The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments. I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work. It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way. Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.
I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations. In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example. Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons. There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.
As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable. To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.
Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed). There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week! Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room. None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.
I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators. I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more. While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.
To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options. However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.
These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain. So, what are they already, right?!
Consistency is Key: Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives. The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category. The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic. As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle. Establish precise routines for your classes. For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
- Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
- Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
- Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
- Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
- Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
- Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like: Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners. Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true! Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved. Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary. Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner. As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort. Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible. They need to understand their role in their success. Try:
- When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
- Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well. Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them. Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…” They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you! Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
- Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.
You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class. By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind. Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school. Finally, please involve me in the conversations. As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator. Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!