Stop the Blame Game: Teaching Students to Take Ownership

A second grader made me cringe the other day. I visited my wife’s class and a girl was showing the class her pictures from a recent soccer tournament. Someone asked how her team did. Her response?

“We got second place. BUT, we actually should have gotten first because the other team cheated and the refs were terrible.”

I cringed. Second grade and she is already building a habit of blaming. I got a dose of depression as I thought about how this blame habit could deepen as she ages.

Every teacher can tell stories—not just of second graders—that show just how deeply our society fails to take ownership for personal circumstances.

For example, a student recently asked me for extra credit opportunities on the last day of school. His grade was less than a percent from being an A instead of an A-. Suffice it to say his communication soured—bordering on disrespect—when I confirmed that a final grade is a final grade.

I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll at least share that my final email ended like this:

“Your request for extra credit after the trimester is over is the equivalent of a basketball player asking the referee for the chance to do free throws after losing a game—and then blaming the referee for the result rather than considering the many opportunities in which he or she, the player, could have performed better.

This email is in no way attempting to ease your frustration. If you wanted that A and didn’t earn it, you should be frustrated. But, be frustrated that you missed opportunities all trimester to avoid this result. This email, instead, is an effort to help you see that blaming others for your circumstances is undermining the fact that you have the control and the ability to influence how things result in your life.

I hope that in the future—whether it is in school or beyond— you realize that you are the one who has the most control over the circumstances of your life.”

It would be easy at this point to rant about how parents are coddling kids into this culture of justifications. Or harangue popular media for broadcasting blamers. Do I meet parents who play the victim card for their kids over ridiculous situations? Yes. Does our media give ample air time to athletes blaming others for their losses, politicians pointing fingers, and criminals shirking responsibility? Daily.


If I don’t try—if I blame others for blamers—I am more a part of the problem than a step toward a solution.


Last week, in a workshop I was facilitating, an exasperated teacher said, “How am I supposed to help students take ownership when the culture at home won’t support it?”

I asked the room to consider what it would sound like if we applied this same thought to reading. How am I supposed to help students become better readers if they don’t read outside of class? How am I supposed to create better writers, mathematicians, makers, communicators if they don’t do these things outside of class? I would never let a lack of reinforcement at home prevent me from trying to make an impact at school—no matter what the subject, trait, or skill.

If I simply vent about how our culture is failing, I am the very image of what I despise. I am blaming others for creating blamers.

I am the person most responsible for influencing the culture of ownership in my classroom.

I cannot control what type of student enters my classroom. But, I can influence how this student interacts with me, with others, with academic content, and with his or her own thoughts.

I cannot control the fact that, for some of my students, they have been dealt a bad hand in life. But, I can influence how this student views his or her own self-worth and agency for change.

I cannot control the depth or degrees to which my student sees models of blame in his or her home or media. But, I can control the model I provide of taking responsibility—even when it is easy to point fingers or justify.

I cannot control the years of decay that have created a student who blames first, justifies second, and gives up third. But, I can coach this student to engage more empowering, more effective, and more responsible strategies for affecting change.

If I’m going to have any impact, though, on the way in which my students take ownership for their actions, I need to create a culture of responsibility. I must do these four things:

1. Model responsibility.

How often do I blame or point fingers in front of students? Take these examples:

“Sorry I’m late to get to class—the copy machine is busted again.”

“I had planned on having your papers graded over the weekend but I got sidetracked by my teething son.”

“We have to cover this concept because it’s going to be on the SAT.”

“Sorry, but I have to give you this detention for your 4th tardy. It’s the school’s policy.”

These all sound innocent—and truthful enough. And yet, each of these is laced with blame and justification.

I could have planned ahead so I wasn’t making copies last minute.

surely made decisions over the weekend, like watching Netflix, rather than grading.

ultimately make the decision of what gets taught in my classroom.

decide whether to uphold established policies or not.

I need to model taking ownership—and correcting myself when I fall back on habits of blame. For some students, the professional adults in their lives may be the only models they have of personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean perfection. It means calling myself out when an imperfection could be improved.

2. Revise language.

Language shows cognition. Language also changes cognition. There are a couple phrases that, if revised, could help tip ourselves, our students, and our society toward ownership.

1. “I have to . . .”

