When addressing elopement behaviors, preventative and intervention strategies must be student-specific. These strategies will be doomed to fail if teams apply them haphazardly, without first considering WHY the pattern of elopement is happening. In other words, it is critical that we choose interventions which address the function of the elopement behavior if we are to have a chance to reduce and eventually eliminate the behavior.
IF WE KNOW, WE MIGHT SUCCESSFULLY PREVENT IT.
In contrast, when challenging behavior is interpreted as communication, we can then begin to understand the function that it serves for the student and, taken in consideration with identified lagging skills and unmet needs, we can begin to develop a plan that will help the student effectively reduce and eliminate the problem behavior.
Escape (I don’t want to do this):
Tangible (I want this):
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THE ELOPEMENT?
- Assign student a seat that it is distant from the classroom exit
- Arrange furniture / desk formations so that student’s exit route is partially obstructed
- Place a child safety cover over the classroom door knob
- Position an adult between student and classroom exit / shift teaching position so that teacher is stationed closer to classroom exit
- Place a red stop sign at the classroom door and teach students that it’s there to remind them that before they leave the room, they need to have permission from an adult
What makes a strategy an intervention strategy? The intention of an intervention strategy is to teach. Just as academic teaching strategies help build competence and applied problem-solving strategies, behavioral intervention strategies help build a student’s lagging social-emotional skills and improve their problem-solving skills when it comes to regulating their feelings and behavior (Greene, 2017). When educators identify a replacement behavior that addresses the suspected function of elopement behavior and is realistic (i.e., within reach, given the student’s current skillset), they can teach the student about how and when to use it, and how to expect that adults will respond. In a nutshell, intervention strategies aim to:
- increase a student’s skills, and
- increase the likelihood that a student will engage in a more appropriate alternative to the current maladaptive behavior.
Consider the following preventative and intervention strategies with your student, and the suspected function of their behavior, in mind. Which of these strategies may be beneficial for your entire class, not just the student who struggles with elopement? Which of these strategies might you frame as a realistic replacement behavior for the student to do instead of leaving supervision without permission? Which ideas represent ways in which you’d like all supporting adults to respond to this student after they’ve eloped?
First determine if a student requires more or less sensory input, then consider the following strategies:
Increase Sensory Input
- Turn on the lights
- Give the class a brief (30 sec.) stretch/ movement break between each scheduled activity/ work demand.
- Allow the student to listen to music through earbuds during independent work
- Allow the student to sit on an exercise ball or give the student tension bands
- Consider using energizing scents such as mint
- Allow the student to chew gum
- Turn on the lights
Decrease Sensory Input
- Dim or turn off the lights
- Consider whether clothing textures are uncomfortable for a student
- Allow the student to wear earplugs during independent work
- Allow the student to sit in a quiet area of the room (e.g. retreating to a pop-up tent in the corner of the classroom)
- Build in time for quiet activities (e.g., jigsaw puzzles, scramble word worksheets, rhebus puzzles, coloring/ art)
- Consider blocking out distractions using a study carrel or standing folders
- Consider using calming scents such as lavender
- Dim or turn off the lights
- Limit length of activities (consider student’s developmental capacity for attending)
- Provide choice of tasks during each activity (e.g., allow the student to choose from two or three different activities pre-selected by the classroom teacher)
- Prevent lag time between activities and provide opportunities to practice transitional routines
- Reduce or eliminate competitive activities and ensure that you are building in opportunities for academic success (to reduce potentially uncomfortable feelings of low self-efficacy or low self-esteem)
- Provide high-interest tasks
- Reinforce student as he or she is getting work done and participating in activities
- Reduce potentially perceived threats that could be resulting in student “flight” response
- Interact frequently to the student while he or she is meeting expectations in the classroom
- Provide lots of attention to every student who is staying with group
- Ensure that all supporting adults avoid providing undue positive attention for elopement (e.g., do not run after student if not necessary for safety; limit verbal interaction with student when they have eloped; avoid having the supervising adult/ crisis responder attempt to co-regulate a student by engaging the student 1:1 in a preferred activity)
- Provide fun activity for students who are with the group
- Remind student of next turn to be in leadership role
- Provide opportunities for student to spend fun time with preferred adults (built into schedule / earned)
- Allow student to work for frequent, time-limited opportunities to engage in a preferred activity or to earn a desired item (engaging in an art activity with preferred adult, playing basketball with a lunch group).
