Chris Lentner is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist from the US who has spent five years working as a Middle School Counselor at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). Prior to moving to Beijing, he held Behavior Specialist and School Psychologist positions in Massachusetts and New York State. Lentner strives to develop lasting relationships with students and families, and enjoys being able to see struggling students find more and more success over time. He believes that every student has strengths and it is important to identify and emphasize these talents, rather than focusing only on weaknesses.
If he was not working in schools, Lentner would be working in the restaurant industry or food writing. In addition to Student Council, he co-leads a successful after school activity called “Let’s Get Cooking” and is always searching for new and exciting culinary experiences. To counteract these experiences, Lentner also enjoys powerlifting.
Can you explain “trouble fitting in” and related issues?
Whenever we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we experience internal pressure to make connections so we can feel comfortable and operate successfully in our new surroundings. “Fitting in” is about feeling supported and included by our peers. Trouble fitting in occurs when something, external or internal, prevents us from bonding with others for an extended period of time. Sometimes, it seems like everyone already knows one another, and it is difficult to join an already established group. Other times, we hold onto things from our past and have a hard time believing things will ever get better. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, trust issues, and traumatic experiences, such as bullying, can also negatively impact our willingness to open up to new people.
Students who are having trouble fitting in often eat or spend leisure time alone or on the outskirts of a larger social group. All students should have a reliable friend with whom they can openly share their feelings and problems.
Trouble fitting in can lead to a variety of issues. Feelings such as loneliness, sadness, and anger may be associated with an inability to connect. Negative behaviors including trouble sleeping, stomach aches and headaches, rapid mood swings, conflicts with parents, withdrawal, and isolation may also occur when students are not fitting in. If left unaddressed, these problems can lead to issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and school refusal.
Has this ever been mislabeled as homesickness?
Not fitting in is sometimes confused with homesickness, but the two issues are unique in their cause and duration. Homesickness is directly related to a transition, whether it is from home-to-camp or country-to-country, and generally subsides with time. We all need some adjustment time to get over the initial shock of such experiences.
While most people are homesick at some point in their lives, not fitting in is a more serious issue and results from the inability to make social connections. Whereas homesickness often gets better with time, not fitting in may last indefinitely until conscious changes take place.
What’s the difference between shyness and this issue?
Shyness is a normal human characteristic and should not be considered a “problem behavior.” Some people are comfortable in large groups and new social situations while others crave intimacy and familiarity. Introverts contribute to the world by quietly getting things done and maintaining deep, meaningful relationships with others. It takes a lot of time and effort for shy people to open up, so if you are friends with someone who is shy, it means they genuinely trust you. Shyness becomes a more serious issue, however, when it prevents you from doing things, such as going to parties, participating in activities, and making friends. If shyness interferes with your ability to have a satisfying social life, you might need to seek advice.
How would you help a student overcome these feelings?
Before making a plan, it is important to identify the cause. Is the problem caused by internal or external factors? If you are having trouble fitting in because other students are not welcoming you into their group, it might be time to look elsewhere. International schools are constantly getting new students, so if you are new, try connecting with other students who have recently arrived.
Many schools have peer mentorship programs, orientation activities, and ice breakers to help students get know one another. Participate in as many of these activities as possible and you are bound to meet someone who “gets” you. Extracurricular activities and joining clubs are a great way to meet people you would not normally see during the school day.
When entering a new situation, it is important to approach things with an open mind. Try to notice when people are reaching out to you. If someone asks you to eat lunch with them, take advantage of this opportunity. If someone asks you to hang out on the weekend, find the time. If someone asks you about yourself, have a conversation and learn more about that person. Friendships are created through a series of small interactions.
How should a student get in contact with you?
During the school day, students are always free to stop by my office. If they would like to communicate more discreetly, I check my email throughout the day and generally respond in 24 hours. In addition, I connect with students through WeChat, which allows me to provide instant support to students outside of school hours. There are many ways to receive support; it’s just a matter of recognizing that you don’t always have to deal with everything on your own.
What should a student expect when coming to your office?
I aim to provide a supportive, welcoming environment for students. Students are often nervous when they come to my office, so I keep the mood casual and relaxed, so they can speak openly, without fear of judgment or criticism. Ultimately, my goal when working with students is to help them deal with problems head-on; therefore, my approach is direct and solution-focused. I help students see situations from different perspectives and consider possible outcomes before having them come up with a realistic plan that includes clear steps for improving the situation.
Photo courtesy of WAB
This article originally appeared on p. 40 of beijingkids March Issue. Download a copy here.