I frequently hear teachers and school faculty talking about how their students lack responsibility. They wonder how to convey to students the importance of this lifelong skill. I use the word skill instead of trait because when we think of things like respect or responsibility or perseverance when related to a character trait, we’re saying you’ve got it or you don’t. By framing it for ourselves, other educators, and students as a skill, we’re showing that it’s something we can absolutely become better at if we understand it and practice it often.
We see the importance of teaching kids responsibility skills in many different ways. It may look like frequently asking about due dates, struggling to complete homework, or lack of class participation, etc. It’s important to remember that kids don’t want a lecture. That’s why it’s crucial to incorporate student voices when we talk about responsibility. We also find ways for students to see how being responsible helps them (not just grownups). Students then see responsibility as a valuable skill that can help them be the best version of themselves.
One of my favorite PD books is Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation by Kristin Van Marter Souers and Pete Hall. It helped me to reframe and redefine some of my ideas about responsibility. In this book, the authors believed that feeling capable was crucial to acting responsibly. They further defined responsibility as including positive self-concept, sense of efficacy (effort optimism – believing if they put forth the effort, they will have success), sense of capability and competence, belief in control over one’s success, self-reliance, ability to plan and problem solve and organize information, and ability to pause and think before responding.
Using this definition of responsibility we need to provide them with lots of opportunities to experience success. Only then can we begin to help our students become more responsible
We need to show them their strengths and point out when their actions lead to positive outcomes. And of course, we need to teach them explicitly about responsibility!
Emphasize WHY Responsibility is Important:
Students should walk away with a good understanding of what makes showing responsibility important and valuable to themselves and the community. If students can see the value here, they will be more likely to have the motivation necessary to show responsibility consistently. Below are a few reasons I like to provide:
- Everyone doing their part is what a community is all about. For communities like the ones at school or home to thrive, each person is depended on to do their part to create a safe, welcoming, and thriving environment. Jobs according to each community members’ strengths are divided among all members so that all expectations and goals for the group are met. Generally, communities that have members who are responsible for the collective success rather than one or a few members who have the responsibilities are more enjoyable to participate in.
- People are able to achieve more when they possess and practice strong responsibility skills. In order to meet goals, you must take aligned action. Without taking action you can’t make you. Responsibility comes in when you must make plans for and take the action steps necessary to meet those goals. If students can see the connection between practicing responsibility to take action and meeting their goals, then they will most likely see the benefits of being responsible.
- We need to understand what is in our control and what is out of our control. It is important for students to see that sometimes, they do not have control over things that happen to them or around them. They need to be able to decipher between what they can make choices about and what is simply beyond their realm of control. In this previous post about problems inside or outside your control, I walk you through how I use the book Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to discuss problems in and out of our control. Students see that some problems can be avoided or changed by making different choices. Other problems cannot be changed and we do not have control over them.
Show Students the Different Elements of Responsibility at School
1. Connect their choices with consequences.
This shows children how much power and control they have in a given situation and creates empowered students who know they are in control of how situations go many times. Since they are children, they will not always be in control, so when possible, it is important for teachers, parents, and other adults in the child’s life to allow freedom of choice when possible. This in turn will give the child a major confidence boost!
Allowing children the freedom to make their own choices also helps kids see that our actions can have positive or negative consequences. Many students need help to see that the choices they make are connected to consequences, so I created a lesson that shows students various situations where they would need to make choices.
For primary grades, it is important to introduce responsible decision-making skills. This 3 part interactive lesson for lower elementary helps students understand and connect choices and consequences, make helpful decisions at school, and recognize dysregulation, use a calming skill, then make a helpful choice. It also includes differentiated activities and worksheets to help students practice these skills.
In this upper elementary Choices and Consequences Lesson, students were able to recognize the impact of their choices and become more responsible decision-makers. I paired it with a Kid President video, but you could also look at a Chutes and Ladders game board as a hook to scaffold or preview the concept!
2. Whose job is it?
Students are in the unique position of being only partially responsible (and having only partial control) over many things in their lives. They share responsibilities with parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. We need to be explicit with them about which bits and pieces are their responsibility.
Many times students will say, “My mom forgot to sign that!” or “You didn’t tell me to do that!” Teachers frequently find themselves giving constant reminders and repeating themselves in an effort to get students to remember to even take responsibility.
In this previous blog post, I explain my lesson “Whose Job Is It?” which teaches how students can decipher whose jobs are whose. Students were given important school tasks like learning reading skills, being on time and present at school, and completing homework. Then students must decide what jobs are the teachers, parents, or students for each school task. Students were able to see that much of the responsibility fell to them, but other jobs were up to the adults. It helped them see that there are many jobs that a student should have when completing those school tasks. They were made aware of the things that they could have control over when it comes to school and places where they may have been relying too much on the adults.
3. Take responsibility for your actions.
We need to understand that everyone makes mistakes. But the important thing is that we acknowledge them and learn from them. When you know better, then you can do better. This is such a good skill to model for students. Even as teachers and counselors we make mistakes. Next time you make one, talk to students about how you learned from it! They love hearing real-world examples from grown-ups!
Help students to identify what to say to take responsibility for their actions. Students need a clear understanding of how to take responsibility for a mistake. Model good apologies when mistakes involve others. Apologies should have 3 parts: the “I’m sorry,” the reason why you are sorry, and a resolution like “I won’t make that mistake again.”
Students should also understand what NOT to say in these situations. They should not blame others for their own mistakes or completely ignore that a mistake has been made.
Help students practice figuring out what to do after they’ve made a mistake to make it better. Teachers and counselors can guide students to the right words to use when taking ownership and responsibility by asking questions like:
- What happened?
- How did that make you feel?
- What was your brain saying?
- What was the hardest part for you?
- Who else was affected?
- What do you think you can do to make this better?
Now, not everything can be made 100% better, especially if there was an injury or unkind words used, but you should always try your best.
4. Be a problem solver.
Children need guidance on how to solve problems independently. Discuss different possible solutions to common problems with students. If they don’t have a pencil, they can go to the jar of new pencils in the classroom. Lost homework? Ask for a new copy to do over. If they want to use the swing at recess? They could ask whoever is on it that they get a chance to swing.
Many times children just need some general ideas of how to solve problems. An easy class activity is to have students generate common problems and write on notecards and discuss solutions as a class. You could also create cards with given solutions to common problems that students can then match to the problem.
Here is a previous blog post and lesson on teaching problem solving and taking responsibility. Students already learned about problems inside and outside of their control. So, next, we read the book But It’s Not My Fault! and discussed taking ownership of their own problems. We had a “snowball” fight where students wrote common problems on sheets of scrap paper and threw them(safely) across the room. After all the “snowballs” were thrown, students opened one that landed near them, read the problem, and wrote a good solution to their problem. I only recommend the snowball fight if students have had some practice generating solutions to problems. Otherwise, a matching activity works best here.
Looking for More?
Take a look at this previous blog post about restorative practices. Restorative practices are a mindset, a set of beliefs about why people choose positive behavior and the power of relationships. Restorative practices are also a set of strategies schools can use. These practices are to help repair harm and build and repair relationships.
I hope you got some valuable information and reminders that you can bring back to your school or home. Hopefully you can use them to teach children about taking responsibility and brushing up on their responsibility skills.
How do you go about teaching students about responsibility? How do you and your school faculty model responsibility skills? What other ways do you enjoy teaching about taking responsibility?