A young student who leaves the classroom without permission generally does so for one of three reasons: she is upset about something that is going on in class; she wants to go somewhere more appealing; she is trying to get your attention. Often, the motivation for leaving is a combination of those three reasons.
To deal with this problem most effectively, you first must figure out why the student is leaving the classroom. Take note of when she left the room.(If a young child leaves soon after arriving at school, she may be experiencing separation problems, for example); of what was happening before she left the room (If she wasn't picked for a playground game, the student might be feeling left out); and of where she goes (If she goes to see a brother or sister in another class, she might be in need of comfort and reassurance).
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Alert the principal immediately if you can't find the student within a very few minutes. Your first priority when a student leaves class is to drop everything and find her. Most often, she will not have gone far. On the rare occasion when she cannot be found right away, call the office on the intercom or send a student to inform the principal, but stay calm and do not alarm the other students.
Bring the student back immediately, but give her minimal attention. Do not welcome her back with a hug, a sympathetic ear, or a lecture. You can do all that later. For now, simply get her involved in a classroom activity. The point is to not lead her to believe that leaving the classroom is a way to get your attention and sympathy.
Talk with the student later. Using a serious, stern tone, make it clear to the student that leaving the classroom without permission is not allowed. If she left the building, point out that she is unsafe outside the building alone, and explain that you don't want anything to happen to her. Ask the student why she left the classroom and where she was going. After you identify her reason for leaving, work with her to remedy the problem. Let her know, however, that if she leaves the classroom without permission again, you will take strong action, such as calling her parents or keeping her in during recess.
Set up an area of the classroom where the student can go when she is upset or bored. Make the area an enticing location with comfortable seating. In designing the area, ask the student for ideas about what should be put there -- books, art materials, games, audio or video tapes, and so on. Encourage the student to bring items from home. (The area will, of course, be available to all students.)
Make it difficult for the student to leave the classroom. Make sure the classroom door is always closed and seat the student as far away from the door as possible. To prevent her from leaving, especially during unstructured activities, position yourself near the door as much as possible.
Ask the other children to alert you if a student leaves the classroom. Don't single out one student; ask students to let you know if they see any student leave the room. Or, attach to the door a bell that rings when it's opened.