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What is the best way to deal with procrastinating students? Dr. Grauer discusses the best techniques to handle chronic procrastinators, aka "Master Procrastinators", in this week's column.

Mastery Learning and the Master Procrastinator

Youth is not wasted on the young. Time is not lost in innocence and dreaming. After youth, we spend all too much time “doing” and achieving and, eventually, trying to find a way back to the innocence and pure experience we left behind. 

The cost of youthful innocence is sometimes measured in the efficiency we spend the school years trying to coax out of our kids, making them end-focused and goal-oriented rather than process-oriented or, as the Zen masters say, “in the moment.” I love knowing that our students have plenty of time to just “be,” with no agenda, time to dream and to see stars and not consequences. Dreaming is not procrastinating, it is dreaming, and our youth need plenty of it as they find their own, true callings.

Grauer Seniors Roselene and Savannah present their project on Paid Family Leave at the Advocacy & Activism Fair - November 30, 2021

Naturally, we balance all that dreaming with a formal education. I have been searching for that balance for my whole career and I am qualified to say: it is elusive.

At Grauer, I hope our students dream while, at the same time, our efforts to train our students into efficiency also seem largely successful. So far this year, our 160 students attended around 5,000 classes. They completed almost 3,500 assignments which have been graded by teachers, some of them several times. Without question, our students are not procrastinators.

The ability to complete assignments several times while teachers respond to the drafts is the heart of learning, the very iterative process that we call “mastery learning.” Nothing is much more important in the youthful awakening into scholarship at Grauer than mastery learning: the student’s ability to continue to work, re-work, and re-re-work their assignments as they improve. It is the refinement of thinking that produces great learning.

At The Grauer School, students and teachers hand an assignment back and forth as the student revisits and clarifies, revisits and clarifies. As they say in English class: “Writing is re-writing,” and this has the same truth across disciplines. And that’s all good. And even a little procrastination now and then is normal.

Grauer 11th Grade students take a team photo with referee Morgan Brown after winning the Intramural lunchtime soccer tournament - November 30, 2021

Until it is not. At some point, for all of us some of the time and some of us what seems like all the time, serious procrastination enters the arena. Our student is so deep in a dream they cannot seem to get out. The master procrastinator—the MP— lives for this time. The master procrastinator knows that there are two time limits: the one assigned, and the real one.

Finding real limits is an age-old endeavor. Biologically, teens are programmed to test and push limits, and the teen procrastinator is masterful at finding those limits: the real limits.

The master student procrastinator knows how the play the system and, more importantly, how to play YOU. This MP interprets mastery learning in the most trying way: “I can always upgrade the work, so why spend time on it now when I can be playing basketball or video games.” Later on, the MP says, “I’m looking at this work now and it seems too hard so I will just face it later.” Then the due date comes and the MP just reasons, “Well, we have office hours Friday, so I can always show up and do it then.” That time comes and it goes, and now the MP is saying, “It’s now two weeks late so I might as well wait until Mastery Learning Day at the end of the quarter—I’ll spend all day and get everything done then. It will still count.”  Procrastination.

“Enough dreaming!” parents and teachers might now be saying. The balance is off. 

The procrastinator is often called lazy and they are often not. Often they are quite productive: “I need to make a few calls first and then clean up my room and then work on my art before getting to this math work.” Procrastinators are often as busy as any of us—just busy doing different things. 

And now here is the secret: they know it. On the one hand, they are getting some good things done. ”I need to work out.” On the other hand, they know they are avoiding. And that avoidance comes with a cost.

The procrastinator knows just as well as you do that avoidance is a bad idea and irrational, and they even know this avoidance is making them feel worse. The procrastinating student gets into a vicious cycle of avoidance, guilt, more procrastination and avoidance, and this feels bad. Now, deeper in the cycle, more mood shifts: insecurity, anxiety, negative self-talk, and even more avoidance.

Grauer 8th grader Zoe and her Senior class mentor, Jenna - November 30, 2021

There can be resentment, too, against the teacher or parent task-master …leading to more procrastination. What an irony that we sometimes think we are being compassionate when we give the procrastinator a third chance and a fourth chance! What an irony that we think we have to blame them for something they are already beating themselves up for. What to do?!

Once the procrastination cycle has started for a student in any or all subject areas, the whole logic of mastery learning falls apart. Procrastination, once we are sure that is what we are seeing, is not a thing to enable. Here at school, we are clear about what to do. This is the time to remove the mastery learning, remove the extra time and extra help—that’s for students who are really involved in the beautiful, iterative process mastery learning is designed for.

True, not all avoidance or work incompletion is procrastination—but once we have a positive ID on the master procrastinator, it is time to shift course, radically. The MP needs a hard deadline and a “0” when that deadline is missed. Letting the MP slide is not compassionate.

Teachers and parents best remove the mastery learning “deal” once we spot procrastinating going on. No upgrades. No extensions. No blame or shame. Just remove the extension and give the real grade. This can be painful, and it can make us feel mean, but this is the only way the student will make a reality-based decision: “I will do the work or I will not do the work.” There is no kidding ourselves. There is no false sense of “Well, I can always get to it later. I just want to check my Instagram first.”

The best thing the teacher and parent can do for the procrastinator is to give a single deadline, stick to it, and not own the “0” given out for missing that deadline. If the MP has not completed the task in good faith by the agreed time and the first time, it is no longer accepted. The grade is a zero, and the student mind now has the opportunity to deal with reality.

Parents, Teachers: It’s not the end of the world for your student to get no credit for an assignment. The trust and honesty actually feels pretty good—as long as we don’t pack them with emotion. Ironically, the zero is the only way the hijacked procrastinating teen brain comes to terms with its own habit. The zero grade is the fast track to getting past the dragging, nagging responsibility that wears on the mind day after day as we put the task off again.

Grauer 7th grader Nathaniel with his Junior class mentor Jack - November 30, 2021

So, they get a zero. Who needs perfection, who needs a total absence of any failure? It’s water under the bridge (as opposed to dammed up). It is what it is. It is time to move on.

The MP needs us to give them a zero and to remove the make-up privileges, but they do not need our disapproval or judgment! They do not need emotional appeals. They have plenty of that for their own selves. Besides, there is rule #1: It’s their life! Study after study shows how procrastinators are increasing their own stress levels and decreasing their own self-compassion as they procrastinate. Our honesty and trust help them reclaim that self-compassion and belief in their own efficacy. Study after research study show that self-compassion and efficacy support motivation and personal growth. Let’s remove the extensions and the second chances from the procrastinator, and move on to the next task as soon as we can. Starting with the next task, we have a chance of re-booting the procrastinator’s optimism, wisdom, and intrinsic motivation.

Lying in the grassy quad staring at the blue sky and wasting time is the most beautiful part of youth, maybe the only time our whole lives we are really looking at the world rather than just remembering it. All kids deserve to do this with a pure, guilt-free, calm mind. And, later on, to get up and deliver—when they are ready.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer Seniors Roselene and Savannah present their project on Paid Family Leave at the Advocacy & Activism Fair - November 30, 2021

Grauer 11th Grade students take a team photo winning the Intramural lunchtime soccer tournament - November 30, 2021

Grauer 8th grader Zoe and her Senior class mentor, Jenna - November 30, 2021

Grauer 7th grader Nathaniel with his Junior class mentor Jack - November 30, 2021

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by Dr. Stuart Grauer


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