Awards, Inclusion, Trauma Informed: Can We Have It All?

Awards celebrations have long been a part of the school year and school culture. Honor Roll and Attendance Awards are so ubiquitous people have bumper stickers touting these accomplishments! In the last decade, though, as we have worked to become more inclusive and more responsive to our students’ unique needs and experiences, these routines are being questioned. In response to the awards I was seeing on teachergram and that a friend of Teaching Is Intellectual shared with us, I posted about skipping awards ceremonies, with Alfie Kohn’s work as a basis for why they’re problematic.

I anticipated that the post would get limited attention, like the majority of things I post there. However, it didn’t take long before the stories flooded our Instagram about negative experiences people had with awards growing up, about teachers unease with doing awards but also feeling compelled to do them, and with teachers who love awards. It seems like something we should unpack further in order to follow the evidence rather than our anecdotes to make intentional decisions that do the least harm for our students.

Can Awards Be Trauma Informed?

Honor Roll and Perfect Attendance seem obviously to violate tenants of trauma informed practices. If we are modeling and teaching self care and boundaries, we have to allow kids to take sick days and mental health days as needed. I know that’s a controversial position to take but it is okay for kids to take breaks. But what about superlatives and the cute end of the year awards, as long as everyone gets one and they are all positive, what’s the harm?

In reading Alex Venet’s post Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, I keep coming back to connection and empowerment. There is an inherent hierarchy in awards, there are awards that may hold some prestige or value like “Remarkable Reader” or “Math Wizard” and then there are other awards like “Sense of Humor Award” or “Chatterbox Award” that communicate something else. We strive to teach kids to see the strengths within them, the fortitude they posses to learn and grow, even when it’s challenging. Yet, we end the year with reducing kids to one characteristic or strength despite the reality that multiple/all kids have made personal gains in reading, math, and laughing.

Awards are a way of labeling kids, or sorting them, slotting them, telling them who they are. And labeling kids changes the way they see themselves as well as the way they are treated by teachers, parents, and their peers. Labels also put limits on kids. If we are told our entire elementary career that we are a mathlete, it may limit our willingness to take risks in writing that graphic novel we’ve been dreaming of. Finding your teacher sees your math prowess can be empowering, right? Maybe, although it is likely the student already knows the teacher sees that as a strength. That award may feel further reducing of the student’s whole being into just a math wiz.

Eschewing Awards for Community

Rather, we could engage in compliment (virtual) circles. Many adults struggle with receiving compliments! Have you ever said to someone, “I love those shoes!” And they respond, “oh I got these forever ago.” We tend to self deprecate and deflect rather than to say, “Thank you!” without the qualifying of how old it is or how little you paid for it. Compliment circles are an awesome way to celebrate each student’s unique contributions to the class and to practice giving and receiving compliments. Compliments allow for the diverse experiences and contributions of each student to be recognized as students have different lenses through which they value their peers.

A former student, now rockstar educator, said this:

We did a compliment circle to close out our last day of school the last two years! We also did an end of the year reflection question each day during morning meeting with questions like “what was something that was hard for you at the beginning of the year but is easier now? or “what is a moment when you were proud of yourself this year?” The kids got really creative and actually started inadvertently giving each other positive feedback on each other’s accomplishments! Then we watched a slideshow of videos and pictures from our classroom this year. We laughed, cried, and just all around had a good time.

Change is hard and letting go of traditional practices can be uncomfortable. So, I ask, who are end of the year class awards for? What are they communicating to and about our students? Is school and learning a competition? How does that jive with a trauma informed approach, a growth mindset, and an asset based framing?

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