Story: The Runner
It was the first day of school and the students were arriving at Emerson Elementary in their new clothes, backpacks loaded with school supplies and smiles on their faces. The cool early September weather set the tone for a great beginning. Parents anxiously accompanied their children, especially the kindergartners on this opening day. The air was full of anticipation.
The teachers and I were outside to greet everyone and make sure students knew which lines to get into and which classes to go to. Behind the apparent fun, festivity and excitement, lies anxiety for some children. Michael Yong one of our new students was particularly anxious about starting school that first day. On the surface he looked just as excited and happy as anyone else. Underneath his smile, there was anxiety that we would soon see in action.
Michael’s mother walked him down to his first grade classroom on that opening day. Shortly after everyone had entered the building and the morning announcements had been made, a student came to the office with a message.
“Michael is holding onto his mother and he won’t come into the classroom. The teacher wants you to come and help.”
As I walked down the hallway, I passed first and second grade messengers bouncing down the hallway to the office with the lunch count and attendance notes. In contrast to their smiles and excitement, I saw Michael struggling with his mother at the end of the hallway outside of his classroom. Mrs. Yong was trying to drag Michael into the classroom. He was crying and pulling her further into the hallway.
“I don’t want to stay here. I don’t like this school. I want to go home with you,” Michael pleaded with his mother, as tears streamed down his face.
“You have to stay in school, Michael. You have to learn. I need to go to work now,” said Mrs. Yong in a frustrated voice.
“Michael, do you remember when you visited school this summer and met your teacher and saw your classroom?” I asked him.
Michael nodded his head as he clung to his mother’s side. “Well, Ms. Smith is very anxious for you to be in her classroom. She has a special seat picked out for you. There are other students in your class who are new to Emerson School. You’ll love Ms. Smith and you’ll do lots of fun things. Do you want to walk in with me?”
“No,” whispered Michael, clinging more tightly to his mother.
I quietly told Mrs. Yong that students who were reluctant to enter school or their classroom were usually fine once their parent left and they had entered the classroom. I asked her to leave Michael with me.
“Michael, I’m going to take your hand and walk with you to your seat now. Your mother has to go to work. You have to stay in school. Ms. Smith is very excited about you being in her classroom. She knows you’re very friendly and smart. Give your mother a kiss and hug and say good-bye,” I said. As Mrs. Yong walked down the hallway, I walked Michael into the classroom to his seat.
“Ms. Smith, look who’s here. Michael is feeling a little nervous right now and would rather go home with his mother but I know he will be fine once he gets settled.” Michael hung his head and clung to me.
“Michael, here’s your seat. It’s right here near the front door so that you can answer the door when someone knocks. That’s a very special job,” said Ms. Smith. She came over and helped Michael get seated.
“I’ll come back in a little while Michael to see how you’re doing,” I said as I left the classroom. Michael was seated and seemed nervous but OK.
Students who are experiencing a school phobic situation are usually fine once they become absorbed in what is transpiring in the classroom. They most often have difficulty in leaving their house, getting into school and walking into the classroom. The anticipation of being away from mom, of interacting with new friends, of working with a new teacher can create anxiety for these students. School phobia is an extreme form of anxiety about going to school. However, the core cause of most school phobic situations is not about school issues.
After checking in on several classrooms and personally welcoming the students, I returned to the office. I was just making a phone call when Michael’s teacher called the office.
“Michael just ran out of the classroom,” she said in a panicked voice.
“I’ll be right down.” As I was going to look for Michael, the music teacher buzzed the office from her classroom at the front of the building.
“I think I just saw one of our students running across the front driveway and down the sidewalk,” she said. She described his size and what he was wearing. It sounded like Michael. I grabbed my keys and ran out of the building. I looked around the front of the school but saw no sign of Michael. Our school is located on a very busy street with fast-moving traffic. Michael lived several miles from the school and I’m sure had no way of knowing how to get home. I was concerned that he might be seriously injured crossing the busy streets around the school.
I drove in the direction that I knew Michael lived hoping that at least he would have headed in that direction. I had driven about two blocks when I saw Michael running on the sidewalk. He came to a cross street and without stopping ran across the street. Luckily, the driver at that intersection was paying attention and stopped in time to let him pass. Michael seemed to have no awareness of his surroundings.
I stopped my car a little way ahead of Michael on the opposite side of the street where I could pull into a driveway. I ran across the street and grabbed him. He was panting, sweating and crying. I crouched down, hugged him and held him for a few minutes. I tried not to let the panic I felt show in my voice.
