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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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