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Tiny Big Moments: Praise and the power of relationships

Updated: Jun 21

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.

Tip #2: Know your students. It’s not necessarily knowing what prize each kid might like, it’s knowing what floats each kid’s boat.

LE: Which brings us to tip number two: Know your students. Some kids love a prize like a bouncy ball, some kids love a high-five. Like I said earlier, as a kid, I loved when I got a special job in the classroom. It made me feel like I was part of my teacher’s special inner circle of super helpers. It’s not necessarily knowing what prize each kid might like, it’s knowing what floats each kid’s boat. So sure, some kids love stuff -- and that’s okay -- but others might really enjoy a physical interaction like a hug or a fist bump. Some kids love being called out in front of the class, some kids prefer a quiet moment of connection, like a wink or a whisper of encouragement in their ear.

BM: That’s what’s brilliant about Kai-ama’s Invisible Bag. The students imagine any prize their heart desires, so they get exactly what they want. And yes, they are imagining tangible things as prizes. But what’s really special is that Kai-ama connects with each child individually and remembers what they love, what makes them happy. This makes the praise less about the item and more about the connection between teacher and student.

KH: And children have amazing imaginations when they are given the opportunity to spark it. It’s the imagination in thinking of a prize, not necessarily the prize itself. The teacher’s attention and the attention for coming to the front of the room, and the calling out of the behavior that they did that earned them the right to even go to the Invisible Bag. And also I learn about the kids. What is it that they really want? What’re they into? “I’m pulling a dinosaur out.” “Oh, I forgot, you love dinosaurs. All right, c’mon, c’mon because it’s big. You gotta go down, down in there and get it.”

When you set up a good structure in the classroom, and you walk by and the student winks at you. They're showing “I appreciate you. I care about you.” Because it's a reciprocal relationship, even with a four or five year old.

LE: I love the connection that Kai-ama makes here. Whether we use real prizes or imaginary ones, or no prizes at all -- praise is a form of positive reinforcement. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a way to show your students that you know them. And the more you know your students, the more you’re able to create a relationship with them. The biggest part of the prize is that feeling a child gets when they know that their teacher really knows them and cares about them.

BM: It’s important to remember when we’re centering relationships in our praise that relationship building is two-sided. You really have to be prepared if you want to give praise that feels meaningful and connected. Part of being able to genuinely show your students that you love and care for them is to be aware of what you can offer and what your strengths are as an educator.

Tip #3: Be authentic. Being authentic means playing to your strengths. Children always respond to genuineness.

BM: Which brings us to our next tip -- tip number three: be authentic.

Teaching styles are as diverse as teachers themselves. The Invisible Bag worked so well for Kai-ama because it was fun for her. She’s naturally enthusiastic and animated. What if you’re not as high energy as Kai-ama?

LE: Just imagine. Yeah, I think I might have just a teeny little performance anxiety about acting out an elaborate scene with each kid in front of the classroom.

BM: Of course, and I totally get that. Being authentic means playing to your strengths. Okay, Lisa, tell me - where do you think your strengths lie?

LE: Yeah, theatrical skills are not in my wheelhouse. Although I could nail musical theater... but I think for me, I shine when I’m tuning into specific kids and being socially and emotionally present with them. Like when I see a kid who is getting increasingly frustrated at a particular task like maybe writing their name, and, you know, their little hands start to ball up into little fists and their face gets all intense and scrunched up. Or when I see a kid hanging out at the edge of the block area and you can literally see the wheels turning in their head, like “How do I break into this group?” I love noticing those moments and using praise to encourage kids, to let them know that I see them. Being nurturing and forming intimate connections, I think those are some of my superpowers.

BM: Yeah, I can absolutely see that -- you are someone who pulls kids aside and whispers something encouraging in their ear or has a one-on-one connection. Kids know to expect that from you. And when you’re praising a child, it’s especially important to be authentic and real. Oftentimes the moments before we give praise are super vulnerable moments for children.

KH: I think that children are extremely perceptive. And they know their teachers. They know who’s higher energy, and they know exactly how their teacher shows up and children respond to genuineness. There is a performance factor. But the children know that of me. And you develop your own relationship with your students. And they know your personality. It’s about how you show your recognition for your individual students in a way that fits you, and the children respond positively to that.

BM: It’s about you knowing your students and your students knowing you -- that connection. It might take a few weeks or months to build up that kind of rapport with students, and it might be harder to do with certain kids than with others. But once that relationship is secure, kids will know how you show meaningful praise.

LE: Listen, we all want to feel good about ourselves -- kids and adults. Young kids are building their own positive identity, and praise from key adults is really essential to building their self-esteem. Praise is so motivating for kids when they’re figuring out who they’re and what they are capable of doing. And when praise is authentic, it is purposeful. It can help a child take risks, stay engaged, and be persistent, even when things get tough.

Tip # 4: Know your purpose - Praise as a part of relationship building takes thoughtfulness. Be intentional about the way in which we praise individual children.

BM: Which leads us to tip number four: Know your purpose. Praise as a part of relationship building takes thoughtfulness. Be intentional about the way in which we praise individual children.

