The ONLY safe assumption we can make right now

Hey Tribe,

I just presented to an awesome group of teachers (online for safety, of course) about our EF hacks! Our tribe is sure to grow this week, and we welcome anyone who wants to strategize the struggle with us! Thank you, Tribe, for your super kind words and great ideas this week. I’ve had a few of you reach out with such touching stories, and so many clients shared positive changes and breakthroughs. Other than picking up a little piece of cat poop that I thought was orchid bark with my bare hand, it’s been a great week.

So, I am really pumped for this new piece of technology that just came out. It can act as a metric for effort. They call it a try-o-meter. Apparently, teachers have used these in secret for years, but the word is out. I know it, because I’ve seen some of the emails my students and clients have received from other teachers this week, including (and of course I’ve changed the names)

               “You are failing because you don’t ask for help during class.”

               “Andrew, you need to actually try.”

And my favorite, “I’m not going to help you anymore if you don’t do your part.”

It’s got to be the result of an across-the-miles try-o-meter that can sense student effort and make safe assumptions, right?? Or, could it be that we’re dancing on the edge of assumptions we can’t afford to make right now.

Today, Tribe of mine, I’m more than a little upset. And I’m here to strategize this struggle, of course, with some perspective adjustments.

We cannot tell how hard a kid is trying.

We must assume each kid is giving her best, every day (and her best may look different every day.)

We cannot assume students know what help they need or that they need help only in times convenient to us.

We cannot assume we have a full picture of any of our students’ lives right now. Because we don’t. 


Missing assignments could be reflective of 17,000 situations.

Not showing up to a Live Session or being late could be telling of 540 challenges of one sort or another.

Acting aloof could be demonstrative of a lack of confidence—it’s easier to squash your own dreams than risk having others squash them for you.

The only safe assumption we can afford to make is that kids do their best.

That’s it. Kids do their best. And I can already feel your eyes squint a little in that thinking way, as you play out your objections to this in your head. So, let’s explore it (because, these thoughts sneak up on me every once in a while, too)

 Yeah, but what about the kid who procrastinates?

Procrastination is related to EF skill deficits. Could also be some neuro differences where they’re not getting enough brain focus juice to start until the last-minute stress kicks in.

Yeah, so what about the kid who admits he doesn’t care about school?

You mean the same kid who shows up every day? The same one who doesn’t care but also squeaks out passing grades and once in a while is really helpful to his peers or teachers? If they’re with us, they care. Acting aloof is a protective move.

Ok, what about those kids? The ones who drop out of school altogether?

Oh, those kids. Well, those kids do their best too. They may not have had the self-image to support positive decisions or were cornered into finding coping skills that lead them to poor choices. But, they started as fresh, wonderful babies just like our high school graduates did. Life lifes some of us harder than others. (P.S. Those kids are my inspiration for the podcast. When we can empower them by filling in EF skills gaps, they aren’t forced into dropping out or being kicked out, because that happens too. Too much.)


We just completed our first progress report at the 6- week mark. My co-teacher and I asked our school admin to provide the staff a list of kids who may need special consideration for grades, like maybe a few assignments excused or a “no mark” grade to give them time to catch up. Initially we were envisioning a list of a handful of kids who maybe didn’t yet have WiFi or had challenges within their families. What we saw was a list of about 20% of our student body, with challenges from homelessness, being doubled up with other families, being in foster care, CPS cases, no home technology, Covid in the household, recent death of family members… And this list was not complete. Several students came forward after grades, summoning courage to share that they also had a challenge that was previously unknown to the school. Many of the students on the “special considerations list” were still passing their classes. And for those who were failing classes, I’d argue that the onus is on our school and our teachers to become problem-solving detectives and help systematically address the factors impeding their success. It bears repeating here: telling a kid that he’s failing won’t help him not fail. Telling a kid he’s not trying will certainly not get him to try harder. We have to find out why then help address the causes for the poor grades or poor attendance. I suppose you could say that schools need to strategize the struggle for kids in Distance Learning too.

There’s an educational philosophy developed in the ‘80s called “The Least Dangerous Assumption.”  The premise was created in relation to our assumptions for students with moderate to severe disabilities (what do those terms even mean?), but it relates to everyone. Our least dangerous assumption is that we are not yet able to see the competence of others, not that others are incompetent if they don’t pass our judgments. It encourages us to talk to students as if they are going to meet our highest expectations, through a lens of expected success. In terms of interacting with students with more profound disabilities, this means not baby talking to someone whose disability limits her speech (because who knows what she is thinking? We just don’t yet know how to help her get ideas out). It means that when we talk to students about problems they are having or we are seeing, we work from an assumption that they ARE trying, that they are going to rise up, and that we are partners to help them succeed. That would sound like, “What’s your plan for…” instead of “Why can’t you just…” Or, “How can I help you to…” rather than, “You need to…” Building in that assumption of success changes everything. This philosophy is so, so important to remember right now, as teachers, parents, and students wrestle the distance learning beast.

