Wandering Students Need a Special Kind of Guidance to Keep them on Track

Not all who wander are lost” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Childhood and adolescence are not idyllic times for all of our students. Some just seem to be wandering through the transition from child to teen to adult.

The wandering child needs specific guidance from teachers.Wandering students aren’t steady and consistent in the classroom. Instead, they push back on their academic growth, behave erratically and seem difficult and even defiant at times. It’s not because of their personal character or ability — it’s a side effect of their growing maturity.

It’s important to stay patient and kind with wandering students and to provide a steadying influence as they bounce through adolescence.

Life has no instruction manual

As adults, many a former wandering child will say something like, “I felt like I was absent from school the day they gave out the instructional manual to life.” Impress to your students that life will never have an instruction manual, and that everyone feels lost from time to time.

The important thing is to remind them they are not alone and that they need to be patient with themselves. Feel free to tell them about similar experiences you had as a child. Keep your tone lighthearted to help lower students’ anxiety.

If you’re the kind of teacher students respect and admire (and, yes, you should strive to be that kind of teacher), those stories will be of incredible comfort to wandering students.

Go where the good people are

Lots of students feel socially unmoored during adolescence. Old friend groups fade away without new friends taking their place, allowing loneliness and isolation to seep into their lives. The best advice is to encourage them to go to where the good people are.

This includes school volunteer activities, sports teams that encourage collegiality over competition (by the way, track teams are great for this), and students who are involved in the life of the school. New friendships don’t grow overnight. They’re forged through shared experience and spending time together.

Keep your advice simple and remind the student that the reverse applies. If they associate with negative classmates, they will soon become like them.

Reinforce the expectation to be kind and helpful

As the child bumps through this difficult time, reinforce your expectation (not connected to their school or social connections) that they need to remain kind and helpful at all times. This may come off as trite, but when adults remind a child of these expectations, they become the “inside voice” for that child.

Consistent positive messages of support and high expectations often serve as stepping stones to improved attitude and behavior. We’ve all learned about osmosis in science class, and the same applies here — being around something (and someone) long enough means that eventually it will seep into the other person.

Talk it out with adults

Encourage the child to keep having these conversations with adults. Talking through difficulties and challenges aloud often helps the person to “figure it out” on their own. It’s essential to give them a sounding board for their troubles.

One of the favorite parts of my job (which I unfortunately don’t have enough time to do) is to sit with a student and have them just talk about all their challenges out loud. It’s interesting and gratifying to see a struggling student work out a problem on their own, especially when all you had to do was provide a safe place for them to verbalize their challenges and find solutions.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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