A teacher stopped penalizing late work and started asking students questions about why assignments were late. Here’s what he learned.
Dealing with late or missing work is one of the most challenging parts of being a teacher. In my classroom, I’ve struggled with crafting a late-work policy that would hold my students accountable. I wanted consistency and convenience that would combat my frustrations with my students’ behaviors, but this was the wrong approach.
Instead, I needed to put into place equity approaches that empowered students and focused on their own development. How could I help students learn that due dates were not simply artificial measures of compliance, but in reality were crucial to progress, accountability, and learning? If we’re focused on getting students to engage with their learning in a manner that reinforces organization, commitment, and continuity, we need to understand task completion as a skill that must be modeled first and not penalized. Here is how I’ve adopted an equity approach in my classroom.
EQUITY APPROACHES TO LATE WORK
Adopting trauma-informed practices can help create a more equity-based approach to late work. This means understanding how traumatic experiences can impact an individual’s cognitive development. Low-stake stressors can have severe impacts on how survivors of trauma regulate their own responses.
Deadlines are a stressor. My students have seven classes in a day, and as they oscillate through the weight of each of these courses, the workload can compound and overwhelm their coping mechanisms. Learning how to develop a trauma-informed approach builds empathy and also encourages teachers to focus on the how and why of outcomes instead of the what.
Rather than making compliance a requirement for success, I emphasize to students how meeting and managing deadlines is a future-ready skill in and of itself. The classroom is where we learn to master that skill, not to fear the ramifications of failure.
Aside from stressors like due dates and testing, systemic inequalities create repeating stressors and hardships, which compound the negative impact on the mental health of many of our most vulnerable populations. We know that racism and poverty are trauma inducing and that both have negative ramifications for our at-risk populations. Both factors diminish the executive functioning and coping mechanisms for those students. While we constantly ask our students not to subscribe to narratives that undermine their capabilities, we can dismantle the systems that encourage the continued success of the privileged over others. Teaching students about their own agency has to come first.
GATHERING THE DATA
This year, I started paying closer attention to how I was tracking my students’ late and missing work. No surprise at all, students with below-average reading scores and high attendance issues were most likely to have late and missing work complicating their grades. The past two years have been incredibly difficult for all of us. I wanted to be fair, but I also wanted to teach the students accountability and growth.
I decided to show them what I was seeing on my end.
When organizing my classroom, I often stage my activities and assignments weekly, scaffolding content as we move further through the days as the complexity grows. As students complete tasks, they check in with me and/or submit a copy on our online page. It’s at this step where I mark on a spreadsheet when the student completed this step. The spreadsheet reflects degrees of variation: on time, delayed, late, and missing.
I aggregated the data, made some graphs, and gave it to my students to examine. Students like looking at data and graphs, especially when the information is about them. Integrating these forms of literacy is crucial to developing future-oriented minds. I asked them to categorize it and tell me: What are we learning from this information? What is the data telling us about ourselves, about our class, about the way we are doing things? My class looks at late and missing work not as a problem, but as an opportunity to inquire about our behaviors, hypothesize alternatives, and test models for improvement.
I also asked them to develop inferences about the data. Students identified that if a task was started and due that day, activities were more likely to be “on time,” with a few “missing.” This made a lot of sense to everyone, especially if we correlated it with attendance. Rarely were they late. However, for larger group activities, especially those that took up multiple days, students observed significant increases in the rate of “late” and “missing work.” Overwhelmingly, they believed it was because groups always had that one student who didn’t do anything.
For myself, I didn’t see this as a shortcoming of collaborative learning but as a hiccup in my instructional strategies. In this reflection, I noticed where pacing was an issue for some and where it was an issue for the whole class. Because I broke my larger assignments into phased tasks, I required too much with too little of reward for the students. I remembered that rigor does not mean mechanical complexity but should offer students an opportunity to challenge their assumptions and to manifest creativity. This process made me reconsider whether my structure was convenient solely for me or designed for their learning.
After doing this exercise three times this year, I have found it to be a powerful way to help students learn more about their executive functioning (EF), or the set of cognitive skills that they employ as they learn. Strong EF skills are crucial for helping students both regulate their behavior and develop critical literacy and social skills.
Through an equity-based approach, I came to understand due dates as an opportunity to teach students how to manage their EF skills as a commitment to social interactions. Not only has this approach helped my students understand the complexities of their own behaviors, but also I’ve used it to deeply reflect on my own teaching practices. Late and missing work doesn’t have to be regulated to delinquency or deficiency, but rather can be an invitation to intervention and ingenuity.