This week’s Behaviour Matters is aimed primarily at teachers and support staff who are working with younger children, and provides advice on dealing with a pupil who tries to leave school grounds without permission

Introduction Sooner or later you will encounter the pupil who decides that he or she would rather not be in your lesson, in fact may not even want to be in the school, and decides to vote with his/her feet. Reasons for deciding to leave the building, or your room, can be many and varied. A simple misunderstanding or argument with a friend, an act of panic in response to something they find challenging, or even an upset at home that has been remembered again while in school, can all be strong reasons for leaving. Although such a child is generally referred to as ‘the runner’, which tends to indicate that he/she is likely to be ‘running away’ or ‘escaping’, this is not necessarily the best description. Many children who decide to exit school do it covertly and in a very planned manner. The relatively recent emphasis on security in and around school buildings has certainly had a major effect on controlling and monitoring who gets in to the school building, while also making the building – and particularly the school site – more difficult to exit without being noticed. However, even when noticed, there are still many children who put themselves at risk by leaving the school site without adult permission or supervision. Suddenly noticing that one member of your class is no longer present after the lunch break or after a room change can be just as alarming, if not more so, than actually witnessing a pupil who, after making a considerable fuss, decides to ‘do a runner’. For many staff, there is a very powerful temptation to chase after the pupil, often enlisting the help of any other members of staff who are within earshot. This results in a period of hide and seek or, at the very worst, a real chase. Pupils (and staff!) who are engaged in a high-energy, adrenalin-induced chase will almost certainly be unable to make rational decisions and act in a calm and controlled manner. This increases the risk, and causes even more upset and distress, often with disastrous consequences. The chase can lead the persons involved into areas of great danger around the school, such as the car park, school driveway or even the road outside school, not to mention trees and the school roof.

Practical Tips

The child who decides to leave the classroom or school site is clearly in some form of emotional turmoil. Something or someone will have caused the thoughts/emotions that have subsequently driven the pupil into acting in the way they have chosen. They are clearly upset and emotional; and if you in turn become emotional and agitated too, you will simply be contributing to the problem.

The advice for such a situation is the same as for any other that challenges you:

  • The first person who needs to calm down is you!

It is important, in enabling you to be calm at times of stress, to have a clear and effective protocol. In other words, have a plan. The school protocol should be agreed by all members of staff (not just teaching staff) and should be clearly explained to all pupils and parents. The protocol should also be regularly referred to with everyone being reminded of the agreed courses of action.

Individual schools need to discuss possible situations that may involve “Runners,” and decide on their own action plans. It is very difficult to be totally prescriptive in advice, as there are many considerations linked to:

  • the geography of the building (spilt site, flat roof, rural/urban etc)
  • the numbers on roll (and their ages)
  • adult supervision (lunchtime supervisors, TAs etc)
  • communication systems within the school (phones, walkie-talkie, CCTV)

However, some simple and basic components should be part of any school planned response.

For children who choose to run from your lesson/room, careful consideration should be given to possible immediate responses, such as:

  • verbal reminders being given?
  • physically blocking the exit route?
  • seeking help from colleagues in the building?

Once the pupil has left the building it is far better, and less likely to escalate the situation, if the following points are kept in mind:

  • Give a clear verbal instruction to the child stating that he/she should stop and not leave the site.
  • Monitor the child’s behaviour from a distance.
  • Keeping the child in view, but not causing them to attempt to ‘get away’.
  • Try not to run after the child ­– it’s  better to walk.
  • Ensure that there is a reliable communication system in place within the school, to allow contact with the school office and/or headteacher.
  • Inform parents/carers.
  • If parents/carers cannot be reached and the pupil has left the site, consider contacting the police.

As with all advice, choose to take the points that are relevant to you, but do make sure that you have a planned and effective response system in place.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.