Tiny Big Moments Podcast (Episode 2): Praise and the power of relationships

Updated: Jan 31

Listen time: 20 minutes

The following is a full episode transcript. Want to catch up on previous episodes of Tiny Big Moments? Listen here.

Kai-ama Hamer: Okay, so the story of the Invisible Bag. This is in a Kindergarten classroom. And, you know, you give them high fives, and hugs, and words of encouragement, but also prizes. But prizes get expensive.

So I am a social studies cluster teacher, so I’m there for 45 minutes and I’m going into all the Kindergarten classrooms. And I don’t have any prizes, but I want to reward the children. So I tell the children -- I’m like, “I’m bringing out my Invisible Bag, boys and girls.” And I grab this… pretend bag. And I start to drag it up… with all my might... to the front… of the class. And I’m saying, “Children, oh, do you see the bag? It’s so heavy and it has so many good prizes in it. And I’m looking for the children who behave the best and - oh, okay, phew - to come up to the front and choose something out of the Invisible Bag. And I’m like, “Michael, come on up. Come up to the Invisible Bag. And Michael is excited. So I'm excited too. I’m like, “oh, come on up.” and he’s running, “And whatever you want,” I say to him, “whatever your heart imagines is inside the bag. Michael, what do you want?”

And he’s like, “I want a truck.”

I’m moving my hands as if I’m opening this big bag, and I say, “Reach down in there and get your truck.” He reaches down and pulls it out like it’s a truck. I was like, “Oh it’s so big, it’s great. Excellent, carry it back to your seat.” And he really pretends to carry it back to his seat. “You earned that, you did a good job. All right, who’s next?” Now every little hand is up because people want to go into the Invisible Bag.

It just was insane because, you know, there’s really nothing there.

But, you know, the truth is you always got one wise guy, one kid in the back who’s just like, “Ms. Hamer, I don’t see nothin’. There ain’t no bag.”

“Would you like to come up and you wanna try to see it? Maybe if you get a little closer, you’ll see the bag.” And giving them a chance to go down in there and get it and win them over. Really, really magical moment. Didn’t have to cost money, and I didn’t have to walk around with a bag of real prizes. That the prize is always with you.

Lisa Ellrodt: That was Kai-ama Hamer, a former kindergarten cluster teacher at P.S. 41 in the Bronx and currently the Associate Director of Parentcorps. And that was her lovely story about how she nurtured relationships with her students using prizes they pulled out of an invisible bag.

Blake McKay: Hi, I’m Blake McKay. I am a ParentCorps Educator and I use she/her pronouns.

LE: And I’m Lisa Ellrodt. I’m a white Jewish mom of two from Brooklyn, I use she/her pronouns and I’m also a ParentCorps Educator. And this is the Tiny Big Moments podcast from ParentCorps. Tiny Big Moments features true stories from teachers that highlight social emotional learning moments from the pre-K classroom. Thank you so much to Kai-ama for sharing that story with us.

BM: Yes, thank you. Kai-ama is an incredible story teller, and her Invisible Bag story perfectly illustrates the topic of today’s episode: praise and the power of relationships. If I were a kid in Kai-ama’s classroom, I would have pulled out an astronaut helmet to complete my journey to the moon. I love how thinking about what I would have wanted from the Invisible Bag is reminding me of my childhood dream to become an astronaut.

LE: Oh my gosh. I so know what I’m getting you for your birthday this year. If I remember correctly what was on my short list as a kid, I would have tried to pull a puppy and a swimming pool out of the bag.

BM: I love a puppy and a pool, yes.

LE: So let’s talk about praise. All educators have their own ways of praising their students. My “go-tos” in the classroom when I was a school social worker were telling kids to do things like “kiss your brain” or “give yourself a hug.” And I also had this schtick where I would put on these enormous, goofy sunglasses and pretend they gave me the superpower to catch someone being awesome. You can imagine. Anyway, I love Kai-ama’s use of the Invisible Bag. How about you, Blake? What were your go-tos in the classroom?

BM: Sometimes I’d just think of the quickest way to give praise, like bonus points students could store to use on tests. My students were older since I taught high schoolers.

So even if it doesn’t seem like much, praise gives the child powerful, positive attention. You’re effectively telling the child “Hey, I see what you just did.” We all need praise as reinforcement, children and adults alike. Think about when a toddler is starting to toilet train. Toilet training is a heavy lift for a kid. So we may want to give a prize like a sticker or other tangible reward to pump up the motivation.

LE: Absolutely, praise is important. It motivates us. Like whenever my family raves about what I cooked for dinner -- which honestly doesn’t happen often -- there’s a slight increase in the chance that tomorrow night I might actually cook again instead of hitting the menu drawer.

And while praising children to motivate and reinforce their behavior is really important in child development, praise has another superpower that is even more essential: Praise can have the power to build self esteem and identity through strengthening relationships. Praise and positive teacher-student relationships go hand in hand.

BM: Exactly. As educators, we most likely already praise students frequently for their hard work and cooperation. But how can we take praise to the next level? How can we personalize praise and use it to deepen relationships with our students?

LE: We talked more with Kai-ama to find out how she was able to build strong relationships with her students using the Invisible Bag, and we came up with four tips on how we can think more deeply about how we praise our students.

TIP #1: Know yourself. In order to use praise genuinely, we need to reflect on our own beliefs about praise. Our personal experiences with praise all affect how we use praise and what types of praise we give.

BM: Okay, let’s jump in with tip number one - Know yourself. In order to use praise genuinely, we need to reflect on our own beliefs about praise. Our personal experiences with praise -- grounded in our race, our culture, our gender, our family traditions -- all affect how we use praise and what types of praise we give.

For example, for me as a Black girl with Caribbean heritage and parents who were immigrants, it was simply expected for me to do well academically. So praise for academic achievement was not always overflowing. However, when I did something exceptional, I was able to pick out a book to buy from Barnes and Noble, which was a big deal because I was definitely a library books kid. All of this to say that I lean towards learning gifts if I am going to give a physical prize to my students. A tangible thing that always leads to more learning.

LE: I loved, loved praise when I was a kid, but growing up, I was super shy and self-conscious, particularly in elementary school. I would cringe if my teacher praised me in front of the class, even though I’m sure they meant to be supportive. You know, I was that kid- - the one who didn’t want to make eye contact with a teacher, the one who was just shrinking away if someone called out my name in class. But I really craved those moments when an adult made me feel special in a quiet way. Like when the teacher asked me to clap the erasers outside because, of course, I did it better than any other kid in the class. Okay, great now everybody knows I grew up with Laura Ingalls on the prairie in a one-room schoolhouse.

BM: Yes, Lisa’s life on the prairie. Lisa, how do you think your experience receiving praise as a child impacts how you now praise children as an adult?

LE: I think maybe I get too “in my head” when thinking about praising kids because it was complicated for me to receive praise as a kid. So for example, I think about how other kids will feel if I praise one child, or if shouting out a particular kid in front of the class -- might they get embarrassed by it? I think I’d like to dig more into celebrating the joy of each kid’s achievement with some more spontaneity.

BM: No matter what our beliefs are about praise, they are all valid. Reflecting helps us to discover how we can use praise as a strategy in our classrooms in a way which also honors our own beliefs.

LE: And honestly, I think the process of occasionally reflecting back on my own beliefs and experiences around praise really helps me to tune in to what makes each kid in my class unique. It kind of helps me think about what might motivate them and make them feel special.