"Circle of Safety": A Human Approach to Late Work

By offering the flexibility to meet high course expectations, we are scaffolding important professional and life skills without lowering our educational standards.

A Collaboration of Jessi Hill and Claudia Jorgensen

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced intense stressors for students that sparked change in the way we interacted with our students. In Fall 2020, during the initial height of the pandemic, the authors came together to discuss strategies for helping struggling students, particularly those heavily impacted by COVID and had no means through our traditional late work policies to succeed in our courses. The standard approach to late work accommodates illness, university activities, work conflicts, etc., but it was not flexible enough for parents with children home sick for weeks at a time or workers who had to work double and triple shifts to cover for coworkers who were ill. Thus, we delved deeply about the means available to us to help students who were struggling with class assignments and due dates in those highly uncertain times.


As we discovered in our conversations, Dr. Jorgensen’s original late work policy mirrored the late policies she encountered when she was a student. Briefly, assignments and assessments had a due date and submission/completion up until the due date were encouraged. Late submission/completion was possible for up to one week passed the due date but resulted in a penalty of loss of points. The lost number of points incrementally increased corresponding to the number of days of late-submission—reaching its maximum on the last day of possible late submission. Once the one week following the due date had been passed, no submission at all was possible. As most late policies, her own late policy had some flexibility. For example, there was flexibility if the student showed proof of extreme circumstances (i.e., death in the family, hospitalization), but otherwise it strictly observed the due date. Dr. Hill’s late work policy also started at a place from her student experiences and evolved over time from a no late work policy to one that allowed 72 hours after the deadline to turn work in with an associated point penalty of 10% per day. She also transitioned from a strict documentation policy of situations happening directly to the students to becoming more flexible for caregivers or working individuals. Even so, that evolution was not enough flexibility to handle the extreme circumstances students encountered in a global pandemic.


As a result of being exposed to Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks in an OTL Learning Circle, Dr. Hill began to think differently about issues of equity in higher education. It seemed to her that late work policies could create great inequities for marginalized groups. Thus, as we explored our concerns about our students, Dr. Hill shared her newly developed “Circle of Safety” Late Policy, which is quoted below.

Late Work Statement:

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to try something a little different with my late work policy. I'm going to divide it into two different policies. You have the choice of which one to use. Please read them both so that you know what to do if work ever needs to be late. Each option will indicate how you will let me know you want to use it.


"Circle of Safety" Late Work Policy. Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith (both actors) use the "circle of safety" in their family. The idea is that if their kids are honest and up-front about their activities, they won't get in trouble, but if they hide something, they do get in trouble. I thought this could be a flexible, compassionate, and inclusive way of handling late work, if adapted to the college setting. For me, this option includes anything at all (I included some examples for you below to give you an idea of what I mean). If you choose this late work option, I will do everything I can to work with you, but I may not be able to help with parts of your grade that are dependent on teammates--we will just have to figure that out together.

Here's how this option works:


All temporary situations that are non-emergency: Here are some examples of temporary, non-emergency situations: you can tell you're coming down with a cold, it's a really stressful week, you had a disruptive argument with your parents/spouse/partner, your insomnia is acting up, you forgot something big was due that week, etc. In these cases, make an appointment with me (if no appointments are available, don't worry--just Teams/Canvas message/text, and I will make time for you because you are my first priority). 


Unexpected emergency situations: Here are some examples of unexpected emergency situations: you got in a car accident on the day of the deadline, you became very ill with a sudden-onset illness (e.g., stomach flu, food poisoning), you were arrested (this happened once to a student--totally not kidding), work called you in unexpectedly, you became homeless, etc. As soon as you become aware of the emergency or as soon as you can once the emergency part is over, communicate with me using Teams, Canvas messages, or text just to say that an emergency situation exists for you. You can ask someone else to make contact with me to let me know, but I won't be able to communicate back with them due to Federal law (unless you've signed a FERPA waiver and have it on file in the Registrar's Office). When everything is more stable, make an appointment with me (if no appointments are available, don't worry--just Teams/Canvas message/text, and I will make time for you because you are my first priority).


