By Lisa Flook and Laura Pinger
Walking to class one day, one of us (Laura) saw a young student crying and waiting for his mother to arrive – he had split his chin while playing. When Laura got to class, the other students were very upset and afraid for their friend, full of questions about what would happen to him. Laura decided to ask the class how they could help him.
“Caring practice!” exclaimed one of the children – and they all sat in a circle offering support and well wishes. The children immediately calmed and they continued with their lesson.
This is what’s possible when kids learn to be kind at school.
Various mindfulness programs have been developed for adults, but we and our colleagues at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison wanted to develop a curriculum for kids. Every school teaches math and reading, but what about mindfulness and kindness?
We ended up bringing a 12-week Kindness Curriculum to six schools in the Midwest (Sign up to access a free copy of the curriculum). Twice a week for 20 minutes, pre-kindergarten kids were introduced to stories and practices for paying attention, regulating their emotions and cultivating kindness. It’s just the beginning, but the initial results of our research, coauthored with Center Founder and Professor Richard Davidson and Graduate Research Assistant Simon Goldberg, suggest that this program can improve kids’ grades, cognitive abilities and relationship skills.
Why Teach Kindness to Kids?
The school environment can be very stressful; in addition to any issues they bring from home, many students struggle to make friends and perform well in class. Being excluded, ignored or teased is very painful for a young child, and we thought it could be impactful to teach empathy and compassion.
When other kids are suffering – like that boy who split his chin – can we understand how they might be feeling? Kindness bridges those gaps and helps build a sense of connection among the students, the teachers and even the parents. Learning to strengthen their attention and regulate their emotions are foundational skills that could benefit kids in school and throughout their whole lives.
On top of that, having classrooms full of mindful, kind kids completely changes the school environment. Imagine entire schools – entire districts – where kindness is emphasized. That would be truly powerful. Teaching kindness is a way to bubble up widespread transformation that doesn’t require big policy changes or extensive administrative involvement.
Running and Studying a Kindness Curriculum
If you had visited one of our classrooms during the 12-week program, you might have seen a poster on the wall called “Kindness Garden.” When kids performed an act of kindness or benefitted from one, they added a sticker to the poster. The idea is that friendship is like a seed – it needs to be nurtured and taken care of in order to grow. Through that exercise, we got students talking about how kindness feels good and how we might grow more friendship in the classroom.
Another day, you might have found students in pairs holding Peace Wands, one with a heart and one with a star. The child with the heart wand speaks (“from the heart”); the other child (the “star listener”) listens and then repeats back what was said. When there was a conflict between students, they used the wands to support the process of paying attention, expressing their feelings and building empathy.
Our Kindness Curriculum combines creative activities like these, as well as books, songs and movement to communicate concepts in a way that is understandable to four year olds. Our instructors taught the curriculum with active participation by classroom teachers.