Teaching kindness, empathy, inclusion, and acceptance combine important components of developing students’ abilities to build healthy and positive relationships with others. In addition, building authentic connections between school staff members and students is critical. These connections build the trust needed to foster kindness, compassion, safety, empathy, acceptance, hope and a sense of belonging in the classroom.
To foster kindness in schools and instill empathy:
- Model kindness yourself
- Encourage kindness with rewards
- Teach empathy and perspective-taking
- Help children deal with strong emotions
- Promote kindness and acceptance
When children feel connected, they are less likely to hurt others or themselves. They’re also more likely to succeed academically, socially, and personally. Let’s look at five ways to foster kindness and instill empathy and acceptance in the classroom.
1. Model Kindness Yourself
One way to cultivate kindness is by modeling it yourself. Emphasizing friendship, reaching out to others in need, encouraging good manners, and showing respect to others will provide students with someone to model their behavior off.
Numerous activities demonstrate kindness in the classroom, including celebrating Kindness Week, holding assemblies that inspire acts of kindness and goal setting, creating a friendship center, and engaging in kindness challenges.
Consistently modeling the behavior you want students to exhibit will provide them with a positive example that will remain with them and encourage them to mimic those actions after seeing the positive results and reactions.
Ways to show kindness at school include introducing custodians to the class, acknowledging the importance of their role, and thanking them for the work they do. Another example is being openly kind and appreciative to cafeteria staff in front of the children. Showing respect to other faculty members by greeting them in a friendly way in hallways and common areas is another way to model respect and kindness. Teaching kindness through modeling is a natural and effective way for students to learn how to treat others by observing them in real-time.
“Kindness is a silent smile, a friendly word, a nod of encouragement. Kindness is the single most powerful thing we can teach children.” — RAKtivist
2. Encourage Kindness with Rewards
Promoting acts of kindness in schools with positive reinforcement can be effective and powerful. PBIS, or “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” is a proactive approach that focuses on prevention as opposed to punishment. PBIS focuses on rewarding students with model behaviors instead of negative reinforcement of inappropriate behaviors. This approach is designed to encourage students to seek positive reinforcement instead of negative redirection.
Advocates for PBIS believe that PBIS changes school disciplinary protocols for the better. Others worry about the use of rewards and fear that problem behaviors can too easily be ignored. It’s important that educators plan consistent reward systems focusing on positive behaviors without excluding students with behavior challenges.
When carefully monitored and administered authentically, reward systems can work to encourage kindness, provided that children are rewarded according to their own actions and not based on a standard, inflexible reward system.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop
3. Teach Empathy and Perspective-Taking
Being able to understand the feelings of another can transform the lives of students. Although it is impossible to understand someone else’s feelings or emotions truly, it is important to at the very least try to see situations from another’s point of view, i.e., walk in someone else’s shoes. This action encourages positive social change and cultivates a safer environment. When children feel understood, they feel happier, trusted, and compelled to treat others with kindness.
Educators can teach empathy and perspective-taking by stressing the importance of active listening. Children should be taught to stop whatever else they are doing, focus on the speaker, anticipate what the speaker will say, and then replay the dialogue to understand the point that the speaker is trying to get across. This is often difficult for young students due to shorter attention spans, but it is important to teach patience and listening skills before responding to others.
The story below provides an example using the numbers “9” and “6”.
Two princes started a war with each other because one prince looked at the number on the table and said it was a “6” while the other said it was a “9”. The battle raged for many years. One day, a boy turned the tablecloth around, and finally, they saw each other’s point of view. The war ended, and the princes became friends.
“A teacher without empathy and compassion is as useless as a book is without light.” — Robert John Meehan
4. Help Children Deal with Strong Emotions
Social-emotional learning (SEL) provides students with strategies to cope with strong feelings and emotions while setting personal goals. SEL encourages self-reflection while engaging with others, especially those who have different perspectives than their own. It encourages children to develop interpersonal skills like resolving conflicts and working as part of a team.
Strong emotions, like anxiety, fear, and anger, can interfere with healthy decision-making and a child’s ability to focus on important tasks. SEL addresses issues like these by showing students how to recognize and understand their emotions. Understanding emotions is the key to managing them, and creates the space needed to cultivate respect for others and feel empathy.
SEL is a superior approach that helps all children, including those with behavioral challenges and those who think differently to build self-esteem and talk about their challenges. The essential tools taught via SEL benefit children socially, academically, and later, professionally. SEL prepares children for the next steps in life, whether it is the next grade level or adulthood.
“It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering silent.” — Paul Bloom
5. Promote Kindness and Acceptance
Students from different backgrounds and cultures need to be taught kindness-promoting strategies that are age-appropriate. Programs, assemblies, and activities can foster a kind and empathetic learning environment that is also safe and inclusive.
Rachel’s Challenge digital and in-person programs provide these skills. Rachel’s Challenge high school programs and middle school assemblies focus on teaching how modeling, inspiring, and supporting positive behavior can help positively shape or change the culture of schools. Rachel’s Challenge introduces a story to students about an extraordinary teenage girl who spread kindness and acceptance to others, especially those who were new or different from her. Students leave the assembly with a life-changing outlook regarding inclusiveness and acceptance of others.
These resources are important to the sustainability of inclusiveness and acceptance as a norm. Rachel’s Challenge provides training and resources for student leaders as a means to continue the chain of kindness throughout the school. Talk to a representative to bring Rachel’s Challenge to your school today!