Elopement Behavior in the Early Childhood Classroom
I could hear the teacher’s worry and fear through the phone. The new student had run out of the classroom for the third time and it was the child’s first day.
“I’m going to lose my job! What if she got hurt, or lost? We will lose our license! Help!”
Children who leave the supervised area (elopement behavior), are trying to escape something or to gain something (e.g. attention, alone/quiet time).
They could be trying to escape:
- A feeling (scared, anxious, mad)
- A person (someone new, someone who is unkind, someone who is a perceived threat)
- A situation (loud noise, a conflict, an undesirable activity)
Their current stress response is flight and there is a powerful drive to go somewhere. Anywhere!
Consider the following:
You are told you are moving to another country tomorrow. You pack what will fit into one suitcase and fly 22 hours the next day. You are to start a new job the day after you arrive. You are escorted to a board room occupied by a group of people who have lived in this country their whole lives. They have lunch catered. People are asking you questions and become frustrated because you don’t understand what they are saying (even when they say it louder and repeat it many times). The food is nothing you recognize and you don’t care for the texture or taste when trying to take a polite bite. You don’t see anyone you know and slowly the people around you begin to avoid interaction because there is nothing in common and no way to properly communicate.
Imagine trying to tell someone you were hurt, scared, or need to use the restroom. How long would you stay without trying to make a heroic effort to leave and return to a life of comfort and familiarity?
Elopement behavior (or eloping) can also come from a lack of understanding of boundaries. A child who has never been to school may have been allowed to go into their backyard freely at home. Why would they think the fenced-in playground is any different? Sometimes, the lack of understanding of boundaries comes from a developmental or cognitive delay.
It is recommended to complete two weeks of daily observations. We use this data to look for patterns (e.g., time of day, temperament, emotions, place in the environment). We begin to use tools and strategies (response to behavior, practice strategies, and replacement tools that may help) during the documentation process. We also record and determine the efficacy of specific tools or strategies over time. These observations can help you learn the message behind the elopement behavior.
Elopement Behavior Response
Our response (even before the very first attempt) can encourage the reduction of elopement behavior in the early childhood classroom.
- Place ‘STOP’ signs, at children’s eye level on all exits. For open doorways you can place a ‘STOP’ sign on the floor with a tape line indicating where the supervised area ends.
- Acknowledge feelings and guide them toward a healthier choice. Be firm, “I can see you’re scared. Let’s go where you will be safe.”
- Try your best to have an adult stand near or in front of exits to prevent elopement.
- Assume that children know the expectations.
- Use a harsh tone or restrain the child. (should we add, unless you need to urgently protect a child from harm or something to that effect??)
- Don't give up! Practice makes progress!
Practice Preventing Elopement Behavior
Practice how to stop at the signs/ tape lines. It is helpful to practice expectations regularly, but also revisit expectations after longer school closures and when new students attend.
Ask children, “Is this the way we stop?” Then model for children the appropriate way to stop. Ask again, “Is this the way we stop?” Then take a slow, exaggerated step over the line and allow children to correct you.
Practice what to do with strong emotions before they occur.
Replacing Elopement Behavior
- Offer a place the child can run. Is there a space where they can see outside and run in place?
- Can another teacher or administrator go outside to help the child run off some nervous energy? Can the child go outside with another class (or your class) to avoid a stressful situation? Sometimes a simple break in our routine can help prevent future occurrences.
- Offer a place the child can run to. If the child has a need to escape, invite the child to help you create a safe place they can “hide.” You can use the space under some low cubbies or under a small table. Provide a soft blanket or pillow and some calming items to reduce anxious or stressful feelings. Practice using the space when the child is not stressed.
Elopement or elopement behavior in the early childhood classroom can be a scary and unsafe situation. Should the child experience frequent and persistent elopement, consult your local early intervention office for additional support strategies.
Celestte has spent a life-long career educating young children. In her over thirty years of working in early childhood education, she has extensive and successful experience as a teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and education consultant. She has used her talents to develop meaningful Social and Emotional Learning curricula and to provide educators with easy-to-use tools for teaching pro-social behavior.
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