Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Why do some young children have an urge to be first when lining up as a group? It is a jostling to be the first person in line. The same compulsion is seen for being the first to arrive at school, or the first to be served, or the first to be called upon. We see this compulsion in children, year after year, regardless of gender or culture, but mostly during the ages of 4 to 7 years old. What is happening developmentally during this age range that conjures this behavior? It is the time in child development when social consciousness is awakening. Children become aware that others in the community also have needs and these needs can overlap with their own. Since being first is limited and finite, it increases the perceived value and consequently increases the desire to have ‘it’. When an attitude of scarcity is at play then survival thinking is engaged. This mental pattern operates on a primitive level and is referred to as the reptilian brain (MacLean, 1990). The neo cortex, the part of the brain where logic and reason are activated, are not part of the equation. Even with explanation from the teacher that everyone in line is going to the same place and will arrive at the same time cannot override the child’s urge. A competitive environment is by default a mode of scarcity; there is one winner and multiple losers--scarcity conjures the perfect formula for triggering the reptilian brain; the part of the brain which is king of reaction and impulsivity.
Engaging the mind
So how does one help the child to move away from ‘me first’ thinking and toward 'we first' thinking? In our Montessori classrooms we continually train the brain to move between the different modes of thinking. We work toward integrating the three areas of the brain from reptilian (instinctive thinking), to mammalian (empathetic thinking), to the outermost layer of the brain, called the neo cortex (logical thinking). This brain integration is the key to successful executive functioning. When a child is in the part of the brain where empathy is housed then impulsive and instinctual thinking and behavior is dampened and logic and reason start to emerge. Moving thoughts in this direction is done through engagement with others. Instead of forming a line, the teacher can ask the group to gather in a circle at first. A circle formation has no start nor end, so an exclusive positioning is not an option. When a group is in a circle everyone has the same access for seeing, hearing, and being heard and seen. No jostling is necessary because all positions are equal. The group is in sync with each other, all voices and faces have equal access. Once harmony is in place, then there are more options for the group: staggered pairs can be released, or the group can self-manage rambling to the next area. Or, a line can be formed. Yes, a line is part of our culture and can be a practical way to get a group of people from point A to point B, especially in narrow corridors. While still in a circle the teacher can ask the group which child celebrates his/her birthday next, or, which child was born the farthest away; it can be any question that gets the logical brain engaged. The child that has the next birthday (or was born the furthest away, etc.) can now lead the group through the hallway, with the children following in order from the circle. These actions put the line routine on its head and engage children to think and stay conscious of the group. Nice conversations about where children were born emerge and children have now engaged their thinking and reasoning brain.
Between eight and ten years old the child’s default thinking is more in the reasoning mind. The older child can puzzle out that vying for the front of the line is not a worthwhile effort. However the competitive spirit still seeks to be engaged. It is this age when rules are understood and agreements on fair-play can be made. This more mature mind can integrate the instinct to win with the logic to play a game that all agree. Children who develop this integration of the mind can experience the positive aims of a competitive situation and come out with a winning attitude. And when it comes to healthy brain development, a winning attitude is everything!
MacLean, P. (1990). The Triune brain in evolution. New York City, NY: Springer
Workshop participants play "Musical Chairs in Abundance" where the chairs disappear when the music stops, just like the traditional game of 'Musical Chairs', but everyone stays in the game and is challenged to work as a group to all sit. The reptilian brain is diminished because the game is no longer about a diminishing finite territory, but instead about problem solving and taking care of each other (engaging the empathetic and logical brain).