To preface this for those who may not know, I work at an after school program at an elementary school. Last year, I created Spotlight on Awesome based on an off-hand comment I made to my group. We had, unfortunately, had to call 911 the day before for a playground injury and I was talking to the group about what a good job they had done overall. One kid really stood out, so I said while gesturing to her, “Spotlight on Awesome: Gabby! She was amazing! Immediately bringing us the first aid bag when asked, being calm, and helping others.” I wanted her to know how important it was that I was able to trust her, especially in that high stress situation. I then immediately looked at my coworker and said, “You know, I think we should do Spotlight on Awesome every week.”
I made a Spotlight on Awesome sign with construction paper to tape on our cabinet. I bought little, flat, wooden animals and attached magnets to them so the animals could be placed in the paper spotlight. And just that easily, Spotlight on Awesome became a thing.
On Fridays when all the kids are gone, the teachers decide who has earned the distinction. The kids are fully aware of the qualifications. I always expect them to be good people, Spotlight on Awesome is for when they exceed those expectations. Like when they make the right, but often difficult, choice in a situation with friends. Or they are extra helpful and kind with a younger student. Or maybe they consistently help clean up toys/games they weren’t even playing with. I’ve told them that if the only motivation is to get the prize, then they probably won’t be chosen that week. We aren’t kind, compassionate, or helpful because we wish to be rewarded. We are those things because it is the right way to be, because we want others to treat us in that manner.
On Mondays, a new animal is on the spotlight board along with the name of the recipient. During snack time, we ask if anyone knows who is this week’s Spotlight on Awesome and generally lots of hands shoot up to answer. Once the winner is named, they get to come choose a small prize and I then ask my group, “who wants to tell us a reason why so & so is so awesome?” Participation is voluntary, but most of the kids want to contribute something kind about their friend. When a statement is repeated by lots of kids, I will reiterate it to the winner, “Did you hear all of these kids saying how you include everyone? They’ve noticed that you want everyone to feel involved and welcome.” When the kids are done, the teachers reveal why that child was chosen and why we appreciate them. And of course, when the child is picked up, we pass on the good news to their parents.
I think it is important to point out that other than our Monday exercise, I don’t really mention Spotlight on Awesome during the week. It is never used as a threat- “if you keep acting like that you’ll never win,” nor as an inducement- “if you help clean up, you could win.” My goal is to recognize kids for their positive choices and if they are coerced into it, then those choices are not coming from their heart.
After we had been doing this for several months last year, I asked the kids how they liked it. They were all very positive about it. One second grader commented, “even though I haven’t been Spotlight on Awesome yet, I really like it. I like hearing all the kind things people say.” That statement went to the heart of it. They loved being in an encouraging atmosphere where they had the opportunity to be both the recipient and the giver of praise. They liked knowing that they were valued for who they are and how they contribute.
I found that my idea went further than I had expected when parents began to tell me how important Spotlight on Awesome was to their child. Apparently, some kids would talk to their parents about wanting to earn it or being super proud to have already earned it (and they totally should be proud!). I mean, I know kids tell their parents about their day and all, I just didn’t expect my exercise in positive reinforcement to have THAT big of an impact!
Towards the end of last school year, my group surprised me by naming me as an extra Spotlight on Awesome that week. This was spearheaded by my amazing coworker and when she announced that I was also a winner, a first grade boy clapped and yelled out “YAY Ms. Miranda!” with genuine joy and enthusiasm. The kids said some incredibly sweet things. It for real makes your heart happy to hear how you are positively viewed. Here are few of my favorites (because, of course I wrote them down):
- “She’s a good friend. Not only does she respect us, but she also respects her surroundings.” -5th grade girl
- “She is not only a good friend, she’s also a good teacher.” -4th grade girl
- “She’s not like other humans… she’s one-of-a-kind, unique!” -5th grade boy
- “She’s patient with us.” -2nd grade girl
- “She’s 8,000 responsible!!!” -1st grade boy
Everyone wants encouragement. We all want to know that our individual spirit is recognized by those we care about. When we feel supported, we feel capable of extending ourselves further. Whatever attribute or action we are praised for will likely be repeated. We generally live up to someone’s expectations of us, children especially.
Others are aware of the kind of person you are. Your true self is the person you are in those unguarded moments when you believe no one is watching. Your actions, your general attitude, and the way you treat others all announce who you are. Everyone has off days and no one expects anyone else to be perfect; however most of us do expect a basic level of kindness from one another.
Be mindful of the energy you are releasing to the universe. Only through unity, respect, kindness, and compassion can we hope to positively change the world. Most of us are trying our best at being humans. Feel free to recognize the people in your own life who have a positive impact. Let them know they are appreciated. Shine the spotlight on the awesomeness around you!