"You're a great student. You're very athletic. You're a great soccer player. I love having you in my class..." Ulmer tells one boy, who seems to light up with each new compliment.
Ulmer focuses on the talents, not the deficits of his students at Mainspring Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. The classmates—who have a range of special needs—have been together for three years, and the tradition of morning compliments began during Ulmer's first year of teaching. What started as a one-day-a-week exercise—Toast Tuesday—became an everyday activity because the student response was so positive.
"They all came from a segregated environment," Ulmer says. "Now they're participating in school activities, dancing in front of hundreds of other kids, and in the debate club."
This is such a beautiful story—and such a simple concept— but it's one that's too often forgotten in the world of teaching kids with special needs. We all do better when we're complimented, but kids who struggle with communication, sensory issues, motor challenges, and developmental delays are frequently just seen in terms of lack. They're seen as collections of the things they can't do, rather than celebrated for all they can do.
My son Liam—a non-speaking, autistic 7-year-old—is developing at his own pace, and I could give a long list of ways he's failing to meet "typical" developmental norms. Or I could tell you—and him—that he's smart, funny, kind, gentle with his brother, clever at problem-solving, a good cook, and quite excellent at building towers.
When we focus on the positive things our kids with special needs do, we will see them grow stronger, more confident, and happier. And although I often compliment my children, Ulmer's video inspires me to be more deliberate about it. I think I'll spend a few minutes today and every morning hereafter affirming each of my boys. Hopefully, this ritual will make us all feel better about ourselves, closer to each other, and set the stage for my kids to share this love with the world.