We’ve all been there: The picture-perfect classroom, an engaging lesson going on, things are going great, then all of a sudden a student gets up and goes out into the hallway. Called elopement from the upper-elementary classroom, this has proven to be a challenge in the world of classroom management.
During a time when students need a sense of belonging more than ever, we as teachers need to figure out how we can build a community that’s so welcoming, students are drawn to the classroom.
Building a strong community requires getting to know your students, figuring out what they need to feel secure in your classroom, and then making sure they have that.
Trying to pinpoint why a student is leaving the classroom starts with having heightened awareness of the student, being mindful of interactions with classmates, and trying to figure out what is happening right before they leave. Common antecedents I have found are group work, disagreements with kids in class, subjects that are challenging, or independent work that is over their head.
As you notice the antecedent to the elopement, make a note for yourself. This may look like a running document on your computer, a clipboard at your side, or a Google Form to fill out quickly. After a few times, chances are you will find a pattern showing what may be triggering your students to leave the classroom.
Discussing the Problem
This data can offer a plethora of uses, but a simple conversation with the student can help them to open up to you about why they might be leaving. It may sound something like this:
Teacher: Hey, how are you doing today?
Student: I’m fine.
Teacher: So, I wanted to talk to you about something. I’ve noticed that sometimes you leave the room. Can you tell me what might be going on?
Student: No, I don’t do that.
Teacher: Well, I’ve been paying attention the past few days and noticed it’s been happening often when we start math groups. Is there maybe a center that might be too hard or you don’t understand? Or maybe there’s someone in your group who’s frustrating you?
Chances are that at first the student won’t feel comfortable going deep into discussion about it. But, by opening the door with a private conversation, you’re not only discussing the behavior but, more important, you’re giving an indication that you care. When students can tell that you care enough to try to help them, you strengthen your relationship.
Incorporating Nonverbal Communication
Another helpful strategy to keep eloping students in the classroom is to provide them with opportunities to communicate nonverbally about what they need. This helps them to learn that there are strategies more effective than leaving.
My favorite strategy to help students who frequently elope is to give them a communication board. This is a document I designed and printed/laminated so they could reuse it with a dry erase marker. I’ve found that differentiating this tool to include images that are representative of the student it was created for allowed it to be more meaningful. The sheet has three sections where the student would circle a captioned illustration to show me what they need.
Section 1: I feel. This section has a list of emotion/feeling words that I often saw in the pattern I found through my documentation of the antecedent.
Section 2: Because. Next, it includes a variety of causes I noticed through my documentation. For example:
- “I’m bored.”
- “Someone is bothering me.”
- “I don’t want to do this.”
This gives my students who elope the opportunity to tell me what they’re thinking. Often, this helps to build their sense of trust with me; they know they can tell me their truth.
Section 3: I need. Finally, there’s the opportunity to pick a strategy to effectively regulate themselves. Examples might be to use the classroom calm-down corner, take a break and put their head down, get a drink of water, or have a conference/restorative circle. The student then has predetermined strategies to choose from that are more effective than eloping.
Each section also has a “something else” line where the student can write their own choice.
Leaning on the Classroom Community
As wonderful as one-to-one conferences are and as important as it is to give students tools to express themselves, the most impactful thing we can do as teachers to help kids stay in our classrooms is to build a strong classroom community. Having a strong classroom community allows students to feel a sense of belonging. Often, students are leaving when they feel like they don’t fit in with their classmates.
A strategy to help build a sense of belonging for all of our students may be to have a consistent morning meeting. These meetings help open dialogue about feelings but also remind students how they work together as a community or team. Outside of this meeting time, it’s imperative that our language is helping to create a sense of community, rather than an everyone-for-themselves mindset.
A strong sense of community lets students know that although they may make a mistake, there are people who still want them to succeed and do well. We want to help students see this not just from their teachers but also from their peers. Students who know people are rooting for them can then rely on those people to lift them up when they need it.
Reassuring the Rest of the Class
Another difficult part of having students who tend to elope is how you will care for your other students. As teachers, we have to gain the trust of our other students that we are handling the behavior. I explain this concept when I teach my students about differentiation and everybody getting what they need. The more that we normalize these conversations within our strong and positive classroom communities, the less disruptive responding to the challenge of elopement becomes.