National Random Acts of Kindness Day, February 17, is a day when acts of kindness are encouraged and celebrated by people and organizations throughout this country. February is also the month when many celebrate Valentine’s Day—a day devoted to love. Young students pass out small greeting cards bought in bulk to all their classmates, and older students have “Heartgrams” delivered to each other during the class period before lunch time.
If you’re a teacher (or think back to your K–12 school days), what feelings does this day invoke? There are lots of hugs, smiles, and laughter (and candy), and more importantly, feelings of being cared for, seen, cherished, liked, admired, and even loved. Aren’t these emotions we’d like to foster everyday?
So why not celebrate and practice kindness intentionally in our classrooms and schools more routinely? Research tells us there are three domains of learning: cognitive (thinking), motor (physical), and affective (emotional/feeling). And as the Greek philosopher Aristotle supposedly said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Kick-Start Kindness: Activities
1. Good Things This is an activity that takes less than five minutes but is a surefire way to set a positive and caring tone for the class period or day. Ask each student to respond to their neighbor using one of these talking stems: “One good thing in my life is. . . .” or "Something good that happened is . . .” Tell the students that their thing can be big or small; for example, last night they had pizza for dinner, or someone got a pet turtle, or just passed their driver’s test. Once they have shared with an elbow partner, ask for volunteers to share their own or their neighbor’s good thing. This is an opportunity for students to share their lives and also be celebrated and affirmed by their teacher and classmates.
2. The Write Around This writing activity gives students a chance to silently appreciate one another while building writing fluency. Give them each a handout that has several sentences starters on it, with space for writing after each one:
- One idea I’ve gotten from you is . . .
- I really like your personality because . . .
- I know I can count on you when . . .
- I really appreciate when you . . .
- Some adjectives that describe you are . . .
- I am impressed by the way you . . .
- I look forward to seeing you because . . .
Each student writes their name at the top of their paper, and you collect them. Randomly pass them out. Ask for silence and then tell the students they have three minutes to write something about that person. They can respond to more than one sentence starter if they like, and multiple students can respond to one. After a few minutes, ask them to pass the papers to another person. Do several rounds. Collect them and pass them back to the owners. You won’t believe the smiles you will see.
3. Shout-outs Model this one for students for the first few weeks (perhaps it will take a month or two, if it’s a tough or shy crowd): “I really like how . . .,” “I noticed that . . .,” or “I’d like to give a shout-out to . . . for bringing her best to her group today!” Eventually, in their own ways, they will begin to echo your sentiments to each other, and this will become a class routine. Be sure to make time for it. You can fit a lot of shout-outs in the last three to five minutes of class.
4. Appreciation Box For students less inclined to share with the whole group, create a box and place it in the back of the room with small slips of paper or sticky notes. The teacher and the students can leave appreciations for classmates in the box. This may take some modeling and encouragement. Every few days, take out the appreciations and read them aloud. I saw a fourth-grade teacher design a treasure chest appreciation box, and she and her teaching assistant would put slips of paper in it all day and then read them aloud five minutes before the bell rang for the kids to go home. Soon the students started writing appreciation notes for each other. It was transformative, she told me: “We became a family.”
5. Temperature Check Begin class by asking your students this simple question: “How are you feeling today?” This emotional check-in is an acknowledgment that we are all human and that we have feelings and emotions that sometimes change day to day. Students can turn and talk, or share with the whole class. As their teacher, this also alerts you to any fragile feelings or moods in the room to be mindful of, or to possibly meet with the students about privately after class.
For students, building on their vocabulary of words to express emotions and feelings addresses the importance of affective learning. You can help give your students richer vocabulary by providing this list of words for feelings. Compiled by the Center of Nonviolent Communication, it can be shared with secondary students; for younger students, provide a shorter, simpler word list.
6. Buddy Up Depending on the age of students you teach, you (and your students) can create a clever, appropriate title for this activity (for example: wingman/woman, copilot, collaborator, colleague). Partner them up; they are in charge of helping each other. Miss a day of class? She will get handouts and information for you. Don’t understand something? Consult first with your pal, then the teacher. This one-on-one collaboration and support builds community in the classroom and sends a message that students are trusted and capable of assisting each other. Let students self-select sometimes; at other times, you select the partners. Change partners every week, every other week, or once a month—you decide.
7. Community Circle Kindness shines through when we really listen to each other. Remove the barrier of desks or tables and sit in a circle as a whole class. Only one person may speak at a time; the rest listen. Even though you facilitate, posing a question or topic for the students to speak about, it’s important that you be in the circle too—not as leader, but as a member.
Choose a talking piece (stuffed animal, mini globe, or basketball, for example) and make one pass around the circle with everyone first checking in. (See these guidelines from Center for Restorative Process.) The only voice is the person holding the object. Consider including a community circle in the agenda when something happens inside or outside of the classroom (a traumatic event in the neighborhood or world, or an argument that involved multiple students, or theft in the classroom). Making space and time for a circle like this that speaks to social-emotional learning—where students share their thoughts and feelings, and can relate with one another—will positively effect academic learning as well.
Resources on Kindness
The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has the slogan “Help Turn the World Kind”—could you adopt and adapt a version of this in your classroom? Perhaps students can make a collective sign that says something like, “Compassionate Classroom Alert!” (This sounds like a great lunchtime poster-making party to me.)
The foundation offers dozens of K–12 lessons through the website. Thematic units feature “developmentally appropriate, standards-aligned lessons that teach kids important social and emotional skills (SEL).” These multiple-lesson units offer such themes as “How Can I Be Kind?” (grade 2), “Taking Care of Ourselves” (grade 5), and “Understanding Each Other” (grade 7).
In the blog post “Resources for Creating a Radically Compassionate Classroom,” I share resources for classroom walls and strategies and activities that promote a compassionate learning space, one that supports inclusion of all students.
According to the research of Adena Klem and James Connell, students who perceive a teacher as caring have higher attendance and better grades and are more engaged in the classroom and at school. Think about this research. If we grow that caring community beyond the teacher, extending it to how classmates interact with each other, how might that further transform and evolve the learning environments where we teach?