by Christa Tinari
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop
Kindness is a wonderful thing! A quick look in the dictionary reveals that to be kind means to be: thoughtful, friendly, considerate, warm, helpful and caring towards others. Who among us wouldn’t wish for a bit more of that?
Join the Kindness Revolution
Most educators highly value kindness in themselves and in their students. Being kind feels good, creates more positive bonds between students (and educators), and boosts learning. It may even have beneficial health effects like better sleep and reduced stress levels. This is why programs like Random Acts of Kindness have taken off like wildfire! In the forthcoming book, Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School, my co-author and I describe the story of a teacher named Kiren Chanda. Her 8th grade students came up with the idea of a Random Acts of Kindness campaign in their classroom. The campaign quickly spread to other classrooms, and eventually, the entire school. The students’ simple acts of kindness, such as holding doors open for one another, giving each other compliments, writing thank-you notes, offering to assist with tasks like cleaning up, and simply offering smiles, created a ripple effect that made a positive and lasting impact on the school climate.
Deepen Your Efforts
Everyone agrees: kindness IS cool! The kindness campaigns are a great start because they place attention on positive deeds and values. They emphasize the importance of thoughtful, caring acts. They create a call to action, and often involve the entire school community around a common cause. But, it’s not always easy to maintain the momentum around kindness campaigns, once the initial excitement has worn off. So, we can’t stop there. Kindness takes effort and practice that invites us to reach beyond random acts and “character skill of the month” programs. We need to deepen our efforts if we want kindness to prevail when we’re faced with challenging situations.
When Is It Hard to be Kind?
I often receive this question from frustrated parents and educators: “My children (or students) know they are supposed to be kind. We’ve discussed it, and we all agree that being kind is better than being mean. So how come they’re still mean to one another?” Great question! First, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that a kindness program can magically wipe out meanness forever (wouldn’t that be nice?). Over the past few years, my co-author Naomi Drew and I have collected survey data of over 2000 middle school students. We asked students about the frequency with which they heard mean words. 81% of the students we surveyed said that they hear kids saying mean things to one another every day. It seems that meanness is all too common, still.
Seeking Answers? Ask the Students!
Have you ever asked your students the question: “When is it difficult to be kind?” Here are some of the answers I received when I recently discussed this with a group of peer leaders in upper elementary classrooms:
- It’s hard to be kind when it means doing something I don’t want to do.
- It’s hard to be kind when I’m in a fight with someone.
- It’s hard to be kind when someone else is rubbing it in that they won and I Iost.
- It’s hard to be kind to someone who doesn’t like me.
Do you resonate with any of these responses? These kids are on to something! Sure, it’s easy to be kind to someone who is being kind back. But how easy is it when someone is being mean? It’s easy to be kind when it requires no sacrifice, but what about when it does? And how many of us can say that we’re always kind to those with whom we’re fighting? When kindness goes out the window, it’s not always because our students don’t value it. Let’s face it: sometimes, it’s just hard to be kind!
How to be a ‘King or Queen of Kind’, Even When It’s Difficult: 5 Tips
1. Create a Kindness Contract. Be sure to include kindness in your classroom expectations. Ask your students to brainstorm what kindness looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Help your students create a list of examples or a picture collage that shows kindness in action. Share this with your parents as well. Ask everyone to sign on to this kindness contract. Plan regular check-ins to review the contract and to and ask your students to reflect on how well they are enacting their agreement.
2. Be prepared. Have a discussion with your students around the question: When is it hard to be kind? Invite them to share their stories, and listen without judgment. Discuss the advantages of being kind, even when it’s difficult: What kind of outcome would being mean create? How would being kind be helpful in that situation? What if someone is using bullying behaviors? Brainstorm solutions so that students will know what to do when it’s hard to be kind. Some examples include: take a break/walk away, positive self-talk, or using an assertive I-message. Explain that being kind never means allowing someone to abuse you or someone else. If kindness isn’t working, it’s best to seek help from an adult.
3. Acknowledge that “Sometimes, it’s hard.” Share a story with your students about a time when it was particularly difficult for you to be kind. Explain your struggle, and how you handled the situation. Share how your commitment to kindness played a role in your decision-making. It’s important for our students to know that kindness is not always an easy choice, but it’s always a worthy goal.
4. Offer a Re-do. Students are often thoughtless with their speech and actions and may unintentionally hurt one another’s feelings. As soon as such an incident comes to your attention, offer a re-do. “Oops, that was hurtful. Try again.” The less fanfare involved with this intervention, the better. Most students who are given an opportunity to immediately correct a thoughtless mistake, while saving face, will gratefully take it.
5. Appreciate every effort. Give credit where credit is due. If you tune in to your students’ personalities and nonverbal expressions you’ll be able to see when they are struggling. You might notice that a student says something mean, but restrains him/herself from lashing out physically. Although it’s tempting to only admonish the student for their bad behavior, it’s incredibly important to appreciate any effort your student puts forth! You can notice and appreciate a students’ emotional restraint (I noticed that you seemed to be trying really hard not to hit anyone) even as you set a boundary around the unacceptable behavior (What you said was hurtful. I can’t allow that in the classroom). This response helps students understand the ways in which their behaviors are under their control, and provides encouragement to them in difficult situations. This strategy is especially powerful with students who struggle with impulsivity and self-control.
Although kindness is not always easy, it’s certainly a worthy goal. We should claim kindness as a value we strive for, even when faced with challenging situations. In doing so, we can work together more powerfully to create a culture of kindness in our classrooms and schools.