LE: This tip about intention and purpose makes me think about my daughter when she was little. When Molly was maybe, I dunno, maybe three or four, she really, really wanted to be able to do all the magical things that her big brother Jack could do, and at the top of the list one summer was mastering the fire pole at our neighborhood playground. She was super, super nervous and she didn’t think she’d ever be able to get herself down that firepole by herself. I remember what worked to help motivate her was very, very slow incremental praise, acknowledging every bit of progress with the fire pole. So first we gave her props for literally holding on tight while we held her and gently lifted her down the firepole. Next, tons and tons of cheering as she learned how to scooch herself down bit by bit on her own, and then applause applause applause when she hugged her little feet around the pole and we let go of her briefly, and we were like, “Look, I wasn’t touching you for three whole seconds.” Based on how hard I knew that was for her, I knew that this wasn’t going to be a “take a leap” moment for my kid. She needed me to break it down, bit by bit. She needed to be applauded for the smallest step - and trust me, they were all small, but they were all important. Each time she took a little bit more of a risk, we celebrated and praised that extra piece. And eventually, she was flying down that pole on her own. So proud.

BM: So proud. It really sounds like you knew what your daughter needed at the moment. You knew what she was struggling with, you knew how she felt about herself and her capabilities, and you praised her in a way that made her feel seen and understood. It wouldn’t have made sense to have been like “Off you go. You can do it, Molly,” and then walked away.

LE: Oh my gosh, no. So yeah, you’ve gotta know the kid and know what they need in order to figure out your purpose. My son at four was climbing bookcases and leaping off of them onto the wood floor. I didn’t have to praise him for every new physical feat because he had a ton of confidence -- probably too much confidence -- in his physical ability. Trust me though, he needed praise and encouragement in other areas. Every kid is really different.

BM: Every kid is different. So did something specific lead to the way in which you used praise with Molly in that specific way?

LE: Oh my gosh, yes. I think that as a kid I was a lot like her. We often joke about how much we’re alike. I often needed small bits of praise to keep me in the game when I was a kid. To this day, the only thing I remember about my elementary school phys. ed teacher -- who shall remain nameless -- was how critical she was of everybody except the superstar athletes. I think if she had just given me some encouragement -- just little acknowledgements here or there that let me know she knew I was trying -- I would have had much more confidence in my abilities and I would have tried more hard things.

BM: Right, as a student, you ended up shutting down, and knowing that experience, you tried a different approach with Molly. As with so many students, not feeling encouraged in an intentional way led you to not trying.

LE: Yeah that really resonates with me. It’s all Ms. [BEEP]’s fault. Oh my gosh did I just say her name out loud? Anyway...

BM: It’s definitely a circular process with praise and relationships: if, as an educator, you think about praising with intention, you’re already thinking about what a child needs, and when you meet a child’s needs, it strengthens their relationship with you.

LE: That process of adults and children sharing and learning together, it’s so powerful. And at the end of the day, praise with purpose creates a classroom environment that’s safe, nurturing, predictable, and most of all fun for you and for the kids.

KH: This moment always sticks with me because of the kids’ joy. I love to see happy children. I became a teacher because I enjoy children, I want them to feel good when they’re in school. Especially at a very young age, I want them to associate school with a happy, safe, joyful place because they have so many more years of it to go. And so the Invisible Bag is a moment of joy. The kids would get excited about it, really can’t wait until the end. And don’t let me wrap up and try to roll out with my cart. And it’s like “No, you can’t leave until we go into the Invisible Bag.” So that moment sticks with me because joy is important to me, but particularly joyful children in school is important to me.

LE: Okay, let’s recap our four tips about praise and the power of relationships. Tip number one: Know yourself.- Reflect on your own feelings and beliefs about praise and rewards. Be aware of your past experience with praise and try to be conscious about how that shows up in your classroom.

BM: Tip number two: Know your students. Be mindful that one way of praising one child may not work for another. Praise is a way to show your students that you see them as individuals, and that you appreciate them.

LE: Tip number three is to be authentic. Praise in a way that feels right to you. Children always respond to genuineness.

BM: And finally, tip number four: Know your purpose. Use praise purposefully to strengthen relationships with your students. Keep in mind what a child specifically needs. Be intentional about the way you praise individual children.

BM: That’s it for this episode of Tiny Big Moments brought to you by ParentCorps. Thank you again to Kai-ama Hamer for her story and for taking the time to talk with us about praise and the power of relationships.

LE: This episode was written and edited by me, my co-host Blake McKay, Jennifer Vargas and Cindy Gray. Thank you to all ParentCorps staff who made this episode possible, including Kai-ama Hamer, Kat Rosenblatt, and Shanika Gunaratna.

BM: And Tiny Big thank you to you, the listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Do you have a Tiny Big Moment you’d like to share with us? Let us know. You can contact us at That’s P-A-R-E-N-T-C-O-R-P-S at N-Y-U L-A-N-G-O-N-E dot org. Make sure to include “Tiny Big Moments” in the subject line so we know it’s for us.

LE: For more information about ParentCorps and this episode, along with the transcript, please visit our website I’m Lisa Ellrodt.

BM: And I’m Blake McKay. Bye!

LE: Bye!

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