Jacob’s Self-Management Story

Jacob couldn’t believe his grades. He was in danger of failing one of his courses. He thought he had been doing so well. He got good grades on all of the quizzes, tests, and classroom assignments. The note said that his failure to turn in homework assignments was adversely affecting his grade.

Jacob did his homework.

Jacob did his homework every day after school. He had a set schedule about it. When he first got home, he had a snack and watched a half-hour show that he enjoyed. As soon as the show was over, he went to his room and did his homework, every day. It wasn’t even very difficult for him, so he usually breezed through it and then played video games until dinner. So what was going on with these grades?  He glanced around his room, and noticed some papers on the desk, some on the bookcase, and some more on the floor near his backpack.  He picked them up and recognized that they were past homework assignments.  He had done them, but apparently, he hadn’t turned them all in. Jacob turned his backpack out onto his bed and sorted through all the crumpled papers, unfolding and flattening them out.  Homework, lots of homework.  It was all done, too, even with his name and date at the top of every page, the way his teachers required.  He started sorting them in order of date, and found that there were a lot of them, and they went back several months, only for the class he was in danger of failing. Apparently, he had turned in the homework for the other classes.  So, what was it about this class?

What was different about this class?

Jacob thought back to the beginning of the school year. This teacher was new to him, and he had to get used to different ways of doing things. The first day he brought back homework, he didn’t know what to do with it. The teacher never asked for it, so it stayed in his backpack. Nothing was said, so the next day the same thing happened.  He kept doing the homework, because it was assigned, but she never asked for it, so he never turned it in. Finally he decided that she didn’t really care to check it, she just wanted them to do the homework for the experience, so sometimes he didn’t even put it in the backpack. He hadn’t even been aware of how he was treating the homework assignments for this class different from all of his other classes, but clearly there was a difference.

The next day after school he approached the teacher hesitantly, after everyone else had left the room, and handed her the big stack of homework assignments. She looked surprised when she saw how many there were, and that they were all complete.

“Did you do all these last night, after you got the notice about your grade?” she asked.

“No, I’d been doing them every day, I just brought them all in today,” he said.

“Why didn’t you just turn them in when they were due, if you did them?”

“Where?” Jacob asked.  Silently the teacher pointed down, and Jacob saw a box on her desk labeled HOMEWORK. He blinked. Had that been there all year? Why hadn’t he noticed it? He felt his face get hot as he realized that everyone else probably figured it out for themselves.

“You never tell us to turn in our homework,” he said.

“You’re all old enough to do it without me telling you,” she replied. There was a moment of silence as Jacob wished he could disappear; he was so embarrassed. “Okay, I can see that you did the homework and that you somehow didn’t realize you were supposed to put it in the box, so I’m going to give you full credit for all of these late papers, this time. But from now on, you will need to be responsible to turn in your own homework papers.  Can you do that yourself?”

“Yes, I can do it,” Jacob said.

“That’s good. But I’m going to tell your special education case manager about this and see if he can support you in getting your homework turned in on time. Next time a paper is late, you will get zero credit for it.”

“Okay, thank you, I can do it,” Jacob said on his way out the door.

A Red Envelope

The next day his case manager called him into his office during his study period. He had a large, red envelope labeled “Homework” in a wide black marker. “Okay, Jacob. Your teacher talked to me, and I’ve got a plan to help you remember to turn in your homework, but it’s up to you to manage this yourself.”

“I can do it myself,” said Jacob.

“I know you can, but this had been a problem, so I’ve got something for you. I want you to keep this red envelope in your backpack every day. When you get a homework assignment, it goes directly into this envelope. When you get home, you do the homework and put it right back in the envelope, and the envelope goes straight into your backpack. When you get to class, the first thing you do is pull out this envelope, take out the homework, and put it into the teacher’s homework box on her desk.  Do you think you can do that?”

“I can do it, I don’t need the envelope,” Jacob protested.

“I’m sure you can, but your teacher told me how many homework assignments you turned in late. She didn’t have to give you credit for any of them, but she decided to give you full credit for all of them.  I hope you appreciate she just saved your grade for you.”

Jacob was thinking that he had saved his grade by finding all the papers and turning them in late, even though it was difficult to talk to his teacher about it, but he knew that she really didn’t have to accept them late, so he didn’t say anything except, “Yes.” He took the red envelope, stuffed it deeply down into his backpack so it wasn’t visible to anyone else, and left the office.

Jacob hated the red envelope.

No one else at the school had one, and he felt like it made him look different or weird or stupid. It’s not like he hadn’t done the homework, it was just turning it in that had been a problem. He thought he could handle that himself now that he knew what went wrong. He decided to keep a record of how well he was turning in his homework so he could show his case manager.

Jacob’s Plan

Jacob wanted to make it easy to turn in his homework, so he always placed it in the red envelope in the outside pocket of his backpack. All he had to do was unzip it and reach in to get the paper, he didn’t have to take the envelope out, so no one could see it and make fun of him. He also wanted to make it difficult to forget to turn in the homework. Since he was used to just sitting down and starting the day’s work without going up to the desk to turn in homework, he needed a reminder. His phone had a calendar, so he created an appointment that said, “Turn in homework” for every day right before the bell rang for class, so it wouldn’t disturb anyone once class started. His phone ringer was off, but he could feel the vibration and that was enough to remind him. Then he slid his homework out of the outside pocket and put it into the box on the teacher’s desk. When he returned to his seat, he wrote down the date and a checkmark on a paper where he was keeping track of turning in his homework. Putting the check mark on the paper made him feel good about how he was doing. After two weeks he planned to show it to his case manager and ask him to take back the red envelope because he wouldn’t need it. This idea was very reinforcing to him. He also decided that if he forgot to turn in the homework in class, he would go in during his lunch hour or after school, apologize to his teacher, and turn it in later the same day.  He didn’t want to have to do that, so it decreased the likelihood that he would forget to turn it in at the beginning of class.

He did it.

After four weeks, Jacob had a record showing that he had turned his homework in on time almost every day. The first week he had missed a day when he was distracted thinking about something else as he came into the classroom, but after that he didn’t miss a day. He took the paper to show his case manager and told him that he no longer needed the red envelope. What a relief it was when he gave back that envelope. Now he knew he had established a new habit of putting his homework papers into the box on the teacher’s desk without needing the teacher to tell him to do it. He felt more like an adult than a kid, and it made him proud of himself. When grades came out and he saw that he had earned a B+ in that class, it further reinforced the effectiveness of his plan.

Jacob’s Self-Management Solution

For Jacob, setting things up to make it easier to turn in his homework and more difficult to forget, reinforcing himself by taking data and having an unwanted consequence or punishment that he didn’t like if he forgot, and setting a goal to get rid of the hated red envelope, all worked together for his success.

Jacob’s stories originally appeared in the first edition of Wendela Whitcomb Marsh’s book, Independent Living with Autism: Your Roadmap to Success. (Revised as Independent Living While Autistic: Your Roadmap to Success, Book One of the Adulting While Autistic series.) Jacob is a fictional character, not based on anyone, so any similarities to real people are coincidental.



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