At one point, I took on a long term substitute position for an English teacher who was sick. I created a reading calendar so that students could stay on track with the reading load for the class. I also devised a few comprehension-level questions to accompany the reading. On my third day there, three different students threw handwritten notes on my desk. Okay. All three parents advised me that their child had been simply too busy to complete the latest assignment.
1. Take an introspective approach: Are your assignments "busywork"? This may feel a little uncomfortable for you, but I would encourage you to really assess what you are trying to get out of the homework that is assigned. Along this same line, make sure you really understand the amount of time it might take a student to complete the assignment you gave. Is it reasonable to expect a student to spend forty-five minutes on one assignment amidst soccer, music lesson, community involvement, and a sit-down dinner with family? I'm not saying that you are definitely at fault. I'm just encouraging you to keep an open mind.
2. Have a conversation with the student. Can you get any details from the student about why he/she didn't have the time to finish the assignment? Consider what the student tells you, and then you should probably give a phone call home and have a live conversation about what is going on. You might be surprised. You might even learn that the note is not legitimate at all! Of course, you might hear that the parent has actual concerns about the workload.
3. Consider a modification. If the parent expresses that the student legitimately has a situation where he/she is having difficulty keeping up with your schedule, can you possibly offer a modified schedule for this student? It's still important to hold the child accountable, but can the student still be accountable by turning in smaller chunks of work on Tuesday and Thursday instead of a whole big batch of work on Friday?
4. Don't forget about the guidance counselors. Depending on the student, this might be your first stop. Guidance counselors might be able to give you some insight about how to handle the situation. And even if they don't have any advice to offer, you really should keep the guidance counselor up to date if it seems like a student may be starting to fall behind for whatever reason.
5. Create a "Success Plan" for the student with checkpoints and due dates with the goal of getting him or her back on track with the curriculum. Involve the parents' ideas and the student's ideas in your "success plan." I've found that a lot of times parents can offer some good advice especially about what might be the best "currency" to encourage the student. With all parties taking some ownership of the plan, the student will have a better chance to succeed without relying on a "note from mom or dad" to excuse them.