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Students Who Struggle with Writing

So… writing.  I know a lot of Twice Exceptional students struggle with writing, maybe, like Lily, for several different reasons.

Now in middle school, Lily says she doesn’t turn in a lot of her work on time because she doesn’t have enough time to finish writing it in class.  She does well on her tests & quizzes because, most of the time, they require short responses.  But her in-class work is a struggle, even when using her netbook.  It’s better, definitely, but still hard.

This is actually the 2nd issue, besides organization, that I want to discuss at her IEP review mtg tomorrow… some sort of reduction of repetitive, written work.  

Lily has complained to me before, saying that it’s dumb that she has to write out full sentences when she already knows the answer.  She said, “ I can say the full sentences out loud if someone asks me, but it’s so hard to write them and I never have time to finish.”

Lily has always had a hard time with writing.  We first noticed in 2nd grade, when we discovered that she had a desk stuffed full of unfinished worksheets.  Her teachers reported that when Lily was faced with a blank sheet of paper, she would shut down or melt down.

Actually, I first thought something was up in 1st grade, when I made her hand write her classmates names on their Valentine’s cards.   It. took. for. ever.  And I remember getting frustrated that it was taking her so long.  Oh, it kills me to think about it.

Even up through 5th grade, I scribed most of her homework assignments for her and she was unable to even start a writing assignment on her own.  At the end of 5th, we got her up to speed on typing and she began using a laptop for most of her written work in class.  That did make a big difference, but that was only one part of the problem.
Lily’s writing difficulties are caused by a few issues… Dyslexia, Sensory Processing difficulties, and ADHD/Executive Function issues.

DYSLEXIA-In her learning evaluation, Dr. Paula found that Lily had highly-compensated dyslexia.  Lily was a late reader; didn’t really read until the end of 2nd grade, but by 5th she was reading a grade-level ahead.  Dr. Paula felt that Lily was such a visual learner that she was using her visual memory to decode words and was using a ‘holistic sight method’ to spell. Her dyslexia was showing up in her difficulty with writing.  This amazing article on Stealth Dyslexia, which describes both my daughters,  was first written by Brock and Fernette Eide,  back in 2005, but I feel that many educators still seem unaware that it exists.  Dr. Paula did not think Dyslexia was Lily’s main issue with writing.

SPD/Sensory Processing-Lily’s sensory issues were also interfering with her ability to write. She has decreased fine motor skills and she is left-handed, which makes writing a laborious process and still makes her handwriting very difficult to read. Switching Lily to typing has made writing somewhat easier for her.

ADHD/Executive Function-This was and still is the big doozy.  Lily’s executive function deficits interfere with her ability to plan and sequence her thoughts and then, get them down on paper. Visual organizers are supposed to help with that, but it did take some time for Lily to find one that was a good fit for her.  She also performs much better if she is taught to plan her writing in a very structured and repetitive way… like a formula that just requires that she plug in her own words.  In the beginning though, just one year ago, Lily’s EF was so bottlenecked that she even needed the steps to get ready to write spelled out for her… get a pencil out, get your writing notebook out, etc.

Lily has made great strides this year in 6th grade and is writing much more independently than I thought she would at this stage.  I feel like she’s able to plan, initiate and sequence her writing so much better, but it just takes her longer than her classmates and that’s something I want to discuss at our IEP meeting.

Just one final thought on twice exceptional students and writing for now.  I know several families and their 2E children who struggle with writing and we all have the same question… Where are all the research-based intervention programs for writing?  If dyslexic students often have difficulties with writing too, why is it so hard to find them help?

Mold and the Twice Exceptional child

Did I mention that Zoolander wants to be a scientist when she grows up?  Let’s just say that her favorite gift from Santa this year was a plastic human skull.

It started in 1st grade.  Before that, she claimed that she wanted to ‘hunt bears’ for a living. She changed her mind after she did her Science Fair project on the quality of our water.  

