I Practice Kindness ℘ I Choose Happiness
How Can Giving Children Stickers for Good Behavior Help?
Increasingly we are encouraged to believe our children will be better off if they are tested more, overscheduled, given more homework, and generally made to grow up faster. A prevailing mentality tells us that if team sports are good at ten years old why not get a head start and begin at five years old regardless of whether the individual child really can handle the competition!
The idea that childhood competence depends on standardized testing of even kindergarteners has increased. Childhood obesity and stress-related disorders plague many of our children. Classmates are seen as people one competes with, and life itself stretches out before us as a long struggle for material gain. Material gain can be an important part of life yet where does the pursuit of happiness fit into this contemporary, competitive culture? Have we forgotten to consider happiness seriously? Has happiness become a vague notion of lesser value than test scores? However every time I ask parents what their hopes and dreams for their children are, happiness is mentioned along with every other kind of achievement. Achievement implies using concentrated effort, practice, and study to meet whatever goal one desires to achieve. I think happiness is worthy goal. It can be learned and studied about, seriously considered, imagined as a goal, then sought after, and ultimately practiced if we really want happiness in our children’s lives and in our own.
Where Generosity Is Considered “Cool”
During my thirty years teaching small children I often asked myself how I could create a school climate where generosity was considered “cool,” where including everyone was priority, where attention and sensitivity to the developing individual’s identity was nurtured at the same time as we learned how to live in a caring community.
Teachers want harmony in their classrooms. When they give out a sticker for a job well done they are sincere. Many classrooms display long rows of shiny stickers next to some of the students names. We all know these stickers will be found next to the students who remember to raise their hands, wait to be called on…the good children who magically are able follow all the school rules. I began to ask how the other children feel when one person gets a sticker and they do not? Does rewarding one student’s work really inspire others to work harder? Isn’t that one of the main reasons we as teachers draw every student’s attention to a well done effort by one child? Here’s the story of how I made a discovery about how to motivate students to Practice Kindness and Choose Happiness.
How It Started
I was teaching first grade in Salt Lake City when an idea occurred to me. This is how it happened.
It was Writer’s Studio time. That beloved time when every child gets to work on their own stories free from any “story starters” imposed by me as the teacher. This time truly belongs to the children. We had made sure that full appreciation and acceptance of each person’s work was the rule. So everyone wrote and drew with confidence. The previous evening I had explained Writer’s Studio to parents giving it the full importance I think it deserves. I had begun by reading a favorite poem of mine that as poetry can…says it all!
By Lucy McCormick Calkins
In her room at the prow of the house
Where Light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause at the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter keys
Like chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and then again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted the sash
And retreated, not to frighten it;
And how for a helpless hour through the crack in the door.
We watched the sleek wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody
For the wits to try again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from the chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished for you before, but harder.
I remembered how pleased all the parents were, how much they enjoyed this poem that took a young child’s writing efforts so seriously.
I remember that my classroom felt especially alive that day. When young writers draw and write with great concentration anything seems possible.
A Spontaneous Act of Generosity
Suddenly Deborah’s whispering caught my attention. Her expression revealed how important it was. As I came closer I heard her tell Claudia she could use her favorite skinny markers to illustrate her story. Those brightly colored markers were brand new. Claudia hadn’t brought hers yet. Deborah was being very generous and I could see it was not easy for her. She had barely used her new markers herself. Before another moment passed I asked for everyone’s attention and congratulated Deborah for her generosity. As I did so I’ll never forget the look on her friend Terry’s face. He rolled his eyes at Deborah making a disapproving grimace. As I glanced around the room I saw others looking away or down at their desks. Another friend in the class, Mara looked back at Terry approvingly.
My comment mentioning sharing, my praise for Deborah’s generosity had brought dis-ease to the class. While my intention was to show value for a generous act that would motivate others to be generous or at least to think of generosity as a good thing, it had instead brought jealousy and disapproval. Instead of inspiring good will my words had hurt. I wondered if some in the class decided it was not such a good idea to be singled out for goodness! I wondered how many times I had complimented one student’s positive action in the past and simply not noticed how the others felt!
Suddenly I had an idea. I asked everyone to come to the story area saying that we were going to make a brand new chart, one that we could think about everyday and that would help us all to celebrate ourselves and one another. Twenty six puzzled faces looked right up at me as the words “celebrate ourselves and one another” were spoken. I brought two large pieces of poster board and my big box of markers over to my rocking chair and after we were all settled I began making two new charts as the children watched wondering what I was going to do next. In bold, bright letters I wrote I Practice Kindness on top of one and I Choose Happiness on the other. Everyone’s name was written underneath those statements with plenty of space for a long line of stickers next to each name. Next I put a sticker next to each student’s name on the I Practice Kindness chart. I retold the story that had just happened beginning with a talk about our Writer’s Studio time together. Everyone including Claudia, Deborah, and Terry listened closely as I described what had just happened in great detail. It made a good story. I asked Terry what he was feeling and thinking when he rolled his eyes. I asked the others what they thought and felt when I complimented Claudia’s generosity. David slowly looked around and said, “I felt bad.” “Did you feel like sharing something yourself? “ I asked. Most of the class slowly shook their heads back and forth meaning no. “How does it feel when you share with a friend…is it always easy?” Another no was spoken. A conversation ensued that ended with me finally asking if the class would be willing to consider that everyone one of them could be generous at some point. Many voices said yes, and of course, and sure we can. Big, beautiful smiles flashed across every face. The room felt like a very happy place to be in that moment. Then I presented my idea! Slowly I told them that if I noticed anyone Practicing Kindness or Choosing Happiness I would give everyone a sticker…everyone every time. Every time because if one of us can stay on task, share with a friend, say thank you, listen to a friend eventually we all can!
Practicing Kindness and Choosing Happiness Are Not Zero-Sum Games
I came to understand that as one child is congratulated, others often feel uncomfortable. As one student is singled out for an accomplishment or for an expression of a positive quality his classmates somehow feel they are not measuring up. They see the experience as black and white. One student is the winner and another the loser. They do not really understand why one behavior is “good” and another “bad.”
Much of school behavior is driven by an unconscious desire to be OK or to feel like the winner; to get the gold star even though the reasons may be misunderstood. Or becoming discouraged, a student will adopt a non-caring veneer. Both the desire to win without understanding or an I-don’t-care attitude doesn’t support depth of understanding or caring relationships within a class. Students often begin a process of finding ways to hide in school, to disappear wanting to be invisible or they create a superficial identity to get by. If we want our classrooms to foster a sense of competence and autonomy while also being places where students feel a sense of genuine belonging, personal acceptance, and safety we need to find ways to model inclusiveness ourselves. When that is accomplished relationships deepen and learning flourishes.
Ever since that day I have used these charts in every classroom I’ve been in. Again and again as the school days pass we carefully watch the social/emotional climate we all are creating. It becomes evident over time that if one of us discovers the pleasure felt as we include a friend, or willingly take turns that this act of generosity or caring can be celebrated by all of us. It is the understanding that if one of us can become more caring…actually we all can.