them to write down all the bad ideas first, as quickly as possible, to get them out of the way and make room for the good ideas. We don’t have to worry about running out of ideas when freewriting. Learning when to write quickly and when to write slowly and carefully is an important writing skill that helps students prepare for a variety of writing tasks.

By laying out all the ideas in nice neat piles (I mean, paragraphs), you can see what still fits, what you have too much of, and what you might need to put on the shopping list.

Some things don’t fit

One hard truth of cleaning out the closet is that sometimes we have to let go of clothes that don’t fit right, even if we love the items!

The same is true for writing. Writing ideas about a topic makes it easier to see which ideas don’t fit in. Students might see that some details don’t fit the topic. Others might turn out to be ideas that are too small to get their own sentences. Some ideas can be combined into more complex sentences, and other ideas can be discarded. Knowing when to edit out weak ideas is one of the writing skills that takes time to develop. Deleting sentences they worked hard on can be difficult for students, but with practice they will see that it helps the best sentences stand out.

Some things are nice, but not useful

Getting rid of the clothes you like but don’t wear can be the stressful part of a closet cleanout.

In writing, getting rid of useless but lovely ideas is hard work! Maybe it’s something you thought was true, but when you look at it with the other facts, it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’s an idea for another time and place, better suited to a letter to the editor than a history essay. Or maybe you just don’t need to write that one idea 4 different ways. Just like your closet, your writing will work better if it’s not full of duplicates. (Except sweatshirts. One can never have too many hoodies!)

Go shopping!

There comes a point in most closet cleanouts where you say, “If those clothes won’t work, then what am I going to wear tomorrow?” If you are writing to clarify your thinking, you have to collect enough information to work with. If you try to write about something and realize you can’t explain it, it’s time to go back to your notes, or the original text, or your teacher, and learn more. For some students, audiobooks and text-to-speech technology can make this much easier. If your students need it, it is quick to set up tools to help.

It’s easy to think we understand what we’re learning when we are listening to someone else explain it. It all sounds great, and we don’t feel confused. When we sit down and try to write the explanation ourselves, we can see gaps in our understanding that we still need to fill. We fill the gaps with more learning. When you reread, or seek out new sources, you can ask more specific questions based on what you already know. You shop for more information discerningly, looking for new ideas that match, or complement, your knowledge wardrobe.

Putting together outfits

One really cool thing about a closet cleanout is it’s a chance to see different pieces of clothing together. Maybe you’ll get inspired to wear a different outfit!

In writing, placing ideas next to each other can reveal discoveries, metaphors, and sometimes glaring errors. Laying out our ideas, even in a quick, informal way, lets writers try out different combinations and connections. One way to create this type of writing opportunity for students is to use an open-ended writing prompt as a warm-up or closing activity.

Before a group discussion, writing can help students rehearse ideas and come up with examples to share later. After a discussion, students can capture their best ideas, including those they didn’t get a turn to say out loud. They can also adopt ideas they hear in the discussion and connect them to their own in new ways. Each type of writing has its own goals, and its own “rules” for structure. Students benefit from lots of practice with different writing skills within different parts of their day.

Why we write

We often think of a writing assignment as an alternative to a quiz or test, a way for teachers to collect information about what students know and evaluate them. But that’s not all it can be! Writing can be a valuable learning activity any time. Instead of thinking of writing as a final product, consider it a form of thinking. And, hopefully, we are thinking and learning every day, not just when it’s time to write an essay.

Writing for different purposes, throughout the learning process, can be instrumental in helping students develop bigger ideas and explain them more fully. For all those reasons, being able to write efficiently can make students better learners.

Want some checklists to help your child revise and edit their writing at home? I have those! Request them below.

The best “recipe” for writing assignment help

Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you have taught a child to do something, only to watch the skills fall apart when they try it independently. I see this with writing instruction quite often. Students that could plug away and create a paragraph in class one day seem to forget everything when they tackle their music history homework the next night.

