Banished to the Back of the Line….Because You Were Struggling.

September 27, 2023

It’s a new school year, and therefore it’s not uncommon to see teachers spending a lot of energy making sure rules are followed and expectations are met. One area that always seems to require a lot of energy from teachers AND students: The hallway.

It was elementary school. The kids were ‘walking like soldiers’ down the hall, having just being praised by the principal for ‘walking like soldiers’. The kids/soldiers weren’t smiling. They were stone-faced, nervous about making a mistake and being shamed by their teacher or, even more devastating, disappointing her.

Mateo was having a hard time meeting the hallway expectation. He wasn’t in a perfectly straight line, and he was whispering to the friend in front of him. Disruptive? Not really. However, with an effort to lay down the law early in the school year, he was instantly targeted by the teacher. “MATEO, GO TO THE BACK OF THE LINE! WE JUST GOT A COMPLIMENT BY THE PRINCIPAL AND YOU MADE A BAD CHOICE! GO TO THE BACK OF THE LINE!”

The kids looked anxious. Mateo didn’t seem to have any idea HOW he messed up or WHY she was so angry, but he complied. He walked to the back of the line, pausing briefly to high-five each classmate along the way.

A quick observation identified that Mateo has body awareness challenges. Those challenges can make walking in a straight line, with classmates in front of and behind him, very difficult. In fact, I would hypothesize that Mateo, albeit subconsciously, was walking slightly out of line to prevent bumping into his classmates! The whispering? He’s a happy, social young boy. It’s the start of school. You couldn’t hear him. It wasn’t disruptive. The teacher SAW him talking, but couldn’t hear him. What WAS disruptive was the teacher yelling at him. Any students in a classroom with an open door could not hear Mateo, but certainly heard the teacher.

The teacher’s attempt to use Mateo as an example and embarrass him fell short with some unintended consequences. As the now defined “bad kid”, Mateo was now in the back, as far away from the teacher as possible, sending a clear message that she doesn’t want to be near him right now because he didn’t comply. She sent a signal that her love is conditional. You’ll get it if your compliant, but if you mess up, you need to be far away from her. Teaching kindness in schools? Hardly.

Solutions: Instead of the shaming or the punishment, let’s commit to believing that all kids are doing the best they can with the skills they have. Let’s assume that Mateo WAS doing his best, didn’t make a “bad choice” and he just needed help to meet the expectation.

So, what does that help look like? Maybe bring him to the front of the line with the teacher so she can support him? Maybe have him be a helper…either as a door holder or holding something heavy for the teacher? Both of those options provide Mateo with the proprioception that will help him understand where his body is in space.

Instead of banishing him to the back of the line, maybe the teacher can walk next to him and provide him with any reminders or sensory supports he may need? Making an example of Mateo and attempting to embarrass him is not teaching him any of the skills he needs to be able to meet the expectation the next time his class is in the hallway.

Leading with compassion is a practice that feels better for everyone. A compassion-first mindset sends a strong message to children that we’re there to help them, EVEN when they’re having a hard time.

Shout out to the other kids in the back of the line whose table lined up last or their name ends in a letter at the end of an alphabet. Thanks for holding down the caboose. You’re not “bad” either because you’re back there. Don’t worry, Mateo is a great kid. He won’t get you in trouble.

Compassion first.

Model Kindness.

Focus on Connection over Compliance.

Kids Do Well If They Can.