Name-calling is pervasive in our culture. According to advocacy organization Mental Health America, teens hear anti-gay slurs approximately 26 times a day. Other anti-bullying websites such as Bullying Statistics.org cite name-calling as the most common type of harassment in schools.
I discovered the painful reality behind these statistics when I was a student teacher in a middle school. I witnessed students spewing slurs and calling each other hurtful names daily, both in the classroom and out. When I became a teacher, I wondered how I could make a difference in something so widespread.
I noticed that while name-calling is second nature to many, complimenting others is seen as weird. I decided to challenge the culture of name-calling and derail bullying in my school by practicing giving compliments. I started by explicitly teaching this new skill.
My class began a weekly compliment-giving exercise. I asked the students to sit in a circle. Each one was asked to compliment the person next to them. There were rules:
- You had to look at the person you were complimenting.
- You couldn’t praise something physical.
- You couldn’t give a “backhanded” compliment. (“You haven’t been as annoying today.”)
I encouraged students to focus on achievements or improvements that they observed in their classmates. If someone couldn’t come up with something, they could take suggestions from the group.
At first, the process was stilted and awkward. Students looked at me like I was crazy. But I found that once one student was brave enough to give an authentic compliment, others followed. By the fourth session, not only were compliments coming more naturally, students looked eager to participate. It was as if a secret need was being met, one that had been neglected for a long time.
Because they were forced to focus on the positive, senseless labels like “weird” or “loser” began to disappear. Some of my quiet students were finally recognized for their artistic talents or academic successes. Others who struggled with behavior issues were acknowledged for the days when they made real efforts. Students often left the circle beaming with pride.
I am frequently impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students can be. Recently, a girl transferred to my class from a school where she was bullied. The first circle was hard for her and she didn’t know what to say. But soon, after someone complimented her for the courage it took to come to a new school in the middle of the academic year, she relaxed and slowly began to offer compliments, too.
My students haven’t completely stopped calling each other names. But, we are designing a new language to recognize one another instead of using our words to tear down or hurt. Working together to learn an alternative way to treat each other hopefully cuts off bullying before it can even begin.
Anderson is a middle-school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.