The Dog Ate My Homework: How to Handle Students’ Excuses

By Shannon Anderson, author of Coasting Casey

The Dog Ate My Homework: How to Handle Students' Excuses“I’m sorry, but my uncle’s roommate’s brother’s fish died and I was too upset by the tragedy to do my homework.”

We’ve heard them all, haven’t we? How should we handle all of the excuses students use?

Although I do not assign a lot of homework, when I do, I have a purpose for assigning it and want students to do it. I get a lot of “I forgot to do it” and “we were too busy last night” comments at the beginning of the school year. How can we help students prioritize and set goals in a way that will set them up for success?

  1. The root of the excuse. Is there truth to their reason? On rare occasions we will need to be compassionate and extend a deadline. If the root reason is really because they didn’t want to do it, didn’t understand it, or just blew it off, then we need a “sit-down” to discuss our options.
  2. The sit-down. This is actually a regular conference held with students with the purpose of goal setting and discussing progress. (I meet with five students every day during independent reading time to do this. By the end of each week, I have met with all of my students.) This meeting is a great time to discuss and deal with some of those root reasons for goals not being met.
  3. Setting goals. I have a goal board in my room that has a spot for each student on it. They put sticky notes by their names with their current goals. If they meet a goal, the sticky is placed in the students’ binders on a “Personal Goals” page where they explain what strategies they used to achieve their goals.
  4. Growth spurts. When a student doesn’t meet a goal, we put that sticky in the binder on the “Growth Spurts” page. (A growth spurt is what we call our mistakes that we learn from.) Under the sticky note, a student writes a sentence or two about what he learned from the trial of the goal. He then creates a new goal with this in mind. Maybe he needs more time to accomplish it, maybe he needs better resources, or maybe he needs a completely different plan of action.

Students need to learn that we have to prioritize and be responsible. If they understand the importance of what they have been assigned to practice at home, it will be more meaningful. If something is important, kids will find a way; if it isn’t, they will find an excuse. I want my kids to become problem solvers and find a way. I help them with this through our regular weekly sit-downs.

Notice I said that I get a lot of excuses at the beginning of the school year? Once students realize that the excuses are not going to get them out of an assignment, the excuses start tapering off.

As I said before, I do not assign a lot of homework. I believe in giving my third graders 20 minutes of reading each night and an at-home project three times a year. I also assign self-paced multiplication/division fact mastery practice. I feel like my kids work hard enough in school all day and need their family, play, and rest time when they get home. Sometimes the reason students don’t get their homework done is because there is simply too much of it, and the kids need a break or really don’t have enough time to finish it all.

If we develop good relationships with our students, help them understand the importance of our expectations, only assign meaningful practice as homework, and help them set and make progress toward goals, they will be much more proactive and successful.

So the next time your student says that her wood-burning stove was out of wood and she had to sacrifice her homework to the fire so her family wouldn’t freeze to death, you may want to have a little sit-down and begin the process of goal setting and problem solving.

Shannon AndersonShannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is a literacy coach, high ability coordinator, adjunct professor, and former first-grade teacher. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.

Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:

Coasting Casey Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone Wild


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