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Missing Assignment Reflections, part 2: What if the responses schools make for students with learning disabilities are not helpful?

This week I was involved in a conversation with a 16 yr old A student, his teacher, and his mom.  The trouble  is that he had not turned in several homework assignments, and had gotten zeros, threatening his A average.  He reminded the teacher that he has a  plan of accommodations for his diagnosed ADHD, including extra time.  The teacher him another chance to turn the work in, so the student’s mother emailed the teacher  supporting her son’s reference to the accommodation plan.  The teacher then agreed to give him an extra day to turn in assignments.  Of course, tempers were running hot by this point.

As the mother cc’d me in her email conversation with the teacher,  I talked with the student, and we deconstructed what was actually happening.  The teacher assigns  homework each day.  About once a month, she puts  a list of 10-12 assignments to turn in on the chalkboard.  The students read the list on the board and pull those assignments from their binders, clip them together, and hand them in.  Even though my student does the homework every night and aces the tests, his homework turn-in packets tend to be incomplete.  Some assignments don’t get turned in. Why?

Some probing turns up what is going wrong.  Although pulling out a dozen assignments from the binder and turning them in sounds like a simple enough thing to do, it is actually quite a series of actions which must be coordinated.

  1. The student looks up at the board,
  2. reads an item from the list,
  3. looks down to his binder to find it, and
  4. pulls it out for turning in.
  5. Then, he looks up to the board again and reads another item in the list, repeating the process.

The Problem is that sometimes he skips an item or two from the list without knowing he is doing so.  Unconsciously, he tries to keep up with the speed at which the other students are completing the task so he does not take the time to be sure he has all that has been asked for, so his packet is incomplete.  The teacher does not find out that his packet is missing items until she comes to it later, in her process of grading,  so the second day goes by without the student knowing that he has missed anything, and full of other things to occupy his mind.  He gets the packet back with a lower grade than he is expecting.

All the proper steps have been taken, but the extra time accommodation – one the schools are comfortable to provide, and which sounds like a good thing – does not solve the problem and everyone is unhappy with anyone else.  There are solutions.  They depend on understanding what the problem really is, a difficulty with sequencing, working memory, and moving between a vertical and a horizontal visual field.

  • One is for the teacher to provide the extra time at the front end of the process instead: she can supply the student with the list of assignments she wants turned in the day before she puts the list on the board.  But that ruins the surprise of having to turn in a selection of the assignments given over the course of the month, and feels unfair to the other students who wouldn’t get such a heads up.
  • Another is to hand the student a list on paper at the same time that the others have the list on the board,  so that he can physically check off each item as he pulls it, and doesn’t get disconnected, losing his place between looking up at the board and down at his binder.

We could think of several others, and I am tempted to offer ones that do not depend on the ongoing game of  “gotcha” that is implied in the processes of this class.  That will be a post for another day.

Uhoh, missing assignments!

Over the last week my work has been with students who are warned of impending failing grades.  Teachers report that they are missing a lot of assignments for the semester, and the student explains that the assignments were omitted in order to keep up the pace required of them across all their courses.  Kids with EDF will often need more time and support with the planning, enacting the steps, and checking their work than is allowed for the completion of it. Overwhelmed by the pace and volume of the work they are to do, they drop assignments which are not due the next day, especially demanding of their executive functions, or either boring or difficult.  Many times the problem is interpreted as laziness, or a discipline issue by the time it comes to light.  Teachers do not routinely let parents know of their child’s missing work until prompted to do so either at interim time or because the parent asks for it.  The kid hides the missing assignments even from herself, at a loss about what to do, and pressed to get on with the rest of the pile of assignments befoer her.  So, what to do?

     First, see the issue coming.  Kids with EDF need extra time and executive function support on all assignments, including tests.
Schools find it relatively easy to give them extra time on the tests, but have greater resistance to allowing it for classroom work, homework, and projects, etc.  At the same time, the EDF student is likely to need more iterations of practice with concepts in order to learn them than do their neurotypical peers.  At some point or other this tension will cause a jam.
      Second, set up reasonable accommodations like a predictable space and time for taking tests using extra time so that there doesn’t need to be a scramble about it every time there is an assessment.  A place in the library, for example, set aside for test takers with an adult handy before and after school, and throughout the day.   Reduce the student’s schedule wherever possible so that a free period opens up in the day to be used (supervised) for getting assignments done.  Reduce the number of inessential assignments for EDF students at least.
     Third, each teacher communicate what is missing at the end of each week so that weekend time can be devoted to catching up.  The student should also develop the habit of planning weekend time for this purpose and assign work to that period as they go through the week and encounter something that will need more time than they have that evening.  Having a place to put the work they don’t have time to complete is a whole lot better than simply dropping it, and it allows the parent or other supervisory adult to lend positive rather than punitive support e.g. “is there anything that you need to move into the catch-up time on Saturday from tonight’s list?” or  “lets make a note of what you need to move this assignment forward: to understand the process better? to have time to reread the text?”

The idea is to take the problem out of shame and misunderstanding and bring it into the light where planning and support can take the place of friction and punishment.

Top 5 things I would have schools do in support of kids with less than optimal executive functions

1. Support all faculty in being competent with and attentive to email communications, especially at times when students are likely to be doing homework such as evenings Sunday – Thursday
2. Support all faculty in Posting all assignments and the materials needed for them (worksheets, notes, readings, etc.) as well as due dates, on a generally accessible web site (like
3. Maintain a similar spot where students and their parents can check whether assignments have been turned in.
4. Replace the almost instinctive belief in student laziness with its opposite, and communicate actively to students that you believe they can and want to learn whatever subject you teach.
5. Arrange to have most student work done in school, and provide staffed “study hall” time in which students can complete their “homework” prior to leaving school for the day.