Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Fighting Back Tears

Teachers, especially preschool teachers, rarely really know if what they're trying to get across is coming through. Sometimes, I suppose, if you convey a fact, like "the sun rises in the east," and a child later paints a picture of the sun rising in the east, you can give yourself a pat on the back, but you really never know about the important stuff. You do your best, you repeat yourself, you take it from different angles, and you hope that some of it gets through.

If you've been following along, you'll know our Pre-K students have been working on developing the habits and skills of empathizing with others (I've shared some of the things we've done here, here, and here). I've tried to be creative in my approach, weaving it into our everyday activities and discussions, avoided the dreaded lecture, looking for moments when it makes sense to pop in with a line like, "I can tell by looking at his face that he's angry," or "MLK used words instead of fists, just like you."

One of our old standbys, is the ever popular compliment chain. Essentially, the way it works is that the kids take turns giving one another compliments. We have these little plastic chain links and each time a compliment is given we add one to the chain, which then hangs on hooks from the ceiling overhead. The stated goal each year is to make a chain that goes "all the way around" our circle time rug. 

When I call on a raised hand, I'll usually say something like, "Sasha, who do you want to make feel good?" then she'll name someone, go over to them with an "I like your shirt," or an "I like your shoes." I'll then reinforce it with a comment like, "I see Ava is smiling. I can tell that made her feel good." Sometimes I'll even add, "You're very powerful."

A typical session of compliments will feature kids being kind mostly to their best buddies, singling them out for this special power to convey good feelings. Yesterday, however, was different. When it came time for one of our Pre-K kids to give their compliments, each one who chose to give a compliment named instead of a best friend, one of their younger classmates, like Sarah or Sylvia or Violet. At first I thought, Wait a minute, certainly they're just picking those kids because those are the ones in their line of sight, but in at least 2 instances, the boys named the child first, then had to search for her.

Were they really thinking about their younger classmates? Were they really seeking them out to make them feel good? Did this have anything to do with our focused work of the last few weeks? Or was it as Ariya and Suriya's mom Aya joked, just Valentine's in the air?

I'll never know, but teachers sometimes have to take what they can get. Let me tell you, as our session broke up to move on to the next part of the day, I was fighting back tears.

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Saya said...

Awe.... this is beautiful... :)
Now I'm fighting back tears.
This gives me hope. :)
Thank you, teacher Tom.

Stacey said...

Another preschool teacher here.... I am stealing the compliment chain idea. I have those plastic links that don't really get played with much, perfect use for them. And way to go on your empathy lessons! I think you are breaking through. :)

BSK said...


Do you worry that this encourages artificialness in the compliments? I have a similar compliment routine, but I ask the kids to focus on actions on why those actions were helpful. I start by modeling it myself, offering compliments such as, "When Joey spilled his milk, Sally helped him wipe it up. That showed she was paying attention to her friend and the teamwork helped the spill get cleaned up quickly so everyone could get back to working and playing." I write them on little notecards and share them at the end of the day, allowing the child receiving it to take it home. They really cherish it and it helps encourage the same behaviors in others. Now the kids share compliments of the same ilk.

There is no doubt that making someone feel good is important, but doesn't relying on external characteristics overstate the importance of these characteristics? I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Floor Pie said...

@ bsk re: "Do you worry that this encourages artificialness in the compliments?"

My daughter is in Teacher Tom's class. And yes, we have days when every kid gives exactly the same compliment. "I like your shirt" over and over again, etc. And you know there's nothing that remarkable about the shirts themselves. In that sense, yes, it can be compliments for compliments' sake. But that doesn't make it any less sincere.

The process is what's sincere. A child sits there at circle time, thinking about what songs he wants to sing or what story he wants. But when we do compliments, it's time to think about someone else. You see the children looking around the rug, looking outside themselves at their classmates, thinking of someone else to draw in.

It's a very exciting process for the children. They just smile their little cheeks off. And even if a child is the tenth one to hear "I like your shoes!" he smiles just as big as the first child to hear it. Because everyone knows it's not really about the shoes.

Juliet Robertson said...

BSK - this is such a good and pertinent question.

I think there is a risk of inappropriate praise which "dumbs down" the value of a well-deserved compliment. I have concerns about cultures where kids are given stickers just for "being themselves".

However in my experience, children need to be taught and encouraged to give praise. This works best by modelling.

I do team challenge work with older children and make them focus on Sweet PEAS (Praise, Encouragement, Appreciation - Sincerely). At first the children are unsure and feel uncomfortable using Sweet Peas. Then sudddenly it's like a dam breaking...one person give a genuine bit of praise, there's a silence and then everyone "gets" that not only is this OK but it's a good thing and real praise grows and so do the children.

Anonymous said...

We use a social emotional skills curriculum called PATHS in which we give compliments every day. Initially, exchanging complimetns is difficult for them, but their understanding increases over the course of the year. I think teaching this skill and practicing it is valuable because it develops their prosocial skills and encourages them to support and respect each other, much as the previous poster said. Yes, sometimes they all say the same thing, but at least they are thinking about another person and hearing all those compliments cannot help but increase the child's self esteem!

BSK said...

Juliet and FP-

Thanks for weighing in. I was probably thinking about it too much from the teacher's perspective. If I am saying to children, "I like your shoes," I risk offering insincere and ultimately meaningless affirmation. For the children complimenting each other, I better understand this process. Ideally, they will offer something more meaningful, but understanding the value of taking the time to make someone feel better is important in a different way. I'll have to think if there is a similar way to incorporate this into my program. I like the process I use now, but am always looking for ways to improve. To the extent that you can (probably harder to do with kids any younger than mine, at 4/5), I would encourage the children to offer compliments that got more to the heart of it. They probably can't or won't always go that way, but modeling more deeper connections can't hurt.

FWIW, my method was informed (but not a part of) the Responsive Classroom method. They have a lot in their on descriptive praise, which is really helpful in thinking about how adults talk to children about them, their work, efforts, qualities, etc.


miss merril said...

Teacher Tom, this was just the post I needed to read. I totally needed a pep talk after the last few days, there's been a lot of verbal mud slinging happening...and it's totally called me to question myself as a teacher. I thought we focused a great deal on building community - through our daily rituals, interactions, books, and yes a few of "the talks." I definitely left school today with a lot of questions. Thank you for the inspiration...I hope one day soon I'm moved to tear (and not because I got mud in my eye) :)

Deb Chitwood said...

I've enjoyed your post and the discussion in the comments! These are great ideas for the 100 Acts of Kindness Project I'm encouraging at my blog right now. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow

Jessie, The Education Of Ours said...

This is wonderful and unique! Not every teacher takes the time to role play social skills and kindness this way. Even if it is prompted, the compliments serve as a vessel for eye contact and practices of empathy. Yay for teacher Tom!

Anonymous said...

How wonderful! I'm going to try the compliment chain at with my family at dinner tonight. And I love "you are very powerful!"

Lauren Wayne said...

I'm fighting back tears now, too. Thanks for sharing this!