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The Importance of Teaching Compassion and Kindness

21 November 2014

It was a real pleasure to see the combined forces of the primary and secondary staff, students and Parents organise the Giving Tree bag effort last night. The outcome was a Christmas vision, piled high with bags of presents that had been donated and compiled by people from all sections of our community.

In previous weeks we have talked about bullying prevention, exam stress and parenting so it is good to return to the theme of the warm and welcoming environment that our school has. Teaching students to be kind to each other is something that you may expect from school as it is a learned behaviour. Children learn from being immersed in an environment where they see good behaviour modelled all around them. Psychologists have noted, in children as young as 18 months, an inbuilt desire to soothe people who look distressed, but equally, as anyone who has a 2 year old, six year old, or even 15 year old will have noted, children also have an ability to be selfish at times.

The first place to start is in the home. Professor Martin Berkowitz, who studies and researches character and education at the University of Missouri in the USA, asserts that children “are likely to replicate the behaviours of their parents”. He adds that “children want to make sense of the world and so they interpret it through the filters of their own experience.” How you act at home therefore, is important in how your child will develop. However, the second part is vital because a child’s experience for the large part of their life up until the age of 18, is spent in school. Therefore, school has a huge responsibility in teaching the rights and wrongs of social behaviours to children and helping them to make sense, not only of what they see at home and in school, but also of the barrage of media they are exposed to, from the traditional books, music and magazines to the modern influencers of film, television, social media and the internet.

It is inevitable that at some point in a child’s learning journey through life, they will upset someone whether it is a peer or adult, and child psychologists’ advice on dealing with this is known as induction. When praising or reprimanding a child it is important to let them see the impact of what they have done. Something along the lines of ”I am upset with you because you made Jimmy cry” or ”I am proud of you because you really made the class / Mrs Smith happy”.  If a child see’s the link with what they have done and how others feel then  emotional understanding and growth is occurring.

In school we call this our Behaviours and Social Graces and it is linked to our High Performance Learning approach to education and Education for Character. When a teacher from primary or secondary spots a student who is performing an act of kindness they are encouraged to go out of their way to praise the child. It is good to be recognised for virtue, however the argument then becomes, is a child simply doing it to receive recognition rather than doing it because they know it is the good and right thing to do. However, rewarding someone for doing the right thing helps inspire others and as social animals, the more we see and learn the right behaviours the more natural they become.

This year we are trying to encourage our staff and our students to be more active in their (random) acts of kindness. This is a work in progress – I am currently investigating random rewards for those that we identify. Teaching kindness and virtues is a complex process. As a child develops they cannot just be  someone who lets a friend copy their homework or give up their lunch every day. Kindness is counter balanced by repercussions of inappropriate behaviour and the knowledge that kindness sometimes involves making difficult decisions that other people may not instantly understand. The science does tell us that when teaching kindness and compassion it is never too late to make a difference to how a young person behaves.

I end on an encouraging note from Professor Ljbomirsky from the University of California on the need to teach, encourage and model kindness. The Professor conducted research on children where they were continually asked over a 4 week period to carry out acts of kindness. The research showed that these children were not only more popular but also happier than children of their class who were not encouraged to be kind. There are many acts of kindness possible in and around the school, from the large acts of service to the small acts of opening a door or acknowledging someone’s existence with a ‘good morning’. We all work on these every day and the rewards are there in the short term and the long term for our children’s development.

Thank you for all your help with our service projects, helping the PTA and encouraging our students. This is something that benefits us all in so many ways and it is ok to feel good about yourself for doing it.

- Chris Share, Head of Secondary