Teaching kindness and empathy in the classroom is not a new idea, although recently the idea of "empathy" as an important element to be taught is getting its day in the sun and has come to the forefront of the edusphere once more. For most of my short (so far) ten-year career, I taught kindness and empathy through modeling it. I thought for sure that would be enough. I held community meetings where we discussed issues in our classroom community and naturally mini-lessons about kindness, grace, sympathy and empathy came up. In general, I was one of those teachers who had a good streak going where it seemed that building a strong classroom community came easily to me. I took pride in the mutual respect and general goodwill that was apparent in my classroom. Building strong classroom community and relationships was yearly listed as a strength on my observations. Things were just peachy. Then suddenly, things changed for me. It started at home. My own oldest child was struggling in peer relationships, and I was noticing a significant lack of empathy in her behavior and thinking. She struggled to put herself in someone else's shoes, and could not seem to see herself or the world through the eyes of others. Sibling conflict at home was at an all time high as well, and I quickly realized that I would have to become really intentional when it came to teaching kindness and empathy to my children. We embarked that summer on what we called "Operation Kindness Matters" and kindness became a more intentional way of life in our home. We started our summer days brainstorming people and situations that might benefit from acts of kindness. We kept a journal of our ideas, our successes, our failures, and our feelings all along the way. We inferred how we thought our acts of kindness were making other people feel, we talked about the benefits of kindness consistently and marveled together at how easily we could find ways to be kind, even without much planning. Many of our projects were "big deal" projects. We handed out "bags of sunshine" to strangers in our town, shared meals with the homeless, left affirmations in items we donated, and left care packages for new moms. I knew the idea was catching on though, when showing kindness became a carrot that I could dangle. I'd say "if you can't show kindness to each other here at home, I'm not planning anymore RAOK's (Random Acts Of Kindness) for us out there in the community, and they would quickly exchange wide-eyed apologies to one another and find amicable resolution. One day when we were out for lunch, I complimented our server on her lipstick color (simply because it was fabulous) and as she walked away my daughter leaned across the table and whispered "Mom, did you see how she just lit up and smiled so much bigger when you said that to her? I think we should compliment everyone we see all day today!" And we did. Another day we were in a store behind a frazzled mother and screaming baby. Without prompting, my kids jumped to action playing "peek-a-boo" with the little one until her wails turned to shy giggles, and then complimenting the mother on her beautiful baby girl and her skill at holding her baby and paying the cashier at the same time. I'll never forget the grateful, hopeful look on that mother's face as she thanked them for keeping her baby happy and then smiled up at me as if I were doing something right. I was so humbled. I wanted to tell her that as that wailing baby grew, she would cause many more frazzled, harried, stressful moments, but that there would be moments like this one too, where her mother-heart would swell with such pride and admiration that all the wailing in the world would feel worth it.
As the summer ended and I excitedly embarked on a new school year with my 4th graders, it was quickly clear to me that the positive classroom community that came effortlessly in years past was not going to just "happen" with this particular group. Like my daughter, many of them struggled with empathy. There was constant bickering, relational bullying and I knew that teaching kindness was going to have to take precedence in my classroom the way it had in my home. We started #KindnessMatters journals much like the one I kept with my children. We did several affirmation projects within our community and then focussed a few bigger RAOK's outside of our classroom. Just like I observed at home, over time, my students started to buy-in to the notion of #KindnessMatters and soon, they were taking the reigns in showing kindness without my input or prompting.
Three years later, and we're still going strong with the classroom version of "Operation Kindness Matters".
Here's what it looks like in my second year in a 2nd grade classroom:
Early in the school year, I let the students know that kindness is an expectation in our classroom. We read the story "Each Kindness" by Jacqueline Woodson and discuss the effects of Kindnesses shown and Kindnesses withheld. This is a powerful discussion every year, and we revisit the book and the resolutions it first birthed in us, throughout the course of the school year.
As the year progresses, we choose role models who inspire us to be intentionally KIND. These role models are people in history, characters in books and celebrities like Kid President at first, but soon we start looking to find inspiration in each other!
This year, we are proud to be participating in the #ChooseKind movement as well. Our twist on the movement was to create a community #ChooseKind board. As students witness kindesses, they write them down on the board. Once a week, we gather as a community to highlight the different acts of kindness that have been recorded. The students volunteer to come up and read something that they wrote down. They then talk about the kindness they witnessed and interview the students involved about what prompted the kindness and how it made the recipient and the student who showed kindness feel. This is a powerful and meaningful time for our community as we celebrate the many times throughout the day where we were able to choose kindness as our reaction or strategy in any given situation. The students beam as they are called out by their peers for helping pick up pencils, making room at a lunch table, or paying a compliment. We are shining a spotlight of affirmation and appreciation on one another for being kind, courteous and generous. We are making a statement as a community that in this classroom, Kindness is seen, it is celebrated and it matters.
Recently, I was "caught" by a couple of my students while trying to be stealthy in performing an RAOK for another member of our school community. The kids were astonished by the idea that I would do something meaningful and kind for someone else without wanting to be recognized or even to have the kindness traced back to me. I explained to them that sometimes, it feels good to me to show kindness to someone anonymously, I don't want the other person to know it was me because they may feel obligated to repay me in some way. I read them the quote:
"A true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good."I didn't expect my students to really grab on to the idea of Random, Anonymous acts of kindness, and so my heart swelled in my chest when the next week there were two cryptic additions to our #ChooseKind Board. One said "Someone put Syd's workbook on her desk so she wouldn't forget to bring it home and do her homework again" and "Someone made sure Landon got his favorite snack on Friday" Syd got up and talked about how she thought she had left her workbook out herself but either way she was really glad it was out because she just keeps forgetting to pack it this week and needed the extra reminder. As we talked about it, we all decided it was a really big deal that someone in our classroom cared enough about Syd to help her in this way. Landon, on the other hand, was absolutely elated that his favorite snack was on his desk on Friday. On Fridays our snack is a hodge-podge of whatever is left from the week of packaged snacks, and since he was out of the room at snack time, he was sure that when he got back he would be left with something he didn't care for. He said it made his whole day to find the package of his favorite Lorna Doone's (a coveted choice) sitting on his chair when he returned. Nobody claimed either act of kindness, but they all smiled and looked around at each other suspiciously, in the most delightful way!
After we discuss an item on the board (we don't get to them all each week), we highlight the ones we discussed and place a representative puff ball in our kindness jar. When the jar is full, the reward is that we get to decide together on an act of kindness to carry out outside of our classroom walls, and in this way, we are learning that kindness is it's own reward.
We are viewing the world through a lens of #KindnessMatters. When we discuss social injustice, we talk about how being kind and being brave work hand in hand to change the world. When we read a fictional story, we discuss ways that choosing kindness could have altered the plot or the course of the main characters. Slowly, I am seeing my students consider kindness at the forefront of their decision-making and opinion-forming. When I recently asked them a question posed by FLOCABULARY about what they would 3D print if they could choose anything, they wanted to know what people needed that could be 3D printed, and a really cool STEAM project was born.
At home and at school, there will always be a need for intentionality when it comes to modeling and teaching kindness and empathy, but as much as I am working to teach these critical skills, I am delighted to find myself inspired and learning as well when the children in my life discover their own capacity to effect their world with Kindness.