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How to Intervene When a Little Help Goes Too Far

Parental Involvement During Remote Learning

Here are some strategies educators can employ in addressing situations where well-intentioned adults may have crossed the boundary between being supportive and actually doing their student's work.

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement

For teachers, there’s no question that addressing concerns about academic integrity with a student is uncomfortable (to say the least), but when the student’s parent/guardian is involved, a tricky situation can feel like an outright minefield. With today’s educational environments of remote learning, hybrid or blended learning, and sometimes-in-person-and-then-suddenly-not, educators report even more instances where well-intentioned adults may have crossed the boundary between being supportive and actually doing the work for their students. The reality is that there are no entirely easy or comfortable ways to address these situations; however, there are some strategies educators can employ to ease the pain.

Strategy 1: Set the Stage

Timing can be a huge factor. If educators can address the topic in advance of a problem, they stand a much better chance of not encountering students or adults who are on the defensive. In my own classroom, I tried to address academic integrity for the first time early in the academic year or term, and if that wasn’t possible, I made sure to address it before beginning any major project or writing assignment. The idea was to establish the understanding that I was aware that this could happen and would be looking for signs of it. That simple acknowledgment went a long way toward preventing a slide into problematic behavior on the part of either the student or their adults. In conjunction with these discussions, it can be helpful to utilize formative activities to help build students’ awareness, as well as the skills that could help them avoid the temptations. Direct instruction with this presentation and the accompanying guided notes would work perfectly to achieve that goal. You can also check out the full Turnitin Disrupting Plagiarism pack of resources for additional ideas on a formative approach to academic integrity instruction.

A pre-emptive approach also allows instructors to control the messaging. If an honor code or academic integrity policy is going to be effective, it must be clearly communicated and the consequences need to be explicit. By addressing the issue ahead of any problems, educators can help to build a true understanding of their expectations and the possible repercussions should an issue arise. Additionally, this approach can serve as the foundation for every other discussion or activity related to academic integrity. When starting a specific project or assignment, teachers can circle back to these concepts. As part of this communication strategy, it is important to make sure the message reaches the adults involved as well. A letter, email message, or even short video for parents and guardians to watch can be powerful, helping them understand the line between being helpful/offering guidance and giving the answers. It might also be a good idea to ask them to sign an acknowledgment of receipt. In this way, educators can establish a contract (of sorts) between all parties. This communication strategy can really help to stop it from ever becoming an issue, and at the very least, no one can later claim that they didn't know it was wrong to do.

PRO TIP: Make sure you consider accessibility for the adult audience as well. Consider your language to be sure that it is familiar to parents without an excessive amount of acronyms or jargon. You may even want to make sure you use simple sentences that are easy to decipher. Depending on your population, consider in what other languages the content should be made accessible. What you want to avoid is anyone having trouble understanding the concept; that will only make it more difficult later, should any problems develop.

Strategy 2: No Specific Blame

Keeping these discussions neutral is an effective way of avoiding defensiveness. Some teachers choose to recount a past incident (maintaining privacy, of course) or even use a hypothetical situation to explain where things went off track and highlight the possible negative outcomes. This strategy can be used even if a problem arises before you have addressed the issue but still avoids any specific accusation. Regardless of where in the process you take this approach, be sure to clearly identify the behavior in question, why it is inappropriate/undesired, and outline the consequences that result from one or more instances of this behavior. Knowing that your child is going to get into trouble if you keep "helping" can be a strong deterrent for adults. In order to make sure the information is conveyed to parents and other involved individuals, consider assigning a reflection activity with a part for the student and a designated adult to interact. For example, after reading the scenario with the “mistakes” identified and the potential consequences, ask both the student and parent to explain what each should do differently in a similar situation. Consider using a similar approach to the one in this “Where Did I Go Wrong?” self-assessment.

