Three things that might be stressing out your young writers (and what you can do to support them)

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Don’t get me wrong. Classrooms need to be places where students can take risks, solve problems, and learn to work through the hard parts. But sometimes anxiety and worry get in the way of learning.

Over the last week I conducted a little bit of (very) informal research into what is causing kids to be stressed out. I asked groups of kids from kindergarten to fourth grade in five different schools questions like “What makes you feel stressed out during writing workshop?” and “Is there anything that you worry about most during writing workshop?” Again and again three things kept coming up.

Will the teacher meet with me today?

This totally makes sense, right? Of course kids would want to know if you’ll be meeting with them. However, writing workshop is meant to be flexible. Some days you’ll meet with small groups, some days individuals, some days a combination. Some days you’ll see 4-5 kids, other days many more. All that flexibility can sometimes leave kids feeling like they never know when their turn is coming. So what can you do?

Three things you might try: 1) Try listing who you plan to meet with each day on a dry-erase board, or in a pocket chart. This leaves open the option of revising your plan as you go, but gives kids some idea of when their turn is coming. 2) If your plan is to circulate around the room, to do a lot of quick check-ins, without a set schedule, tell kids so they know–then they are not expecting a group or a one-one meeting with you that day. 3) You might try a system that allows kids to sign up for a conference if they feel they need one urgently. This could be a system of red card (“Help!”)/ green cards (“I’m all set right now.”) or a place in the classroom where they can add their name to a list.

Am I doing this right?

Most of us can relate to this worry. As writers, thinking ahead to how people will think about our work is a key to making our writing the best that it can be. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to write when you have no idea what it should “look like” when it’s finished. Worrying too much about what others think can be paralyzing–especially if it’s difficult to know what’s expected.

What you could try: Look around your classroom. Where are there resources that let kids know what the expectations are? Anchor charts are a good start–these let kids know what strategies they might try. But what about examples of on-benchmark writing and mentor texts? What about shared writing pieces written together as a class, and student work that kids can look at to get ideas for what their own work might look like? Are these accessible and easy to see for kids, or are they stored away on a shelf that can’t easily be seen from kids’ writing spots? Do kids have checklists or rubrics they can use to self-assess and check their own work? Providing multiple resources for knowing what great writing looks like can take the edge off of their worries.

Who will be my partner?

I think about this each time I ask kids to turn and talk to a partner. I cringe when I see kids turn away from one person they are sitting next to, clearly not wanting to talk to that person. It only gets more challenging as they get older and begin to form in-groups and out-groups.

So, what to do about this? You can’t shield kids from every painful social interaction, but you can set up routines and expectations for partner work in your classroom that alleviate some of the unnecessary added stress. Setting up long-term, consistent partnerships is one key to fostering writing partners that work. This allows kids to work together over time, getting to know one other person’s work and see it go through the entire process (for more on this, see this post, and this one, and this one, this one, and especially this one ). While it might seem like a good idea to allow kids to switch partners constantly, what that means for a lot of kids is a system that asks them to face rejection daily. No wonder kids say they are stressed out about this.

Last but not least, try conducting this research in your own classroom. In your next round of one-one conferences ask kids to tell you what makes them anxious, worried, or stressed out in writing workshop. You might be surprised at what you learn.