Five Ways to Inspire (not Impose) Kindness

When children are young, we teach by showing. We show them what money looks like when we count it. We take more abstract concepts, like addition and subtraction, and physically show them how it looks to add one apple to a group of three or subtract two blocks from a group of five. Basic counting eventually turns into algebra, trigonometry, or calculus.

So, too, goes the teaching of social skills or positive character traits like being kind to others. We start simply by showing them, and then get more complex. Here are five ways to use your already-great teaching methods to help children recognize and value the importance of kindness as an inspiration, not an imposition.

  1. Define what kindness is.

    For elementary students, you might say kindness is about showing concern for others, or doing good things to help others or to make others feel special. As children get older, you may introduce them to ideas such as being considerate of others, or showing warmth or caring. No matter the definition, kindness is always presented positively, and as an opportunity.

  2. Identify how kindness looks.

    After introducing children to the concept of kindness, highlight and reinforce big examples where it’s present, like holding the door for someone whose hands are full, or asking the new student if he or she wants to sit with you at lunch. Look also for examples where kindness is obviously absent, like when someone shoves someone else to the ground, or teases someone to the point of tears.

  3. Ask, “Yes, and…?”

    Once they know what kindness looks like, it’s time to help kids connect the WHY so that they can find value in being kind to others. If you ask your students, “Why is it important to be kind to others?” they might say, “Because my mom says it’s the right thing to do.” Or, “Because I want them to be nice to me.” These are terrific kid-centered reasons. But there’s so much more to why kindness is important. By adding, “Yes, and…?” to their answer, you may help them identify one or more additional reasons. For example:

    Teacher: “Why is it important to be kind to others?”
    Student: “Because I want them to be nice to me.”
    Teacher: “Yes, and, are there any other reasons it’s good to be kind?”
    Student: “Because it will make someone happy.”

    This is a great lead-in to the next step – helping them see the benefit to others.

  4. Teach them that it’s not just about them.

    It’s natural for children to focus first on what’s best for themselves. After all, it’s all about them. But as they mature socially and emotionally, children have the capacity to find value beyond what’s in it for them. They can begin to connect kindness with benefits to others. The good news is, this can be taught easily and over time. After all, every act of kindness – no matter how small or subtle – has ripple effects that often go unrecognized. And reinforcing existing school or classroom rules are often great opportunities to link a tangible rule or procedure that seems unconnected with less tangible concepts, like kindness.

    For example, maybe your school has a rule that if you see a piece of trash on the floor, you are supposed to pick it up and toss it in the waste basket in your classroom. That’s part of being responsible. So when Tamari picks up the crumpled up wrapper on the ground, she keeps herself out of trouble by following the school rule.

    Praising Tamari for following the school rule is very important, and most educators will naturally do just that. But what if you took that extra 30 seconds to help her see the OTHER benefits of having followed this rule? Perhaps you take a moment to talk about how keeping the hallways clean helps all students take pride in the school. You also point out that she may just have prevented someone from slipping, and probably saved the custodian a little work, which are kind things to do. This way, you’ve helped make a cognitive link that might otherwise not have been made. (Over time, or, depending on your students’ levels, you may be able to ask students to identify these additional connections themselves, and guide them toward more concern for others.)

  5. Pat yourself on the back!

    Recognize and appreciate the value you bring to the development of your students’ whole person. By making the connection between what Tamari did by picking up the trash and the benefits to others, you helped Tamari and other students see that there are often unintended consequences to what they do. You helped them see the value in your school rules and procedures. And you reminded them that every small act of kindness has positive effects they may not even have recognized. And for that, you deserve praise!

Of course it’s important to recognize that all children have differing tolerances for this level of conversation, and are at different levels of social-emotional maturity. So know your students, and adjust accordingly.

If you want to help your students become intrinsically motivated to be kind to others, there’s no better time to begin. Start simply and move to the more complex. Think about ways that you can take what you’re already doing every day, and add a “yes, and?” or incorporate one or two added benefits to the conversation. You’re sure to elevate your students’ level of thinking and inspire them to CHOOSE to become the kind and considerate adults we all want them to be.

Feb 3rd 2020 Erin Green, Director, Boys Town Press

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