Lift-Ups Instead of Put-Downs

We know cliques are common in the middle grades, but don’t forget how prevalent they are in the elementary years. Here’s how one educator helped her young students understand that inclusion isn’t just “nice”—it’s fun, too!


There was a time when I mistakenly thought that the problem of cliques and put-downs started during the middle grades. But while teaching third grade a number of years ago, I noticed that students were forming cliques and were using put-downs aimed at those excluded from each group. I could see that the cliques were hurting those excluded—and those included

Some of the children outside the cliques were showing signs of sadness, confusion, anger and frustration. And the in-group children, once kind and friendly to everyone, seemed to take on different personalities, doing hurtful things to those outside their groups. Peer pressure reared its ugly head. I was especially concerned about the put-downs, knowing that insults like ugly, weird and stupid could negatively affect a child’s self-esteem and possibly impede his academic achievement and interest in school.

I decided to combat name-calling by promoting the opposite: “lift-ups.” I started by giving the students a visual representation of what put-downs can do to another student. I filled a plastic cup with water and asked the students to think of the full cup as a person who feels good about herself. I then punched a few holes in the bottom of another plastic cup and asked, “What will happen when I pour water into this cup?” The children quickly acknowledged that the water would leak out. “That’s what happens,” I said, “when we say mean things about someone else. We punch holes in how they feel about themselves, and the good feelings about who they are gradually leak out.”

I explained how no one’s cup is entirely full, but that there are things we can do to add water to each other’s cups. Instead of put-downs, we could use lift-ups. I gave them an example using a real situation in the class: “Jim and Alex have been working hard on our recycling program. This week they saved more than three big boxes of paper from going into the dump.” Then I invited students to come up with some of their own examples of what they might say to each other as lift-ups. Tony was the first to respond: “The picture Weston drew on the cover of his writing journal was really cool.” 

I then had each student work with a partner to develop a poster about lift-ups, and they came up with some unique ideas. One poster featured a hot-air balloon and the words “Lift-ups help us soar.” The message on another poster was “Don’t tear them down. Lift them up.” I kept one or two of the posters on display in our classroom for the rest of the year, rotating them every week.

Later, while conducting an anti-bullying workshop for teachers, I asked them what they did to combat cliques. A fourth-grade teacher explained how she introduced a “Join the Game” project. This project gave students the option of participating in organized group games during recess over a two-week period. She kept participation voluntary but invited members of a clique—along with other students—to work with her in planning and leading the games. Planning for these games started two weeks in advance. Posters and a calendar of events were made and displayed. Parents were informed and certificates of participation designed. The games selected were primarily team-building games, including Earth Ball and Human Knot. Directions for these and other cooperative group games can be found at the Ultimate Camp Resource.

Mix It Up activities also work well for fostering friendships outside one’s usual group. These activities can be used leading up to and during Teaching Tolerance’s very popular Mix it Up at Lunch Day—or any other time.

Other resources include the Jigsaw Classroom, the Empathy Curriculum and the Collaborative Classroom.

Ultimately, the message for students is that exclusion is not okay, something it’s important for them to understand early. We are all members of one community, so we’re dependent on each other to make it inclusive—for everyone. And inclusion can be interesting and fun!

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

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