Dealing with an Artful Dodger

I recently stumbled across a new category of student – I call them Artful Dodgers. With apologies (but no royalties) to Charles Dickens, my version of the Artful Dodger is not a an urchin of the streets, but a crafty de-railer of their own learning.

Here’s what they do – during a crucial part of your class (such as delivering instruction, or taking up a puzzling question, or wrapping up a lesson), they engineer a way to exit the room. The methods vary, depending on the student. Some go with the old bathroom dodge. Others prefer to feign illness and ask to go to the nurse. My favorite is the “I forgot my ______ in my locker. Can I run and get it?”

It took me way too long to identify this behavior as it seems so innocuous at first. It’s so natural for students to ask to go to the bathroom. At least 2-3 students ask to go during every one of my 80-minute classes.

But, one day I noticed a pattern. I was just about to deliver some instruction – instruction that was essential to an activity we were about to begin. Then, one of my students asked to go to the bathroom. I paused because, although it was early in the school year, I had already noticed that this particular student was struggling a little in my class. As soon as I made this mental connection what was happening in class and this student, I suddenly recalled that she frequently asked to go to the bathroom – and it was regularly at key times in class. For the remainder of that week, I paid close attention to this phenomenon and noticed it happened across all of my classes and among a number of struggling students.

I am not sure why a student would employ this as a strategy. It seems only logical that when something important is happening in class you would want to be there to experience it. However, some students must get anxious and have developed a surefire way to avoid this anxiety: they flee.  

Strategies

Just Say No – On the surface, it is an easy issue to deal with. When a student tries to exit the room, just say no. But, saying no is fraught with peril. Denying a student the right to use the bathroom, or to visit the school nurse, can spark a sharp reaction from parents. So, rather than flatly refuse, I push students to wait until a more appropriate time.

Don’t Be the Lone Wolf – Communicating with your peers is helpful here as they may not be aware of the issue and may let students leave whenever they want. This sets an expectation in the minds of students that they are free to leave whenever they want and makes it more difficult for you to ask students to reschedule their exits.

First and Last 10 Minutes – Speaking of colleagues, another strategy is to have all teachers agree to a uniform policy of not letting students leave the room in the first 10 minutes of class and the last 10 minutes. First, students (at least at my school) have a generous passing period between classes. There is plenty of time to go during these times. In addition, break periods and lunch time also provide students with opportunities to visit the bathroom or the nurse. Why on Earth do they need to ask to go as soon as their next class begins? Next, the first 10 minutes and last 10 minutes are usually key times in a class. Important things are happening – a warm-up activity, setting the stage for something important to come, providing necessary instructions. And, the end of class usually involves some sort of wrap-up/closing activity that ties learning together, or sets up what is to follow later. These are not times when students should be allowed to be gone.

Establish an Exit Cap – Another strategy is some sort of limitation on the number of classroom exits. Some teachers cap exits to a particular number per week/quarter. This provides a student with some freedom, but if the student abuses the privilege, they could find themselves without passes when they really need to go.

Exit Form – A key strategy of mine is the use of a bathroom sign-out system. Whenever students need to leave the room, I have them complete a form that requires them to write their name, the time they left the room and the time they returned. I know it seems like a micro-managerial thing to use, but the data there is very valuable. When I think a student might be abusing the exit privilege, I can go through the lists to see how often they are leaving and when it is happening. This data can provide solid evidence to the patterns you are perceiving.

Am I Being Petty?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? I know I have ranted on this blog about seemingly small issues (like dress-down days – which I still believe should be carefully managed). But, students fleeing the room when something important is happening can be catastrophic for students. A student who deliberate leaves the room when important instruction is being delivered is going to be a little behind their peers. If they employ this strategy on a regular basis, they will find themselves very far behind the others in a short time. Over the course of a school year, an Artful Dodger might end up light years behind.

Keep your eyes peeled and trust your instincts – if you think something might be happening, it might just be.

Ed Ex!

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