I called the Water Department and asked if she could test the water at their lab. Both scientists in the lab that day were women and they were delighted to suit-up a somewhat toothless, 6-year old Zoolander in a real grownup lab coat, roll up her sleeves and let her go to town. They were so kind and helped her through her experiment, while Zoolander grinned from ear to ear.  She loved it and was hooked.


She then became obsessed with blood and the human body.  One of her most thrilling experiences came at the age of 7, when the nurse at the doctor’s office let Zoolander help test her own urine.  Livin’ the dream, baby!

Almost every book Zoolander checks out the library at school has something to do with the human body or blood.  She really likes books with pictures, especially if they are gross.

They had a reading contest at school with books for prizes… Zoolander ordered ‘An Introduction to Genes and DNA’.  Last summer, on the first day of camp, her counselor asked Zoolander which Disney Princess was her favorite.  No response.  Awkward silence.  So, the counselor tried asking her what book she had read last and was a little caught off guard when Zoolander shyly replied, ‘Solving Crimes with Forensic Science’.

Zoolander sleeps in a pile of her science books.  She especially loves the series of ‘Horrible Science’ books, which are illustrated with funny Mad magazine-style cartoons.  Her favorite is ‘Blood, Bones and Body Bits’, but recently asked me to order ‘Chemical Chaos’. 

So, last weekend, I found mold on some food in the kitchen. (don’t ask)  Zoolander was psyched and begged me to let her keep some. She was all out of petri dishes, so she put some mold in a jar.  She decided it needed water and then maybe some flour and then maybe a little sugar.  Then, because her father had so carelessly thrown away a previous jar that contained moldy cheese, she made a special label for her new mold jar.

I am not a scientist, and I can’t keep up with her curiosity, so I try to find enrichment opportunities for Zoolander.  I know she’s a visual thinker, because she tells me that she has a DVD library in her head and when she’s bored at school she selects a movie and watches the entire thing.  Great.

Anyway, here is some of the fun science stuff she loves that other visual learners might enjoy.

*Mad Science-A hands-on after school science program. This is the highlight of her week.
*CU Wizards-Fun and free monthly science show for kids at the local university, which features lots of soda geysers and other kid-pleasing explosions.
*Usborne books-Lots of colorful non-fiction titles with beautiful illustrations.
*Horrible Science-Fun UK book series.
*IPhone Apps-3D Human Body, 3D Skeletal System, 3D Muscle System, Molecules, 3D Brain, 210 Human Body facts
*Android App-Speed Anatomy
*3B Scientific-Online site for all your human anatomy and plastic skeleton needs.
*Discovery Channel-Human Body/Pushing the Limits
*Hoagies’ Gifted science links

Zoolander’s obsession with science and her strong visual memory make me think of an interview I did with a scientist named Tom.  Tom describes himself as a visual thinker who definitely knew at an early age what he wanted to be.

Executive Dysfunction-Invisible Disability?

Oh boy, talk about intense.  I forced Lily to sit down and go through her backpack with me.  It was worse than I thought and my stomach still feels tight.

The poor child.  She’s been struggling with organization more than I knew.  There were piles of papers in there, some more than a month old, in addition to a wrinkled pink gingham dress, because, of course, why wouldn’t you have a pink gingham dress in your backpack?

We went through each paper, one by one… Is this something you still need? Something you need to turn in? Something you need to finish? Lily started to cry.  She wasn’t sure what the answers were; couldn’t remember and was overwhelmed and confused and mad at herself.  

Through her tears she said that her teachers wouldn’t take her late work.  I asked her why some of the work was unfinished and late.  Sobbing, she says that she doesn’t have time to get it finished in class because she can’t finish writing it in time, some of it she doesn’t understand and needs help and then she’s embarrassed to turn it in late.  I ask her why she doesn’t ask for help and she says because then they’ll single her out for help and she’ll be embarrassed.  

You know if you wear glasses and take them off and try to perform a task… that uncomfortable, off-balance, sort of confused feeling?  I think that must be what it feels like for her.  And it makes me wonder if her medication needs to be adjusted, because she wasn’t having quite such a difficult time at the beginning of the school year.  I’m horrified that I didn’t realize she was having such a hard time.  

