Affirmations vs. Compliments

We are about to embark on yet another school year and with that comes a new group of students.  It is wonderful to meet your class on that first day and to see all of their smiling faces.  The first week (the honeymoon phase) most of our students want to show you everything they know and tell you everything about themselves.  They want you to know how smart they are.  However, could we potentially ruin their entire year by saying the “S” word? Could what we say with the most sincerity damage our students view of themselves?  Are we complimenting them or affirming them?  What is the difference?  According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary the definition of a compliment is an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration: an admiring remark.  However according to an article from New Age Teacher called A Lesson on the Power of Positive Affirmations affirmations are words you think or say and believe to be true.  Does anyone see the difference between the two?  Compliments seem to skim the surface and affirmations are deeper and focus on specific traits or action. Affirmations really focus on a student’s individuality and talent. Compliments are just so general.

Why is it important for us to affirm our students rather than compliment them?  According to Carol Dweck, “The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.”  Telling a student they are smart all the time gives them this fixed idea that they are always smart.  So what happens when they struggle with something and they all of a sudden they do not feel smart?  If we create a classroom where you are considered “smart’ then what happens to the students who are never told they are smart?  What happens if they make a mistake?  I have been in these situations and have had students who enter the classroom with this idea that they are “smart”.  They are so confident until they finally struggle with something and then we have a melt down.  I am talking tears, resistance, and extremely low self esteem.  It is hard to get a student back after such a catastrophic disappointment.  The student then enters the “I’m dumb” zone.

This is why it is important to create that classroom culture where active struggle is routine, mistakes are embraced, and affirmations are the norm.  According to Carol Dweck, “Classroom affirmations are used to create a positive and supportive environment by teaching students to be supportive of one another. Affirmations develop an atmosphere where it is the norm to acknowledge and affirm positive behaviors, thoughts and actions. Used consistently, affirmations can change students’ attitudes and their actions.”

“The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.” Carol Dweck

Students love being affirmed and love to affirm their peers.  It is a contagious act.  So in order to introduce this idea of affirmations vs compliments in my own classroom I implemented an affirmation morning.  Everyday while students ate breakfast I would either show an inspirational video, read them an inspirational quote, or complete a read aloud that focused on affirmations, growth mindset, or team building.  It is so encouraging to hear students affirming each other and you as the teacher.  

As we begin the school year lets try and compliment less and affirm more.  You will be pleasantly surprised how much this one little thing will change the culture of your classroom.


Resources for the Classroom

Let’s Not Forget About Mistake Making

It’s that time of year again!  Kids are organizing their school supplies, anxiously awaiting registration to see which of their friends are in their class, and soaking up every last bit of summer.  Teachers are setting up their classrooms, making sure everything is just right and possibly experiencing first day of school nightmares.  We all have had moments of panic, thinking about losing your entire class, or walking into the class from Black Lagoon. But, even with all of these things going on let’s not lose perspective about what is really important…THE STUDENTS!!  We as educators all want every single student in our classroom to be and feel successful everyday.  However, with success comes active struggle and with active struggle comes mistakes.  I mean, we are all human. We are not by any means perfect and it is unfair of anyone to hold that unrealistic expectation for our students.
Throughout much of my education, I was always under the impression that making mistakes was unacceptable.  If I just followed directions and did what I was told, then I wouldn’t make mistakes.  Mistakes were unacceptable!  So naturally as I became an educator I didn’t want to make mistakes and because of this I didn’t want my students to make mistakes either.  If they did, then I would be considered a “Bad Teacher”.  I obviously wasn’t doing my job if my students were constantly making mistakes. 
However, after a few years of teaching I was enlightened about “mistake making” and how important it is for our own personal growth and development.  I was taught that mistakes were inevitable and even necessary for our own personal growth and development.  After hearing this from my instructional specialist, I was intrigued.  I thought, well if mistakes are necessary then I am doing okay as a human being and more importantly as a teacher.  It helped me to start to change my perspective as an educator.  Of course if didn’t happen overnight. In fact I am still learning about mistakes - as I continuously make mistakes!  Now this doesn’t mean that we allow students to go crazy, disengage, and run wild.  This means, though, that we need to embrace mistakes and take the time to discuss how to find and fix them.  Mistakes are our way of learning and problem solving.  So if students came to an incorrect answer during a Number Talk it was okay, especially if they were able to find their mistake and learn from it.
After doing some research I have found that people relate making mistakes to brain growth.  According to Jo Boaler and recent neurological research on the brain, making mistakes is hugely important as it tells us that making a mistake is a very good thing. Mistakes are not only opportunities for learning, as students consider the mistakes, but also times when our brains grow. Understanding the power of mistakes is critical, as children and adults everywhere often feel terrible when they make a mistake in math. They think it means they are not a math person, because they have been brought up in a performance culture (Boaler, 2014) in which mistakes are not valued—or worse, they are punished. 
Since embracing mistake making and sharing this newly learned information with my students, I have found that my students seem more confident to share their thinking with their peers and are more willing to take risks.  They encourage each other to try new things and embrace their mistakes and the mistakes of their peers by telling them, “Your brain just grew!” 
Let’s keep all of this in mind when entering the classroom for yet another school year keep an open-mind about mistake making.

