The Terrific Kid Program: Just How Terrific?
No One Really Knows
The Terrific Kid(TK) program was founded by the Black Mountain, N. C. Kiwanis Club in 1985 and is conducted in thousands of primary, elementary, and middle schools in every state in the United States and in 74 countries. Bumper stickers proclaiming "I Have A Terrific Kid At Such and Such School" are seen wherever one drives. The program seeks to encourage students to feel good about themselves and to strive toward good citizenship.
The program's successful expansion and numerous anecdotal success stories have resulted in an unquestioned impression that the program is an across-the-board positive factor in schools where it is implemented.
Yet, the program has never been objectively and professionally evaluated. Doubts about the program at the Black Mountain Primary School where TK first started are an indicator that after ten years the program needs a thorough examination by educators, counselors, psychologists, teachers, and parents. The concerns about the program became so pronounced among Black Mountain Primary teachers that they voted in 1993 to drop the program. No one at the school wanted to offend the Kiwanis Club or discourage the organization's important participation in the school by that action, especially when the program started at that school and frequent inquiries come from around the nation asking how to implement it.
The school decided to set up a TK Committee within its faculty to try to mitigate some of the concerns. Meanwhile, parents began talking hesitantly among themselves. Questioning Terrific Kids seemed like questioning Mom and Apple Pie.
In January 1995, six parents met with two Black Mountain Kiwanis Club representatives to share their concerns and request that a professional evaluation of the program be carried out. The concerns and questions the parents raised would themselves make a good framework for part of the study. Among them:
1. Why is the pain generated by the program overlooked? The parents pointed out that while there are many real and poignant success stories with Terrific Kids, the rejection and pain felt by many other children is apparently ignored or invisible to the organizers. The parents questioned whether the program should not be designed to eliminate that pain especially in light of the program being one whose purpose is to improve the children's sense of self. One parent noted that some schools had in fact dropped the program or re-designed it completely. A parent shared the fact that one area principal, who chose not to use TK after his experience with it as an assistant principal in another school, said he would be happy to share his observations with the Kiwanians. Moreover, the Black Mountain Primary principal indicated to the parent that he would be cooperative if such a study were undertaken.
2. Is competition surrounding one's self-image really appropriate for this age group? The parents shared stories that showed how aware children are of the nuances of TK competition. For example, children are aware that those who receive TK at the beginning of the year are somehow better than those who receive it later. One parent's fourth grader came home to her congratulations on receiving TK in the final TK program of the year. He blurted out "Yeah, they had to give it to me" as he tore up the certificate and threw the debris in the woods. He felt patronized and certainly not very terrific.
Another parent shared a teacher's story of how hard it was when a first-grader asks, "Why am I not a Terrific Kid?" Our adult perception of working toward a goal may not be directly translatable to a seven year old's sense of the world and herself or himself.
Another parent observed that often it is the very children with strong parental support and an already developed good self-image who receive the early recognition of TK anyway. The ones who really need the positive reinforcement often get it toward the end of the year or not at all. One teacher had pointed out to a parent that what really counts is whether the teacher treats the children genuinely as Terrific Kids every day.
Unfortunately, a few teachers use TK as a stick or a threat and then limit the number of children who receive it to only those who truly excel. One teacher recounted how another teacher complained that she gave out TK awards too easily and to too many children.
3. How does one handle the pain that arises when one sibling receives the award and one doesn't? One parent told how her fourth grade boy became more and more dejected as his younger sister got TK at the first program each year and he did not get it at all. She told of the dilemma she and her husband felt when the younger child wanted to put the TK bumper sticker on the car. The parents did not want to further hurt the older child by doing so and yet they did not want to withhold praise from the younger child. She said that the family's resolution is to just not discuss TK around the house.
Another parent recounted how when he was getting into the car to go to his 2nd grade son's TK program with his pre-school son, the younger boy questioned whether he should go because "they will know I am not a Terrific Kid." The parent was shocked because little or nothing had been said about the program in the home. This younger sibling did cause more disciplinary problems than his older brother and even with parents sensitive to not playing favorites and trying to condemn the behavior not the child, this perception had come through to his four year-old son.
4. Do the children really understand what it is all about? Again, our adult perception of how one works to meet the TK standards may not translate into young children. One parent heard her bright third-grader wondering why she got TK, concluding it was because she stood straight in the cafeteria line.
