Shy, reserved, and anxious to the point of suffering from regular stomach aches, Payton Akers was not embracing fourth grade at Lusher Elementary School in Hazelwood, MO – at least not until her teacher helped her find her voice through the use of technology and journaling.

“Writing gives my students a voice and sometimes that’s all they need,” says Lesli Henderson, fourth-grade teacher at Lusher. “That voice helps them discover confidence, solve problems, and figure out what they think about things. Writing it versus saying it feels safe.”

Journaling isn’t a new concept but, despite its many benefits, it can be a difficult habit to establish, particularly in children and teens. Technology – including blogs and apps for phones, tablets and computers – offers another way for teachers, mental health professionals and parents to prompt kids to write more.

Henderson began using technology to get her students to express themselves through journaling in 2009 and every year she has seen children flourish in different ways through the process.

“I think kids need to be heard. They have things to say but they don’t think anyone is listening. Journaling or blogging empowers them,” she says.

That was certainly true for Payton, according to her mother, Rebecca Akers. “When she started school last year, she was meek and timid,” Akers says.

“She didn’t want to get out of her shell. But then she started posting some things on the blog, just little things that happened at home or that were exciting to her, and it led to conversations during class. She started opening up and making friends. I think the technology enables kids to put their feelings and their emotions out there, really letting their walls down, which leads to stronger interactions.”

Henderson uses a website called Kidblog where she pays a fee of about $39 to create a private blog for her classes each year. All the students have the ability to log on and write entries, post pictures or video, and comment on each other’s posts.

“I encourage them to use the blog for whatever they want – to talk about things we did in class, react to things we are reading, journal about their day, anything they want to share,” Henderson says.

Malissa Beecham, a 5th grade teacher at Willow Brook Elementary in Creve Coeur, MO, started using Kidblog last year with her classroom and she likes how the technology gets more students involved in discussions, both written and face-to-face.

“In a classroom, not everyone will raise their hand and answer a question,” Beecham says. “But on the blog, there is the opportunity for more kids to comment on something we discussed in class. The conversation goes back and forth sometimes on the blog, and I love it when I see a student comment, ‘I never thought of it like that before.’ The discussion on the blog opens them up to considering the ideas and opinions of others.”

Beecham says the biggest benefit she has seen from using the technology is the writing aspect. “They are learning to love writing. Even the kids who don’t like to write at all will write on the blog because they love getting feedback from their peers about what they are writing and thinking,” she says.

Journaling and Mental Health

Jonnell Patton, LPC, is a counselor in St. Louis, MO, who encourages journaling with most of her patients, regardless of their age. “Often emotions are hard to name and hard to put to words, especially for kids,” she says.  “Journaling helps get some of the emotions out in the open.”

She adds that journaling can be particularly useful in helping children deal with things like the death of a loved one, divorce,  depression and anxiety, nightmares and even bullying.

“It’s important to remember that you don’t have to write whole sentences when journaling; you don’t even have to use words,” Patton says. “Journaling can be pictures, and a picture offers a therapist or parent a chance to ask questions about the picture to get conversation started.”

Patton often has employed the drawing method for journaling to help children dealing with the death of a loved one. She has them draw pictures of memories they had with that person, both positive and negative. “Then, with either myself or their parent, I have them describe the picture. This helps them articulate what’s going on inside of them, and helps give the parents an idea of the emotions that are stirred up inside.”

She encourages the parents to keep the pictures to help the child remember. “They can even take a picture of the drawings to make a digital scrapbook so the child can have the book forever,” she says.

Terry Freerks, Ph.D., LPC, a marriage and family therapist in St. Louis, MO, calls journaling a “tool in her toolkit” and uses it to help patients in her practice, whether they are dealing with depression, anxiety or a host of other mental health issues.

“Journaling can help children, and adults, learn how they feel and discover where their triggers are,” she says. “It can also help us make some movement on a problem because once we can externalize something, that can lead to action.”

Technology Available for Journaling

Certainly, journaling can be done via old-fashioned paper and pen, and when it comes to very young children and picture journaling, it’s the best option. But technology like KidBlog and other platforms and apps, can help parents, teachers and counselors launch kids into a habit of capturing their thoughts and feelings via an electronic format.

One such app is Notability, available for Macs, iPads and iPhones.  Justin Brock, business development and marketing manager at Ginger Labs, the creator of Notability, says they have numerous English teachers using the app with their students to keep a daily journal.

“We designed Notability to help people create and capture information in a way that best suits their needs,” he says. “It really gives students the opportunity to express themselves in the way that’s best for them.”

Notability offers the opportunity to write using text (keyboard or touch screen) and by hand using a stylus or even their finger. Likewise, the option to draw sketches or illustrations using different colors is offered, and users can even insert digital pictures and audio into their note.

Notability costs $7.99 for a license that covers the iPad and iPhone, and $5.99 for the Mac. Notes will sync across all devices using a cloud service.

There are dozens of apps and websites that are free, as well, and Henderson encourages parents to explore what’s out there if they think the technology will get their children writing more.  Commonsensemedia.org offers a list of options, but a few that are free and are not listed on Commonsensemedia.org are Journaley and Evernote.

“I have students who continue to write on the blog from their classroom years after they were in my class,” Henderson says. “I even have one girl who went onto middle school and started writing book chapters and posting them on the blog for kids to read and give her feedback.”

Payton is one of the students who still writes on the blog even though she’s moved onto fifth grade. “It helps me express myself more,” she says.

Her mom adds that Payton also has started journaling at home separate from the blog. “She increased her self esteem so much from this that she tried out for and made a competitive dance team,” Akers said.

Journaling Tips for Parents

Parents who want their children to take up the habit of journaling should consider the following tips:

1 | Avoid the word ‘journaling.’

That word can put too many limits on the activity, according to Patton. “It sounds like they have to sit down and write sentences. Leave it open for drawing pictures, writing phrases or single words.”

2 | Set a time limit.

Patton says to keep the activity from feeling overwhelming, set a timer for 10 minutes. “If that feels like too much, do five minutes,” she says. “The goal is to get them doing it and increase it over time.”

3 | Do a word association or give them a topic.

“If they are dealing with a bully or a divorce, put the word “bully” or “divorce” at the top of the page and tell them to write all the words that come to mind,” Patton says.

4 | Agree to “no rules.”

It’s important for kids to feel like there’s no right or wrong when it comes to their journaling, according to Patton. “Forget grammar and spelling and sentences. It’s more important about getting what’s on the inside to the outside so you’re not alone with it.”

5 | Discuss privacy. 

Freerks says that parameters regarding privacy need to be part of the conversation, especially with older children. “If something is bothering your child, you can offer to let him/her write it down and leave it with you to read because that might be easier than verbalizing their feelings,” Freerks says. “But if they don’t want to share, you can tell them that you will respect their privacy as long as you are not fearful that something really bad is going on. “

6 | Address social media issues.

Freerks says that electronic journaling can be a great tool, but parents need to help children and teens understand the potential impact and consequences of sharing personal information on social media and through email.