Often, we teach children to follow a process for writing, like: brainstorm, draft, revise, publish. We might even give them checklists or writing graphic organizers to do all the steps without skipping anything. But if what we have taught is “follow the list,” they may be lost if the list isn’t there. As an online writing tutor, the best solution I have found for that problem is an approach called self-regulated strategy development.

What is SRSD?

Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, is an approach to writing instruction that was developed by Karen Harris and Steve Graham way back in the 90s. Originally, it was used with students with learning disabilities, and with struggling students. These days, many teachers are using these approaches with their whole classes, with impressive results.

There have been many research studies and articles and more articles written about using the SRSD writing approach with different students in different settings for different purposes.

Here is why I like it: I often teach students writing in individual tutoring sessions. I rely on them to tell me what they are working on in class, or what their teacher has said about writing expectations. If I layer on another graphic organizer, and it doesn’t match what the teacher wants, the student can end up more confused than before. The same can happen when different teachers, or different grade levels, use different graphic organizers.

Instead of handing them a tool and reminding them to use it, SRSD involves teaching the students why the tool is useful, describing how it works, modeling the process, supporting students as they practice until, finally, they move on to independent use of the strategies. In other words, over time, students need less help from me, and write better on their own.

Using a systematic approach to writing tutoring, like SRSD, helps students in a few ways.

  1. Motivation – with a coaching approach, we aim to build student’s self-efficacy, their belief in their own capability.
  2. Skill – Kids who aren’t skilled writers have trouble recognizing (and imitating!) good writing. They don’t know what to look for, or how to do it themselves, until they get some expereince and practice.
  3. Independence – One probelm with a graphic organizer is that if it has 3 spaces for important details, but the topic has 4 important details, the student has to decide. Do I squeeze the 4th idea on the side? Do I leave out one important detail? Do I smush them both into one box and hope I remember they don’t go together? With SRSD, students internalize a flexible approach to planning. At first, they may follow the steps very closely, but with practice they can learn to vary their plan to make the writing better.

How do we use it?

The cool thing about SRSD is it doesn’t require specialized materials or a specific workbook. We can use SRSD techniques to produce writing for any class. While it might vary from teacher to teacher, here’s my approach.

  1. Show them the process of putting together a paragraph using the SRSD tool you choose. I usually start with [TBEAR] for middle and high school, and [TREE] for younger students. I ask for their input, but I give as many prompts and suggestions as I need to to keep this process quick. I need students to see how quickly we can get from the dreaded blank page to something.
  2. Over the course of our meetings, we usually divide the time between writing and reading. First we read and talk about some mildly challenging, interesting reading. Some students come to me specifically because they have difficult schoolwork, so sometimes we reread or discuss their assigned reading.
  3. As we read, we use a few different comprehension strategies for making sense of the text. These vary by student and change over time, but one key step is asking students to predict what they think will happen in what they are about to read, or what a certain section will be about. Student-generated questions are also a very useful tool for developing an understanding of difficult reading.
  4. After we have read the text and I have modeled some ways to take notes (highlighting, notes in the margin, post-it notes, etc.), we practice writing about the reading, using the tool we have been practicing.
  5. Over a series of sessions, the student needs fewer and fewer reminders and reminders from me. They begin to talk themselves through the process of using the tool. That’s the “self-regulated” part and it can make the differnece between a child staring at a blank page helplessly and the same child finding a starting point and beginning to plan their writing.
  6. At a certain point, students don’t really need me to be there while they write their paragraphs. At that exciting point in their writing development, sometimes we change our schedule from weekly meetings to less frequent check-ins. Some students come back to see me again when they face a new writing challenge, like college application essays or college level classes. Others ask to meet when they have a first draft to show me, and I can give them feedback that they implement on their own. SRSD fosters independence because it includes steps to take when stuck. It’s pretty cool to see students take on the role of their own writing coach!

