A teacher from North Texas is hoping to teach her kindergarten students lifelong lessons on kindness and friendship by having them greet each other with a handshake and a smile to start their day.
Ashley Coston Taylor, a teacher at Keene Elementary School, designates one child each day to stand by the classroom door and shake the hands of their classmates as they go inside to take their seats. In a video that Taylor posted to Facebook last month, one student named Asher — who wore an oversized backpack and orange shirt — said good morning to his many friends, and some of them even gave him a hug before going inside.
The video ends when Taylor, herself, walked up to the boy and gave him a big handshake before he went running off into the classroom.
“Our class is a family! So that means we learn to treat each other with respect and kindness,” Taylor, 41, tells PEOPLE. “I treat them as if they are my own. I instill this each year with my kids. We spend just as much time together at school as they do at home. This is the foundation that I build our year on.”
Taylor — who has been teaching for almost two decades — says she first came up with the greeting ritual years ago.
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“We start this ritual early in the year. It starts out with myself being the greeter and then as they start feeling comfortable they take over,” Taylor says. “Every child is spoken to by name, given a firm handshake and welcomed into our room with a smile and sometimes a hug.”
But there are also lessons in interacting with peers that the children will learn that will help them later in life, especially in their careers.
“Since starting this, I notice that my kids are much different. Just the way they interact with other kids and adults. Throughout each day, our activities require us to be speakers and listeners. We practice those same lessons during those times… both require eye contact, clear speaking and respect.”
Throughout her years of teaching, Taylor says she realized the classroom may be one of the few places many of her students will feel this kind of friendliness.
“Sadly, lots of kids come to school looking for the positive interaction that they may not have experienced at home,” she says. “Life can be hard for kids, but it shouldn’t be at school.”
Taylor says Asher, the greeter from her viral video, has neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to form on a person’s brain, spinal cord and nerves, according to the National Library of Medicine.
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“When school started, he was non-verbal. He had no fine motor skills,” Taylor says. “As our class bonded with each other, Asher began to feel more and more comfortable.”
Today, after initially connecting with him around his favorite toy, Transformers, Asher is opening up and feeling more confident.
“Within months, he was beginning to speak of Transformers. We, as a class, ran with this!” Taylor says. “Here we are today with Asher speaking in full sentences and able to do almost all that his peers can!”
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With summer break just around the corner, Taylor says she hopes her students, who she called “littles,” remember the lessons they learned this year for the rest of their lives.
“As the year comes to an end,” she explains, “I pray that each of my Littles will continue the manners and respect that they have learned during their year with me.”