Are we doing enough to create a climate of kindness in schools?

Here’s a question for all of you who are reading this (as well as for myself!): Are we really doing enough to create a climate of kindness in schools and at home? This is something I ponder a lot as both a parent and as an editor of Choices (a magazine that covers health, well-being, and life skills for middle and high school students). Okay, that was a rhetorical question. And the answer may sadly be, “No.”

This harsh truth came into focus a few weeks ago when the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a national study that found a vast majority (80 percent) of youth across the spectrum of race, culture, and class, value personal success—achievement and happiness—over concern for others. But The Making Caring Common Project’s report (disheartening but vitally important reading), “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” jolted me into thinking that we have an opportunity.

Since October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month let’s use this as an opportunity to challenge ourselves to raise our game when it comes to instilling empathy and care in young people. It’s a great chance to think big and make sure that we’re not just paying lip service to character education and social/emotional learning, but are truly valuing the traits we’re trying to nurture. This obviously can’t just happen in a month. It has to be woven into the DNA of every moment of the school day—and in every home. So many incredible resources get surfaced in October (Twitter folks, be sure to check out the conversation on the #antibullying hashtag). Grab them up and pledge to use them all year long.

Here are some “best practice” guidelines that I’ve learned from teachers, experts in the social emotional learning field, and bullying awareness advocates. I’m also including links to resources we’ve created for middle school students.

1. Help Kids Strengthen their Empathy Muscle. We now know that that there’s a region of the brain that’s responsible for empathy. This finding backs up the idea that the more we use it—just like reading, math, or running—the better and more powerful that trait will become. Research also shows it’s easier to feel empathy for people who seem “like you.” So try to make kids aware of the similarities they share—no matter how different they may seem superficially.

Resources:

Check out our “Different Like You” series, where we share the stories of teens whose unique experiences might make them seem totally different, but in reality, they’re just like everyone else.

“Angela is a Foster Kid” – About 400,000 children and teens are living in foster care in the U.S. Angela tells us what it’s like.

“Matt has Tourette Syndrome” – Nearly 150,000 kids have been diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, a nervous-system disorder, this is Matt’s story.

“Elizabeth has Albinism” – Fewer than 5 out of every 100,000 people are born with this rare genetic disorder.

2. Learn about Bullying. Have class discussions that help clarify what bullying is to help your students see the many ways that they can help a fellow student in need—as well as learn how to moderate their own behavior. The fact is bullying is complicated even to adults. The more varied the learning tasks you can bring to this topic, the more likely kids will be able to understand the dynamics of situations they may be a part of—or witness to.

Resources:

“Body Bullies” – It’s become totally normal to nitpick how everyone looks. Are you part of the body-shaming trend?

“Hurt. Humiliated. Hazed.” – What happens when tradition becomes torture?

“Which One Of Them Is A Cyberbully?” – Read about different types of online bullies—and make sure you don’t become one of them.

“R U 2 RUDE 2 B ONLINE?” – Your manners matter,even on the tiny screen of your smartphone.

3. Celebrate Kindness. When being a compassionate person gets celebrated the way scoring a touchdown and getting a good grade do, it will begin to change your school’s climate. As adults, making an effort to compliment more than criticize is a good first step. But why not go big? Look for ways to really enforce the messages we’re imparting by prizing “Nice.”

Resources:

Each month we challenge our readers to participate in an activity that betters their lives (and the lives of others) with our Choices Challenge series.

“Choices Challenge: Go H20!” – We challenge you to drink up and #spreadthewater at your school.

“Choices Challenge: Stop the Hate!” – We want kindness to go viral. Can you #stopthehate at your school?

But wait there’s more! We also spotlight teens making a difference in the world around them in our bimonthly “Inspired Like You” stories. These are two of my favorites.

“Truth is Saving Bats” – Truth wants you to know bats help our environment and need to be protected.

“Abby is Headed to Space” – Abby is determined to be an astronaut someday and proves you’re never too young to start working toward your goals.

4. Learn What Not to Do. Some types of intervention don’t work or can actually make things worse. A few common approaches that are considered misdirections include:

°Zero tolerance polices

°Conflict resolution and peer mediation

°Simple short term solutions

Stopbullying.gov is a great resource for a comprehensive list of what you SHOULDN’T do (as well as links to the evidence-based reasoning). I suggest everyone give this a read as this was extremely helpful to me. Some of the information is surprisingly counter-intuitive, but really makes sense once it’s explained.

Please share your great resources!

Comments

Great article. The Tools for Peace organization (http://toolsforpeace.org) is making progress in this area. They've just published a free app - Stop, Breathe & Think - that's being used in schools with some success, (http://stopbreathethink.org). Looks promising.

The Great Kindness Challenge is one school week devoted to performing as many acts of kindness as possible, choosing from a checklist of 50 suggestions.

Help create a culture of kindness on your campus! It's free, easy to implement and has the power to increase tolerance, unity and respect for all grades Kindergarten through High School.