I hate to write. Writing’s hard. Why do we have to write? What am I supposed to write? Most classroom teachers will admit to occasionally hearing these comments from their students. As a behavior interventionist, I hear these comments on almost a daily basis. What is it about writing that makes students “freak out?” Why do behavior and writing seem so intertwined?
I am blessed to work with a wonderful team of educators. We have reflected on these questions often, usually as we’re called to respond to a crisis with a child who has had a meltdown in the middle of writing class. Let me share with you the hypotheses we’ve developed. I’m curious to know if you feel the same way.
For many children and adolescents there’s something scary and intimidating about a blank piece of paper. The thought of filling up a page with words, especially when you have experienced trauma and have very few coping skills to get past the frustration, is downright scary. It’s sort of like when we, as adults, are tackling a big project like remodeling a bathroom. If we weren’t born handy or haven’t seen our parents or relatives remodel their bathrooms, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do I replace the fixtures, paint the walls or rip up the flooring? What if I install the toilet incorrectly and it overflows? It can feel overwhelming and is easy to put off until next week, month or even year. Writing can be much the same. Where do I start? What if I make a mistake? I don’t have that many things to say.
Think about the act of writing. It’s a pretty complicated multi-step process. A writer needs to generate ideas, organize their thoughts, and physically write the words. For those who do not spell with automaticity, sounding out, and feeling frustrated by the process, is required as well. We often forget all the steps involved because we’ve had a lot of practice and it may come naturally for us. Now, think about doing all those steps when your brain is in fight or flight mode and has been wired to continually assess for danger. Cue the meltdown.
Many of the student breakdowns I see happen when a topic has been assigned by the teacher and students don’t have much choice in their writing topic. Personally, I love to write but most of my pleasure comes from writing reflections about my day, blogging about topics that are of interest to me, and working on a novel where I’ve created the characters and setting out of my own imagination. I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction from writing about hydraulic pumps or flying insects. But we have standards, you say. I HAVE to teach this way. It’s required of me. I get it and respect that. I just wonder if there might be a way to give students a few more choices in order for them to enjoy the process a little bit more and build their skills so the writing process can become more automatic.
This year, I plan to ask some of my teacher colleagues if they would consider adding fifteen minutes of choice writing time to their soft landings or to the beginning of their writing blocks. Students would be able to select one activity each day from a list like the one below. Some of the activities don’t involve the physical act of writing but instead focus on the thought processes needed prior to writing.
- Continue a piece of writing from class
- Illustrate a story, as opposed to writing it
- Write a letter to a friend, relative or famous person
- Dictate a story or essay to a teacher or using dictation software
- Start a blog about an area of interest
- Write a poem or song
- Collaborate with a classmate, editing each others’ work
At the end of the writing block, they’d be given a minute or two to evaluate their satisfaction with their writing time that day. (Did you stay on task? Did you accomplish much? Did you enjoy your time?) A few students could share details about what they worked on and their satisfaction scores with the class.
My hope is that this daily activity will engage students in the writing process and refine their skills, making them more automatic. And maybe we’ll even hear comments like these: I like to write. Writing’s easy. Is it writing time yet? Can I write about my dog?