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Why Teaching Kindness in Schools Is Essential to Reduce Bullying

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photo of two students smiling at each other in a classroom

Phrases like "random acts of kindness" and "pay it forward" have become popular terms in modern society. This could perhaps be best explained by those who have identified a deficiency in their lives that can only be fulfilled by altruism.

It seems there are good reasons why we can't get enough of those addictive, feel-good emotions, as scientific studies prove there are many physical, emotional, and mental health benefits associated with kindness.

As minds and bodies grow, it’s abundantly clear that children require a healthy dose of the warm-and-fuzzies to thrive as healthy, happy, well-rounded individuals.

Patty O'Grady, PhD, an expert in neuroscience, emotional learning, and positive psychology, specializes in education. She reports:

Kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it.

A great number of benefits have been reported to support teaching kindness in schools, best summed up by the following.

Happy, Caring Children

The good feelings that we experience when being kind are produced by endorphins. They activate areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. These feelings of joyfulness are proven to be contagious, encouraging more kind behavior (also known as altruism) by the giver and recipient. Acts of kindness help us form connections with others which are reported to be a strong factor in increasing happiness.

Greater Sense of Belonging and Improved Self-Esteem

Studies show that people experience a "helper's high" when they do a good deed. This rush of endorphins creates a lasting sense of pride, well-being, and an enriched sense of belonging. It's reported that even small acts of kindness heighten our sense of well-being, increase energy, and give a wonderful feeling of optimism and self worth.

Increased Peer Acceptance

Research on prosocial behavior among adolescents determined that being kind increases popularity and our ability to form meaningful connections with other people. Being well liked is an important factor in the happiness of children and it was demonstrated that greater peer acceptance was achieved through good deeds. Better-than-average mental health is reported in classrooms that practice more inclusive behavior due to an even distribution of popularity.

Improved Health and Less Stress

There are a number of physical and mental health benefits that can be achieved by being kind. Altruistic actions trigger a release of the hormone oxytocin, which can significantly increase a person's level of happiness and reduce stress levels. Oxytocin also protects the heart by lowering blood pressure and reducing free radicals and inflammation, which incidentally speed up the aging process.

Increased Feelings of Gratitude

When children are part of activities that help others less fortunate than themselves, it provides them with a real sense of perspective, highlighting their own good fortune. Being generous helps them appreciate what they have, makes them feel useful, and fosters empathy.

Better Concentration and Improved Results

Kindness is a key ingredient that enhances positivity and helps children feel good about themselves as it increases serotonin levels. This important chemical affects learning, memory, mood, sleep, health, and digestion. Children with a positive outlook have greater attention spans, more willingness to learn, and better creative thinking to improve results at school.

Reduced Depression

Internationally-renowned author and speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer explains that an act of kindness increases levels of serotonin, a natural chemical responsible for improving mood. This boost in happiness occurs not only in the giver and receiver of kindness, but also in anyone who witnesses it. This makes kindness a powerful, natural antidepressant (PDF).

Less Bullying

Shanetia Clark and Barbara Marinak are Penn State Harrisburg faculty researchers. They say, "Unlike previous generations, today's adolescents are victimizing each other at alarming rates." They strongly believe that adolescent bullying and violence can be confronted with in-school programs that integrate "kindness -- the antithesis of victimization."

Many traditional anti-bullying programs focus on the negative actions that cause anxiety in children. When students are instead taught how to change their thoughts and actions by learning about kindness and compassion, it fosters the positive behavior that's expected and naturally rewarded with friendship. Promoting its psychological opposite is key in reducing bullying to create warm and inclusive school environments.

Maurice Elias, Professor at Rutgers University Psychology Department, is also an advocate for kindness in schools. He says:

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 . . . [W]e 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 . . . Kindness can be taught, and it is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society.

It's become quite clear that modern education ought to encompass more than just academics, and that matters of the heart must be taken seriously and nurtured as a matter of priority.

How do you teach kindness? Has it reduced bullying at your school?

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cmeadows's picture

Lisa, this is a great article! Teaching kindness is essential to a child's ultimate success. I have had the good fortune of working with students with high poverty and very little guidance at home and were deemed as "lost causes," however, with teaching them how to be good people and good to one another, we have accomplished great success. We went from a school that had fights on a regular basis to only having one last year. For a high school, this is a monumental feat! We also were known in the area as a drug infested school where negativity was widespread. When I became principal, my priority was helping the students and staff realize their potential and use nothing as an excuse, rather use everything as a challenge. I wanted to build relationships and lead by example. When a parent came in and cursed me out, I handled the situation with dignity. When a student was angry, I helped he or she gain control of the emotions. When a teacher made a mistake, I helped that teacher learn from it and grow. These are things that I learned through having caring and loving parents. Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many of our student's homes. It is, many times, up to us as educators to teach kindness and tolerance of one another. Thank you for your dedication and the thoughtfulness of this article. God bless you my friend : )

Chris

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Fred Mindlin's picture
Fred Mindlin
Teaching Artist, string figure afficionado, digital storyteller, creative computing coach

I work a lot as a substitute teacher, and I start every class I sub in with a discussion of the etymology of kindness, from "kin," family, relatedness, and how that's all we really need to remember to have a good day together--we're like family today, learning together. Sometimes it works, often it doesn't, but at least I've brought it up and can refer back to it when needed. I wrote recently on my blog about "How do we learn to speak kindly?" Sharing moments of silence in the classroom is one way in to more careful use of language, which is an essential in teaching kindness. is

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Lisa Currie's picture
Lisa Currie
Ripple Kindness Project - an on-going social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary schools

Dear Chris,

It makes me proud to see there are dedicated and wise principals leading with respect and passion. Your story is a perfect example of how kindness and understanding can turn the culture around and create positive outcomes for everyone.

