Um, where did my little buddy go? You scan the room and panic sets in. How did they get past me so quickly? And where have they gone? Has this ever happened to you? What would you do if the child you’re serving suddenly runs off in front of your eyes? And what would you do if the child you’re serving comes up missing?
Running away and disappearing acts are something to watch out for when you’re working with children who need extra support. There are a variety of reasons why a child might want to bolt. Check out the list below for ideas on how to stop the dash before it starts. And, then, check out a list of best practices for what to do if it happens anyway.
Before we get to the lists, a power tip. The very best thing you can do to avoid running off? Get to know the child you’re working with. Check with your campus staff to see if their parents have filled out a “Fun Facts and Helpful Hints” form. It should help you know some of the child’s likes, dislikes, signs they’re upset, in pain, or need to use the restroom. It’s especially helpful if your little buddy has limited ability to communicate with you.
As you get to know your little buddy, you’ll start to sense when something is happening or about to happen that may trigger their impulse to run off.
Reasons Why a Child Might Run Off, and How to Handle the Behavior
1. Boredom: If a child is disinterested in whatever’s going on around them, they may choose to leave and find a preferred activity or environment.
Watch your little buddy, and do what you can to keep them appropriately engaged. Try offering a sensory calming or comfort item. Offer incentives like, “If you watch the video for 5 more minutes, we’ll take a quick break and [play with Legos, color, take a short walk, etc.]”
2. Fear: If a child feels afraid or threatened by what’s happening around them, they may choose the “flight” instinct of the fear-based response to assumed trouble.
Watch your little buddy for signs of agitation. If they’re beginning to look worried, offer them a break. Use reassuring words. Try using appropriate touch like a side hug or gentle, downward pressure on their shoulders. Try a distraction like singing a silly song together.
3. Sensory Overload: Is it loud? Bright? Lights flashing? Lots of kids milling about? These all might trigger an uncomfortable or even painful response for some children. They may leave as their only way of finding comfort.
Watch for patterns in which sensory experiences are uncomfortable for the child you’re working with and try to avoid them. Offer sunglasses during worship, noise-canceling headphones for loud portions of the experience, a break in the hallway or a quiet room if available during bustling portions of the experience. Check out this article for more help with sensory comfort.
4. Emotional Responses: LifeKids is an environment where kids may have emotional responses to topics they’re not used to facing. For example, if you’re working with a child who is in foster placement and the Konnect or Loop topic is about how God is a loving Father, this could trigger emotions the child isn’t comfortable displaying in front of their peers. This may cause them to leave to seek privacy.
Whenever possible, let your little buddy know the topic you’re covering that day. If you know the child you’re working with has a difficult background or has difficulties handling their emotions, offer them a safe place to go if they begin to feel overwhelmed. You might say, “Today, we’re talking about a topic that might be emotional. If you ever feel overwhelmed, you can leave and sit in [the hallway, this empty LifeKids room, other designated safe place approved by staff, etc.]. I will go with you so I know you’re safe. If you want to talk or pray about it, I’ll be there. But if you don’t, that’s okay too.” Note: Be sure to get a staff member or another LifeKids leader to stay with you and the child if they need a break and you have not been granted written permission from the parent to work one-on-one with the child.
5. Transitions: LifeKids has some transitions children will need to navigate, such as when you’re changing from a more self-directed portion like free play to a more teacher-led portion like Prop Talk or a movie time. Or from a movie time to an activity or small group discussion time. Sometimes this means a child is leaving a more desired activity for one they are less happy about. This could cause an impulse to escape instead.
Give a heads-up when a transition is getting close. Say something like, “It’s almost time for small group. We’re going to start in 2 minutes.” If this is met with unhappiness, you’ll know your little buddy will need further support to navigate the transition successfully. You can offer sensory support items until the transition is made. Say, “Here, would you like to hold this fidget until small group starts [or until small group is finished]?”
6. Disorientation: Maybe your little buddy doesn’t have a grasp on when the experience will end and it will be time to go home. They might even misread cues like other children standing up to mean it’s time to head outside and leave.
Use “first, then” and “when, then” language. “First, we’ll play together for a bit. Then we’ll sit down and watch a movie.” Then, when you’re watching the video portion, say, “When we’re done with movie time, then we’ll do an activity [or sit for story time, etc.].” Continue this way so the child has some idea of what’s coming next. If your child is a reader, try writing out what will happen that day and let the child cross off each item throughout the experience. Example: Free Time, Music Time, Movie Time, Group Time, Time to Leave. If your child isn’t a reader, try using line drawings of each of those items in boxes like a comic strip. Let the child cross them out or cover them up as the experience continues. If your little buddy is in the early childhood rooms, refer to the picture schedule on the wall frequently. Talk to your campus staff to see if having a small, individualized picture schedule would be more helpful.
What to Do If Your Little Buddy Runs Off or Is Missing
If your little buddy runs off in front of you: Calmly and quickly follow them and let them know you want to help them. Avoid using any threatening or disciplinary sounding language or tone. Understand the child is most likely trying to communicate that they are experiencing stress or discomfort from one of the six items listed above. When you’ve caught up with them, offer them a break so they can regroup. As much as they can understand, let them know you will always offer them a break when they need some time away or alone. Let them know you will always help them to find something they enjoy doing if they’re feeling bored. You may need to develop a system so the child can communicate with you when they need a break, such as pointing to the door, tugging on your sleeve, etc. Try offering the child breaks again that day. This time, the break will be monitored. The child will begin to learn that you are the person they can go to when they need to leave the room for a bit.
If your little buddy is missing: Calmly and quickly notify your campus staff. Then, follow their instructions. That’s it. Staff will work to quickly notify campus security. If you can think of any areas in the building where your little buddy might be, you can look for them after you’ve notified staff. It’s important they’re notified first because they can start any needed protocols such as locking down the building or parking lot until the child is found.
Bottom Line: Having a child run off or disappear from your watch is a frightening experience for sure. Follow the tips listed above to help you figure out when your little buddy might become overwhelmed and want to escape. Learn what might trigger their flight response, and eliminate those triggers as best you can. Until you do, position yourself and other leaders in front of doors and exits—and keep your eyes on the child. And as always, if you’re feeling unsure about what might have caused a child to wander off, God’s got plenty of wisdom to share with you whenever you ask Him for it!