The Poop Sandwich | A Tactful Way to Offer Constructive Criticism

This post was updated from the version originally published on 5th February 2018.

Constructive criticism is always difficult to deliver tactfully, but I was given a great piece of advice by an old colleague that really stuck in my mind… thanks to the strong imagery!

As teachers, our main job is to help students learn and grow. When a student does something well we should praise, praise, praise that student to encourage them to continue. However, there is a risk of overpraising a child which can be damaging. It’s ultimately all about finding balance.

Mistakes are a part of life. If we aren’t making mistakes we aren’t really trying and we won’t make any progress. As teachers, we should encourage our students to take as many risks as possible without the fear of mistakes. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world – they are a way for us to learn and grow.

While we want to encourage our children to make mistakes, we need to be able to highlight those mistakes in a way that doesn’t make the child feel negatively. We want to encourage our students to learn from their mistakes and try new ways of approaching a problem. We don’t want them to feel badly and therefore become paralysed by their mistakes.

So how can we give constructive criticism without upsetting a child?

‘Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.’ – Frank A. Clark

The Poop Sandwich

It was an old colleague of mine who gave me a great piece of advice for offering constructive criticism… feed them a poop sandwich (though ‘poop’ wasn’t her chosen word).

This simply means, sandwich the criticism between two compliments to ensure the child begins and ends the conversation in a positive mindset.

Leading in with a positive comment disarms them and makes the ready to listen to the other things you have to say.

Then, give your suggestion for improvement. It’s useful to ask your student what they think could be improved before launching into your own comments. This helps the child to feel at ease and that you are having a conversation as opposed to telling them off.

If your student feels a little surprised by the comments, you can soften the blow with another compliment. I find that offering a compliment related to the same area as the critique can steer the student in the right direction in future. What you’re saying is ‘less of this and more of this’.

Essentially: sandwich the poop between praise.

This technique provides a great solution with positive reinforcement outweighing criticism. It helps the student to feel that they are valued while still reflecting on areas for improvement.

I find this to be a useful tool for providing feedback on both work and behaviour. It ensures that your kids don’t feel stupid or naughty – they’re just people and they’re imperfect, but they’re still doing a great job!

When inviting feedback from classmates, I always call on three students. I ask the first to say something they liked and thought worked well about their classmate’s work. The second student is asked what they think could be improved in future. The third is asked for another positive comment. This means that all feedback in class is offered in a way that protects the students from being discouraged.

Using the Poop Sandwich with Parents

This is also an effective technique when you need to speak to a child’s parents. Many of us know that some parents can find it difficult to hear criticism of their children. A poop sandwich assures parents that you are treating their child fairly which can actually make them take the criticism more seriously. If your criticism is related to behaviour, this can help you secure an ally while addressing the issue.

When it comes to work standards, both teachers and parents can unwittingly put pressure on a child that causes anxiety. Overly critical parents can be extremely damaging to a child so, as teachers, we need to make sure we’re not encouraging criticism when we speak to a child’s parents. By communicating with parents in this way, we provide things for them to be proud of too! This can help all involved to not become overly focused on the negative and to encourage growth.

Give it a try and let us know if you notice an improvement with your class morale and performance!

Rebecca is the founder and chief executive officer of Silly Fish Learning Ltd. She is a children's playwright with a vast and varied career in education, primarily teaching drama and English.

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