“Michael, I was very worried about you. Ms. Smith is very worried. Please don’t ever leave school again without your mother or your teacher. Where were you going?” I asked.
“I was going home. I want to be with my mother.”
“Michael, you live very far from here. It’s too far for you to walk home. You don’t know the way and you might get lost.”
“I know the way. The bus came this way,” he replied.
“Well, you are not allowed to walk home, Michael. We’re going back to school now.” I took him by the hand, walked him across the street, strapped him into the seatbelt and drove back to school. One of the greatest fears a school principal has is that something bad will happen to one of her students while they are under her care. With 500 students to be aware of and provide safely for, it is a big concern. As I was driving Michael back to school, I felt thankful that he was safe. In my many years as a school principal, I had only had three students ever leave the school grounds. Most runners will leave the classroom or the building but usually they stay on the school grounds. Michael ’s running away left me as shaken as it did him.
There are many reasons that a student becomes school phobic. The student who is attending full day for the first time may feel anxiety about being separated from his parents, especially mom. He may also be unused to having the entire day organized for him and he may be tired out by the end of the day, causing more stress. Some triggers for school phobia include starting school for the first time, having been off for awhile due to illness, problems at home (illness, divorce, etc.), or not having any friends.
When we arrived back at school, I took Michael into the office. I asked the secretary to call Michael’s teacher and let her know that he was with me and would be back in class in awhile. I brought Michael into my office and sat next to him. He was still shaking although he had stopped crying. I gave him some water to drink, wiped his face with a tissue and gave him another hug.
“Michael, running away from school is very serious and I don’t want you to do that again. It’s dangerous to run away from school. A car could hit you. Someone could pick you up and take you in their car. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” Michael whispered, nodding his head.
“You’re a very nice boy and we want you to be happy in school. You’ll like it here when you get to know your teacher and make friends with the other students. But Michael, I don’t ever want you to run away from school again.”
“OK,” Michael replied. He continued to sniffle. “I want to see my mother.”
“I’ll call your mother at work, Michael and see if she can stop by at lunch time and see you. I can’t promise that she will come but I’ll call her and check. Right not I’m going to walk you back to your classroom. Ms. Smith wants you to be working with the other students. Do you think you can give it a try?”
I walked Michael to his classroom, holding his hand the entire time. When we entered the classroom, Ms. Smith gave him a big hug.
“Michael, I’m so glad that you’re here. We’re doing Math now. Maybe you could help us with these numbers?”
“Michael, I’ll be back in a little while to see how well you’re doing. Remember, you are not allowed to leave the classroom without the teacher saying it’s OK. Ms. Smith you might want to keep your classroom door shut for awhile I suggested. Give us a call if you need anything.”
I eventually was able to reach Michael’s mother and tell her what had happened. I suggested that she come to school during her lunch break to talk to Michael about the seriousness of what had occurred. She came to school and we had a conference with Michael in which we both reiterated the seriousness of leaving school. Michael did well in his classroom the remainder of the day. I asked the recess monitor to keep him near-by at recess since I feared that he might try to run when he was in that open environment.
Michael’s mother picked him up at the end of the day. “You did a great job in your classroom today, Michael, “ I said. “You’re a smart boy and everyone liked having you in the classroom. I’ll see you tomorrow and remember you aren’t going to leave your classroom unless the teacher says it’s OK.”
Michael smiled, nodded his head and left with his mother. I anticipated that tomorrow morning would bring more challenges with Michael and his wanting to be with his mother. But there were a dozen other concerns that had come forward so I would deal with Michael tomorrow morning.
School phobia is a complex and extreme form of anxiety about going to school (but not about school) and can have many causes. Symptoms include stomachaches, nausea, fatigue, shaking, a racing heart and frequent trips to the bathroom and clinging to mom. The longer school phobia goes on, the harder it is to treat. A referral to a mental health provider is often necessary if the symptoms continue.
On the second of school the buses arrived on time, kids piled out and the new day began. Michael didn’t show up at arrival time but did come walking down the hallway with his mother about ten minutes later. He was clinging to his mother and quietly crying.
“Good morning, Michael. I’m really happy to see you today. I know that you’ll have a very happy day even if you’re not feeling very happy right now.”
“I don’t want to go to this school. I want to go home.”
Mrs. Yong looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. “Michael’s father and I spoke to him last night and told him not to run away from school. We told him that we were proud of him and we knew he would he fine in his classroom,” said Mrs. Yong.
“Well, Michael, I’m going to walk you down to your classroom now so say good-bye to your mother. She will pick you up at the end of the day. You’ll be fine.”
