Helping One, Helping All

Every year we teachers have some students who present challenges to themselves, to their classmates, and to us. In Sammy and His Behavior Problems, I wrote about one such student, Sammy, a third grader who struggled with impulsiveness, paying attention, completing schoolwork, and learning to be a friend. It’s the story of how Sammy and I worked together to help him get better at managing his behavior and become a more effective student. It’s also about how I balanced Sammy’s needs with his classmates’ needs and my goals for our classroom community. This excerpt, from Chapter 8, shows that balancing act in action at mid-year:

Passing in the compliment circle

February 5:

Paul starts off our compliment circle by saying, “Patricia, I’d like to thank you for helping me with my writing this week.”

“You’re welcome,” Patricia replies. Then it’s her turn to deliver a compliment.

“Juan, thank you for remembering to greet people who got to school late,” she says. Next it’s Juan’s turn.

Every Friday afternoon, a half hour before dismissal, our class gathers on the rug for a compliment circle. I’ve taught the children that although it’s fine to give personal compliments such as “Your eyes are such a pretty blue” or “You really ran fast at recess today” in other contexts, in our class compliment circle we name helpful things we’ve seen classmates doing during the past week. This is a practice I learned from a colleague early in my career. When carefully taught, compliment circles, even occasional ones, can dramatically alter the whole atmosphere of the group, bringing a sense of warmth and caring to a classroom community. As a student of mine once wrote, “Compliment circles make everyone feel good.”

Of course, to build community, it’s important that everyone is complimented and that individuals compliment a variety of classmates, not just one special friend. I’ve taught the class that this is our goal. I’ve also taught the specifics of how to give and receive compliments, and we’ve been practicing since the fall.

Early in the year, I kept a list and made sure that I complimented the children who didn’t get recognized by their peers. As the year progressed, I began to ask the class, “Who hasn’t been complimented yet today?” When children would raise their hands, their classmates would look around and eagerly volunteer to help out with a friendly compliment.

The children have had six months of practice in giving compliments, but now the standard is raised: They need to come up with an individual compliment for everyone.

“Sammy, thank you for agreeing to help more at cleanup,” says Lexi. “You pitched right in today.”

Sammy is often the recipient of these slightly backhanded, but ultimately sincere, compliments. Inevitably, some children are easy to compliment, and others are more of a challenge. Sammy is hard to compliment because we’re recognizing positive behaviors that contribute to the learning community, and Sammy is struggling with those very behaviors. And he has an even harder time complimenting someone else. Once Lexi thanks Sammy, it’s Sammy’s turn to compliment someone, but instead he says “Pass.” Passers get to select another student who will give a compliment, and Sammy picks Pua.

Raising the bar—compliments for everyone

February 7:

Valentine’s Day will be here in a week. Rather than marking the day with candy and commercial Valentine cards, I prefer to use the day to celebrate our community. I give each child a class list. The children’s homework for the week is to write a brief compliment about something each classmate does to contribute to our classmate community. The children have had six months of practice in giving compliments, but now the standard is raised: They need to come up with an individual compliment for everyone.

We discuss how to notice classmates, even how to jot down thoughts when they see someone doing something helpful for a student or the group. We discuss how to be aware of behaviors that classmates might miss. For example, we all know that Michele is good at math, and it would be easy to compliment her for her math skill. But I encourage the students to stretch themselves by looking for a not-so-obvious positive thing about Michele. I also remind them that we’re working on complimenting classmates for the ways they help others, rather than for their skills.

“Sammy couldn’t do his homework”

February 10, morning:

I open my email to find a message from Sammy’s mother. “Sammy couldn’t do his homework,” she writes. “He had a really hard time coming up with anything positive to say about any classmates. Some of the statements that he did write were kind of sad, like ‘You sit with me even if no one else will.’ “As I read her email I hear her concern that Sammy may feel alone and rejected.

I call Mrs. Smith. First off, I reassure her: “Sammy’s classmates work with him,” I say. “Yesterday he and Manuel were reading partners. He sat with Garret at lunch, and at recess he played with a big group making a snow fort on the playground.” I try to be as specific as possible.

Next I update her on Sammy’s social progress, speaking simply, positively, and honestly. “I’ve been working with Sammy to help him join in with other children at recess. For a while he was reluctant and told me that the other kids only do ‘dumb things,’ but for the past week he’s been joining the big group of children who play in the snow. He still needs a lot of support from me in order to work successfully with a partner or a small group. I’ve been coaching him on how to listen to classmates.”

“I’ll meet with Sammy today,” I add. “I’ll see if I can help him get started on his Valentine compliments.”

“It’s not impossible; we’ll help you.”

February 10, afternoon:

Our paraprofessional, Ms. Jones, and I sit down with Sammy while the other children are at music class. I asked Ms. Jones to help us because she’s at recess and lunch every day and thus has had lots of opportunities to see Sammy interact socially in informal, less structured parts of the school day.

As soon as Sammy sees the compliment sheet, he announces, “I can’t do this. I’ve already tried.”

I push on because it’s important that Sammy complete this assignment. Children will mark him socially if they receive compliments from everyone except him, and that would be a major step backward in his quest to gain friends. “Sammy,” I say calmly and matter-of-factly, “how are kids going to feel about you if they see that they have a compliment from everyone except you?” Sammy puts his head down on the table.

It’s that black-and-white vision again. Sammy’s so busy seeing social relationships as love and hate, friends and enemies, that he isolates himself. Having labeled nearly everyone in the class an enemy (even as he wants desperately to convert them to friends), he’s unable to see any positives in them.

“Sammy, Ms. Jones and I will help you, but this assignment needs to get done,” I tell him.

Ms. Jones picks up the thread. “Sammy, remember how Paul was your partner in PE yesterday? Remember how he asked you if you wanted the first turn with the ball?” I type while Ms. Jones prods, and soon the compliments begin to flow. Sammy manages to thank Max and John for listening to his ideas in their math group, despite some grumbling because they hadn’t agreed with his idea. Even Lexi and Jenny, beside whose names Sammy had written a big “I” for “impossible,” receive compliments.

February 14:

On Valentine’s Day Sammy proudly passes out his compliments. He receives compliments from his classmates and pastes them each on a big red heart labeled “Sammy.”  With a bit of extra support from me and Ms. Jones, he’s successfully managed to complete a task that challenged him socially and emotionally.

Early in my career, a colleague told me that if we can get kids to behave in certain ways, their attitudes can change. It seemed preposterous at the time, and yet over the years I’ve seen that to be true. When Sammy noticed helpful things that classmates had done, it actually helped him feel more friendly toward them. This is an important accomplishment for him—he’s slowly making progress in what he calls “The Friends Department.”

Caltha Crowe, author of Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year and Solving Thorny Behavior Problems, has nearly forty years of teaching experience and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher. Her new book, a practical guide to preventing bullying in elementary classrooms, will be published this summer.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Encouragement, Sharing