Request received on our web site:
I would like information dealing with frequent and recurring AWOLing behavior. What has worked to decrease the frequency and duration of this behavior? What has worked to stop it? How can child care workers compete with the peer pressure, and addictions issues that they are running to?
Before you look at how to decrease and stop the behaviour, it's necessary to look at the factors involved as mentioned addictions, peer pressure. I believe it necessary to go further and look at when they leave. What are the times and what is happening in the home at the time they are leaving? Is it bedtime, or first thing in the A.M.? Many times consequences will not work, they will run just to avoid them, continuing to keep their own control over their lives.
Get together with your team to try and figure out what you all see as the regular times the youth leaves, and what seems to be a consistent reason for leaving? Then try to be creative around the times you see as being most vulnerable for the child to leave and intervene by doing activities with the child, or if it is at bedtime, try reading to the youth, sitting outside their door reading to yourself.
There are many ideas depending on the situation and the
child, the main point would be to make the child feel comfortable during
these times and allow them to feel that they have the control they need in
their life to make the decision to stay home.
Hopefully this is of some help to you,...
One of the main factors to keep in mind is that they are coming back! If they come back you will have to give them consequences but at the same time ensure that you praise them for coming back and let them know how worried staff were about them when they were gone. One technique I have used is that if I see an AWOL coming and there are usually warning signs I give the kid change for the phone and tell them to call me if need help or a ride home. By ensuring that the kids know that they are in a safe environment and that there are people whom care for them often you will decrease the behavior. Remember that they are either running away from something or they are asking you for attention. Better to give them the attention in other ways so that they are safe and off the street.
More questions for us to ask ourselves:
1. Is the youngster "running from" or "running to" – and then we have to answer "running from what?" or "running to what?"
2. If running from, is he/she running from something which is seen as valueless or judgmental (our program?) or running from the hard work which we have challenged him/her to? (Remember Redl's idea that the the most difficult child to work with is the improving child – the child who is tempted to stay with the old behaviours "which worked".) Or what else is he or she runing from? Staff must face this.
3. If running to, what meaning can we attach to the target of his/her running? Is it a significant person (and therefore someone who may ultimately be more important that we are?) Is it to an old habit or an old and unhelpful way of doing things (from which we learn that we have not yet convinced him/her of a better alternative and therefore we have more work to do?) Or what?
4. Do we react because the kid is running – or because the kid is running FROM US? Important question, this. Part of it is "Do we become discouraged or feel judged because we are not ultimately trusted to have the solution for this kid? Or are we honestly trying to see the running as a clinical phenomenon? (Like the doctor who can observe bleeding or continuing pain without taking it personally!)
5. Little (maybe huge) questions like: Why does this kid choose the danger and hopelessness of the street (or the abusive family or the risky gang) above the warm bed and the wholesome meal we have prepared? (Should we revisit Maslow's hierarchy so as to understand this kid's priorities?) What is this kid working at? What does he or she need to resolve right now which is happening somewhere else than here? Are we seeing this simply as a disciplinary issue, where we have said to the kid "Stay!" – but he "went"!
6. What do we want to say to this kid when he or she comes back? Often that gives us a healthy clue as to how we are really feeling, or how we think the kid is really feeling – and what we think we really need to do.
7. And then we need to ask how our administration failed to distinguish between kids who really needed to be protected and safeguarded from running away – and those who maybe needed the chance to make a choice between staying and going. If it was important to kept them in, why did we let them go? If it wasn't so serious, what are we getting upset for? Does our programming make it clear that some kids are at a stage where they need containing and enfolding – and some maybe need the opportunity to test their wings?
In short, AWOL is not a simple phenomenon. It is complex, and each instance is different. Let us know how the questions worked – and any other questions which arose when you dealt with this problem.
Thank you Gordon for taking the time to write your valuable thoughts and questions on AWOLing, I have printed your letter for future use in team discussions.
We have experienced many runners and have found this effective. Make the youth home or centre youth friendly so they will want to stay around with adults. Include their friends in activities and outings. Their peers will be around and you will be able to interact with the whole group, not only the youth in care. I have heard many discussions about the extra work of having 3 or 4 others hanging out at given times but in my opinion I would rather leave the centre after working hard or having a lot of interaction with the kids and their peers. We cannot work effectively with kids that are not there. Also this setting provides more guidance for all the kids in our community. Also I might add never ground a runner— it puts them on the run.
The quick thought I have is that the behavior – running – is meeting a need. If you can determine that and then deal with it you may have better luck than just trying to change the behavior. The surface reasons for running are not often the true reasons.
To echo congrats to Gordon on a great list, it was fun to read!! First of all what the heck does AWOL mean anyway? Is it that military term where you were shot if you went Absent Without Official Leave? I wonder if we looked at this term a little bit and used another term would it change the way we look at the behavior?
Also, I remember reading an article by Henry Maier on this web site on "Attachment". He wrote about two behaviors called "proximity seeking" and "distancing behaviors" as both being manifestations of ways that children demonstrate the need for attachment. This was helpful for us to frame AWOL as a behavior that means they want to be next to us versus hating us and the program. I guess the behavior could be very literal ... that they hate us and the program. Using the concept of attachment and its unique behaviors helped us be less frustrated and hopeless. We looked at the context of the behavior in a way that kept us focused on a supportive, solution-oriented care plan. It may be inappropriately applied to adolescent behavior but it was still a helpful reframe.