School & District Management Opinion

Let’s Stop Assuming Students Are Up to No Good

Expecting the worst of students is a self-fulfilling prophecy
By Brandon McCoy — April 04, 2022 3 min read
Illustration of a row of teenagers silhouetted against a height scale.
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Schools are slowly beginning to recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, and most students are returning to class, removing their masks, and recovering from months of remote or hybrid learning. It is now our responsibility, as educators to create a nice, easy landing from the free-fall they have just experienced. It would be unwise to jump down kids’ throats when they struggle with impulsivity. It would be unkind to ignore anxiety. And it would make everyone, adults and students, experience a calmer transition back to in-person schooling if we give the kids the benefit of the doubt that they are doing—or at least attempting to do—the right thing.

It’s very difficult to build trust and responsibility with students in a school while also assuming that they’re making wrong moves at every turn. The kids feel it; they’re human beings. They know when the adults assume they’re doing something wrong. It creates anxiety in kids. It creates a system of shame in the building. It does not make kids want to be at school. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Assume the kids are in the wrong and you’ll find kids doing the wrong thing.

In the high school where I am an assistant principal, we’ve embraced this opportunity to trust our students. We recently modified our learning schedule to give every student a “flex hour” every day.

It’s pretty simple on paper. There are eight class periods in our day, students take seven classes, teachers teach six classes. Each student has a free hour in the day that they can use however they like. Students can meet with academic tutors, make appointments with teachers, chat with friends, sleep, run out to grab lunch, sit and play on their phones—whatever they like. We have designated areas around the building that are labeled “quiet” or “social” zones. If you ask the students in the building, they absolutely love flex hour. They’re given autonomy over their time, they’re given a break from the grind, and they’re given an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility.

When we were planning and implementing this new flexible schedule, we administrators chose to assume best intent from the students. This was a big paradigm switch in our building. Before, if we saw students in the halls, we would launch into principal-speak. “Where are you supposed to be?” “What class are you in?” “Do you have a pass?” With each of those phrases, we assumed that the kids were trying to pull something on us and that we had to get them back to biology class before they missed one second of the mitochondria lesson.

If a student is sleeping during their flex time, we assume they’re sleepy and we don’t bother them.

Now, if a student is walking down the hall during third period, we assume they’re on their flex time. If a student is sleeping during their flex time, we assume they’re sleepy and we don’t bother them.

Assuming best intent has been a big shift for me personally as I walk through the halls. The truth is, we haven’t seen an increase in fights, drug use, or any other infractions that I feared would happen if the kids had too much unstructured time. It’s also easier on my mental health. I didn’t realize how much stress I carried with me as I patrolled the halls like a prison guard, redirecting any kid who didn’t have a pass and checking restrooms incessantly, looking (or was I hoping?) to find a kid smoking. It was exhausting.

I don’t recommend turning your building into the Wild West and saying that anything goes. The flex-hour jump for us hasn’t been without challenges and setbacks, unforeseen issues and disappointments. Sure, some students have abused the privilege. A couple students have shown us that they weren’t ready for this level of autonomy. We had to mete out appropriate consequences and opportunities to reflect with those students.

However, the majority of kids are doing the right thing at the right time and should be treated as such. For those students who struggle to follow the rules, we have to consider whether we’ve given them a good reason to follow the rules. And then we have to continue to support them and teach them responsibility. Learning responsibility is just as critical to their development as learning content. Let’s assume our kids are doing the right thing and help them readjust to in-person schooling.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as Let’s Stop Assuming Students Are Up to No Good


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