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Keeping Students Accountable

Tired of excuses? Try these strategies for helping kids take responsibility for their success.

Found in: teaching strategies

Do you have students who constantly make excuses? Do they try to blame away poor grades and behavioral infractions on their teachers or fellow students without assuming any responsibility for their actions? Do they mischaracterize their mistakes while recounting the day's activities to a parent? Is there anything you can do to change their ways?

Making students accountable for their own success isn't easy, but fortunately your colleagues have some tried and true approaches to help students step up to the plate and become responsible learners.

Creating a Positive and Respectful Group Atmosphere for Students

One place to start is creating a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to accountability and responsible learning.

Teacher working with student on a project“Establish, practice, and enforce expectations and consequences,” says Kate Ortiz, a retired teacher and classroom management expert. “The goal is for students to take ownership of their own behavior. Creating a positive group identity and helping each student know that they are part of the group helps.”

Ortiz also strives to create a culture of mutual respect that allows students to feel like adults.

“I have found that greeting students at the door is a big help as it establishes me as a confident, businesslike person who is pleased to have the students there,” says Ortiz. “I never sit down when students are in the room and am mobile while speaking to them and while they are working, using proximity and facial expression before words to address any inappropriate behavior whenever possible. If I do have to talk to a student about behavior, I do so as briefly, matter-of-factly, and quietly as possible.”

By treating their students as adults, but also reminding them that they are part of the larger class, Ortiz believes that teachers who work to create a respectful group mentality will have a greater chance of promoting personal accountability in their students.

“I think it is important to send the message through your demeanor and tone that you care about the kids. Much the same way you are happier and more willing to work for a principal who values you, kids respond better to a teacher who doesn't buy into the ‘these are the worst kids’ stigma and instead tries to get to know them and models respectful behavior, even when responding to disrespect.”

Making Students and Parents Partners in their Success

Beckee Morrison, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at the Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, Hawaii, is in her ninth teaching year. She believes students should have the opportunity to take charge of their academic success by formulating and following through on their own plan to improve. By assuming responsibility for their mistakes, Morrison believes her students learn the true value of personal accountability.

“Nobody likes getting bad grades,” she says, “but I think it’s better for kids who can go home and say, ‘Look, I’ve got a D right now, but here’s my plan to bring my grade up.’ It’s like the kid’s saying, ‘I got this!’”

When students have a low grade at the midterm in her class, Morrison gives them a blank plan with a list of approaches that will lead to improvement. The goals are realistic—no more missing or incomplete assignments, a target grade for the rest of the semester, and at least partial proficiency in the coursework, for example. Next they identify specific steps they will take to meet the goals for the remainder of the term. By allowing students to take the lead, Morrison puts them in charge of their own academic success.

“I sign it, the student signs their own plan, and the parents sign it,” says Morrison, who has noticed her students taking more of a proactive approach to their classwork. “After two weeks, I print up a new grade report for that student, and we conference. We review the plan, talk about whether it was realistic, whether they took the steps, and whether they met their goal.”



To ensure that students are held accountable at home and school, and to boost the likelihood that they will follow through on efforts to reach their goals, Morrison includes parents in the conversation. This way, students can work from an unwavering foundation of positive reinforcement, which encourages them to reach their goals and also teaches them the value of personal responsibility.

Teachers should work in tandem with parents to help students grow into self-conscious and constructive adults. Meeting that goal is not always easy, but once parents see you as an advocate in their child’s development, you’ll be on the way to making sure the lessons from school are being enforced at home, and vice versa.

Using a Rubric to Get Students Invested in Their Work

Terri Messing, who teaches at Cedar Heights Jr. High School in Port Orchard, Washington, also puts her eighth-grade students in charge of their own success. Like Morrison, she has noticed encouraging changes. A certified teacher for the last 10 years, and a paraeducator for 18 years before that, Messing has experience with students who would rather slack off then be held accountable for their studies. The trick, she says, is getting students invested in their work.

“I came up with the effort and achievement rubric as a way to get my eighth-graders—who say that eighth grade doesn’t matter because their grades start over in high school—to buy into what is going on in class and to take responsibility for their learning.”

Using Robert Marzano’s book “The Reflective Teacher” as a model, Messing tweaked his ideas to create an effort and achievement scale that students complete daily to show how they are meeting their school responsibilities. Students grade their daily commitment to schoolwork on a 1-4 scale. At the end of the month, they tally their scores on a graph and explain what the graph says about their approach to learning. Students also create a list of up to 10 learning targets. Each month, they give themselves a grade indicating how well they have met their objectives.

Initially, Messing’s students were skeptical. Over time, she has seen a significant change in their approach to work.

“At first, the students’ responses at the end of the month were very generic,” says Messing, “now, the majority of students are really getting that their effort does have a significant effect on their learning.”

Students seem to respond productively when teachers give them the opportunity to take charge of their academic success. By holding students accountable for their work and responsible for maintaining a personal level of excellence, teachers can provide their classes with the necessary tools they need to better themselves. Accountability breeds responsibility, and students who develop the tools to target and improve their academic shortcomings will, in turn, develop the skills they need to go far in life.


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