Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Tool to Encourage Students to Respect the Dignity of Their Classmates

The Dignity Index asks students to reflect on their thoughts about others and their willingness to listen to those with different views.

April 26, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

No matter how hard we might try, the polarized climate outside of our classrooms still seeps into them. This climate pushes our students into us-versus-them thinking, toward less careful and open listening and a higher degree of tension and anxiety from walking around in what can be a hostile environment due to relentless bullying.

These conditions give rise to fearful exclusion of those not like ourselves and, on rare but too frequent occasions, extremes of lashing out violently or ending one’s own life in a desperate search for relief.

It’s traditional to try to address these tendencies with healthy conflict resolution, communication, and effective relationship-building skills. But Tim Shriver, cofounder of UNITE, an organization that supports national unity, believes that our attitudes and emotions direct our skills.

One of the attitudes and emotions that are far too prevalent is that of contempt. Tim Shriver has referred to contempt as a feeling of disdain and disgust for another person or group that is accompanied by an attitude of holding oneself above others and seeing others as worthless. The opposite is dignity: seeing the inherent worth in everyone. An attitude of dignity counters polarization, promotes listening, and replaces hostility with caring.

A school that allows contempt to flourish—or even simmer—is the kind of school where students (and staff) experience fear when they should be focused on learning and on supporting one another. What’s needed is a tool that can help schools move away from contempt and toward dignity by shining the healing light of conversation.

The Dignity Index

The Dignity Index is a new measure created by UNITE in 2021 to help us better understand how we treat each other during disagreements. On this measure (ranging from 1 to 8), lower scores (1 and 2) indicate contempt and division, and higher scores (7 and 8) are indicative of someone who sees dignity in others, respects differences, and works together with others. Although this measure has not yet been brought to many schools, some have started.

Salt Lake City schools are using the Dignity Index in their classrooms. Here is an adaptation of what they have done:

8—Dignity: I treat everyone with dignity. I believe everyone is born with inherent value. Everyone is important and deserves to be treated with kindness and respect no matter who they are.

7—Connectedness: I fully engage with others. I listen and talk with people who have different ideas, even if I don’t agree with them. I’m open to admitting mistakes I’ve made, and I am open to changing my opinion.

6—Curiosity: I make an effort to talk to a variety of other people, even if I don’t agree with them on everything. I focus on our shared interests and common values.

5—Respect: I recognize that others have a right to be here and express their thoughts; even though it can be difficult, it’s their school, too. We all belong here.

4—Dismissiveness: I’m better than them. They’re different and annoying. They don’t really belong. We shouldn’t trust them.

3—Disdain: I’m doing as well as I can, while some others are responsible for so many problems here. We’re the good people, and they’re the bad people. It’s us versus them.

2—Disgust: Some people here really disgust me. Things would be better if they weren’t here. They’re going to ruin everything if we let them. It’s us or them.

1—Contempt: I hate some people in this school. They are terrible and are destroying it here. They need to go. They are not valuable humans. If we don’t hurt them first, they will hurt us.

If your classroom or school does not feel comfortable, it’s likely that your ratings would be between 1 and 4. This implies that people are not listening to or talking patiently and caringly to one another. The developers of the index make the following suggestions to move up the Dignity Index.

Improving Your Dignity Index

Guide people to use more dignity and less contempt in what they read, what they say, what they watch, and what they support.

Encourage people to expect the use of dignity from the people who represent them, entertain them, and inform them. This is how the culture can start to change.

There are two important parts to this suggestion. First, each of us in schools—and each of our students, especially starting at the secondary level—needs to adopt attitudes toward others that are characterized by more respect, curiosity, connectedness, and dignity. Second, we need to expect that those with whom we interact—as political leaders, entertainers and sports figures, and sources of our news and information—are not exemplars of dismissiveness, disdain, disgust, or contempt for others, generally or for particular groups.

Put the Dignity Index to Work in Your Classroom

One activity is to take the eight words in the Salt Lake City version and present them to groups of students in mixed order and ask them to put them on a continuum, explaining the meaning of each word and why they created the order that they did. Have groups present their orders and discuss differences. You can have them create a composite version to use in your classroom/school. You also can present the Salt Lake City version and have them reflect on similarities and differences and/or use that version as a model to create a final version.

You might even want to have your class complete the Dignity Index on themselves periodically as a way to monitor the conversational climate. As you see your class’ Dignity Index head toward a 7 or 8, you can proudly say that it has become a norm for your students to respect differences and work together.

Social and emotional learning skills underlie the need to treat others with dignity, and they are activated in the process of having genuine conversation. Through conversations, we can help students build active listening skills, learn how to respectfully disagree with others, strengthen peer relationships, and support dignity. By creating our classrooms as safe, supportive spaces for critical and creative thinking and guiding students in how they talk to each other, we can improve their listening, learning, and character.

What about you? As you reflect on your classroom and/or school, how do you think the concept of dignity can be used?

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • School Culture
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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