Essay writing is an emotional domain for so many neurodiverse students. It embodies a multitude of executive function challenges and is commonly a space in which we see the manifestation of these issues. It challenges:

  • organisation – are you following the correct structure?
  • impulse control – are you ‘waffling’?
  • planning and prioritisation – have you addressed the key themes?
  • working memory – can you keep the argument in mind whilst writing?
  • self monitoringcan you stick to times in exam conditions?

In short, students may have the most wonderful ideas, but they are required to express these in an order predetermined by our national curriculum. No matter how brilliant the idea, the student has to communicate their argument in a certain format in order to access higher marks, which can become a very emotional space.

I like to console students who are struggling with this analogy:

You have all of the materials/building blocks, but the support is here to erect a scaffold/structure for you to hang these ideas off.

Before guidance and structure is given to students, common issues can include:

– Failure to develop arguments,– Over-developing arguments,– Not following an evaluative paragraph structure,– Failing to reference or include topic sentence/link back sentences.

I feel there is no better way to explore how these challenges affect students with executive function challenges than to look at a real-life example.

Polly has a diagnosis of dyslexia and ADHD. She is also incredibly eloquent, has many advanced ideas, and is hoping to study further maths at Oxbridge. Her spiky neurodiverse profile is certainly no indicator of her academic success, with the exception of one major area – essay writing. Despite her exceptional ideas in GCSE English literature, she was consistently getting poor grades.

Slowly and consistently, we identified how she should morph her ideas so she knew how much to include and in which order. She struggled with confidence and self-doubt, but by encouraging her to practise a growth mindset approach, and to not give up, we saw results.

She went from a low 6 to high 8 within a year. I think the most valuable thing that she learnt was that just as she doesn’t adhere to the one-mould-fits-all approach to our syllabus. With resilience and determination, she was able to change how she communicated her fantastic ideas. After a while, this style of essay writing has been internalised so that it is now second nature as to how these ideas are communicated. This now allows Polly to access grades which she felt were previously ‘locked’ away from her.

Essay writing is an emotional space. Even if you have extensive knowledge in your subject and enjoy it hugely, the way you structure and present this can lead to poor grades, damaged confidence – leaving you just out of reach of achieving your potential. However, abilities are not set in stone, and students – with the correct support – all have the power to change their approach.

We are SO EXCITED to have co-founder and managing director of The CODE, Paula Barrett, joining Victoria for a special webinar on ESSAY WRITING!

Paula is a specialist tutor, educational consultant and executive function coach, with a psychology training background. She has extensive experience working in this sphere, and is in worldwide demand for her pioneering approach to foster creativity in the approach to learning.

Paula heads up The CODE – a tutoring service that employs dedicated, engaging coaches who support students of all ages, learning abilities and differences to achieve academic success.


Why essay writing is so hard:

Executive function perspectives & solutions