How to Handle a Student Who Runs Out of the Classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

What would be a logical consequence for a 5th-grade student running out of the classroom and hiding in the building? This keeps happening, and my administration wants to put this girl on home instruction because they feel that it is too big of a disruption to have her remain in school. This girl has a really hard home life and I know that sending her home during school hours will be terrible for her. Help! – Kelley, Cincinnati, Ohio


I love getting this question when I travel to do professional development in schools because this behavior totally leaves educators baffled but has a very simple solution. Warning: this will not work if you are unwilling to allow this kid to suffer the consequences of her actions (nothing will).

These kids, by the way, I call “Behavioral Pioneers.” These brave souls are willing to test the limits set forth by the adults in their lives. Just like Columbus, Magellan or Pizarro before them, they do not accept the limits of convention. When people say, “Don’t go any further!” they say, “Watch me.”

Once a Behavioral Pioneer goes where she is not supposed to go and gets what she wants, in this case, a home-made hall pass, attention from a security detail, and the avoidance of any and all work, it is up to the adults in her life to show her, with love and empathy, that this new, exciting behavior will not get her these cool things in the future so that she stops using this negative behavior.

Here’s how I have handled situations with this type of Behavioral Pioneer the day after the incident.

Kid Whisperer: Yikes. Yesterday was rough. I was worried about you. Well, this school isn’t staffed so that we have enough people to run around and find kids. It’s built for learning, and we have just enough staff members to be able to teach kids.

Kid: SO!?!

Kid Whisperer: I have noticed that you presently struggle with staying in the room when you are supposed to stay in the room. An important part of school is being good enough at certain things like being quiet when teachers are talking or playing safely on the playground. Staying in the room when you are supposed to be here is just one of those things. I’m simply going to ask that you practice being in the room during your free time until you show me that you are an expert at staying in the room. So how long do you think you need to practice until you are a stay-in-the-room expert: One hour or three hours?

Kid: This is &%$#@$%^!

Kid Whisperer: Fair enough. Three hours it is. If you can stay in the room and be pleasant for three hours, I will consider you an expert. Time spent being pleasant in the room will count toward the three hours. Your mom says that you can spend an hour a day with me while I am working and all of your recess until you get it right. Your mom and I both know you can do it!

If mom won’t take part in her child staying after school or you don’t feel like doing it, only use recess and other free time at school. When she’s done, shake her hand warmly, ask her if she is an expert, and tell her how proud you are of her. Whether or not you can calmly set this limit is a matter of life or death for this kid. At her age, with her home life, and with her willingness to be a Behavioral Pioneer, this may be her last best chance. You are getting the chance to save a life. Take it!