Saturday, October 6, 2012

Classroom Celebration, without food

As a parent of a child with multiple food allergies, I am intensely aware of how often schools use food as an incentive for positive behavior with students.  I know I'm not the only one baking cupcakes at midnight, scrambling to come up with a last minute allergy-safe pizza, or dropping ice cream off at school so that my allergic child can participate with the other students in their food based celebrations!

Unfortunately, those are just the events we are notified about.  Many times there are food events at school that we don't know about until after our children get home.  Unplanned birthday treats that surprise the teacher, and little rewards from other teachers that slip through the notification system.  Yes, I have a box of safe treats stashed in the classroom for just such events, but I'd rather not.

The number of food based incentives really adds up when you look at the number of adults each week that our children interact with: the teachers, principal, cafeteria workers, coaches, tutors, music lessons, etcetera.  I'd rather be teaching my kids how to reward themselves for good behavior in ways that don't involve food.  How to celebrate in a way that encourages good health.  Too many of us as adults still struggle with this concept, and reach for indulgent foods when we want to reward ourself.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could lessen this struggle for our kids, regardless of allergies?

With this in mind, I sent a letter to my daughter's school, asking them to consider more non-food rewards.  These ideas can be used for birthdays, to celebrate classroom victory in school wide competitions, and many other times.  Feel free to borrow my letter.  Tweak it to match the culture of your school, add some of your own ideas, or use it just as it is.  Send it to the school board and superintendent and encourage the district to move toward food free celebration as a whole!

Dear ________________________,

I applaud all you do to build enthusiasm in your building, both among students and staff.  I am always impressed with how positive the attitudes are no matter who I interact with while I am there.   Thank you for working so hard to maintain such a positive environment.

That being said, I would like to make some suggestions for your consideration regarding classroom rewards and celebrations.  It seems that the most frequent way to reward a classroom for achievement is with a food of some sort.  I feel that foods are not easily adapted to the many possible dietary restrictions you may have in your building.  (Including diabetes, allergies, and religious preference among others.)  Many students also enjoy pizza, ice cream, and other treats at home with their families, which makes the treat somewhat less exciting at school. 

In addition, when you stop to consider the number of adults providing food rewards to our children over the week, it adds up to an alarming volume.  This is in direct conflict with the nutrition teaching we are doing: it teaches children to eat when they are not hungry, and to indulge in low nutrition treats.  It also excludes children who are not able to enjoy the same treat.  That is a lot of negative impact for what is intended to be a positive reward!

Rewards can be a tremendously effective way to motivate positive behavior in children.  My preference is to shift the celebration away from food.  With all of the dietary restrictions in the building, as well as the growing obesity epidemic in our society, I would love to teach the children how to reward themselves with treats that are not food based.  I have many suggestions for this, ranging in price from free (yeah!) to budget friendly. If you factor in time to serve, eat and clean up for each celebration, I estimate that each celebration is about 30 minutes of time.  Many activities can be done in that time.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Watch an age appropriate short cartoon or movie.  
  • Have extra recess time outdoors.
  • Play teacher directed games in the classroom or the gym, or chose a special host to direct games. If a guest hosts, the teacher gets the reward of extra planning time!
  • Have the winning class do a “victory lap” around the school (through the hallways), singing the school song or other parade appropriate chant. (Focusing on celebration, not teasing.)
  • Have a parent come in for a guest appearance reading, doing a magic act, or showcasing another talent.  (We have many parents that could entertain with stories, music, or crafts.)
  • Eat (their own) lunch as a class in a unique location, such as the teacher's lounge, outside, or in the library.
  • Chose a favor from the treasure box.  This can include bouncy balls, erasers, novelty pencils or pens, party whistles, etc.  If you watch clearance items it is amazing what you can find for under $2!
  • Decorate a box or blank journal and send it to the classroom.  Have each member of the class write a sentence about what helped them to succeed in this victory, an experience with the person being celebrated, or other thought relevant to the celebration.  Display this in the hallway where other children can view it, then send it home with the person of honor or allow it to live on a ‘victory shelf’ in the office or classroom.
  • Provide supplies for a craft that is related to the reason for celebration.
  • Host a dance party in the classroom or gym, and teach the class a new line dance or dance move.
  • Time to play board games in the classroom: scrabble, banana grams, etc.  Make a traveling game box full of games reserved especially for victory celebrations.
  • An opportunity to chose a unique location for a ‘read in’, where the class has their silent reading time outdoors, in the gym, or another location they chose.
  • A phone call home from the principal to brag about the student’s accomplishments
  • A certificate of recognition
  • An easel by the office displaying a picture of the victor and a caption explaining their victory.  They can take the picture home or add it to a book of school victors that is on display in the office.

Thank you for your time and consideration in reviewing these ideas.  If none of these ideas seem to fit with your ideal celebration, I would like to request that a minimum of 1 day advance notice be given to all recipients of the food based party.  Sending a note home with students not only allows the parents to plan appropriately for alternate accommodations, but it also allows the students to build anticipation, heightening their enjoyment of the event.  

Thanks again,

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