- Establish specific times for access to preferred items
Consider whether hunger is a motivator for elopement, and if so:
- provide food items sought and/ or
- allow students to bring or purchase needed food item and return/bring to class
- provide food items sought and/ or
- Consider engaging students in fun movement activities in the classroom (e.g., running in place, dancing, playing musical chairs or hot potato).
The most comprehensive (and effective) behavior plans utilize preventative, intervention, and de-escalation strategies. Some helpful and unhelpful thoughts and actions for educators to keep in mind when attempting to de-escalate students are summarized here. Following are some basic Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI) guidelines on how to de-escalate students (Holden et al., 2013). We encourage all educators to participate in the TCIS trainings the district offers (especially the verbal de-escalation portion of the training) as they offer some effective, trauma-informed methods for de-escalating students and returning them to a calm, collected state. When trying to de-escalate students approach the situation calmly with a neutral tone of voice and with as little an audience as possible. Try the following:
Use TCI behavior support techniques:
- Use a caring gesture and positive relationship skills to convey to the student that he or she is wanted in class and teacher wants student to be safe
- Use directive statements (e.g., come back inside the classroom, close the door)
- Increase adult supervision to maintain student safety
- Use proximity/ Manage the environment (e.g., have adults stand near exit doors)
- Drain off emotions: use active listening skills and reassuring messages
- Clarify the events that led up to the student’s behavior
- Maintain the relationship and lines of communication
- Remind the student of the expectations and mediate the situation if necessary
Once the student is calm, it will be important to have a conversation with him or her that will help him explore and understand triggers and identify coping strategies and appropriate alternatives to elopement behavior in the future. Further, it’s important to give the student time and space to recoup, perhaps allowing him or her to wash their face and hands, straighten up clothing, and get a drink of water. Especially in instances of elopement that have escalated to unsafe situations, supporting adults should incorporate miniature re-entry conversations with students before returning them to class.
Use TCI Life Space Interview techniques:
- Isolate the conversation
- Explore the student’s point of view
- Summarize the feelings and content
- Connect the student’s feelings and behavior
- Alternate behaviors discussed
- Plan developed and practiced
- Enter the student back into school routine
- Isolate the conversation
It is important for the student’s teacher to be included in planning conversations that provide specificity about how the student will be reintegrated into the room. For example, should the teacher bring up the incident at all? If so, when, and with any particular adult present for the conversation? Re-entry into the classroom should never include shaming or reprimands by any supporting adult. In many cases, it may be helpful for the teacher to avoid any mention of elopement in the moment, and simply welcome the student back to class and include them into regular programming and routines. If elopement behaviors are recurring, the teacher and support staff should come up with an Individual Crisis Management Plan (ICMP) that will help to address planned adult responses to the student’s crisis. They also may wish to set up informal, private planning discussions with the student to encourage use of the alternative behaviors included in the student’s function-based behavior plan.
In summary, to effectively reduce elopement behaviors, teams may wish to take the following steps (Pennington, et al., 2012), as summarized in this linked PDF flowchart:
- Work with your team to identify triggers as early as possible and use preventative strategies in response to situations that are known to be triggering.
- Try to establish the function of the behavior. Is the student fleeing supervision because of a sensory need, because he needs to escape the situation, because he’s looking for attention, or because he’s interested in a tangible item or activity?
- Consider safety issues when designing and testing interventions.
- Consider lagging skills to address through explicit instruction.
- Consider ways to address unmet needs (e.g., how can we support the family if there is food instability, homelessness, lack of transportation, etc.?)
- Implement strategies that teach students appropriate ways to access reinforcement first.
- Reflect on the intervention often by collecting and reviewing continuous data, as needed.
Holden, M.J., Holden J.C., Mineroff, M., Laddin, B., Stanton-Greenwood, A., Turnbull, A… Butcher, S. (2013). Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools, (ed. 1). Residential Child Care Project, Cornell University.
Pennington, R., Strange, C., Stenhoff, D., Delano, M., Ferguson, M. (2012). Leave the running shoes at home: Addressing elopement in the classroom. Beyond Behavior, Spring 2012, 3-7.
Riffel, L. A. (2013). Writing a behavioral intervention plan based on a functional behavior assessment, fifth edition. Behavior Doctor Seminars, 2013-2014.
Sugai, G. & Horner, R. (n.d.). Behavior function: Staying close to what we know. PBIS Newsletter, 1(1).