What to do when your homeschooled child lacks confidence as a writer

by | Sep 26, 2020 | Reluctant or Struggling Writers

Problem: Your homeschooled child lacks confidence as a writer because of poor writing guidelines and vague instructions or expectations.

Solution: For each writing assignment, define the boundaries and give clear directions.

In his book Dare to Discipline, Dr. James Dobson reports the findings of an interesting study done on school children during the early days of the progressive-education movement. Apparently, an enthusiastic theorist decided to take down the chain-link fence that bordered the school grounds. He thought the children, who clearly loved exploring the enclosed yard, would feel even more freedom without that visible barrier surrounding them.

But here’s the curious thing: When the fence was removed, the boys and girls huddled together near the center of the play yard. Not only did they not wander away, they didn’t even venture to the edge of the grounds.

This little experiment served to reinforce a simple truth: Children feel secure in defined boundaries.

Establish Boundaries

What does this have to do with writing? Well, lack of confidence is one of many stumbling blocks that stand in the way of writing growth. Giving students a blank page and saying, “Write about whatever you want!” is no different from plunking kids down in the middle of an unfenced playground.

Instead, position your children for success by setting boundaries for the composition. One idea is to limit its length. This helps your struggling 12-year-old son relax a bit. (“Hey, Buddy, you only have to write five to seven sentences.”) He will be less likely to freeze up if he knows the lesson parameters.

But it also helps your wordy, rabbit-trailing 15-year-old daughter write more concisely. By limiting her to one paragraph of five to seven sentences, you’re training her to choose her words more wisely, thus avoiding tangents.

This is good news! The same parameters work to the advantage of both kinds of writers. You’re offering the writing-phobic child safe boundaries, yet you’re also establishing clear limits for your rambler.

If your homeschooled child lacks confidence as a writer, make sure you're giving clear instructions and setting boundaries for the assignment.

Provide Topic Options

Don’t assume that if kids have freedom to write about anything they want, their little pen will skip across the paper like an eager lamb! As I said earlier, this tactic usually backfires. That kind of freedom frustrates some struggling writers while sending others into a nosedive of absolute terror!

Giving specific yet flexible writing topics helps them feel a lot more secure about facing the writing assignment. Instead of telling them to “write about a food,” suggest they use their five senses to describe a taco, cinnamon roll, pizza, or ice cream sundae. You’re still giving choices but within the confines of a safe perimeter.

Give Clear Directions

It’s not enough to tell kids to write; they need to learn how to write. So provide step-by-step instructions to build their confidence even more.

Open-ended or fuzzily worded assignments contribute to lack of confidence and frustration. Instead, whether you create your own writing assignments or use a prepared curriculum like WriteShop, make sure your children know exactly what’s expected of them.

Example A: Poor instructions

Describe an object. (Or: Pick an object and write about it.)

Example B: Clear instructions

  1. Choose an object you can hold in your hand. Do not pick a food, an animal, or a person.
  2. Carefully observe your object. Brainstorm about it, listing everything you can about its features. Consider appearance, color, size, shape, texture, smell, and sound.
  3. Look closely for details, including imperfections and flaws.
  4. Write a 5- to 7-sentence paragraph describing your object. (Do not explain what the object is used for, and do not tell a story about it.)

Derek was an 8th grader whose first composition for our writing class consisted of two pitiful sentences. But within weeks, with clear limits and guidelines such as these, his confidence blossomed and he became one of the strongest writers in the class. For your child as well, clarifying your instructions may be all that’s needed!

Bottom line? With a few easy-to-implement solutions, you will help your students feel more sure of themselves. The result? They’ll perform better when they know just what you—and the writing assignment—are asking of them.

WriteShop homeschool writing curriculum teaches children of all ages the steps of the writing process.

Are you frustrated with your writing curriculum because it doesn’t provide enough boundaries for the composition or offer detailed student instructions? Then consider award-winning WriteShop I for your 6th-10th grader or WriteShop Junior or Primary for elementary ages.

You’ll love the step-by-step instructions, topic suggestions, and structure that inspire successful writers!


  1. Amy

    whoops… that should say ‘I too wilt…’ heheh.

  2. Amy

    This seems basic to me, only because I took wilt under the overwhelming feeling of having nothing at all to write because there simply is TOO much I could write… something concrete is seriously what helps me. SO, that naturally translates to my kiddos.

    Amy in Peru

  3. Kim

    Thank you for your comments, ladies. Glad you’re finding a few nuggets to glean!

  4. Kim

    Rochelle: If you’re using the observation worksheet and word lists and your son still can’t come up with more than two describing words, laziness and motivation sound like the culprits.

    Another thought: if he can’t think of anything to say about the item, it may be too subtle. Steer him toward an object that has lots of features and details. First, make sure the object is as multi-faceted as possible: colorful, shiny or sparkly, noisy, and multi-textured (such as a baby’s toy). To aid in motivation, however, the object should also be a favorite of your son’s—something he’s very interested in but that also fits the above criteria.

    Hoping this helps somewhat!

  5. Isabelle Lussier aka Canadianladybug

    I find it easier to provide guidance to my son while we do writing and that goes for both languages – French and English.