In The Servant, James Hunter’s story on leadership, the characters flip a well-known saying: “There are only two things you have to do in life: Die and pay taxes.” They describe how one does not have to pay taxes. A person can ignore this law, though there are consequences. In truth, the only thing we have to do is make choices—each choice, though, has a consequence (good or bad). Once we recognize that everything that happens in our life is our choice, we cultivate personal responsibility.

How often do we say, “I have to” do something? We never have to —we always choose to. I don’t have to go to our staff meetings. But if I don’t, there are consequences. So, I chose to go.

My students usually stop asking me if they have to do something once they realize how I’ll respond to “have to” questions.

“Do we have to take notes?”

“No. You don’t have to do anything but choose whether you will take notes or not. If I were you, I would choose to take notes because it will fire more neural networks in your brain, help you summarize information, and provide a record of reference for review. Buuuut the choice is yours.”

2. “You gave me . . .”

More directly with students, I’m also vigilant about coaching conversations around the “You gave me X grade.” Sure, I was the one who put the final evaluation onto the page (along with valuable feedback that you should check out). But make no mistake: This evaluation was not given on a whim. This evaluation was earned based on your efforts.

This revision, although subtle, is important. A student who sees grades as “given” puts all the emphasis on the teacher as the person controlling his or her fate. A student who sees grades as “earned” reflects upon his or her own efforts as a source of control.

3. Debrief experiences.

Intervening with students when they blame others usually doesn’t go well in the heat of the moment. Before blame becomes a knee-jerk response, it begins as a defense mechanism; blaming protects us from feeling as though we have failed or are incompetent—especially around others.

However, if we don’t address those moments of blame, we lose valuable learning opportunities. When done one-on-one, I find benefit in talking with students about what I noticed—and why I think it matters. Asking students to explain their thought process opens up dialogue. It also makes the conversation about phrasing and choices rather than “being a bad person” or “having weak character.”

Debriefs allow us to coach students, to help them analyze past mistakes, and to better understand their motivations. Debriefs help students see that their choices influence their outcomes.

4. Outframe.

One function of debriefing is to help students outframe the current situation and see the long-term gain of taking ownership. In the short-term, there is benefit in blaming. I minimize embarrassment, preserve my self-esteem, divert unwanted attention when I blame someone or something else. But, in the long-term, I erode my personal power.

Students need conversational coaching to see the long-termbenefits of taking ownership. They need to see (a) the short-term pain of admitting fault will pass and (b) the long-term benefits of trust, learning, and self-empowerment when one takes responsibility for choices and consequences.

These four things–modeling responsibility, revising language, debriefing experiences, and outframing long-term benefits are not easy. And, they are not panaceas for the multifaceted culture of blame. But, they promote progress.

In the end, if I don’t try—if I blame others for blamers—I am more a part of the problem than a step toward a solution.

A version of this post originally appeared on WeAreTeachers.com

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chase, while I agree with the principle of this post (stop blaming) I take issue with how you’ve chosen to execute it. It is well-documented that FIFA referees are totally corrupt. They are paid off by a team’s country and it explains all the irregular and erroneous calls they make during a game that just “happen” to benefit one side’s chances of winning. In 15 years of watching my kids play soccer, I have seen many referee calls that were totally ridiculous, not by the official handbook at all, that were clearly made to benefit the other side. You are completely naïve if you think refs are not culpable in any way and that all the fault of losing is the team’s 100% of the time. I guess you think Olympians that come in second-place to an Olympian that is discovered to be jacked up on steroids shouldn’t play the blame game either – why didn’t they just perform better despite the illegal doping?

    Also, I remember in university I was receiving a 85% A average in a course right before submitting the final assignment. When it was returned to me, the grade I received was slightly lower than my usual and made my final course average drop to 84.9%…. Just 0.1% short of an A grade. So I dropped an entire letter grade, from an A to an A-, despite maintaining an A grade the entire year and this completely affected by CGPA. I emailed the professor asking if there was anything I could do, or if he could please just give me one mark more on my essay. And he emailed me something similar to what you emailed that student. In my case, I found that to be extremely petty, especially since I was trying to get into grad school. Gee, that professor sure showed me! Can you imagine the degraded lifestyle he would be endorsing if he had given in and added just ONE more mark to my essay?

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