Does it take a long time?

That depends. Sorry.

I have taught a class of 3rd graders with dyslexia and other learning disabilities to use SRSD. They completed their first independent paragraph after maybe 2 or 3 hours of class time, over a week or so.

When I introduce SRSD strategies to some middle and high school writers, they take to them much more quickly. By the end of our first or second session, I provide the SRSD strategy and remind them of the steps, and they generate a whole paragraph on their own.

Other students, especially those who have complex learning needs – multiple learning disabilities, speech and language deficits, ADHD, autism, etc. – may need more practice with a higher level of support. And SRSD is an approach that allows flexible planning! It’s not a curriculum to follow page by page, so if we’re ready to try a new tool after 2 lessons, we do! If the student needs extra practice to gain confidence, it’s as simple as choosing a new article or short story together, and working through the read-discuss-plan-write sequence a few more times, until the student is taking the lead.

Who can help?

Teachers

Our local school has made SRSD their common approach to writing through the elementary grades. As a result, my son has been learning to write using specific details from his reading and a consistent paragraph structure since first grade. As he grows, the class’s approach to writing grows, too. But they started with a foundation of the basics, and they have common background to build on.

I highly recommend training in the SRSD approach for any teachers, K-12, who are in any way responsible for their students’ writing development. While there are lots of comprehensive profesxional development options available, these tools are simple to understand and teachers and students can get better at them together! No need to wait.

Tutors

If you are a parent seeking a writing tutor near you who can help your child develop their writing with SRSD, it can be challenging to know where to look. Although a tutor may not advertise that self-regulated strategy development is what they use, you can look for some key points in their description:

  • scaffolding/gradual release of responsibility/independence/self-efficacy – a good writing tutor understands that when they succeed, they are out of a job! The goal of writing tutoring is to help students master the writing skills that they will use to succeed on their own.
  • evidence-based – there has been a lot of discussion of the Science of Reading in recent years, much of it spurred by Emily Hanford’s reporting [link] about the state of literacy instruction around the United States. While the Science of Writing isn’t as widely mentioned, it exists. An experienced tutor gathers data from observing their own students, but they should also teach in a way that aligns with what we know from research. Ask them for some links and recommendations if you want to learn more about how they approach writing.

Parents

If tutoring is not in the budget right now, or if you need help on tonight’s assignment, you can help your child learn this, too! If you can follow a recipe, or build Ikea furniture, or follow driving directions, you can talk your kids through this process. Remember, it’s all about helping them to help themselves. You will model that naturally as you read a step, puzzle over it, and then figure it out together!

There are many free examples and tools online if you hunt around, but many of them are explained only briefly, and some are not clear enough for non-teachers. That’s why I put together my online course, the Academic Writing Lifeline for Parents. This course is designed to help you get your child past the confusion and fear of a writing assignment, and into a step-by-step process that will show them the light at the end of the writing tunnel.

To get you started as you help your child with writing at home, grab my free Revision and Editing checklists to walk you and your child through improving their writing one step at a time.

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:

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. 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. 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. They might not be able to articulate to their parents what exactly they are supposed to do with an ambiguous worksheet. They might be just plain exhausted from working on the things that are hardest for them all day long. 

How to talk to the school about homework problems

When I assigned homework to my special education students, I always made it clear to the students and their parents at the beginning of the year that I was happy to assign homework if they wanted it, but it was always, always, up to parent discretion. If it was taking an unreasonable amount of time, or if the directions didn’t make sense, we would always defer to the experts in home learning: parents. For my students being assigned homework along with their grade-level peers, I encouraged parents to write a note on the homework or send an email to the teacher with feedback about challenging assignments. Teachers don’t know that homework took hours. They have no idea that buckets of tears were shed over an assignment 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 acdemic area (reading, writing, math), there may be weaker skills in that area. 
  • “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. “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. Click To Tweet

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.

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.