Um, where did my student go? You scan the lobby, the auditorium, the halls, 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 student you’re serving suddenly runs off in front of your eyes? And what would you do if the student you’re serving comes up missing?
Running away and disappearing acts are something to watch out for when you’re working with students who need extra support. There are a variety of reasons why a student 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 your student. Check with your campus staff to see if their parents have filled out an “About My Child Parent Form.” It should help you know some of the student’s likes, dislikes, signs they’re upset, in pain, or need to use the restroom. It’s especially helpful if your student has limited ability to communicate with you.
As you get to know your student, you’ll start to sense when something is happening or about to happen that may trigger your student’s impulse to run off.
Reasons Why a Student Might Run Off, and How to Handle the Behavior
- Boredom: If a student is disinterested in whatever’s going on around them, they may choose to leave and find a preferred activity or environment.
Watch your student, and do what you can to keep them appropriately engaged. Try offering a sensory calming or focusing item. Offer incentives like, “If you stay in group for 5 more minutes, we’ll take a quick break and walk around the building.”
2. Fear: If your student 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 student 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 people milling about? These all might trigger an uncomfortable or even painful response for some students. They may leave as their only way of finding comfort.
Watch for patterns in which sensory experiences are uncomfortable for your student and try to avoid them. Offer sunglasses during worship, noise-canceling headphones for loud portions of the evening, a break in a quiet room like the Nursing Mothers room during bustling portions of the evening. Check out this article for more help with sensory comfort.
4. Emotional Responses: Switch is an environment where students may have emotional responses to topics they’re not used to facing. For example, if you’re working with a student who is in foster placement and the Switch topic is about how God is a loving Father, this could trigger emotions the student isn’t comfortable displaying in front of their peers. This may cause them to leave to seek privacy.
Whenever possible, let your student know the topic you’re covering for the evening. If you know the student 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, “Tonight, we’re talking about a topic that might be emotional. If you ever feel overwhelmed, you can leave and sit in [the Nursing Mothers room, this empty LifeKids room, the lobby, etc.]. I will follow 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.”
5. Transitions: Switch has some transitions students will need to navigate, such as when you’re changing from the pre-experience to entering the auditorium, or from large group activities to smaller group activities. Sometimes this means a student 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 leave this room in 2 minutes.” If this is met with unhappiness, you’ll know your student 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?”
6. Disorientation: Maybe your student doesn’t have a grasp on when the Switch experience will end and it will be time to go home. They might even misread cues like other students standing up to mean it’s time to head outside and leave.
Use “first, then” and “when, then” language. “First, we’ll hang out in the lobby. Then we’ll go in the auditorium.” Then, when you’re in the auditorium say, “When we’re done with music time, then we’ll sit for teaching time.” Continue this way so the student has some idea of what’s coming next. If your student is a reader, try writing out what’s going on that night and let the student cross off each item throughout the night. Example: Free Time, Music Time, Speaker Talks, Group Time, Time to Leave. If your student isn’t a reader, try using line drawings of each of those items in boxes like a comic strip. Let your student cross them out or cover them up as the evening continues.
What to Do if Your Student Runs Off or Is Missing
If your student 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 your student 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 your student, offer them a break so they can regroup. 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. Let them know all they need to do is tell you they need a break, and you will make sure that happens as soon as possible for them.
If your student is missing: Calmly and quickly notify your campus staff and campus security. Then, follow their instructions. That’s it. If you can think of any areas in the building where your student might be, you can look for them after you’ve notified staff and security. It’s important they’re notified first because they can start any needed protocols such as locking down the building or parking lot until your student is found.
Bottom Line: Having a student 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 student might become overwhelmed and want to escape. Learn what might trigger their flight response, and eliminate those triggers as best you can. And as always, if you’re feeling unsure about what might have caused a student to wander off, God’s got plenty of wisdom to share with you whenever you ask Him for it!