Who’s in Control Here? Holding Kids Accountable and Letting Them Fail

The start of this school year has been ROUGH. As a teacher, I’ve never felt stretched so thin, and as a mother whose youngest started kindergarten, I’m struggling to balance three school schedules, activities, and homework.

My greatest personal challenge, however, has been guiding my oldest daughter through her academic challenges. She loves school, but she struggles, a lot, and this year has been especially challenging. Every night, homework and studying is a battle, but when she brings home poor grades or takes her frustration out on the rest of us, she is quick to pass the blame. She frequently cries, “It’s not my fault!” anytime we question the reason for a bad grade or tell her that her reactions are inappropriate. But we don’t accept that excuse. My husband and I understand that our daughter’s struggles are not all within her control. Academic struggles and emotional dysregulation are major symptoms of her ADHD, and we provide her with all the support that we can. But we refuse to permit her to use ADHD as an excuse, and we allow natural consequences to happen.

School may be hard for her, and she may never be a straight-A student, but there are lots of things she can do to improve her comprehension and her grades. She might just have to work a little bit harder for it. When she doesn’t study like we ask her to, then the natural consequence is that she gets a bad grade. I will make sure she receives the necessary accommodations at school, but I won’t ask teachers to allow her to retest or allow her to blame other students or the testing situation for the bad grade, because I want her to see the relationship between studying and her grades. I want her to understand that the extra effort makes a difference. She may struggle to regulate her emotional response to overwhelm, sensory overload, and situations she deems to be unfair, but she can control her behavioral response. She can take deep breaths; she can T.H.I.N.K.  before she acts (Is it True. Helpful. Important. Necessary. Kind?); She can remove herself from the situation. We don’t shame her for the emotions, but we do hold her accountable for the choices she makes when those emotions are in control. She’s not allowed to justify bad behavior with strong emotions.

As a parent, it’s my job to hold my daughter accountable and to let her fail, but as a teacher, it’s a lot harder to hold students to the same standards, especially when their parents aren’t of the same mindset. Student behavior and lack of accountability rank high among the reasons why there is a nationwide teacher shortage and why so many great teachers are leaving the profession. There have been many news stories about teachers being attacked and beaten by students, but those are extreme cases. More often the behavior is less severe but chronic. Some students routinely disregard the rules, disrupt class, or disrespect teachers. In terms of grades, students often earn failing grades because they are habitually absent, skip class, sleep in class, or don’t complete work. Still, holding students accountable for these choices is a challenge.  Aside from lots of bureaucratic red tape, in many schools, teachers bear all of the burden of both holding students accountable and proving that consequences are deserved. They have to document everything and jump through hoops to have habitually unruly student behaviors addressed with more serious consequences or to be able to fail a student. Too often, when teachers and schools attempt to get parents involved, they encounter helicopter or lawnmower parents, eager to remove any obstacle or challenge from their child’s path and unwilling to hold their children responsible for their choices and actions. Schools, terrified of the parents’ sharp and powerful blades, yield to parental pressure, and the students experience no real consequences.

None of this is teaching students accountability. Instead, it is setting them up for a rude awakening after high school. And the truth is, most students appreciate being held accountable, especially after the last two years turned leniency into a complete lack of accountability. While some have struggled to adjust, most students do better with established expectations and structure.  I’m far from a perfect teacher, but in my classroom, I work hard to create both a welcoming and comfortable environment and clear expectations of behavior and academic performance. I don’t often have behavior issues in my class, even with students who regularly misbehave in other classes. My students know that I’ll work with them if they communicate issues with me up front, but I won’t accept excuses after the fact, and I’ll allow them to redo any assessment to improve their grades, but only if they did the assignment in the first place. I want them to understand the role they play in their own academic success. Every once in a while, my students have to learn lessons the hard way, but I’d much rather they learn the lesson in my class, where the impact is less profound, than in the real world, where it can have lasting consequences.

Holding kids accountable for their actions and letting them fail is not an easy thing to do. My daughter fights my husband and me tooth and nail. We lose out patience with her, and often we wonder why parenting has to be SO hard, but she knows we won’t give up or give in. As a result, while she might struggle in some areas, she is also very capable of things that many kids her age aren’t expected to do and that adults with ADHD still struggle with. That should be the goal of all parents: not to clear the world of obstacles for their child, but to allow their child to learn from experiences, even negative ones, so that they develop grit and become independent. While they may rarely be in control of the situation they’ve been placed in, children can still learn that they are in control of their attitude and their actions.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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