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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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Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jessica's picture
Jessica
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

I don't think so. It is a habit which can be developed from very start. Parents, schools and communities can only make it happen. It should be taught as a subject during elementary school schedule only.

http://www.1to1tutor.org/

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

I hand kids this question;
In that moment when you're tempted to prove you're right just to prove you're right;
what would it feel like/look like if you just took a moment, then decided to be kind instead? Just replace "right" with "kind" once in a while.... It's so empowering to know that you can choose.

Bernice German's picture
Bernice German
Math Whisperer

This question has been on my mind for ten years, since I taught in the most failing middle school in Denver. (It wasn't my fault; I was only there for a year!) The students were mostly Latino and generally poor. As they were working in pairs on their math, I overheard J. saying to his fellow studen with humor and warmth: If it's in your heart, it must be right. They were repeating my consistent message to the class to trust themselves as they solved their math problems. It seemed to me that the idea of trusting yourself touched a deep truth within each of them.
It was especially significant to hear, as J. had been found by his mother three years previously with a telephone cord around his neck. His classmate had his own unique physical challenges. Even though they were supposedly joking with each other, it seemed to me that they were responding at a deep level with something they knew to be true, and may not have heard before. As you can imagine, it made my day and my year.

Sean's picture

I would recommend looking at research being conducted at the U of Wisconsin's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. They have research here http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/cihmFindings.html
that shows kindness and empathy can be fostered in children.
Also, I would recommend this book http://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Child-Manage-Happier-Compassionate/dp/1416...
I use it with my five-year old and while he doesn't always take to the brief, 5 or so minutes of mediation we do a day, I find that he is using it in our discussions sometimes when difficulties arise.

Sean's picture

I would recommend looking at research being conducted at the U of Wisconsin's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. They have research here http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/cihmFindings.html
that shows kindness and empathy can be fostered in children.
Also, I would recommend this book http://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Child-Manage-Happier-Compassionate/dp/1416...
I use it with my five-year old and while he doesn't always take to the brief, 5 or so minutes of mediation we do a day, I find that he is using it in our discussions sometimes when difficulties arise.

Kelsey's picture
Kelsey
Communications Director at Random Acts of Kindness Foundation

This topic is very near and dear to my heart as I work at the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation where we are currently in the second year of our Pilot Program, researching the effect of teaching kindness in the classroom. Based on first-hand experience, I can say that we've witnessed that practicing kindness in the classroom transforms students and leads to positive learning environments. To see the results of our first year of research feel free to check out the following video http://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-videos/6809-pilot-program-r...

We also currently house all of our lesson plans online here http://www.randomactsofkindness.org/lesson-plans-pilot-program and are more than happy to connect with anyone interested in furthering this conversation. If you would like more info, please feel free to email me at kelsey@randomactsofkindness.org

Kimberly Epps's picture

It has always crossed mind how can kindness be taught and what is the appropriate age to do so. I think it all begins at birth and is based on how you were raised by your parents or guardian. Some research has shown that children learn majority of what they know from their parents as well as their society. If adults portray acts of kindness at all times, then more children would display kind behaviors in and out of school. As a future educator, I believe that displaying kindness is a very simple way to show students how far being kind can take you. Simple activities that incorporate being nice to others as well as learning the curriculum can be vey affective. If teachers model these behaviors I am sure they can touch students who have trouble being kind to others.

Neutrino's picture
Neutrino
Intergalactic Educator for GoStrengths.com SEL Programs

@Kelsey: Thanks for your citations from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

They visited a school we work with a lot and posted a video about the kindness-centered curriculum at Puget Sound Community School. Their approach to teaching kindness is holistic - more of a whole life program than any particular activity that teaches kindness. Its a great micro-documentary that inspires a lot of our teachers and school administrators: http://bit.ly/teachkindness

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

Nurture vs. nature: I find this argument fascinating, especially as it relates to kindness.

I can say that I've had the privilege to visit many schools with a strong emphasis on social and emotional learning. Students at those schools generally are more self aware, learn to manage their emotions, and know the importance of kindness and empathy.

Based on my experiences, I would say that you can teach kindness (to an extent) but to caveat it a bit -- it should be emphasized early. It's much easier to start somewhat fresh than to have to re-learn everything you have learned (yoda quote!).

Mark Wilding's picture
Mark Wilding
Ed PassageWorks Institute

I have enjoyed this discussion. It strikes me this morning that what we mean by "teaching" has a lot to do with this question. At PassageWorks we have seen teachers from kindergarten through high school "facilitate" exercises, activities, and practices with students that have led them to get to know and understand each other and develop increased empathy and connection. This has often helped to create a culture of kindness in the classroom and in the school. Is that teaching kindness? I suppose that depends on how we define "teaching".

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