George Lucas Educational Foundation
Bullying Prevention

Why Teaching Kindness in Schools Is Essential to Reduce Bullying

photo of two students smiling at each other in a classroom
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.

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

Hi Sean

I totally agree with you that kindness should be taught in middle and high schools. It should be a way of life no matter how old or young we are.

Personally, I believe it's even more important to start teaching kindness and giving to elementary aged children. It's critical to educate kids before they catch the "it's all about me" or "the world owes me" virus. Teaching them from the moment they enter school can help avoid a range of issues in later years.

Thanks for your lovely feedback on the article. It's much appreciated.

Lis :)

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

Well said Joe.

It's so important for kids to see teachers being kind in every setting. No special one off classes that show them for a day and then it's forgotten, it needs to be woven into each and every day in a way that helps it become a natural and instinctive part of life.

Your 3 minutes sounds interesting. What age group are you aiming it at?

Regards Lis :)

Sean M. Brooks's picture

I agree completely. Elementary school should incorporate as much character and behavior building strategies as possible. In my opinion, it can be best suited as a school wide expectation rather than sporadically dispersed gimmicks.
What are your thoughts on using Skype to connect different ages of students/grades and buildings together to create a combined approach? I've used this in the past with great success and it gives students the chance to connect to their peers in another building to ask questions about future expectation and have deep conversations while collaborating. It's not a bad way to reduce violence either.

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

Glad to hear about your experience with Skype. It's a wonderful tool to connect people in different ways.

We're currently looking into using it to connect some of the schools running our program in Australia with one in the US, so your feedback is really helpful.

Joe Van Deuren's picture

I personally have never used Skype in our classroom. It certainly is a good connecting tool, it helps students to see and hear from other parts of the world - the differences and similarities of each other.

One school in our area however did set up the opportunity for high school students to meet with rising high school students during their last year of middle school on several occasions. They talked, answered questions, did some fun things together and helped them to get their head wrapped around what high school expectations were going to be.

The results were - the 8th graders knew someone when they came to the high school, there was less posturing and bullying, more friendships/mentoring and a general awareness of expectations. All involved responded well to the 'connections' that were made, including the teachers and administration.

In regard to the question about the age group for daily conversations on character, my hope is that it is in all grades. Of course we expect that starting young is key - but the middle school student is still impressionable, has a lot to say, and is willing to listen when their ideas are heard and they feel the authentic place that the teacher is coming from.

I believe that high school students react the same and may be enrolled to help younger students to see that being aware of our character is for young and older individuals. Here is my question:
Beyond kindness, what other character traits do you see as a part of student and adult growth. I have a list that I will be publishing on my website, with the hope that we get feedback from other educators to rank them in order as well as what age group to work with on each one. If you are interested in seeing that list and commenting just let me know.

Sean M. Brooks's picture

The Glencoe/McGraw Hill, text on Teen Health outlines all the subjects that should be taught to middle school health students. This text outlines kindness, decision making skills, character building, communication practices, healthy relationships and so on. Ultimately it's this text that is a great tool and general outline for effective instruction in middle school, health classes. As a reviewer of their online text in the past, I can assure anyone that this is a great starting point with a proper order of instruction. For those schools that don't have health education, any teacher can pull concepts from this to teach students great habits. Of course there are online tools available as well.

Annie Reimann's picture

I couldn't agree more! Kindness is something not only missing in our schools, but also our society. I find in my daily life the kinder I am to others, the further I get in life. I believe if we teach our students how to treat others with kindness even in the toughest times, they can be successful. I have been told that my "Morning Meetings" take up academic time and should be used for learning. I believe if we need to take time for students to talk to one another under our supervision. As parents teach their children how to get along with siblings, we should teach students how to get along with peers. We must always remember students my not have ideal role models at home. Our missions as educators is to give everyone a fighting chance, kindness leads to happiness, which in turn leads to great learning.

Jayro's picture
Mindfulness-based teacher and student education facilitator

I think we as teachers need to be shinning examples of this for the kids. I have done one on one therapy with so many people only to learn they had highly traumatic experiences of being judged or criticized by teachers at a young age. It's really up to us as educators to be leading the way and demonstrating kindness every chance we get.

JanicaB.'s picture

I very much agree with you ms. Lisa. teaching kindness is a lot important to reduce bullying in school. I have experience of being bullied. well, bully clasmates and schoolmates couldn't be really out of such story anyway. But my teacher have helped me a lot in overcoming my fear of being bullied again .There are programs in school to prevent bullying but I don't know why there still are these people who are really fond of bullying others. Schools really need to establish a way better character behavior and strategical ways to lessen cases like bullying. And I agree that it should start from the teacher being the primary model in class.

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

Hi Janica

Lots of schools have anti-bullying programs, but many of these can be quite negative in nature. Our approach is to inject positivity into the school community by changing the way students with bullying behaviours think, feel and act. Kindness is such a natural way to inject feel-good emotions that are able to create changes in behaviour.

Have a wonderful week.

Warmest regards
Lis :)

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