I feel like we and the school and actually, anyone she comes in contact with, often think Lily is more capable of independent organization than she really is.  Executive Dysfunction is an invisible disability, especially for a gifted kid.  She’s so bright and clever that sometimes it’s hard to fathom just how impaired her Executive Function is. She doesn’t even seem to realize how much help she really needs.

A few months ago, when Lily and I discussed organization with Dr. K, Lily protested having an organizational system imposed on her, saying that she can do it without help.  Dr. K told her that was fine, but that if it didn’t work out, we would have to come up with another system for her to try.

This week, he told her that I’m going to meet with the school to discuss this and offered her a chance for input.  He told her that his idea would be that she would earn points/rewards by…

*writing her assignments in her planner every day as soon as they are given (checked by teacher)
*writing down any school work she needs to finish at home (checked by teacher)
*reviewing planner with teacher at the end of each day
*review planner with parent after school
*review with parent again after completing homework/mark assignments that need to be turned in the following day
*After turning in assignments in each day, check them off in her planner

In theory, this will begin to become a habit and we’ll be able to scale back some of the support. Her BSP or Behavior Support Plan that works in conjunction with her IEP is the best place to put this organizational system. I’ll give Lily some time to think about it and then see if she has suggestions for the backpack plan I can take to her IEP meeting this week.

Spring Break?

This week is Spring Break for the girls, which is sort of like a vacation for me too.  The treadmill slows down a bit.  I don’t have to crack the whip and get Lily out the door to school at the break of dawn.  I don’t have to worry so much about getting homework done every night. But I am still concerned that there’s schoolwork she’s supposed to be working on this week. She doesn’t think she does, but you never know.  Plus, I feel like she must still have makeup work to do from her sick days 2 weeks ago.

Lily stayed home from school 3 days because she was sick.  Of course, I was instantly worried about her falling behind in school.  I emailed her teachers to get her assignments and then I looked in her backpack.  Big mistake.  

Of course, the backpack is stuffed full because she brings EVERYTHING home EVERY night, so she won’t forget anything.  But there’s also a big, messy stack of loose papers in there and that makes me wonder which ones are assignments past due because she forgot to turn them in and which ones are assignments she’s supposed to be working on, but has forgotten about. I need to sit down and go through it with her.  She told me she thought she was caught up, but the online parent portal still has her missing assignments.  Lily doesn’t really seem to know.

That’s one of the hardest part of helping her.  I want to be able to prompt her and support her in remembering until she learns and develops the Executive Function skills to do that herself, but I never really know what’s going on with her school assignments and neither does she. We–Lily, the school and I, have just not been able to come up with a system yet that works for her.  She gets frustrated and discouraged because organizational systems are imposed on her and they don’t seem to work.  She also feels that accepting help  and using tools to support her organization means that people are once again trying to ‘fix’ her.

Of course, she has the same planner that all her classmates have, but it’s blank.  Lily hates writing in it.  I think that’s pretty common with these kinds of kids.  She tries to keep it all in her head.  I try to encourage her to use Google calendar or other digital tools, since I’m guessing that’s what she’ll use eventually, but nothing has worked so far.

It’s hard to scaffold the support of her Executive Functioning at school when we don’t have a system in place.  I suppose it takes trial and error, after all, there are adults who have yet to find an ideal system.  But I think this piece of her twice exceptional school career is going to be huge for her.  

Next week is Lily’s annual IEP review meeting.  I’m supposed to bring my thoughts on her goals for next year.  Organization is at the top of my list.  After her success in 6th grade this year, we know that she’s learning.  Her scores on the acuity tests that predict her performance on state assessment tests increased dramatically this year.  She’s getting very good scores on her quizzes and tests in class.  But she’s still struggling and doing poorly getting assignments turned in.  That’s hard to watch when I know that she has really learned the material.

Next year, the demands on Lily’s Executive Functioning skills are only going to increase and that has me concerned.  She’s going to need more support and scaffolding to be successful and that’s what I hope to address at next week’s IEP meeting.

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