For both temporary and emergency situations, the following applies. When we meet, I may ask you about the situation, but this is NOT to interrogate you--rather, I am trying to understand enough about the situation to help you make a plan to get back on track. You don't need to divulge private information to me--only share what you are comfortable sharing. Together, we will make a reasonable plan for how to adjust due dates to accommodate life and get you back on track. The key is that you must let me know 48 hours before the deadline. I can work around anything if I have advanced notice. For example, I once had a student who had significant personal issues going on, and none of his other instructors would accommodate him, so I did. He was able to manage the personal issues, deal with his other classes, and pass the course.


Your responsibilities in the Circle of Safety Late Work Policy:

  • You communicate early and frequently.
  • You are 100% honest.


My responsibilities in the Circle of Safety Late Work Policy:

  • I will communicate frequently and consistently with you until the situation is over.
  • I will accept that you are being 100% honest at your word, and I will NOT ask for evidence or documentation.
  • I will NOT "judge" you for any situation you bring to me, instead I promise to act with unconditional positive regard and compassion.
  • I will help you find campus and community resources, if needed.


The Circle of Safety Late Work Policy does NOT work in the following situations:

  • the due date has already passed (with exceptions related to emergencies);
  • if I discover you are dishonest in any way (e.g., someone seeks me out and tells me you were lying, you publicly post, and I accidentally encounter, social media that demonstrates dishonesty); or
  • you don't communicate within the specified time frames.


Regular Late Work Policy. If you choose not to use or don't qualify for the Circle of Safety Late Work Policy, here is what you can expect:

  • All assignments (applied problems, weekly activities, quizzes, etc.) are due by the time specified on the course calendar on the due date. No late work is allowed.
  • If there are any potential conflicts with assignments, please notify me as soon as possible. Extensions on assignments or alternatives will be provided if you must participate in officially sanctioned university activities, official athletic activities, religious observances, military responsibilities. Accommodations will also be provided in the case of extenuating circumstances (parents of sick children, change in work schedule, death in immediate family/friends, illness, injury). Even if your specific situation is not covered in the above, please contact me about a conflict and I will try to work with you!

Following our conversation, Dr. Jorgensen decided to model her late policy to mirror Dr. Hill’s Circle of Safety. After testing the late work policy together during Spring 2022, the authors discovered several lessons learned that are relevant to implementing equity enhancing late work policies.


  • The passive approach in the policy that required students to reach out for help was sometimes problematic. Frequently, we had to offer the Circle of Safety directly or reach out to students who seemed to “disappear.” This active approach requires far more emotional labor and an investment of time for us. Students appreciated the investments we made, offering grace to us in return.
  • Anecdotally, it seemed as if men were less likely to engage in the Circle of Safety than women. After consulting with other colleagues, we realized it might be the “helping” language we were using. It was suggested to us to use “coaching” language instead when offering the Circle of Safety to students who are men.
  • The Circle of Safety is difficult to implement with a large group of students. It is easier in small classes or when teaching multiple sections of the same class.
  • Changing deadlines within Canvas right away is key to helping students know the limits of the flexibility they have. Leaving the monitoring of deadlines to already overwhelmed students led to more challenges.
  • One of us offered more encouragement after students submitted late assignments, thanking them for following through. Students reported feeling valued and recognized the faculty member’s role in their success.
  • A minority of students were uncomfortable accepting the Circle of Safety, refusing to take advantage of the flexibility it offered. In such cases, framing the opportunity as coaching the student to success rather than helping a student through the hard time was more successful.


In the end, it is important to remember that we are all humans. As faculty members, we are comfortable self-advocating and telling a colleague that we need to move a meeting. Students also need that grace particularly as they often haven’t had practice or space to self-advocate. By offering the flexibility to meet high course expectations, we are scaffolding important professional and life skills without lowering our educational standards. Thus, we think more flexibility in any late work policy will be beneficial independent on the status of the pandemic.

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