5. Is the lack of inclusiveness at this age really beneficial? One parent whose child had received TK at the first program each year told how uncomfortable it was to sit there as the song "I'm A Terrific Kid" is sung, then see only a few children out of the hundred or more present go up for the award. A new teacher at the school recounted to a parent how she left one of the programs because she just couldn't bear to see the pain in some kids faces at not being selected. Another teacher also says TK is completely played down in the classroom because of the tears and questions children raise as to why they aren't selected.
Another parent told of a birthday party the weekend after a TK presentation. A screaming match ensued where girls who had received Terrific Kids taunted the others with "we're Terrific Kids, we're Terrific Kids."
One parent recounted how he had spoken with a parent in a creative public primary school in Asheville who said that they would never consider using a program like Terrific Kids but they had toyed with the idea of a bumper sticker that would say "Every Kid is Terrific at ------ School." (Note: After this article was drafted, the parents read about the sale of a bumper sticker that reads "Every Child Is A Terrific Kid." The Asheville parent promoting the idea hopes to get them on all school buses in the city and county system.)
Again, the question centers around whether we are expecting an adult type motivator to work in what may be an inappropriate age context? Several months after the January meeting with Kiwanis, one parent witnessed outside a classroom a desperate, crying second grader yelling to his mother, "But if I don't get it this time, I'll never get it." He was in a panic, worried that he had not been selected. Is it fair to expect an eight year old second grader to rationalize and process the implications of his not being selected as we adults might be able to?
Another incident occurred after the January meeting where a parent was entering the school and saw a boy looking at some cookies on a table. Noting that they were to be used in the TK program, the mother asked the boy if he wanted one. He told her no that he was not a Terrific Kid and he would get in trouble. Pained by this, the mother gave him a cookie and told him that "Yes, you are a Terrific Kid."
6. If one did a cost/benefit analysis of the program, would the good outweigh the pain? When Black Mountain Primary teachers voted to drop the program in 1993, it was not that they had not seen good impact on many children. They had. But according to one teacher, they had also seen the unintended negative impacts and felt that, given the resulting pain and confusion caused in the children, these negative impacts outweighed the good qualitatively if not quantitatively. At the meeting with Kiwanis, one parent suggested that the TK program should at the very least subscribe to Florence Nightingale's motto for nurses: "Do no harm." Parents wanted a motivator program that would address the need for all children especially at that young age to feel included and to feel good about themselves.
7. Does the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club have a particular obligation to ensure that the program is doing what it purports to do? In requesting that the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club sponsor an outside professional evaluation of the program, the parents asserted, given the impact on tens of thousands of children around the world, the responsibility of Kiwanis International and the local Kiwanis club to evaluate the program on an ongoing basis whether or not concerns are raised. The fact that concerns are being raised simply magnifies Kiwanis' responsibility to the children and their families. Moreover, the parents pointed out that they brought these concerns to Kiwanis because it would be better for such an evaluation to be initiated by Kiwanis rather than by another organization or by an investigative reporter.
The parents felt that an evaluation would highlight the good aspects of the TK program and hopefully provide substantive recommendations for correcting the painful aspects. They also felt it would be most effective for the evaluation and its recommendations to be released by the Black Mountain Kiwanis and eventually by Kiwanis International so that programs world-wide will benefit. This way, the Club that began the program will also be seen as the one rigorously monitoring it and making whatever "course corrections" are needed.
This article is being written almost nine months after that January 1995 parents' meeting with Kiwanis representatives. While those in charge of the program within the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club have tried to frame TK more inclusively during TK programs, no study or other steps have been initiated. Kiwanis members who agree an evaluation is needed apparently find themselves in the delicate position of wanting to pursue an evaluation while not dampening the Club's enthusiasm and pride in TK. We know that the Kiwanis Club wants what is best for the children and that is where the bottomline of these concerns has to be measured. We also know that most Kiwanians are not aware of the unintended negative impacts associated with TK. Thus, we urge the Kiwanis Club to hear these concerns and quickly initiate an evaluation that will be framed toward highlighting the good aspects of TK while finding ways to reduce the hurtful aspects. That way, the TK program and Kiwanis will maximize their service to the children not only in Black Mountain but throughout the world.
Committee of Parents Concerned
About the Terrific Kid Program
September 30, 1995
PO Box 1341
Black Mountain, NC 8711