They seem to like the compliments on the whole. I think they like the idea that someone outside of their circle notices.
Thank you for this!

Thank you for reading, Emily! I’ll start by saying unless students have told you this, please don’t assume they look forward to your comments because you are “outside of their circle”. I assure you, they are not seeking your validation. In this situation, I think the approach makes all the difference. I do believe there is a difference between commenting (like some of the examples I gave in the piece) and complimenting, like you say you do. I would just say please don’t make an event out of it, with loud/surprised/excited “compliments” everytime you see a hairstyle change. Now that you know its a pretty normal thing for black women to change their hair, it should also give you a hint as to how weird/annoying/exhausting it can be to get so much unwanted attention for doing something that is normal to them. “You look nice today.” OK, and sounds like a comment you would give to any other student. “OMG, I barely recognized you, you look so different, how do you do that to your hair?!” NOT OK. Helpful?