How to Find a Hiding Student

I hid in a bathroom stall once. I was in junior high and afraid of a bully. And plenty of my students have told me similar stories. Some days a bathroom stall is better than a lunchroom. But students also hide in classrooms, in plain sight. They shrink down into hoodies and curtain their eyes with hair. Some students shutter faces with blank expressions, and some turn into clowns, obscuring sadness behind happy masks.

Hiding seems safe to these students, but it’s hard to learn in the shadows. And, besides, I’ve found that students who hide usually want to be found. This takes some skill, though. A direct approach often causes further retreat. I didn’t find every student who hid in my classes, but I did discover some strategies that worked some of the time.

  • Notice them. In the clamor of the classroom, it’s easy to forget these students. But if you keep them in view, you’ll be able to see some patterns. When does the curtain lift? And when is it drawn back in place? Brains, even those of hiding students, yearn toward learning. When you know what catches attention, you’ve found a key you may be able to turn again.
  • Ask for their help—an errand to the office, alphabetizing files, advice on which short story to use in class, building a slide show, any task they might find meaningful. But keep the projects low profile. This steers the focus away from students not onto them.
  • Push in . . . but slowly. I felt a twin temptation with these students—to either keep a distance or to shove right in. It takes more courage and more patience to advance bit by bit. One week pull up a stool by a hiding student’s desk during a video clip. Say nothing. Do nothing. Just sit there. The next week, pat a shoulder as you walk by. Later drop a note on a desk, call a parent with a compliment, or read an excerpt from an essay. “I’m not going to tell you who wrote this,” tell the class, “but this is a good example of what all of you could have included in your papers.”

Finding a fading student is daunting. It’s hard emotional work. But when you finally see a spark in the eye or a tilt of the head, when you see a student come out of the shadows to smile at a classmate, you’ll be glad you invested. If you seek, I’ve found, you can often find.

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