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Cool to Be Kind: Teaching Kindness in the Classroom by Celebrating the Small Things

Cool to Be Kind: Teaching Kindness in the Classroom by Celebrating the Small Things

Anxiety and depression are on the rise in children from preschoolers to teenagers, and the negative news cycle doesn’t help. Research has shown that anxiety and depression are correlated with individuals’ sense of control or lack of control over their own lives, which is referred to as internal versus external locus of control. Consistent headlines about violence, terrorism, natural disasters, and crimes can contribute to children’s feelings of being out of control of their own destinies. Pair that with the nearly constant pressure to achieve good grades and high test scores, and it’s easy to see how students establish that detrimental external locus of control.

Amidst the frequent stories of violence, bullies, and disaster, what can educators (and other adults) do to cut through the negativity? A little kindness can go a long way—after all, it’s the stories of outstanding compassion, humans banding together, and small gestures making a big difference that bring a smile to our faces and truly leave a lasting mark.

Children are born with an innate desire to be kind (I am not kidding—even if you are at the end of your rope today, there is proof!). In fact, the paper “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology shows that children begin to help others from a very early age. For instance, a 14-month-old child seeing an adult with full hands struggling to open a door will naturally attempt to provide help.

Clearly, when we perform acts of kindness, we are being true to our own design. However, educators still need to point out kindness and remind children of its value. The job description may focus on lesson planning, instruction, and grading, but educators play an equally important role in character development—it’s our responsibility to clear the path for students’ intrinsic kindness to shine through. 

Why Kindness Matters

With research to back it up, it seems clear that doing good for others can also do good for us. Best of all, it's a habit that can be developed anywhere, at any time, at little or no cost.

A fascinating feature of kindness is that it appears to be self-replicating, inspiring kindness in others. Simply put, when we ourselves perform an act of kindness, it is likely to encourage others to act in a similar way. One benevolent action can literally become the first in a series of a long line of acts of kindness, with ripples positively affecting many others initially not at all involved. 

Why? Because kindness changes the brain by the experience of its own reward. When we allow ourselves to be kind regularly, we create neural pathways that enhance feelings of well-being and the natural flow of feel-good endorphins and mood-elevating neurotransmitters. This means that children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Instead, kindness is best learned by feeling it so that youth can reproduce it. Imagine the impact of that kind of classroom practice!

Cultivating Kindness by Starting with Modeling

One of the first steps in teaching children to be kind is to model kindness. In fact, the act of kindness isn’t just a matter of ultimately receiving more kindness in return, or even an act of altruism and selflessness. It has more to do with seeing the big picture itself—a healthy, robust, functioning system of careful human performance—that becomes the goal. It’s in this simple paradigm shift that we, as teachers, can find a new level of performance as professionals, contentment in our craft, and transformed lives in the communities we serve.

Children tend to model the behaviors of the adults around them, including their teachers. This requires a measure of conscientious intentionality on the part of educators. If students watch you regularly being kind—to them, to their peers, to their parents, and to other staff members—they will emulate that kindness in their own lives. Of course, this is easier said than done. We’re all only human, and some days, the myriad of stressors we all encounter make patient, compassionate behavior a struggle. Don’t fret; slipping up is part of the process. Instead, be kind to yourself, take the time to apologize when you were less than kind, and help your students learn a lesson about the inevitability of mistakes and the power of saying you’re sorry. 

Classroom Activities to Promote Kindness

Children tend to be unable to see the big picture, focusing instead on the here-and-now without thinking too far ahead. Consequently, they often may not realize the full effects that subtle behaviors and brief interactions—like a mean comment, a recess exclusion, or bullying—could be having on their peers. Here are some ideas to start conversations in your school or classroom and establish kindness as the norm for your students:

Talk to students about what they think it means to be kind. Ask them to share memories of acts of kindness as well as unkindness. Integrate questions about kindness into your daily classroom routine. Try the writing prompts below to encourage students to share their feelings, and then follow their lead to have a meaningful conversation.

·       What is kindness?

·       What happens when I choose to be kind to someone I don’t like?

·       When and why is kindness easy and when and why is it hard?

·       What is the ripple effect of my kindness?

Give students plenty of opportunities to show kindness. Remind them that many of the small acts of kindness they do daily can be celebrated, such as holding the door, smiling at someone, complimenting others, and using the words “please” and “thank you.” All of these are small, often overlooked actions that can make other people’s days—and that’s worth celebrating.

Set goals for students to help them reflect on their actions and identify kind behaviors. Awareness is key to help students make the choice to behave kindly. A struggling student who has a goal of three kind acts a week may make a choice to sit with a new student. Again, children WANT to be kind; they sometimes just need help recognizing the opportunity.

Take advantage of the resources already out there. I am not the first one to stumble upon the idea that educators have a responsibility to teach kindness. A simple Google search will turn up a treasure trove of bulletin board ideas, reflection sheets, lesson plans, and more. There are five-minute activities that are so easy to integrate, it will seem silly not to include them in your day. Here are some worthy websites to start exploring:

·       Kindness: A Lesson Plan – Edutopia

·       10 Kindness Lessons and Activities for Elementary School – Tales from a Very Busy Teacher

·       Kindness in the Classroom – Random Acts of Kindness

·       40 Kindness Activities & Empathy Worksheets for Students and Adults – PostivePsychology.com

·       9 Tips for Teaching Kindness in the Classroom – PBS Education

The Worthwhile Achievement of Teaching and Learning Kindness

Think about the power that schools have. Children bring the stressors of their home life and the realities of our society into the classroom. At the same time, children often quickly learn that their own choices of activities in school and their own judgments of competence don't count; what matters are the teachers’ choices and decisions. Our system of constant testing and evaluation in school is a system that very clearly exacerbates the extrinsically motivated, pressure-cooker world we’re all already dealing with. Is the rise in childhood anxiety and depression any surprise? We don't need to  subject students to debilitating stress in order to educate them. By simply tweaking our approach and what we focus on can adjust the perspective. Instigating broad societal change, overhauling the approach to assessment, and rethinking grading models are out of the control of most educators (and probably a topic better served in its own dedicated blog post), but highlighting the kind and good deeds our students want to and do perform and empowering them to live with an attitude of kindness are very much possible.

Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion but with direction, young people want to be kind. They do so joyfully and, in the process, develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional wellbeing. Plus, this gives educators the opportunity to kick over the first domino in a chain reaction of do-gooding.

Recognize that you are giving of yourself every day to students, their parents, and the community, and celebrate it. You are helping create the next generation of kind humans. Let that fill your soul. Now, go out, and find something nice to say.

The Edmentum Educator Network is here to help you navigate the joys and the challenges of answering the call to be an educator. Need some suggestions? Need help setting kindness goals with your students? Get involved, and get the support you need by joining the conversation in our Facebook group. Know other outstanding educators who should be a part of our community? Encourage them to sign up here!

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day. 

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