Replace Insults with Compliments
My first special education class was a war zone. Hardened by prior academic struggles and failures, my students constantly put each other down to lift themselves up. The result was a tense, negative, and disengaged classroom culture that made learning virtually impossible. I knew I had to do something.
So, on a warm and sunny September morning, when Antonio began insulting Marcus, I took action. Expecting me to simply correct him and move on, Antonio quickly grew uncomfortable when I instead stopped the lesson. "Antonio," I said calmly, "please give Marcus a compliment." He laughed, looking at Marcus and then back at me. I stood tough and unmoved, trying to channel my best Michelle Pfeiffer from the movie Dangerous Minds, even though inside I was freaking out. "Nah, man," he replied, seeming both annoyed and uncomfortable. "I'll wait," I said.
With a dismissive chuckle, he complied: "Marcus, I like your shoes." Little did Antonio know this moment was a turning point for our class. I stopped the lesson right then and started a class conversation. We tackled our problem head on and discussed the negative vibe running continuously through our classroom like background music. I proposed a new policy. "From now on," I said, "anyone who says something mean has to replace it with a compliment."
The kids snickered and said it was silly, but cautiously followed. Initially, the compliments were flippant and forced. But little by little, our classroom culture began to shift. The mean-spiritedness that once dominated our classroom began transforming into positive lightheartedness. Through compliments, our class started to bond.