Building School Culture Where All Kids Feel Special

In a world where competition awards few people on the backs of many, school awards can be redesigned to prioritize equity.

May and June are the months of school awards and recognitions for many children, but not all. I remember sitting cross-legged on the multi-purpose room floor throughout elementary school, hoping my name would be called so I could stand in front of the school gripping a coveted certificate. Sometimes, I did get one, but most often I didn’t. I left the awards ceremony with my head and spirits lower than when I came in the door. My school did not give every child an award.

Unlike the school I attended, my daughter’s school recognizes all students, and each award has a meaning based on the child’s learning growth and development that year. Yet, on the day of her awards ceremony this year, my daughter sat in my arms crying. She confided that she was nervous about the event. After some deep breaths she told me, “I don’t need a piece of a paper to know I am special.”

I wondered why she resisted connecting the award to her self-worth, particularly given that each child receives one. She doesn’t have to feel bad that she got an award and another child didn’t. What did that piece of paper represent to her? What was she speaking out against?

There is a disagreement about the impact of recognizing all children. Some are concerned that not preparing children for a world of competition does a disservice to their self-worth: that they will not know how to lose or how to motivate themselves as adults because they were recognized too often for showing up rather than for doing anything substantive. The implicit assumption in this argument is that the reward of winning recognizes those that work hard and excel.

Yet, meritocracy is a myth: Rewards are not conferred equitably or objectively. Children do not begin on an even playing field.

I think both my daughter’s struggle with awards and my own related to our respective developmental awareness of power and its implications: Who has the power to name us as worthy? Who should control how people see us? Who has the authority to give out these recognitions, and shouldn’t we have that power over ourselves? What do we have to give up in order for someone else to have that power?

These questions speak to Justice Anti-bias Standard 14 of Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework: “Students will recognize that power and privilege influence relationships on interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional levels and consider how they have been affected by those dynamics.” Power determines the rules—and rewards those who play by them.

In a world where competition awards few people on the backs of many, and where rewards and resources are conferred inequitably, it is understandable that children associate awards with a system that reinforces self-worth by naming winners and losers. It is going to take a broad movement to shift toward an institutional worldview that emphasizes cooperative, collective action and equity.

Teachers can take these last weeks of school to recognize students for their diverse achievements, efforts and ways of being in meaningful ways, ultimately honoring the collective achievements of the student body. If schools do decide to recognize the specific efforts of each student, these guidelines can help make awards safer and more equitable:

  • Be specific about praise when talking with students: Recognize what you see in their work, relationships and words that inspire you.
  • Identify assumptions you may have about what makes a “good student” that may limit seeing every child, and seeing the whole child. These assumptions may have roots in cultural bias.
  • Discuss the process by which your school gives awards: Are they based in high stakes, exclusionary or general praise, without ties to specific efforts? Raise the conversation about whether your school should try a new process.
  • Analyze who is given which awards. Are awards being conferred in line with cultural stereotypes or assumptions? For example, are most math and science awards going to boys and not girls? Are English language learners and students with special needs given effort and citizenship awards but not academic awards?
  • Treat children with dignity: They want to know why/how they earned an award. Talk to them individually, and honor their roles in the award exchange.
  • Talk to families about what they see as the successes of their children. Bring their celebration of their children’s successes into the classroom.

While creating cooperative, collective action and equity-driven schooling with youth is a complex, challenging goal, acknowledging all students’ contributions to the school can emphasize the importance of the school community as a whole. Working from students’ interests, questions and life experiences, as well as helping students confront problems in their world, will result in individual and shared accomplishments.

Chappell is an assistant professor of elementary and bilingual education at California State University.

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