Strategy 3: The “In Case You Didn’t Know” Approach

Closely related to (and often used in tandem with) Strategy 2 is the “in case you didn’t know.” As educators, we can fall into assuming that students and/or adults had bad intentions, that they knew that what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway. However, some adults legitimately believe that what they are doing is acceptable and that they are, in fact, helping. They simply don’ t see “helping” as misconduct or as having the potential to do any harm. It is important to explicitly detail the kinds of behaviors that are and are not acceptable. A hypothetical situation or the vague “one time, THIS happened” set-up can be usefully illustrative. Provide specific examples of what it “looks like” to support and help students rather than crossing into the realm of actually doing the work for the student. You might try using a “This, Not That” style chart of examples and non-examples, such as the one below.

SCENARIO: Your student is working through an assignment and encounters a question that they aren’t sure how to answer.

NOT That...
Help them to put the question or task into their own words.
“You just do this…” followed by completing the task.
Provide assistance looking up key terms.
“Write down what I tell you.”
Break down the task into chunks or steps.
“Here, let me do it. That will be faster.”
Model what they should do and then have them mimic your thought process or actions.

However, you approach this strategy, make sure to include a rationale. Help the student and the adults understand the harm that it can do when they cross the line into doing the work for the student. For example, consider explaining to students that if someone else did the work for them, teachers won’t truly know what they could do on their own. That would result in not providing them the support they need to master the concept or skill. If no one knows that you’re having trouble, no one can help. It can be incredibly challenging if students or their parents/guardians are in a mindset of being solely focused on grades, so it’s important to pair these conversations with the value of progress toward an objective and the impact of allowing students to engage in productive struggle.

Strategy 4: Use Your Tools

In these murky areas, educators can feel like they are on their own to figure things out. However, there are many tools that teachers can use along the way to support their efforts to build a culture of academic honesty. For example, using a collaborative drafting space can allow teachers to look into their students’ work throughout the development process. In this way, it is easy to spot anomalies such as a sudden shift in vocabulary levels, the sudden addition of huge swaths of text, or even a distinct difference in voice or tone, all of which can be indicators that someone else’s work is showing up. Additionally, this kind of ongoing monitoring allows the educator insight about students who aren’t hitting appropriate milestones along the way. Students often report that a reason they seek out someone else’s help in completing the work is related to time management.

If you are a Turnitin user, you have powerful tools at your disposal. Using Turnitin’s similarity checking products early and often helps to establish an understanding that academic integrity is important and that you will be monitoring it. The effective integration of these tools into your classroom helps to establish the right culture and climate where integrity is honored. Additionally, there are more advanced features such as our Insight Panels and our contract cheating software. We also offer a new formative tool in Draft Coach where students are able to check their own similarity formatively.

PRO TIP: Like previous strategies, how you communicate about your tools will greatly impact their effectiveness. Make sure that both students and parents are aware of the tools you’re using and why you’re using them. The awareness is critical to making the strategy work for you.

Strategy 5: Safety in Numbers

Whether in person or online, a team approach can be helpful with a persistent problem. So, rather than just the one teacher meeting with a student and their parent/guardian to discuss academic integrity concerns, try bringing in the child's other teachers (particularly if they see the same issue) or even a counselor or administrator. This may seem a bit heavy-handed, but it sends the message that this is an issue to be taken seriously and that the educators are a united front. That can be compelling for the student and/or parents, and the team approach often helps to shut down the idea that one teacher's concerns are somehow a personal conflict with the student, something often heard from defensive students and parents over the years.

PRO TIP: A coordinated effort BEFORE a problem arises can be just as powerful. As part of Strategy #1: Setting the Stage, try collaborating with your peers so that academic integrity is addressed in all classes. Again, a united front can only serve to emphasize the importance of academic integrity in the minds of students and their adults. Be sure to address the idea of “too much help” as problematic.

Right now, education looks different for every stakeholder - teachers, parents, and students. For many years, educators have been encouraging parents to be more involved, to be more supportive of their students’ learning, and now that imperative has been thrust upon them (and educators). It is normal that it would take some adjustments and involve some learning on all parts to perfect the new dynamic. We want to continue to encourage parents and guardians to be involved, and we want to show our appreciation for all the help they are providing, particularly during these difficult times. At the same time, that help and support must not go too far, and finding the right balance will require educators to guide students and adults toward appropriate levels of assistance and effective practices for support.