Although the observable characteristics of children with learning disabilities (LD) in a classroom situation become more prevalent in elementary school contexts, preschool and kindergarten teachers often report behavioral tendencies among children who have been identified as having early learning difficulties. For example, these children may be exceedingly more fidgety and less engaged than their counterparts in the early childhood setting (DePaul, Perez, Kuo, Stein, & Sedberry, 2007). This article will focus on another type of behavior, about which preschool and kindergarten teachers may occasionally wonder: children who roam around the classroom and school grounds.
In interacting with educators and parents of children classified as LD, I have routinely been asked about children’s wandering behavior, in and outside of the school. Teachers and parents are uncertain as to what prompts their children to roam around and, more importantly, they seek advice in effectively addressing this behavior. Although there is not much research on this topic, some perspectives on this behavior, based on clinical experience, can be provided. When children roam around, especially in structured environments such as school classrooms and grounds, educators and parents may be quick to assume that this behavior results from hyperactivity, lack of interest, and other learning deficits that exist within the child (e.g., see Murphy, Laurie-Rose, Brinkman, & McNamara, 2007). My impression working with young children, however, has been quite the contrary: young children with learning differences frequently appear to be on a mission, simply trying to identify a location that they find comfortable or interesting—or both. In other words, their roaming behavior may be reflective of these children’s active curiosity to find engagement within their environment. Perhaps due to the “deficit” assumption noted above, preschool and kindergarten teachers appear to find this behavior troublesome beyond the immediate safety concerns. As a result, teachers and parents will seek to control the behavioral range of these children while attempting—often in vain—to capture and sustain their focus within the classroom and school settings.
In many cases, it might be more productive to view this from an early childhood perspective and view the roaming behavior as an opportunity to understand the child, rather than just one more problem behavior. Situations such as these provide the opportunity to better understand the needs of young children with early learning differences and, ultimately, provide educators with information to foster friendlier environments within which these children can flourish. For example, when children wander around their classrooms, school grounds and neighborhoods, they often gravitate toward locations where they encounter children younger than themselves. It may be difficult for an adult to understand what is appealing about sharing an environment with younger children; however, there are some possibilities. First, some children may find such environments more comfortable. These environments tend to be nurturing, familiar and perhaps less task-oriented. Alternatively, it might be that interaction with younger children allows the older child to assume the position of leader or caretaker, which could be a fresh role-reversal experience for them. Or, perhaps being in an environment with children that are younger and smaller might be interesting to some LD children for other reasons (e.g., simply enjoys the play activities that younger children are engaged in).
Another example of popular destinations for children who tend to roam in school situations includes the school offices. There, children are exposed to many objects and people they do not interact with on a daily basis. For some children, the novelty of this situation may be intriguing. These offices are also usually staffed with adults, who tend to treat children warmly when they wander in. Thus, there may be a range of reasons children are attracted to particular destinations, and as educators it is important to make an effort to find out why individual children are engaging in roaming behavior. By doing so, we may be able to identify what elements can be supplemented into their daily routines, within reason, so as to optimize classroom experiences and to gain an understanding of what each child needs.
In contrast to roaming behaviors that appear purposeful, there are children who wander around without finding clearly identifiable focal points. Such cases are more challenging to address, as it is unclear why these children are walking around. What can educators and caretakers do in such cases? One possibility is to present to the wandering children various stimulations beyond available toys and other objects. This stimulation can take many forms including activities such as games and sports (physical and otherwise), singing, music, dance, whispering, and so on. Once a child’s attention has been captured, the engagement in such activities could be gradually extended, so as to increase focus and attention for longer periods of time. Once an activity is found to hold a child’s interest, it will be useful to incorporate slight variations within the same activity in order to gently push the limits of attention (e.g., changing the tone of voice, engaging in different movements, etc.). The educator should ensure that they do not exceed the familiar, interest and comfort zone the children initially found intriguing; however the slight variations will increase the child’s repertoire of interest and abilities. This serves to adequately sustain children’s attention while maintaining the sense of coherence and structure which most children find reassuring. This is particularly meaningful when children and the educators have yet to establish a bond, since these activities may help children establish a comfortable relationship and rapport with the adults in the child’s life. The secure bond established by attending to the individual child’s needs and learning style may serve to reduce the inclination to wander around, because the educators may now function as a secure base for these children (Al-Yagon, & Mikulincer, 2004).
As illustrated, children’s roaming behavior can be viewed as a window into the mind of children with differential learning styles, which may ultimately allow educators and parents to foster a more positive environment for these children. Although research on this topic is sparse, parents and teachers may benefit from the following lessons learned from clinicians working in the field.
Pay attention to what may be interpreted as meaningless behavior, such as roaming around, since it can lead to observations of the interests and needs of children who do not have the ability to articulate their wishes.
Let children wander around when practical and appropriate, if safety can be assured; the exploration of the environment is how children learn from and make sense of their world.
Make an attempt to understand the possible reasons for children roaming around, by paying particular attention to what seems to attract them to particular locations.
Supplementing or adjusting these children's own "home base" (e.g., own classrooms, home, etc.) based on the above may prompt them to find fewer reasons to wander away from the home base.
If the roaming seems aimless to us, teachers and parents may present various objects and activities to engage the children, so as to eventually expand to and engage children in more coherent play. This is particularly relevant for educators and caretakers with whom the children are not quite familiar and comfortable.
Al-Yagon, M., & Mikulincer, M. (2004). Socioemotional and academic adjustment among children with learning disorders: The mediational role of attachment-based factors. The Journal of Special Education, 38(2), 111-123.
DePaul, G.J., Perez, V.H., Kuo, A., Stein, M.T., & Sedberry, D. (2007). Juan: A 9-Year-Old Latino Boy with ADHD. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 28(1), 53-57.
Murphy, L.M.E., Laurie-Rose, C., Brinkman, T.M., & McNamara, K.A. (2007). Early Child Development and Care, 177(2), 133-149.
Daisuke Akiba, Ph.D. is a tenured Assistant Professor (Educational Psychology) at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY, where he teaches Child Development, Motivation, Cultural Psychology, and Research Methods. He has studied and written extensively on the developmental, educational, and family experiences of children who are non-normative in their cultural backgrounds and psychological characteristics.