Great Read-Alouds Classroom

Extra Resources


By popular demand-Number Talks

Across New Mexico, our CORE Coaches and Specialists collaborate with teachers everyday on topics ranging from differentiating instruction, to better understanding our Common Core standards, to close reading strategies, to facilitating classroom discourse, and so much more.  This year, New Mexico teachers are particularly interested in the number talk routine to build student communication and problem solving skills, and we don't blame them!  Our CORE Team has spent the last few years studying this routine, and we are happy to share that experience with you! 
What is a Number Talk?
Have you ever stumbled upon something, a product or simple strategy, that yields amazing results?  This past year, for us, it was the number talk routine.  This short 5-15 minute snippet of our day has transformed students into mathematical communicators, capable of speaking about their conceptual understanding, constructing arguments about their problem solving, questioning and critiquing the reasoning of others, and eventually, using this foundation to write about their thinking.

A number talk is a daily routine in which students have a chance to deepen their mathematical thinking.  For teachers, number talks are a great way to quickly and informally assess understanding while helping students transition from ineffective to more effective and efficient problem solving techniques.  During number talks, a problem is posed, students solve the problem individually using their mental computation skills, then students discuss their problem solving while the teacher records their method. In the primary grades, number talks focus on developing number sense, building fluency with small numbers, subitizing, and making tens.  In the intermediate grades, number talks still focus on deepening number sense, but also develops place value understanding, builds fluency, strengthens properties of operations and helps connect mathematical ideas.  Number talks provide a big bang for your buck!

Where do you even begin?!

As with any new routine,  it's all about consistency and implementation.  First, decide what mathematical idea you want the students to consider.  Is it strategies for adding multi-digit numbers?  Building equal groups from a set?  Or determining a quantity of counters on a ten-frame?  The beauty of number talks is that they can be modified and adapted to address almost any mathematical concept depending on the needs of your students. 

Next, set the purpose for your students and introduce the routine.

In many classrooms, a problem is posed, students silently solve the problem mentally, then they give a "secret thumbs-up" (thumbs-up in front of their body) to let the teacher know they have solved the problem.  When the majority of thumbs in the room are up, the teacher can begin to cold-call students to share their thinking aloud with the class.  Another common modification is to allow students to "pair-share" their strategies while the teacher listens intently for problem-solving methods they want to highlight. As they share, it is the teachers job to ask questions to help clarify and solidify their understanding.  Over time, students will begin to ask questions of each other as their curiosity grows.  Modeling good questioning and providing students with thinking stems is key in promoting student-to-student interaction.  Simple stems like "How did you know to..." or "Why did you choose to..." and "I'm curious about the way you..." can promote a spirit of inquiry, which strengthens understanding for the student explaining, as well as those listening.   

Since our intention is to build problem solving skills, it is crucial to emphasize the thinking behind the problem solving, as opposed to the correct answer.  And because of that, mistakes will be made.  But guess what?  There is power in mistake making.  One of our favorite mathematicians, Jo Boaler explains it: 

Allowing students to work through the thinking behind their mistakes has proven to be extremely powerful in many classrooms.  Of course, the environment in which students have a sense of safety to be able to take risks without fear of being labeled a failure is crucial in developing the growth mindset that Jo mentions above.  

So, what does it look like?

Number talks look different in every classroom, and as a teacher, you modify it to meet your students learning styles and needs.  Youtube has tons of sample number talk lessons that teachers have shared from around the country.  

Students love the number talk routine, and their teachers love the impact this small routine has on deepening student understanding, developing mathematical communication skills, and building confidence in our learning.  We will definitely continue to number talk across New Mexico. 

If you're interested in learning more about number talks, we encourage you to check out Number Talks by Sherry Parrish, or contact your CORE Coach for more information.

So what about you?  Do you number talk?  What has your experience been?

Note: This post was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for content and comprehensiveness. 

About Us

Collaborating for Outstanding Readiness in Education, or CORE, is a cohort of 25 coaches working to support teachers in the state of New Mexico.  Our talented group consists of full-time CORE Specialists, as well as Coaches who also happen to be Teachers, Staff Development Personnel, Instructional Specialists, and Administrators from across the state.     

CORE coaches provide teachers with school-based professional development for instructional strategies in the areas of: (1) implementation of CCSS-M and/or CCSS-ELA; (2) differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all learners; and (3) developing Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies as common classroom practice. Our primary role is to support teachers in improving classroom instruction, which in turn improves student success. (We do not evaluate teachers or assist in the evaluation process at school sites.)

Our work is accomplished in a number of ways, including small and large group professional development sessions, examining standards and instructional resources with teachers and teams in professional learning communities (PLCs), classroom observations and reflective conversations with descriptive feedback based on a focus determined by the teacher. CORE coaches also collaborate and co-plan lessons and interventions with teachers, model or co-teach for short periods of time. Working with administration to determine needs, combined with working alongside teachers to analyze and interpret formative and summative assessment data to improve student learning is also a key component of our work.

Currently, CORE subcontracts with Regional Educational Cooperative 7 (REC 7) to provide coaching in math and reading the New State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG) -(RDA) project’s schools. CORE will be providing coaching services in math and/or reading to 64 schools throughout the state of New Mexico during the 2015-2016 school year.

If you are interested in more information about CORE Coaches and opportunities for your school or district, please contact us by email ( or phone (575)646-2012.

And We're Off!!

The CORE blog has been an idea in the making for months, and we are thrilled to finally "go-live"!  We look forward to sharing teaching tips, resources, and ideas from the field, answers to your burning questions in "Ask a CORE Coach", information about Common Core, New Mexico-specific education news, and so much more.  You'll also have the opportunity to meet our talented team of full-time CORE Reading and Math Specialists and Coaches, and get a glimpse inside schools across the state.

Check back often as we get this ball rolling, and as always, feel free to reach out, we'd love to hear from you!


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