The title of this article comes straight from a reader’s question.
It assumes that taking responsibility is something that you, the teacher, must secure from the misbehaving student.
It assumes that it’s something the student must verbalize to you.
In fact, if you try to draw it out of them—by way of questioning, pressuring, or forcing assurances—you all but guarantee that they won’t take responsibility.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a say in the matter.
You do, most definitely.
But taking responsibility is something your students can only decide for themselves.
Your job is to create the conditions that make it highly likely that they will own up to their mistakes.
And learn from them.
So what are these conditions?
Well, the first condition is that the student must know that their behavior was indeed against the rules.
Because if they’re unsure, if there are gray areas or ambiguities embedded within your classroom management plan, then they’ll resist taking responsibility.
They’ll latch on to loopholes. They’ll make excuses and try to justify their misbehavior. They’ll point the finger elsewhere and conclude that they’ve been wronged or that you’re picking on them.
This underscores the importance of teaching, modeling, and defining your rules so thoroughly that it eliminates any question as to what is and isn’t okay.
The second condition is that the student must know the purpose of the rule they broke.
Like the first condition, this must come ahead of time, as you’re laying out your plan during the first week of school.
When your students know the logic of why each rule is in place, and how it protects them and their learning and enjoyment of school, they become far more likely to accept responsibility.
They also become far less likely to break rules in the first place.
The third condition is that your classroom management plan must be faithfully followed.
If you’re inconsistent, if rules are enforced (or not) based on your mood, what’s going on in the classroom at the time, or who the student is, then the response is more likely to be denial than acceptance.
Because it isn’t fair.
Even if the student knows they’re in the wrong, they won’t take responsibility if others have gotten away with similar behavior in the past.
The final condition is that you must deliver your consequence with impartiality.
If you glare, scold, lecture, or lose your cool, then the student will never come to a place in their heart where they can take responsibility.
Because they’ll be filled with hurt and resentment. They’ll be defensive and primed to argue, lie, and deny. They’ll blame you for their troubles.
They’ll also desire to misbehave again ASAP. This time, behind your back.
The four conditions—understanding, purpose, consistency, and impartiality—cause misbehaving students to look inward and search themselves.
They cause them to reflect on their mistakes and empathize with those they’ve affected. They cause a natural progression of thought that leads predictably to accepting responsibility.
So, if happens internally, do you ever really know if a student takes responsibility?
Yes, you do.
But not always in the moment. Although when all four conditions are met, students often voluntarily admit wrongdoing, apologize, and show remorse, you only really know when their behavior improves.
You only really know when they appear eager to please you and more determined to do well.
You only really know when they’re better students and classmates as a result of your accountability.
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