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Avoiding Avoidance in the Classroom

Recently a Principal asked me why he was seeing so many students going to the bathroom all day… there are of course many reasons – however I suggested it was possibly not an epidemic of incontinence, it is more likely to be an avoidance tactic.

Students can be extremely smart at avoiding doing anything that might be challenging, hard, difficult or simply outside of their comfort zone.

I asked a group of teachers to list the strategies their students use to avoid work? Here are some…

  • Needing a drink of water
  • Sharpening a pencilScreen Shot 2015-09-03 at 12.16.37 pm
  • Helping someone else
  • Looking busy
  • Tidying up/cleaning up
  • Starting a non-relevant conversation with the teacher
  • Walking around the classroom looking for something
  • Going to the cloakroom to get ‘something’
  • Feeling sick (which is a real physiological response to stress)
  • Offering to be a messenger for the office
  • Telling the teacher that someone else is not doing their work!
  • The list goes on…

When I asked the students in a school the same question they reiterated the above, and added a couple of my favourites:

  • “I hide my pencil and then spend 15 minutes looking for it!”
  • “I pretend to be writing and when the teacher comes close, I look like I’m thinking!”

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.19.30 amI believe one of the best ways to deal with avoidance is to address the ‘elephant in the room’ and simply talk about it. Make students aware that you know the behaviours they are exhibiting are about avoidance and then teach explicit strategies to overcome the avoidance.

Just asking students to stay on task and persist is not enough. Christchurch Teacher and DP, Adrian Rennie, created a wonderful lesson and conversation for his class… The road to success is paved with persistence. Adrian has cleverly and accurately distilled the essence of success and avoidance strategies in this simple, yet powerful road map.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 12.17.15 pm

He talked to his students about getting caught in the side roads of Joke Valley, Temptation Alley, Boredom Town, Don’t Start Land, Too Hard Town, Class Clownville, Half Done Hill, Pain Central, Come Back Later, Competition Land, Mount Metacognition, Fascination Land and finally arriving at Mount Success. (Do these sound familiar?) Once having named the ‘elephant in the room’ students were acutely aware of their avoidance strategies and even coached each other. One student was overheard complaining he was bored. Quick as a flash, another turned and said, “Well you better get out of that town fast!”

Another strategy is simply naming the behaviour and offering support. For example:  “You are doing x to avoid x, is there anything I can do to help you?”

I recently gave students a very challenging task as part of a model lesson series at an Australian school. I was upfront with them by explaining that they would find the activity difficult. In the middle of the lesson, a boy burst into tears. Before I could intervene, I overheard another child say, “It’s supposed to be hard.” The young boy looked up, shrugged, smiled and got back on with the task.

The use of metaphors for learning are important. I use the Monarch Butterfly as a Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 12.36.11 pmmetaphor for why the struggle is important. The struggle to emerge from the chrysalis is how the butterfly wings become strong. If the butterfly is assisted out of the chrysalis, it will die. The struggle makes it strong. This is also true of our students. When we as teachers jump in and rescue learners too soon, we are denying them the chance to develop the muscles of problem solving, thinking and getting themselves unstuck next time.

Other techniques that may assist to minimise the avoidance epidemic include;

  • Teaching planning and time management techniques
  • Ensuring the work students are doing is relevant, engaging and purposeful (Although not all work in life is like this- sometimes you just have to knuckle down and get on with it)
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Creating time for students to work on their own projects and passions
  • Provide brain breaks
  • Ensure students are hydrated
  • Showing students their next learning steps
  • Explicitly teaching focus strategies
  • and again the list goes on…

In what ways do you positively deal with avoidance in your classroom?


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