You’re Late!

You’re late. And what are you going to do about it?

Several years ago I found myself at school late on a Friday night. I was loosely supervising Jill and India Carson, awaiting the arrival of their mother – the last parent to come and pick up the last two students in Friday Night School.

Friday Night School is an intermediary consequence for students whose misbehavior might otherwise be cause for suspension from school. Instead of being suspended or otherwise removed from class, they stay with me on Friday night. Middle school students stay an hour and a half, high schoolers two and a half hours. FNS ends at 6:30. It was 7:30, and the older sister had just called their mom again to confirm that she really was on her way. She said she was “leaving now.”

I was only mildly hopeful. She was, after all, already an hour late, and we had earlier received the exact same reassurance. They lived roughly 10 minutes from school.

It happens that these sisters had received FNS because of tardiness. Chronic, repeated, and extended tardiness. At the time, we had a system of interventions in place. It worked something like this:


Each quarter we “re-set” the system, and students were understood to again have zero tardies, and they started up the discipline ladder all over again.

This work involved various people in the school to do paperwork and supervision. The warnings were issued by office staff – we had two secretaries at the time and they kept track of the tardies. Detentions were served with the first bell teacher. A paraprofessional assisted the secretaries and worked with the team leaders to keep track of individual students’ tardies so they could get their consequences at the appropriate time. FNS was served with me. At each step warnings were to be issued by our secretaries. Finally, our “visiting teacher” – akin to a truancy officer – was supposed to engage parents and students in a dialogue mixed with the threat of a court referral for chronic absences.

The goal of the work was, obviously, to reduce our amounts of tardiness. We were certain that if we reclaimed the lost time and made tardiness unpleasant enough, that the students would learn to change their behavior. They would come to school on time. Our intervention was heavy on punishment, and heavy on paperwork. Some days it felt as if we spent 20 or 30 minutes reviewing the data in the office, and this was before teachers made phone calls regarding detentions, or the FNS. The process cost some money too. In addition to time lost to instruction or preparation as we administered the program, we had special forms printed from office services to accommodate each step of the process.

We were heavily invested in getting students to school on time. And it felt like we were losing.

Lost instructional time.

Actually, by at least one measure, we were being rather successful. Most of our students came to school on time every day. Our overall attendance was much better than other schools in our district. But we knew we could improve in other important ways if we could get every student there on time every day. The opening moments of a classroom set the tone for what will be learned that day. Often important information on the subject matter and the process happen right at the start of class. A student who misses that time, just as with any absence, may be able to “make up” the work that was done, but might ultimately lack the context for understanding the work. Without this context, students lack the ability to tie their learning to the permanent scaffolds that aid learning. They miss a chance to build the myelin that locks learning in place.

Some studies even show that tardiness not only impacts the learning of the tardy student, but also correlates with poorer performance by students in the classroom with tardy students.

Being on time is important for more than its own sake.

Tardiness is considered by some to be a cultural phenomenon. You hear culture frequently used as an excuse by people arriving late. They say, “we are on [insert culture here] time.” I have heard it used for “Greek time”, “black people time”, and “India time,” and I know there are others.  The President of Peru felt his country’s casual attitude toward tardiness was so damaging to their business culture that he made it his goal to stamp out this behavior as a country. In 2007 he started an initiative called La Hora Sin Demora (Time Without Delay).

A quick Google search reveals countless authors and commentators who provide reasons and excuses for individual and group norms that contribute to tardiness. Prominent educators and psychologists have weighed in.

We were heavily invested in getting students to school on time. And it felt like we were losing.

Alfie Kohn attributes chronic tardiness to a lack of self-discipline, and seems to accept that tardiness is something we cannot solve.

Psychologist Adoree Durayappah asserts that we simply don’t want to be early, but suggests ways that we might try to tackle that antipathy toward waiting.

Guy Winch, whose popular TED talk on emotional first aid has garnered 5.3M views, suggests that tardiness persists because we all have blind spots in our thinking that prevent us from determining the actual time it takes us to get from one place to another. Fortunately, he asserts that these are problems we can fix. But fixing it is the work of the individual, not the society.

