George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

The Power of a Compliment

A project that invites students to anonymously compliment their classmates and teachers has improved the culture at one high school.

February 28, 2023
Dan Bejar / The iSpot

A small act of kindness can change the complexion of someone’s day. Giving someone a compliment, telling them how much they mean to you, or just sharing words of encouragement can change a person’s overall outlook.

For the past six years, staff and students at Wayne Valley High School in New Jersey have participated in an activity known as Third Party Compliments. Each year, we share between 2,500 and 3,000 anonymous messages of kindness and positivity throughout our school community.

Positivity and Encouragement

I got the idea for this from an icebreaker introduced to me by my brother-in-law. Three people are separated from a group. They’re kept isolated from one another and brought back in one at a time. They’re blindfolded and handed 10 pennies to throw into a garbage can. For the first person, no one speaks while they throw the pennies. For the second person, the crowd mocks them during the task, and for the third person, the crowd offers encouragement.

You can probably guess that the last person performs the task best, but what may surprise you is that whenever I do this activity, the person who receives no feedback always performs at the same level as the person who received negative feedback. This activity provides evidence of the power of positivity and encouragement.

We tap into that at my school through our compliment project, which is one of several social and emotional learning activities we do. The process begins with staff and students using a Google Form to submit compliments and positive messages for anyone within our school community. The link to the form is posted on social media, emailed to staff and students, posted on Google Classroom, and also made available through QR codes posted around the building.


The form is set to only accept responses from emails within our school’s domain and to collect the respondents’ email addresses. It’s important that we know who submitted the message for safety reasons. Over the course of a three-week period, our goal is to give everyone as many opportunities to submit their messages of positivity as possible.

After all the messages are collected, we give ourselves two weeks to sort, organize, and prepare the messages to be delivered to our school community. There’s an intentional focus on detail to ensure that every student and staff member receives a message.

This part is a little tricky, but with some creative sorting using Google Sheets, it can be done. Autocrat, an add-on to Sheets, is a mail merging tool that pulls the data from the various columns in Sheets and adds them to a template. Once the merge happens, each of the messages will be added to the template in a Google Doc. Now comes the manual labor! Lots of cutting and organizing.

Once the messages are ready to be shared, they are organized into two groups. The main bulk of the messages are distributed through physical education class in batches over the course of the week. During the sorting process, around 100 messages are identified to be hand-delivered. These messages are selected because they are particularly heartfelt and impactful while also highlighting students and staff who may not typically get noticed or recognized.

A Team Effort

Students, administrators, counselors, and teachers participate in walking around to distribute these messages. Students are asked to come to the hallway to read their compliment, and the messages are read to staff members in front of their students. Our TV students capture the authentic reactions to the messages and compile them into a video.

The process of collecting, sorting, organizing, and distributing the messages requires a great deal of commitment from a lot of people. We have had counselors, administrative assistants, and students help with the process. I can truly say that seeing the reactions of the people receiving the messages is priceless and worth every minute of energy required.

Mother Theresa said that kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. Although the process can be time-consuming, the impact that this program has had on our school climate has been undeniable. Staff and students consistently share with me that this is their favorite activity of the year. The pure joy and happiness in the responses of everyone reading their messages makes all the work of putting this activity together worth it.

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Filed Under

  • Administration & Leadership
  • School Culture
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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