Punishing tardiness does not teach kids punctuality—it teaches them to resent their education


Jacob Sawyer

Writer Jacob Sawyer standing in front of his former primary school, Holly Tree Elementary School on April 26, 2017

Jacob Sawyer, Contributing Writer

Elementary and middle schools help transform children from toddlers to high schoolers. Alongside core academic subjects like mathematics and reading, K-8 education also instills within students respect, discipline, hard work and responsibility. One aspect of responsibility that is taken seriously is punctuality.

Students learn that fulfilling deadlines and arriving to school on time are very important. Teachers either refuse to accept late work or dock a certain number of points for each day late. Detentions are often assigned for those that have a long enough record of tardy arrivals.

While using discipline to enforce on-time deadlines helps teach students the importance of responsibility, the same cannot be said for punishing latecomers. Why? Elementary and middle schoolers lack driving privileges, and most are only able to go to school whenever their parents choose to leave home.

J. Bergman wrote in his 1978 essay Helping the Habitually Late Student that “it is generally not helpful to punish tardy students once they get to class, because that will probably just aggravate the situation.”

Others come from homes where their parent or parents did not teach their kids the importance of responsibility and respect. Many of these students develop behavioral problems later in their educational career and lack parental support. 

“Moreover, it could be due to lack of parental supervision, domestic violence, poverty, and differing attitudes toward education,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in 2001.

So, how can schools fix excessive tardiness? They should treat each student individually and separately.

“Students who are repeatedly tardy may need more support,” wrote Melissa Kelly of educational website ThoughtCo.com earlier this year.

Only after the school obtains information from tardy students and their parents should it consider implementing disciplinary sanctions.

To put this into perspective, consider a hypothetical elementary school to which two students, A and B, arrived late for the tenth time on Monday. Student A arrived ten minutes late because his father was at work and his mother took yet another job-related phone call. Student B was thirty minutes late as a result of playing video games that morning and resisting his parents’ request to go to school. 

The school then sentenced both students to one day of in-school suspension for earning their tenth tardies. While Student B certainly needed to learn a lesson on punctuality, Student A was punished for circumstances beyond his—and his parents’—control. 

It is only fair that school latecomers receive this support rather than being subjected to zero-tolerance, no-excuses policies that often land students in detention after only a few tardies, and in suspension after a few more, during the quarter or semester. 

Especially when the parents, not the students, choose when to leave home in the morning.