With all of these differing viewpoints and advice, and evidence that suggests the struggle is rooted to the very basic nature of humans, what is a school to do?

For me, the answer was to give up.

My decision was shaped in part by an experience I had with a friend’s tardiness years before.

My freshman year in college, an argument of sorts broke out between occupants of the neighboring dorm room. It provided me with some perspective on the nature of tardiness.

Chip apparently had been trying to cure himself of chronic tardiness to his 8:00 class. His roommate, Tim, pointed out to several of us that Chip’s clock showed a time fully two and a half hours later than the current time.

“How that could possibly help? And, also,” his roommate asked, “how did that even happen?”

Chip explained that in an effort to be on time, he had moved the clock forward ten minutes or so every time that he was tardy to class. He didn’t want to be late, so he was altering his environment to assist himself in being on time. He was tricking himself into thinking it was later so he would hurry to class. As we were past midterm, the cumulative effect of moving the clock forward each time he was late meant that his alarm was, indeed, ringing nearly three hours before class started – the two and a half hours he had set it ahead, and he explained, “twenty minutes to get ready and get to class.”

Tim, to make his point clear, looked at me as he asked Chip a rhetorical question, “And have you been on time yet?”

“No. I just snooze a little more each day. And when I look at the time and see how early it is, I remember that I already set it forward. Or,” he continued. “Sometimes I start to get up, and then I see your clock and what time it really is, and I go back to sleep.”

“Precisely!” Tim was yelling his objection, as he noted that his first class was at ten each morning. “That alarm goes off in the middle of the freaking night, and you hit snooze for two and a half hours, and you are still late! It doesn’t make sense.”

Chip shrugged. “Well, when you put it that way.” Chip had gone to seemingly ridiculous lengths to get himself to class on time, but he still had not solved his problem.

Tim’s solution was that if Chip was going to be tardy anyway, he might as well set his clock, and his alarm, to the appropriate time. Or, as he put it, “Just get up on time!”

The same choice was fairly obvious to me as I waited for Mrs. Carson with Jill and India. I was an hour delayed from starting my weekend. And the two pieces were laid out for me in stark contrast:

Who was causing the tardiness for these sisters? Their mother.

Who was getting punished? Me.

Okay, and Jill and India were punished too. I am certain they also wanted to get on with their weekend, which really should have started three hours earlier, but I was pretty involved in my own frustration at that moment.

For me, the answer was to give up.

What amount of detentions and FNSs would get these students to school on time?  This was an answer that would remain a mystery, akin to the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop. Perhaps the answer was “one more,” but it felt like “infinite”.

I thought about the paperwork, the tracking, the time … and the fact that if a child missed the FNS, it made absolutely no sense to give them the next stronger consequence: suspension. Telling a kid to stay home because he was late too many times was not an option. Imagine the tortured explanation one would have to give to justify that. “Coming to school on time is so important, I will now not let you come at all until you have learned your lesson.”

So I resolved we would do nothing. That is, we would revise our policy at the next semester to remove some or all of the consequences. At the very least, I would not again find myself trapped at the school, punished by a parent whose behavior I would never change.

The experiment would prove to be pretty clean. Semester break was coming up. We could continue the current process until then, and when the new semester began, we would abandon the whole system. Almost everyone was pleased at the news. The secretaries had a little less paperwork, as did the paraprofessional. It meant fewer confrontations and phone calls for teachers, and it cut the FNS list by almost a third, improving our discipline statistics, and making FNS easier to manage, and almost enjoyable in comparison.

Several weeks after the experiment started, at about the time each quarter when we would typically be accumulating consequences for tardiness, Jill and India arrived to school together nearly 45 minutes late. My secretary, sensitive to the importance of teaching students to arrive on time, drolly said to me in a voice only I could hear, “You see who it is, don’t you? Tardy again.”

Well, look who’s late. Again. Still.

“True,” I agreed. “But I think it proves my point. I mean, when we had all those consequences in place, who was tardy all the time?”

She offered a conciliatory nod. I reassured her that being on time was important, and promised that we would be guided by the data at the end of the semester, and she agreed that the lack of additional paperwork was appreciated.

