There has been a lot of discussion in the Montessori by Hand yahoo group about what to do with the "wandering child." The answer in a recent post was so on point that I have copied the entire text here for those of you who may not have had the opportunity to read it as this question about "wandering children" seems a common enough one:
Hi everybody. I'm a teacher in my 3rd year of teaching. Just wanted to add an interesting phenomenon my trainer told us about. There are many different kinds of wanderers. If we are good observers and use our intuition, we will know which ones are the disruptive kinds, which ones need that extra connection (through touch, eye contact, conversation, bonding), and which ones are 'under construction'.
The 'under construction ones' don't do work simply because they are going through a time of integrating the experiences they have had so far internally. A lot of learning happens in the subconscious, during times of inactivity. It's important to respect the child who is in this phase. When this period is over he returns to the life of the classroom with much more energy, love of learning, refined skills and receptiveness. Like a caterpillar quietly waiting in the stillness of its cocoon, only to emerge as colorful, fluttering butterflies.
As for the disruptive ones, for the sake of the whole class it's paramount to put an immediate stop to the disruption of children who are working. I especially protect the young ones who aren't strong enough yet to protect themselves. My trainer compared new children to helium balloons attached to strings. Keep them close to you at first (no freedom), and then gradually lengthen the strings as they gain self-control. The child may resist, or throw a tantrum at first, but I stick to my guns. Because following the child is not the same thing as allowing him to dictate everything. Children need and want limits (even through the tears), and you do get that feedback from them afterwards because they become more settled and happier.
Wandering children who are not disruptive I leave alone: I continue to present to them as much as I can to find their interests, but if it doesn't stop them from wandering, I just trust in time. Because I have seen children wander for months, and then suddenly become model children not only in behavior but also in work- and I would ask them, where did you learn all this?! It certainly beats forcing them to do work and then creating in them an aversion to school/work.
Great answer. Nothing more needs to be added.