This past summer, my wife and I began toilet training my 2-year-old son. As ordinary as it sounds in the life of a parent, that process made a big effect in my teaching life.
Every time my son would choose to use his training toilet, the room would erupt with hoots, hollers, and high-fives as if the home team had just won the World Series with a ninth inning grand slam. This held true whether there was one person in the room or ten. Furthermore, it didn’t matter whether Mason had chosen to use his diaper (or the floor) instead of the potty, the ten times before he chose his miniature throne, and that warranted a celebration. At first I thought it was just an amusing gimmick my wife created to encourage Mason to use the potty that first day, but amazingly enough this happened each and every time he used the potty for almost three months. In fact, this celebrating developed to the point where Mason himself would stand up from the potty in all his glory, pump his fists into the air, and shout, “Hoooooray!” Celebrating Mason’s success had become part of our household culture for everyone, including Mason. Soon, his success rate increased substantially and I am compelled to contribute this, in part at least, to the value that was placed on his success.
Where my home life was filled with these rituals celebrating success, my classroom was not—at least not as full. Sure, big events like when someone met a standard or the whole class finished a project were celebrated, but it wasn’t close to being part of our daily classroom culture like it was at home. Day in and day out, students were putting tremendous effort toward concepts that were real struggles for them. Some students would receive as little as a pat on the back; most would receive nothing. This is unfortunate because I have learned from my son that celebrating success, even if it was after many failures, makes a difference—a big difference. Realizing that I wasn’t taking the time to celebrate success nearly enough, the lingering question was why not?
Maybe I was hesitant to celebrate success in the classroom because I was equating it with rewards, fearing that if I did reward kids then the notion, “if you don’t reward them, they won’t do it” would hold true. Maybe I was nervous that if I celebrated a success and it didn’t continue consistently that I would somehow lose face. Perhaps my hesitation was rooted in my childhood experiences. I mean, when I was a kid we just did things because we were asked or told. We didn’t think to ask for anything in return; we didn’t expect it. Or maybe I was just pushing back on the “everyone gets a trophy” trend. Regardless of the reason, I knew I needed to start honoring my students’ efforts by celebrating their successes no matter how small or infrequent. So I did.
Soon my classroom started to feel a lot more like home. First, I began honoring two students a day with a “Characteristic of Success Award” for demonstrating social and emotional skills from a targeted list introduced to students and parents at the beginning of the year. The awards, which are given at the end of the day, are always met with a round of applause from the class: a sign that other students acknowledge their peers’ efforts and understand the rationale for the recognition. Next, I began to acknowledge students’ effort and progress—no matter how small or infrequent—on a daily basis. The reasons depend on an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses and include things like getting settled after a transition, pushing through a difficult math problem, trying a challenging writing topic or taking the time to sound out a tricky word— essentially any time I can catch a student proud of their own work or needing a word of encouragement to persevere. The method of recognition ranges from the nonverbal (a pat on the back, thumbs up, or an individual or small group high-five) to the verbal (“Keep up the hard work” or “Yeah! You did it!” Combined, all of this has filled my classroom like Mason’s booming, “Hoooooray!”).
And just like Mason, students responded. Although constant success was not guaranteed, it seemed to become infectious. Students felt good because I honored their effort and success built on success. With every high-five I pictured Mason, arms raised, shouting for joy and my long-held hesitations were flushed away.
For more information on celebrating success and the importance of acknowledging effort in the classroom, I recommend checking out the ASCD resources below.
- The Art and Science of Teaching, Chapter 1
- The Power of Choice, Chapter 4
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master’s degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his blog.