This year for Valentine's day, I wanted to do something more meaningful than passing out extra candy to the kids in the after school program. Instead of extra treats and elaborate party games (which kids do enjoy, don't get me wrong), I wanted to take the opportunity to tell the kids how truly great they are.
I know that the kids who are behind academically or have ongoing behavior issues and complicated home lives don't hear praise and compliments very often. Their lives are filled with "don't do this" and "you need to improve because you aren't good enough." Parents are often too stressed to notice and comment on the positive, and schools are overworked trying to improve academics. Its difficult to stay motivated when the message is always punitive.
So I wrote each student in my after school program a handwritten card with a personalized message letting them know how glad I was that they attended program, specifics on the positive character traits I noticed in them, and an encouragement that they can and will make the world a better place and do great things.
When I passed them out, the response melted my heart. Some kids were quick to say thank you and reach for a hug. Others kind of looked at their card and pondered for a bit as a huge smile filled their lovely face. One kid, who I know doesn't get much affection at home didn't quite know how to respond, but was practically doing cartwheels when he realized he could keep the card. I made sure to read the cards with the kids who didn't know how to read and for those that asked, I elaborated on what was written.
At the end of the day, most kids took their cards home, some forgot them at the program site, but the atmosphere changed. Any doubt that the kids had on whether they mattered disappeared. They walked a little straighter, laughed a little louder, and were generally friendlier to each other.
And to be honest, this was also something that I needed to do for myself. When in the midst of an after school program with at-risk kids, it is easy to lose sight of the strength, kindness, and thoughtfulness that is within each kid. Its easy to fog the mind with the chaos and forget the little humans with vulnerable hearts in front of me. I needed to take the time to re-center and notice each little human being as an individual worthy of love and capable of making a difference. Taking the time to sit down and write honest and meaningful praise for each child was refreshing and reminded me of the reason for this work. It was probably as meaningful for me as it was for the kids.
I think its fair to say that candy, balloons, and musical chairs would not even come close to having the same effect.