Michael clung more tightly to his mother and began to sob. I pried him apart form her and asked her to leave. As soon as she left, Michael stopped crying and we walked to his classroom. I kept hold of him all the way down the hallway believing that he would try to run back and get I the car with his mother if I let go.
“Michael, I’m glad to see you,” said Mrs. Smith when we walked into the classroom. Put your book bag away and let’s get started.”
“Michael, remember, I don’t want you to leave the classroom. Do you understand that?” “Yes,” Michael replied as he sat down and began his work. He had a good morning.
I was supervising students in the cafeteria at lunchtime when one of the playground monitors ran into the building and said that Michael had run away from the playground. I ran to the office and called Michael’s classroom. Mrs. Smith, who was eating lunch, said he wasn’t there. I made an all-call to each classroom asking teachers to check if Michael was in their room or visible outside their classrooms. I went outside and checked around the school. Michael was nowhere to be found. I told the secretary that I was going after him in my car. I drove down the same street where I had found Michael the day before. I went about six blocks and drove throughout the neighborhood but there was no sign of Michael. I decided that he couldn’t have gotten any farther in such a short period of time.
When I couldn’t find him, I drove back to school and called the police, giving them a physical description of Michael and telling them what he was wearing. Waiting around to hear from the police was agonizing. Did someone pick him up? Was he lost cutting through a neighborhood he didn’t know. I tried to reach Michael’s parents to tell them about his leaving school but both of them were out to lunch and unreachable. About ten minutes later, the secretary told me there was a phone call about Michael.
“This is the transportation department. One of our bus drivers saw a little boy running down the street near the stop where she was dropping kids off. She stopped him and asked him what school he went to. He said he didn’t know. She asked him where he was going and he said home. She called the police. They are bringing him back to school.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “Your bus driver should be rewarded for clear thinking and watching out for our kids.”
As I walked to the front door of the school, a police cruiser pulled up with Michael sitting in the front seat. The police officer took Michael out of the car and walked him to the front door. When Michael saw me, he ran to me and gave me a big hug. The police officer, Michael and I walked into my office.
“Now you remember, Michael, that you are not to run away from school,” said the police officer. “That is very dangerous thing to do. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Michael replied. He was quite upset.
“I’m going to call your parents and talk to them,” said the policeman. “You must be in school, Michael.”
Michael nodded his head. “I was scared that something bad had happened to you, Michael, when I couldn’t find you. Why did you leave school? You did very well this morning and you seemed to be happy.”
“I wanted to be with my mother,” he answered.
“Your mother’s not at home . She’s at work. You can’t be with her while she’s at work. This is the last time you’ll leave school Michael. This is a dangerous thing to do and there are consequences for your behavior. I’m taking you back to your classroom for the afternoon. Don’t you even think of leaving the classroom,” I said in a stern voice.
Michael settled in for the afternoon and he was fine. I finally reached his mother and told her what had happened. I suggested that they speak with Michael again and give him consequences for running away from school. I also suggested that they get help from a mental health professional. This was the last time that Michael ran away from school.
He had trouble getting into school most mornings for the first few months. I had to remove him from his mother’s car several times when he refused to come into school. Michael was always fine once he got seated in his classroom.
The Yong family began seeing a psychiatrist. She worked with the school and with Michael’s family to deal with self-esteem issues as well as issues relating to his parent’s divorce that were troubling him. There were times when Mrs. Yong came to the office and said she needed help getting Michael into class. On those occasions, I would walk down the hall with him talking the whole time about other issues to keep his mind free from the panicky thoughts that could so quickly seize him and freeze him in place.
There are steps that parents can take to help their school phobic child be successful in school. Reassure your child that he will be fine once he has gotten over the part he dreads. Tell your child he is brave for going to school. Tell him you are proud of him for being brave. Remind your child how much you love him. Keep the same routine going at home and school as this reduces anxiety.
I was quite concerned that Michael would have a major break down over returning to school after Christmas vacation. However, he walked into school in early January with a smile on his face and had no trouble entering the classroom. The second half of the year was much better than the first. Michael completed first grade as an honor roll student who was able to walk to his classroom every day by himself by the end of the year.
The human psyche is very fragile at its core. Michael’s situation called for interacting with him from a place of compassion as well as firmness, a place of love and acceptance, a place where he was allowed to find out who he was and where he fit into the scheme of things in this new world of full-time school.
Once Michael was in the classroom, he proved to be one of the better students and he participated fully in the classroom activities. Michael’s teacher and I made it a point to congratulate him each day for remaining in class and doing well. When he would see me in the hallway, Michael would smile and say, “I don’t run away anymore.”