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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Can Kindness Be Taught?

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Recently, the non-profit daily ideas exchange known as Zocalo Public Square had an online debate about whether kindness can be taught, as part of a more general public conversation about altruism. I was fortunate to participate along with author Kathy Beland, who wrote School-Connect: Optimizing the High School Experience, a social emotional learning curriculum.

You can look at the entire conversation, but I wanted to give you a brief taste here to spark your local conversations about this fascinating question.

Kathy focused on the essential connection between empathy and kindness, with one aspect, "vicariously feeling what the person is feeling," creating the connection to kindness and altruism.

She drew mainly from Paul Ekman's work. And referring to examples in his book, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, she discussed how individuals can learn how to read facial cues of the seven basic emotions, concluding that kindness definitely can be taught.

My take was similar. Like most of us, I have worked with some unkind individuals, and I have found that most can be taught to be kind. I believe this reflects human beings' innate capacity for kindness, which means we are perhaps trying to strengthen a tendency, or help with relearning, rather than inculcate something foreign to our nature. As a citizen, grandparent, father, and professional, it is clear to me that the mission of schools must include teaching kindness. Without it, communities, families, schools, and classrooms become places of incivility where lasting learning is unlikely to take place.

I agree with Kathy that kindness depends also on possessing certain learnable skills, and these are included in most evidence-based efforts to promote children's social-emotional and character development. And we need to be prepared to teach kindness, because it can be delayed due to maltreatment early in life. It can be smothered under the weight of poverty, and it can be derailed by victimization later in life. Yet despite these and other travails, the receipt of kindness and the ability to show kindness through service are both growth enhancing and soul cleansing.

Kindness can be taught, but it is also appropriate to consider it needing nurturing. From horrific experiences of genocide, we know that kindness may be suspended but it cannot be extinguished. It is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society.

Share with us! How do you weave lessons on kindness into your classroom curriculum?

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Roxanne Desforges's picture
Roxanne Desforges
Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Studies, Education Consultant: Learning Bird

I'd recommend integrating kindness oriented lessons into civic or citizenship education. Kindness as a character trait certainly facilitates participation in public life, and can be especially important in pluralistic societies.

MJustinCRGR's picture

I was happy to read your article on Kindness. It made me reflect upon the importance of the subject and how I have to dedicate more time towards it. In the past, I have used a few of the activities in the following resource.
http://www.sustainablehappiness.ca/for-educators/
Although it is not specific to Kindness, it is related to Happiness to which are both closely related.

Mark Wilding's picture
Mark Wilding
Ed PassageWorks Institute

For a week, greet your students at the door with a kind remark as they come in. Feel your appreciation for them. See how this impacts your teaching and relationships.

lhighfill's picture

After reading Wonder by RJ Palacio last year with my 5th grade class, we were moved by a premise in the story- Choose Kind. Since then, partnering with another teacher in Florida, we have created Wonder Coast 2 Coast that has reached teachers and students from Hawaii to Scotland. After reading the story Wonder, students are creating Kindness projects- their way of putting a little bit of kindness into the world and documenting their projects using web tools. The projects will be posted on our website for many to view at http://wondercoast2coast and hopefully many will be inspired to spread kindness themselves. If you and your class would like to join in, you can do so by checking out the details here- http://goo.gl/nwa77

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