Our least dangerous assumption is that we are not yet able to see the competence of others, not that others are incompetent if they don’t pass our judgments.

So, why would a student not turn in an assignment?

In physical school, I can prompt students in person when they still need to return things. I can list initials on the board during a catch up day or invite students with missing work to stay after school. My point is this: Physical school has a LOT of routines and structures to get students to return work. In Distance Learning, many teachers are still figuring out their systems, leaving students without prompts they used to depend on…and then we get upset with kids for not meeting our expectations. We went from often heavy-duty, multi-layered support to very little. A prompt in our Google Classroom Stream just isn’t the same as an in person reminder, a visual on the  board, and the observation of watching your peers also turn in the work assigned. So, first and probably most common reason kids aren’t returning work is they aren’t remembering to do so.

Other reasons kids may not be turning in work include (and hear these with the lens of problem solving. These are not excuses. We need to understand and then address these impediments with strategies and direct lessons. Yes, we have to teach students how to attach files and how many times to hit the submit button—you’d be surprised at how many platforms require multiple clicks for one assignment. And yes, it is redundant and annoying at times to have to teach these things and remind kids how to do things. But, it’s just where we are right now.) Other reasons kids might be missing work include: sick family members, changes in living situations, limited quiet space in which to work, they were stressed and forgot, they didn’t complete it yet, they didn’t understand it and are afraid to ask for help, their technology sucks, they have to help their parents, they’re overwhelmed, they lost the file in their messy online folder…

So, why would a kid not ask for help during live class?

Sometimes they only have evening hours to work, which means their questions may come up for them just before the due date. There could be 10,000 reasons for this. Only one of those reasons could be that they chose not to ask for help during the live lesson—but I’d still argue that not asking for help is reflective of missing skills, not a choice to be bad. Listen, first, students who ask for help ARE TRYING. Responding with admonishments will surely get them to stop trying though. The kids who truly aren’t trying are probably already dropped from your roster or getting school in a different context. We haven’t yet lost a kid who is asking for help. So pull them back into the warmth of learning, instead of shoving them away from the school system with snark or judgement. Second, there could be tons of reasons they weren’t able to start work until late or weren’t able to ask for help during a live class. Sometimes kids don’t have good metacognition, meaning they’re not yet able to think about their own thinking. Kids in this space won’t know they don’t understand until they go to apply it, probably after your live session is done. Or, a kid might not ask for help because he assumes he’s the only one not “getting it” and will protect his appearance to other students by sacrificing his learning. We were teens once, and I know I did this many times. We’d be anything before we’d be different in a bad way.

Again, these are not excuses. But, they lay out a path of empathy which is our only path right now. We have to understand student perspectives before we can decide how to best help them. But, I can tell you right now that using a try-o-meter or assuming they just don’t care will do no good. We have to assume (even against the objections of our logical brains) that each student is doing their best.

We are doing our best. Our kids are doing their bests.

We can be both works of art and works in progress at the same time.

Grab that kid, it’s pep talk time.

Well, hey Kid!

I hope you’ve had an excellent week and found time for some fun! I was able to teach some teachers this weekend, and what they told me made a lot of sense. They are frustrated with teaching during a pandemic, and they were looking for ways to strategize their struggles! I’m sure you can relate as a student too. Some of the things the teachers wanted help with were the same things students need to: how to make a system to keep track of all the work, how to hack deadlines, how to stay motivated, and how to keep students succeeding in school and socially.

I gave them lots of strategies and a few goofy jokes, of course. But I also gave them a huge homework assignment. They had to dump every thought they had about students right now and replace them with: students are doing their best.

I challenged teachers to repeat it until they didn’t have brain space for anything else. Students are doing their best. And here’s why: When you struggle, teachers can look at you in one of two ways: first, oh, this kid isn’t trying or second, oh, this kid is struggling with something. If they believe you’re doing your best, then they will wonder what you’re struggling with AND how they can help you? Then, they can help you address whatever is in your way and guess what? You’ll be successful! If they just blame you, then you’ll still probably have the problem and maybe even start liking them and the class less. Don’t nobody have time for that!

So, Kid, I want to challenge you to do the same for teachers and your grown up: You must believe they are also doing their best. If they get upset and yell at you, maybe it’s because they made a mistake with how to process their big feelings of anger. Or, maybe they need some strategies to work with you on some frustrating things. If your grown up or teacher doesn’t help you right away, it’s not personal. Maybe they just have to get another thing done first and you need to wait. They are still doing their best.

Assuming we are all doing our best is one great way we will get through this pandemic and come out of it better humans, with even better brain skills.

 Do your best this week (but you don’t need a reminder. I know you always do.)

Love, Sarah

Image: Unsplash Emma Matthews, Tony Tran