Teaching Students Responsibility

For as long as humans have lived on Earth, generations of adults have bemoaned the lack of due diligence in the upcoming generation: “They’re indifferent and don’t work hard,” they declare. “We have to teach them self-discipline and how to be responsible!”

This is followed quickly with a list of punitive measures sure to instill such virtues. The same laments were cast upon some of us when we were young adolescents, too, and the adults in our lives applied those punitive measures with varying degrees of success.

The “we have to teach them responsibility” refrain is here to stay. To address the concern mindfully, however, we’ll have to do better than espouse simplistic notions such as giving students an F on the test if they don’t do their homework or requiring them to copy pages in the dictionary when they don’t bring a form signed by parents in a timely manner. These are the solutions of educators who are relying on false assumptions about how to cultivate personal self-discipline in young adolescents.

Grades by themselves are terrible teachers of self-discipline or builders of responsibility. Receiving an unrecoverable F or a zero on a final project or a test for which they did not prepare doesn’t teach students how to get their act together and meet deadlines or how to study better for tests. If Fs taught students to be responsible, we’d have a lot more responsible students. Instead, it’s the recovery from these mistakes under the skillful guidance of a caring adult that teaches. It’s also the purposeful strategies we use with students prior to and during our lessons that keep them from going down the ineffective path.

When looking specifically for ways to develop self-discipline and responsibility in students, we find many strategies within one or more of these categories. What we don’t find are any mention of berating students, denying second chances at learning, keeping them from recess in perpetuity, sending them to stand outside the classroom door, or removing them from all sports, music, or martial arts programming that give many of these students their only reason for coming to school.

So what works? Let’s take a look:

Accept the fact that students desperately want to be responsible and self-disciplined. This is built into all of us. Mel Levine was right: There is no such thing as laziness. When a student is not doing his best work or is failing to follow through on tasks or timelines, it’s unnatural.

The natural state is to be curious, connect with others, grow, and succeed. When it looks like the student is lazy, there is always something else going on that we can’t see, or that we can see, but we can’t control. Investigation and removal of those factors will help the student reveal his or her core self.

The old adage is correct: At any given moment, most of us are probably doing the best we can. If we can assume this in every interaction in which a student appears to have lacked personal responsibility or self-discipline, it will help focus our response to the issue constructively.

Provide feedback and reflection about the irresponsibility. “You chose not to do your portion of the project that you agreed to do, and now your group has an incomplete project. How does this show respect for the group? How do you think your decision makes the group members feel toward you? What can you do right now to re-build the trust you’ve broken here?”

Students are often just surviving the day, and they don’t see the value or take the time to look at the big-picture consequences of their words and actions, so we help them. For many students, it’s a trusted adult who can help them make connections between their actions and their goals.

Make it multi-faceted, not a single action or policy. Students need exposure to several different personal experiences and teacher practices, not just one magic wand waved at a key moment. When Yumi is struggling, then, we provide tools for him to monitor his own progress academically and behaviorally, and we help him find four (redundant back-up) techniques for remembering to bring his materials to class.

We model how to break large tasks into smaller ones and how to check things off the list as we complete them. We provide graphic organizers to help him lift and organize salient points in his reading and see how they fit into the larger whole. We help Yumi reflect on what it feels like to be “in the know” regarding the text discussed in class because he actually read it. It’s not one of these that will help Yumi mature, it’s all of them.

Make learning meaningful, transformative. Every day we are using the art of persuasion. We’re trying to convince students that our subjects and school in general are worth their time and energy. We prove to them the relevance of our course content and skill sets, helping them see connections that transfer to other classes and life.

We go out of our way to help them bring their lives to learning’s table, such as when we ask them to find examples of something we’re teaching in the larger community, let them choose the novels they’ll read, invite them to use their hobbies or personal interests as vehicles to demonstrate mastery of course content, and help them develop their personal writer’s voice.

And the cool part? When something is meaningful, we don’t have to cajole students into doing the task. They’ll work long hours, listen carefully to periodic feedback from classmates and teachers, and do high- quality work. If it’s drudgery, they’ll drag every foot, obstruct every enthusiasm.

Of course, students are going to be asked to do things in school for which they find no personal meaning or value, and they will have to do those things even though they are not in the mood to do them. For having experienced so many valued, meaningful tasks with you—a reliable, caring guide in this subject, however—they will tolerate boring tasks and persevere.

Provide the tools and competence to act. Do our students have the tools and competence to complete the task, and if so, do they perceive they have them? If they don’t see either of those things in their wheelhouse, no amount of pleading, reminding, or punishing is going to create personal self-discipline.

Sometimes we have to introduce students to their own competencies.

A critical sensitivity here: Some students do not have the same supports and resources at home as other students. There is no quiet space at home for Steven to do homework on a daily basis, nor does he have anyone to help him interpret the directions on the project when he’s confused, and no, they’ve never really traveled out of the rural/suburban area, so he didn’t get your analogy about navigating a city subway.

All of these thwart students’ personal investment, limiting their commitment to self-discipline. Let’s keep in mind that some students may understand they have the tools to do a task, but they don’t have the time, autonomy, or culture to act upon them.

Taking a Dive

Over and over again, these strategies have helped students build personal self-discipline and responsibility in schoolwork far more securely than a simple F on a report card ever could do.

Like students, we have responsibilities: To dive deeply into professional practice and make informed, effective instructional decisions. No scuba tanks needed in the dive, though, for here, there’s oxygen for learning and personal maturation. Enjoy the swim.