Analysis

Why schools should stop forcing kids to walk in single-file lines

What does this age-old behavioral tool actually teach our young students?

I have a recurring teacher dream: I am shepherding a gigantic class — 100 kids or so, all first graders — on a very long walking field trip. The destination is unclear and unimportant. The kids are roped together like a chain gang, so when one falls over, the rest of the line is disrupted. We trudge together over swamps, through quicksand, and on boiling-hot asphalt. We're all barefoot.

Every step of the way, stern-faced administrators are sitting in comfortable armchairs with computers on their laps. They look up at me over the tops of their glasses, shake their heads and make disapproving tsk noises, and furiously type their observational notes.

They are judging my ability to keep the kids in a straight line.

One at a time, the kids in my dream begin to wield children's scissors. From their pockets? I don't know, it's a dream — they materialize. Some of the kids brandish small machetes instead of scissors. Others have long-handled garden clippers like one would use for pruning. The kid in the very front — the Line Leader — sometimes has a cutlass and starts saying "yarrr" a lot.

Then, they start snipping the rope, and the kids begin to stray. They gather in clumps, snickering at me, plotting their little plots. The angry administrators, reveling in the schadenfreude of it all, whisper and cackle to themselves.

My single-file line has disappeared. At this point in the dream, I usually get fired on the spot.

Dreams are not always so obvious, but this one is clear: I have a complex about the way my students line up (and ok, maybe some deeper Impostor Syndrome issues). I've had it since before I ever started teaching, when I was a camp counselor, when it was hammered into me that lining up single-file Is The Most Important Thing.

A couple decades later, I wonder: Is this really true?

There are a number of metrics you can use to quickly spot and size up a functional, healthy class of little ones: the happiness of the kids, how well they know their routines, how they treat one another, the number of signatures on someone's arm cast, etc. A healthy combination of joy and functionality is usually the hallmark of a robust classroom environment.

Somehow, though, parading around a class of perfectly silent, robotic, single-file children has become the high-water mark of behavior management.

While I was getting my teaching credential, my supervisor once asked me why I felt my kids needed to be in perfect, single-file lines. "It's just what's expected," I said. She probed me further: "What's the actual goal here?"

I gave it some thought. In reality, the goal is to get from one place to another expeditiously and calmly. We want to be mindful of the learning that's happening in the classrooms around us, and we want to respect people by being on time. But traveling in a silent, single-file line isn't actually much of a life skill. When humans walk in groups, we like to do so alongside one another, chatting. Sure, there are instances where we need to fall in line — waiting to buy groceries, going up or down stairs — but we're teaching kids to be in single-file lines basically all the time.

This kind of over-reliance on a particular form of behavior management has its downsides. What happens when kids get a new teacher in a new grade whose classroom management is a work in progress? What happens when a teacher simply doesn't enforce lineup rules? What happens when there isn't an adult at all? I've seen it: Kids don't know what to do. When children are taught a routine that's predicated upon tradition and not much more, it becomes harder for them to improvise. Instead, they start to run, shout, and succumb to behavioral issues. But if they're taught that it's not the line that's important, it's the quality and thoughtfulness of the journey — well, that might be a leg up.

I got to thinking about giving kids more leeway when it comes to other old behavior standards. Sitting cross-legged — "criss-cross applesauce," as the parlance goes — is often required in schools, but some kids' bodies just don't jive with that position. What's more important is sitting with one's legs tucked in — to avoid tripping hazards — but that can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways. And fortunately, more and more teachers and parents are recognizing that sitting on the floor may not actually be the best learning situation for all kids anyway; standing desks, wobbly stools, bungee cords to tap one's legs on, and other tools are making more and more appearances in schools and homes.

There's so much to reexamine, from the standard of raising one's hand to speak, to requiring that kids call us Mr. and Mrs., to enforcing "no hats or hoods in class." Everyone is going to have non-negotiables (for me, one of them is running through the halls), and that may well be a single-file line (no judgment!), but they're all worth questioning from time to time. This applies to parenting, too: What behaviors do we enforce for the sake of tradition and perhaps nothing else? No elbows on the table, shoes on when we go outside, forced apologies, and the sharing of toys; all these, and more, can be looked at with a guiding question: What's the actual goal here?

A few years ago, my first graders and I were walking to the library. It was a wiggly day in first grade, lots of emotions and forgetting of rules, and the kids were traveling noisily like a collection of meandering birds, sometimes as many as four or five wide, warbling and squawking as they strode.

Their chaotic disarray, I just knew, reflected back on me, my poor leadership skills, my lack of control. Sensing my distress, the kid at the front — occupying the vaunted Line Leader position — took my hand and, cradling it gently, said in a whisper: "I'm going to tell you a secret: Lines aren't important. Teachers just say they are to feel good about themselves." He winked at me.

I didn't buy it at the time, but I wonder now if he may have been right all along.

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