Recognizing Students' Accomplishments All Year Long

School Spotlight: Sheffield Elementary School, Turners Falls, Massachusetts
Responsive Classroom Newsletter: 
April 2008

Publicly recognizing children’s accomplishments can benefit their learning and the overall school climate. But how do you do it without setting up a competition among students? This is a question that many schools face, especially as the end of the year draws near.

At Sheffield Elementary, a grade 3–5 school in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, part of the answer is Happy Mail. All year long, when teachers notice students doing something especially commendable, they may quietly give the student a certificate, a piece of “happy mail.” The students take their certificates home, where families observe the accomplishment in any way they wish. At school, each week’s Happy Mail recipients are recognized formally but briefly at all-school meeting on Friday: They stand, are named, and are given a round of applause.

The goals of Happy Mail are to reinforce constructive behaviors, cultivate pride, and help the children see each other in a positive light—all without the competition associated with conventional awards. “We’re not looking for perfection or super achievement, but progress—a notable accomplishment for that child,” says fifth grade teacher Amy Bernard when asked how teachers decide which behaviors to recognize. Recently, certificates have gone to a struggling reader who finished a book, two students who invited a third to their lunch table when they saw her sitting alone, and a student who resisted distractions and chose to continue working when peers were playing around nearby.

Some weeks, five students out of the student body of 150 get Happy Mail; other weeks as many as fifteen are recognized. Teachers keep careful track to ensure that every student is acknowledged at least a few times over the course of the year. Such democracy is possible, they say, because positives and progress can be found in every child. Yet they are careful to reserve the recognition for actions that—for that child—truly deserve it.

“When I get Happy Mail, I feel like I’m blooming out of the shadows,” says Kevin, a fifth grader who usually doesn’t see himself as a standout on either the academic or social front. He recently was recognized for speaking up honestly and courageously in a classroom discussion about bullying.

Classmate Ella likes hearing who got Happy Mail each week at all-school meeting. “It’s fun to hear other kids get it, if they don’t brag about it,” she says. She quickly adds, “They don’t usually brag.”

What Makes It Work

Several factors help make Happy Mail effective:

Academic and social skills are equally emphasized—Students can be recognized for accomplishment in two categories: for notable work in reading, math, writing, or any content area; and for acts of kindness, caring, or bravery.

Recognition is situation-dependent— If a student gets Happy Mail for inviting a peer into a game, that doesn’t mean she or anyone else will be recognized next week for doing the same thing. “We don’t want it to become rote,” says fourth grade teacher Sharyn Wood.

Teachers name the behavior in the moment—When teachers decide to give a child Happy Mail, they let the student know immediately, describing the positive aspects of their behavior specifically. For example, “You gave him a sincere apology and explained why you got upset.” This increases learning because it helps children understand what exactly is commendable about their actions.

Teachers keep the moment low-key—Except for the all-school announcement, Happy Mail is a relatively private affair. When naming the behavior for the child, teachers avoid calling the rest of the class’s attention to it. This way, one child isn’t held up as an example for others. “I’m not recognizing one student to manipulate others,” explains fourth grade teacher Michele Hazlett.

Accomplishments are noted three ways—After naming the specific behavior, the teacher writes it on the certificate, which the student can look back at later. Along with the all-school announcement, these add up to a powerful three-fold recognition of positive behavior, says Bernard.

Any teacher can recognize any child’s growth—Any adult who spots commendable behavior can give Happy Mail, whether or not the child is from her or his own class. This helps nurture a sense of schoolwide community.

Inspiring Improvement

Most of all, Sheffield’s Happy Mail works because children thrive on adults noticing what they’re doing well. Reflecting these strengths back to the children, not just at the end of the year but all along the way, helps them stretch toward the next challenge. Third grader Lauren says, “It makes me really, really happy when I get Happy Mail. It makes me want to work harder.”

Sheffield Elementary School Demographics
Setting: rural
Grades: 3 to 5
Number of students: 150
Number of classrooms: 8
Percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 55%