    I am fortunate to have discovered a wonderful product for French and I find it helps me teaching him to write properly. We got grade 1-2 and 3-4 together. He is in grade 3 right now but I am prepare for his brother who will be in grade 1 next year… Grin

  6. Renee'

    I like using a smaller size paper or index size, it seems more “doable” to me, try post its and plenty of praise privately and publicly, being sensitive of coarse, to your child’s personality.

  7. Tammy

    Good point. I think the subtle message here for me is that I need to be sure to plan thoroughly so I am able to set the parameters more clearly.

  8. Rochelle

    I understand and have tried these ideas since I began the WriteShop I program. However, my son still struggles with even coming up with more than one or two things to describe his object. We use the word lists that are provided and that helps when I guide him towards which sense we are going to focus on next. I’m not sure if it is laziness or lack of motivation. I look forward to upcoming articles and I continue to read the teacher’s manual. Thanks.

  9. Dorothy

    We just had 2 puppies. I think that describe the puppies in 5 sentences using the 5 senses would be a great topic! She can include the description in a letter to her Aunt N who thinks she might want one of the pups.

  10. Danielle

    My daughter doesn’t like when I have set limits, or given her topics, etc. But, I like the example of holding something in the hand. That would limit her but she wouldn’t really notice it. Then she could go back and reference as she wrote. Thanks

  11. DeAnna

    We loved write shop. It’s the best program for teaching creative writing skills.

  12. Kim

    I appreciate everyone’s comments!

    Lynette: I’m trusting that your 10th grader met with success today!

  13. Lynette

    Think I’ll try this with my 10th grader and his history writing assignment today….# of sentence and concrete topic! Here’s hoping…

  14. Marti

    Thank you for your concrete instructions. This will help alot!

  15. Kimberly

    It’s definitely good to have parameters, even for adults, even just a word count – something to work towards 🙂

  16. Tammy

    Thanks for the confidence builder. In your section “clear instructions”, you have given me an idea to start out our week of writing. I use your Writeshop I program and love it. This little exercise will give the girls a great way to start their “writing” thinking skills for the week. Thanks again.

  17. Donna

    Clear instructions are key to doing just about anything.

  18. Linda

    Thank you for the concrete suggestions for writing topics. The parameters are helpful.

  19. Patty

    Good point about giving them ideas. I always thought if you give them the freedom to write what they want then it would be easier. Makes sense to limit it. I like it when I am giving specific tasks to fulfill vs. having to make all the decisions myself. I’m going to try it for their next assignment and see if it makes a difference. Thanks.

    • Kim

      You’re welcome, Patty. I pray your children will be able to experience a measure of success right away!

  20. Kim

    Thanks, ladies, for taking a moment to leave a comment. It looks like the boundaries idea was a “lightbulb moment” for many of you!

  21. Susan

    As a student who LOVED to write, I still appreciated definite limits. My creativity still came out as I asked myself, “How can I follow these directions and put in a fun twist to it?” It is also much easier with my students to start with specific directions, allow the creative ones to push the limits, and the ones who love boundaries to be comfortable with the formula.

  22. Shawn

    After the first two lessons in WriteShop 1, I am able to see much improvement with my daughters writing skills. She needs the boundaries and defined instructions to write a concise paragraph. I have benefited from the parent/teacher grading guidelines for myself.

  23. Donna

    This makes so much sense. I thought that if he had the freedom to write about anything that he would just start writing away. It hasn’t happened. I will have to start putting up the fences.

  24. Colleen Bain

    I agree with this article but being a brain trainer I look at setting boundaries being important for other reasons, too. If we assume that the child trying to write does not have the cognitive skills to do so, then not setting boundaries and being very elusive will create fear and freeze the child from making any progress on the assignment. Given the population that I work with, I would ensure directions are multisensory based. Meaning, provide directions, verbally, written on the whiteboard, model the desired outcome, etc. I have found this approach to allow the child to benefit from having boundaries set to beginning to retain a typical request and freeform into writing.


    • Kim

      Colleen: I couldn’t agree more about taking a multisensory approach! For that very reason, WriteShop uses each of these (written directions, verbal instruction, and modeling the desired outcome on the white board via the “Practice Paragraph.”) Thanks for the important reminder!

  25. Kelly

    I am just starting the Write Shop 1 program with my son and these ideas sound wonderful! It makes so much more sense to give them those details. I guess I was the one that was always afraid to give too much detail. I thought being general about it, gave him freedom. Thank you!

  26. Cassie

    Write Shop I was very helpful for us. One reason was the specific assignments that provided the framework to begin.

  27. Frances

    Boundaries also provide discipline, which many of my students need. Some students want to write from their imaginations when describing an object or a person, but describing something that can be observed first-hand is a good exercise in discipline. If my students learn to discipline themselves, then that alone is a valuable lesson.

    • Kim

      Good points, Frances! I’ll be addressing self-discipline in future posts, particularly when dealing with the stumbling blocks of laziness and procrastination.

  28. Steph

    I like this! I even think that for the first few assignments it could be helpful to drastically limit the choices within the boundaries (did that make sense?), or even make the choice for her.

  29. Joyce

    I agree with the contents of this stumbling block. It is very daunting to stare at a blank piece of paper and try to figure out what to write about. Boundaries are good and clear, concise, step by step instructions even better.


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