Flopping and Bolting in Individuals with Down Syndrome

by Kurt Reising

Flopping and Bolting are common behaviors for individuals with Down syndrome (Ds). Flopping is somewhat like a form of non-violent protest.  My daughter uses this tactic from time to time. She drops like a stone with a lot of force even on hard floors, yanking her arm out of my hand, without regard to possible injury.  Bolting can be even more dangerous, as a child may suddenly take off without considering what the consequences may be. Both behaviors can be frustrating, embarrassing, and potentially dangerous, but there are some strategies that may help deal with these common behaviors.


Coming up with ways to ease flopping depends a great deal on why the child is displaying the behavior. Children with Ds sometimes have trouble moving to new activities.  If you are going to do something that the child does not enjoy, (or even activities they DO enjoy), and do not prepare them for the transition, it increases the likelihood that the child will act out.  While prepping can help, all the preparation in the world will not help if the child simply does not like or want to do something.  You may be able to anticipate the activities that trigger flopping and come up with a way to make the activity something the child can tolerate.


Bolting, like flopping, is easier to deal with if you can understand why a child does it.  Children with Ds have trouble controlling their impulses.  If they see something interesting they may just go for it. This can be a potential disaster because they are not going to consider the possible danger in doing so. My daughter is a bolter, and she does it for the entertainment of reaction.   She likes to be chased, and probably enjoys the attention and concern she sees in the faces of the people chasing her.  Seeking the thrill of all that attention can also be a motivation for a child to bolt. Dr. Naomi Swiezy states that children enjoy attention.  If they do not receive positive attention they will resort to behavior that gets negative attention, as they would rather have negative attention than none at all.  Children learn over time what actions get the best responses, positive or negative.  This is called differential responding. 

Many common strategies for dealing with these behaviors are ineffective.  It is logical to believe that you could convince your child to get up from their flop by yelling at them.  You may even try threatening them by taking away a toy or a privilege such as electronics, or try promising them a reward if the agree to comply. You may feel that looking them in the eye and giving them a stern lecture will let them know just how scared they made you feel, and ensure that they will never do it again.  Unfortunately, these strategies have very little positive impact, and may actually feed future similar behavior.

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What can a parent do when the traditional discipline tool belt offers no help?  In the case of flopping, it is best taken care of proactively. Let your child know what activity they can expect.  My own daughter has trouble going to bed, but when I gently remind her in a positive tone a couple of times before bedtime she does better. Preparing a child for activities can get more sophisticated if need be. Many behavior experts, including Dr. David Stein, recommend visual schedules. These are explained in his book Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens With Down Syndrome. Visual schedules consist of pictures of activities and places that explain the routine for the day. These reminders let the child mentally prepare for what they are about to go through, so they won’t feel surprised by something they may not want to do.   Anticipating activities that may cause behavior issues and being prepared yourself can also help.  Having a plan to make an activity more pleasant for the child is a good strategy. Dr. Stein uses an example in his book of making grocery shopping fun by creating a visual shopping list with pictures and a reward at the end.  This way the child is engaged, receives positive feedback for finding the listed items, and ultimately gets to do or receive something they will enjoy at the end. Nobody knows your child like you do, so any creative idea with similar elements may be effective for a particular individual.  


When dealing with bolting, your reaction is the key to easing the behavior.  The child may be in danger when bolting occurs, so immediate reaction is required if there is any chance of the child being hurt.  Once the child is safe, the work begins.  It is important not to validate their behavior as a source of exciting attention.   Although it is extremely difficult, do not become visibly upset.  Dr. Stein recommends calmly getting the child somewhere safe, and gently stating “no running.”   Simple, direct language delivered with a poker face has a better chance of reducing the behavior.  In the case of children sneaking away, prevention is important.  Putting hard to reach locks on exits, creating visual cues like stop signs at exits, or even installing alarms can help keep a child from sneaking away.  In the age of technology, it is possible to give your child a discrete GPS device so they can be quickly located if they do leave.  It may also be a good idea to contact the local police and your neighbors to let them know the situation.

Flopping and bolting are common.  They can be embarrassing and even dangerous for you and your child.  Understanding why these behaviors occur is important in developing strategies for their reduction.  Some traditional methods for prevention of these behaviors may exacerbate the problem. While finding prevention methods that work for you and your child may require unconventional means, there are ways of dealing with these behaviors.