Executive functions such as working memory and sustained attention play a significant role in a child’s ability to express himself through written language. A child with a working-memory difficulty who struggles to remember or hold in his mind what he wants to put down on paper is likely to find writing to be a long and arduous task. His thoughts may go faster than his capacity to write them down, and if he can’t remember what he was thinking he is likely to be very frustrated when engaged in a writing assignment for school. A better understanding of the relationship between executive functions and writing may be more important than specific instruction in written- language skills to help this type of student.
Organization is also a core component of writing. Many children have excellent ideas and can express them orally, but putting them onto paper in an organized and coherent fashion is often beyond their skill level. For some student, frustration ensues when they physically write a paragraph or an essay because their thoughts, while insightful, are jumbled. Sometimes simply using a word processing program or an organizational app such as A Novel Idea may be helpful.
Studies also suggest that children who experience problems with written expression have difficulty with task initiation, task persistence, shifting, and inhibition, all significant executive-functioning skills. Teachers who observe children with written-language difficulties often describe them as having problems getting started on tasks and rushing through tasks that involve writing.
Strategies to Improve Writing Skills & Executive Functioning:
1.) Practice story-telling. Observe your child’s capacity to organize his oral thoughts. Ask him to tell you stories in which sequence and connection are important. Ask questions to help him make a more coherent story or ask him to repeat it in a more systematic and orderly fashion. Having him recap his day at the dinner table is a great way to get your child tapping into Working Memory skills while organizing his thoughts.
2.) Observe fine-motor skills. Determine if your child’s writing difficulties may be related to fine-motor issues. While typically unrelated to executive-functioning concerns, its important to know if problems are stemming from physical or cognitive concerns. You may want to have him evaluated by an occupational therapist if he tends to have problems writing legibly, drawing, or doing tasks such as tying his shoes or zipping his coat.
3.) Learn more. For more insight into the relationship between writing and executive functions, explore our charts about the connections between Thinking Skills, Executive Functions and academics.