By Maddie Cesarz
When I first started researching how ADHD affected writing and the writing process, I found an overwhelming number of articles, research, and resources filled with tips, tricks, and accommodations for students with ADHD. Only, all these sources were intellectually directed towards parents and/or teachers who are trying to help elementary or middle school age students.
The problem with this is that none of these resources could directly help me, a college student consultant in the university writing center and soon-to-be-professional, learn how to better assist other college students with ADHD. So, that’s what this is: a guide for a peer-to-peer approach for consulting with college students and who have ADHD. This guide may also be adapted for working with adult team members with ADHD in the workplace.
What is ADHD?
One of the most important parts of accommodating students with ADHD is having a good idea of what it is and how it works. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” In other words, ADHD makes getting through the day much more difficult than it should be. Someone with ADHD struggles with everyday things such as completing simple tasks, focusing during school or work, balancing between their work and personal life, and low self-esteem.
With this understanding, I share how we can figure out how to identify some common signs and patterns present within a college student’s writing.
The Signs and Identifying Them in Students
Since college students are not obligated to, most might not disclose that they have ADHD – or even know that they have it – when they visit the writing center. And writing consultants don’t typically ask much about a student’s personal life, which makes it imperative that they know what the signs are so that they are able to recognize them during a consultation.
There are two different categories the signs of ADHD fall under; I’ll call them internal and external. These signs are categorized in the context of what a consultant can and cannot see during a consultation.
External signs are the easiest to identify since they are presented through a student’s actions and/or behavior, e.g., constantly adjusting in their seat, tapping their feet, playing with their hands, etc. However, it is important to know that hyperactivity isn’t always a set-in-stone sign of ADHD meaning the student could easily just be anxious or bored. So, use these external signs as an indication to look further.
Internal signs, e.g., difficulties focusing and disorganization, can be much more difficult for a consultant to identify initially because they are often things people with ADHD struggle with on their own and aren’t usually obvious during the first meeting. What’s so fascinating about this category of signs is that they are sometimes projected within a student’s writing and can be identified as the student and consultant read together. If the tutor is noticing a lot of run-on sentences with many different thoughts, or a string of ideas that jump from one to another very suddenly, those could be signs a student has ADHD. The consultant can then try the two methods listed and explained below.
Two Methods for Consulting with Students who have ADHD
In creating these methods, I used inspiration from Susan Osborn’s “Writing Help for ADHD Students,” which, like most resources I found, was directed towards a parent searching for ways to help their K-12 age child with writing. I used the central ideas from some of her strategies and modified them in a way that can be used for an adult peer-to-peer approach as seen at the college level.
Each method, Talking It Out and Writing it Out, are laid out here:
Talking It Out
This method will help a student who is having trouble coming up with specific points to make for their argument, or an overall direction for their paper.
Supplies needed: Pen and Paper or Computer
Have the student talk to you about everything they know about their topic.
It’s crucial that you don’t limit them to talking about just the things they think are important, so avoid phrasing introductory questions in a way that is too specific. Perhaps start with: “Can you tell me everything you know about your topic?”
While the student is talking, write down points they make that can or have the potential to be used in their paper. These things can be anything content related: argument points, transition ideas, the ‘why’ they think this point is important.
Go over what you noticed with the student. Point out what points you think they can do further research on.
Writing It Out
This method will help a student get all their ideas out of their head and on paper. It can be used to either help ADHD freeze or come up with ideas.
Supplies needed: Pen and Paper (recommended) or Computer
Set a timer for 10 minutes and instruct the student to write non-stop about their topic. It’s important that they don’t stop writing for the duration of the exercise, even if they get on a tangent that sounds like: “I don’t know what to write about, but I have to keep writing…” because the ideas will come out, they just have to keep their brain moving.
If the student does say something along the lines of “I’m not sure what to keep writing about” you can encourage them to just write whatever is going through their mind, including “I don’t know.”
After the 10 minutes are up, ask the student what ideas they came up with and start working on an outline. If they said they couldn’t come up with anything, ask if you can read what they wrote about and see if you can see anything that they didn’t.
While working as a writing consultant, I have used these methods a few times. Once with a student who disclosed to me that they had ADHD and two other times when I recognized specific patterns in a student’s writing, which were discussed earlier in this article. When I asked these students if either exercise helped after the session was over, they said that both or at least one did, which suggests these methods do help college students gain clarity and direction for their paper.
Overall, writing consultants that incorporate this information into their consulting practices will not only benefit students with ADHD but any student who might be struggling with focusing their topic and writing their paper.
“Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd
Collins, Tracy. “Writing Strategies for Students With ADHD.” Edutopia. 21 Apr. 2015. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/writing-strategies-students-with-adhd-tracy-collins
Dendy, Chris Zeigler M.S., and ADDitude Editors. “Teaching Strategies for Students with
ADHD: Ideas to Help Every Child Shine.” ADDitude. 7 Sep. 2022. https://www.additudemag.com/teaching-strategies-for-students-with-adhd/
DuPaul, George J., et al. “Peer Tutoring for Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder: Effects on Classroom Behavior and Academic Performance.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, vol. 31, no. 4, Winter 1998, pp. 579-92. EPSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1998.31-579.
Osborn, Susan. “Writing Help for ADHD Students.” Writing Center of Princeton, https://writingcenterofprinceton.com/writing-help-for-adhd-students/ . Accessed 13 Nov. 2022.
Wender, Paul H., and David A. Tomb. ADHD: A Guide to Understanding Symptoms Causes,
Diagnosis, Treatment, and Changes Over Time in Children, Adolescents, and Adults. E-book ed., Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 4 Oct. 2016.
Madison Cesarz is student at Grand Valley State University, working on a Bachelor of Science degree in Writing with a minor in Anthropology. She has immersed herself in the writing community at GVSU by serving as a Writing Consultant at the Fred Meijer Center for Writing and Michigan Authors, and volunteering as a writer, reviewer, and copyeditor for student-run publications such as Fishladder: A Student Journal of Art and Writing and InWriting: The Writing Department Newsletter. Aside from writing, she plays the piccolo and serves as a section leader in the Laker Marching Band and is the Historian in the Mu Kappa Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi.
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