Soon enough, the year came to an end, and I examined the data. Within our attendance program was a script that took the number of students over the course of a given set of dates, and could provide a per pupil tardy rate. I ran the first semester rate, and then the second semester. The results astounded me.

Our tardiness rate was the same.

The per pupil tardy rate for first semester was 1.682. This was the total number of tardies divided by the number of students. This did not mean that every student had been tardy slightly less than twice, it meant that some students were tardy so often that it impacted our tardy rate. This was clearly problematic, that a few students could have such an impact.

However, it was the second number that convinced me. The tardy rate for second semester was 1.683. The effect during the first semester of all of our paperwork, our hard conversations, our phone calls – the effect of those FNSs – was .001.

Clearly, in this case, doing nothing was the right move.

I do not suggest that doing nothing is ALWAYS the right move. Frequently it is counterproductive. However, in this case we were able to identify when our solutions and our added steps were having no impact on the problem, and may have been making the problem worse. We were imposing consequences on students who were not in charge of the situation. They were victimized twice – once by a tardy parent, and again by a punitive system.

I also do not believe in doing absolutely nothing about tardiness. Being on time is an important skill, and one that can make the difference in whether students keep future jobs. We have not prepared them for the world of work if we have not stressed the importance of being on time. However, children are often not responsible for their own transportation, and asking them to bear the brunt of the consequences not only does not create change, but it creates unnecessary conflict.

So what does work? Try these steps, which have been successful for those students who can impact their arrival time:

Develop positive student-teacher relationships. When a person WANTS to be somewhere, because they know they will be warmly greeted, given a voice in how things work, pushed to learn new and interesting things, and valued for who they are, it increases the desire to be on time. This can work to eliminate some of the student behaviors that contribute to tardiness, including sleeping in, delaying departure from home, or running errands in the neighborhood before school.

Intentionally praise on-time arrival, especially for students who have struggled with tardiness. Encouraging students to see tardiness as a choice, and being on time as a pleasant alternative, increases their willing participation in the process.

Utilize a TIP sheet; the Tardiness Intervention Plan: There are many reasons why a student may be tardy, and they may vary day by day. Having an adult sit down with a student to review the morning procedure with a sheet like this one helps identify trouble spots. It also allows the adult a chance to describe their own positive habits that contribute to their own timeliness. This sheet walks a child through the night before and provides questions – did you set out your clothes the night before? Did you put your HW and books in your bookbag? Did you prepare your lunch the night before? What do you eat for breakfast? Questions like these are designed to help a student think about what happens in the morning as part of a plan, instead of a series of emergencies after a parent or the alarm wakes them up.

Build in a morning meeting or other community ritual to your daily schedule. This works to increase attendance by providing low-risk positive social interaction at the start of the day. Students who are anxious about school can find themselves looking forward to morning meeting, where the answers are opinions instead of right or wrong, and the casual, friendly welcome can be a highlight of the day. Additionally, building in non-academic time at the start of the day softens the effect of tardiness on student performance. As you would expect, tardiness has a negative effect on student achievement. Taking a step to move academic time even slightly later in the day reduces the damage done by tardiness.

Stress the importance of timeliness and provide meaningful instruction every minute of class. Frequently students will dismiss a tardy or a skip by saying, “we weren’t doing anything in there anyway.” This is frequently hyperbole designed to convince others, and perhaps themselves, that missing class time is not important. The teacher, by designing relevant instruction that is supported by each activity in the classroom, can send a message that we are ALWAYS doing something meaningful in here. Knowing that this is the expectation is school-wide helps everyone enforce the expectation to be in class from the first minute.

Jill and India, and countless students just like them, find themselves frequently late to important events, not just school. Sometimes the factors are out of their control, and sometimes they boil down to poor time management, or a lack of regard for the people or event on their schedule. As is true in many cases, punishing our way to a solution is not the fastest or most effective way to fix it. In this case, that only resulted in lost office time and damaged relationships, without impacting the problem.

Taking a couple of the proactive, positive steps listed above will benefit everyone, and they have a chance of improving the tardiness problem at your school.

What ways does your school tackle tardiness? Let us know.

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