Well done, you should be proud of your achievements and I so wish there were more leaders who understood the importance of teaching kindness in schools. Thanks for your hard work and kind words.

Lis :)

Lisa Currie's picture
Lisa Currie
Ripple Kindness Project - an on-going social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary schools

You sound like a wonderful, switched on teacher Fred. It's often not going to work immediately as some students take quite some time to break old habits and unlearn unkind behaviour. You can only do so much in a short time, but every little bit builds up and has an influence.

Lis :)

Fred Mindlin's picture
Fred Mindlin
Teaching Artist, string figure afficionado, digital storyteller, creative computing coach

What's remarkable to me is how often just calling for kindness does work immediately, and I think much of the reason is that the elaborate and complicated point/merit/demerit/punish/reward systems most schools use clearly do NOT work, and the kids know it. Who really cares about the possibility of a popsicle or popcorn party weeks or months from now? What I offer kids as their reward is immediate--they get to feel good about each other and learn together happily RIGHT NOW, today, not because they might get something later.

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Michel's picture
Michel
Educator - Social Knowledge worker - E-learning

Thank you Lisa for such a great article,
if I may add my modest contribution through this thought:
as educators we strive to offer the best, during this thinking process we tend to focus on the message and get "busy" by the content, while education to my personal opinion and after some happy events with young student, is the attitude and behaviour young ones perceive and feel.
Compassion and kindness seems to have a real effect on their perception of adults who are "cool" from those who aren't!

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Sean M. Brooks's picture

Great article. I agree that kindness and its teaching should exist in schools for students and teachers/administrators.

Health education classes seek to model social and emotional learning on a daily basis when done by a certified professional who works in the building. Many methods introduced to reduce bullying are not properly implemented within classrooms and as a result are counterproductive creating more hostility among the student population and the staff forced to implement such ideas. This health education in particular must occur in middle and high school, as these are the environments where hate and apathy flourish. This should not be done by a gym teacher, school nurse or non profit guest speaking organization.

If a math teacher doesn't teach a particular subject, it won't kill a kid. If a certified health education teacher/ expert, skips a subject, it will kill a kid. Again, this expertise can't be left to the uninterested, uncomfortable, uncertified or unqualified. It must come from a passionate, certified health education teacher whom only teaches health education and all of the topics within that are critical to the development of the whole person.

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Joe Van Deuren's picture

I really appreciate your inclusion of teachers / administrators being taught kindness. Math teachers can only teach math because they know math, just the same for most other subjects. Teaching kindness though should not be relegated to a single teacher who pops into a class every so often or does a lesson once a month for each class in the school. In fact if we taught math the way we teach 'kindness' our kids would never get to higher levels of math.

In my experience, the more I prepare for and teach kindness, respect, responsibility or whatever the character trait is that I want the students to get - the more aware I am of myself and where I am on the spectrum of being kind, respectful, responsible, etc. That is why I am working on a program I am calling "3 minutes a day", a program designed so that every teacher in every classroom takes just 3 minutes to talk about a character trait that the entire school is working on. No 30 or 45 minute classes on kindness - a drip, drip method that show the students that every teacher and the administration in the school buys into the importance of being kind (and other characteristics). They do not see it as what just the health teacher talks about, because every teacher is talking about it.

These kind of discussions also go home and parents begin to get the idea too. After doing a month of a class on anger management a parent told me that months later her 5 year old asked her on a difficult day, "Mom are you using your anger management?"

Changing culture in a community involves all of us, parents, teachers, administration, and students. I am looking for a school that would be willing to try this approach and see the long term affects on all of the participants.

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Sean M. Brooks's picture

I agree with you. Teaching kindness and character education should come from all educators in the building and all adults, not just health educators. However, sadly this promotes school wide-cheap names or programs associated with what used to be called educational philosophy and doing the right thing. Having a real conversation with students doesn't need a gimmick or a special name to be promoted. Its's just called good teaching and caring. And yes, this message does reach home, which is great, as it should. We as teachers have the influence to change the hearts and minds of our students parents too.

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Joe Van Deuren's picture

Agreed. Too many "programs" for things that should be coming from the philosophy, and the culture of the school and messaged authentically. Teachers do have the influence to change the hearts and minds of students and parents, but how many of them have done an in depth study of anger management, conflict resolution, even of something as simple or complex as 'fairness'?

Instead of going from top down, my approach is always, lets learn this together. I was doing classes on self-reliance, and in my preparation realized that was an area that I could improve in. (honestly had never thought of it before in regard to myself). This became a part of the conversation with the students, so they could see I was still working on this piece of character building. Helping teachers with outlines, examples they can use as questions for students and general information - will guide both the new teacher as well as the ones that may have forgotten how teaching can help them grow too.

The goal is to help every teacher & student to see that creating a culture of kindness in the classroom and community, does not stop at the school doors. It is what we all want in our community. While there are a great number of teachers that "get it", there are many of us that are still working on improving ourselves.

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