10 Surprising Truths About Acton Academy

Surprising Truth #2:  We don’t give compliments to our students.


The truth is that children know immediately when praise is meaningless.  I learned this in a painful way when Sam and Charlie told me to stop saying, “that’s awesome.”  They told me that it makes them feel like I’m not paying attention to what they are really doing.

I wanted to cry. I knew better than to throw that word around.  In March of 1980, my father lamented the loss of the meaning of “awesome” to me because of its overuse.  (I remember the exact moment and setting of this conversation. It’s funny how certain words and conversations leave such an imprint on one’s soul.) He asked me to stop using it so that when I really needed it, it would mean something powerful again.

The power of words. It’s daunting to imagine that each time we speak, we are making a choice that ultimately can be seared into a child’s memory.

At Acton we take this truth very seriously. We count every minute. Each moment counts. Each word must be chosen thoughtfully. This matters.

We talk in our staff meetings and in our quick huddles before school and during free times about the power of words, what words work and what words don’t work in our engagement with our students.

Each of us reads and re-reads Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston.  http://www.amazon.com/Choice-Words-Peter-H-Johnston/dp/1571103899.

We try not to comment on a child’s “cute headband” or “cool shirt” because we want their memory of our words to be about their inner character, their behaviors and their choices rather than what they look like on the outside. They’ll get enough of that in the world outside of Acton daily life.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I do not think it is wrong to compliment people on how they look. I told Jeff Carpenter I loved his purple pants the other day. To me, they were a perfect reflection of his zippy personality. Very cool pants for a very cool guy.

But we shift our thinking on this when we are with our Acton students. We don’t have the luxury of time. We must be hyper-focused on what we choose to communicate to each child. This requires a high degree of self-discipline and is a constant mental effort.

As teachers and guides we believe that the best way to build a child’s inner character and self-esteem is to focus on their actions and their work.  As Ron Berger says in An Ethic of Excellence:  “I don’t believe self-esteem is built from compliments. Students who are struggling or producing lousy work know exactly how poor their performance is – compliments never seem genuine.  All the self-esteem activities and praise in the world won’t make them feel like proud students until they do something that they can value.”

Part of our culture at Acton is allowing students to experience failure, try again and document their progress.  They see the results of their efforts. They see progress. They get to experience the pleasure of improvement. They are on a journey towards excellence and will not be satisfied in muddled mediocrity.  Frivolous praise isn’t helpful or encouraging to them. They want the truth.

This focused shift in thinking of how to speak with children moves us from saying: “Good job!” to “I can see how hard you worked to make your letters so neat.”  We refrain from saying:  “You are so smart!” but freely say: “I can tell you struggled with that choice and it looks like you are happy with your decision.”

Our reward is seeing that knowing smile and the light of joy in the eyes of the student who fully accepts our words because they are true to his or her experience.

From school to home I go.  I reflect back to the times I have spouted off my meaningless praises to my children.  Jeff reminds me that our children will become who they were meant to become in spite of us. He has told me many times, “You don’t have as much power as you think you have. They are going to be who they are going to be.  It’s not up to us.”  I hear him but I will keep trying and I will keep forgiving myself as needed. For this is how we keep this parenting journey filled with laughter and joy. I think that’s awesome.

Food for thought: One of the recommended books for Acton parents is NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Here is a videoclip with Po Bronson on the topic of praising children. http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=8487839.  Their website is www.nurtureshock.com.

Surprising fact #3 is on its way soon.

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