By Naomi Drew, M.A., and Christa M. Tinari, M.A., coauthors of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying
Kids thrive in an atmosphere of kindness. They blossom, do better in school, and feel safer when surrounded by kindness.
That said, middle schoolers can be sarcastic and just plain mean to one another. This was corroborated by a national survey we conducted with over 1,000 middle school students: 81 percent said they heard kids saying mean things to one another every single day. An eighth-grade teacher we interviewed concurred. “My kids are constantly putting each other down.” The raw truth is that gossiping, exclusion, and unkindness can be as much a part of the middle school culture as puberty and mood swings.
So what can we do?
Lots! The first thing is to remember that any investment of time you make to create a kinder, more accepting culture in your school will yield rewards far greater than just having students treat one another better. According to the American Institutes for Research, “Positive school climate is tied to high or improving attendance rates, test scores, promotion rates, and graduation rates.” And who doesn’t want that?
The truth is we actually can teach kids to be kinder. Maurice Elias, director of the Social-Emotional Learning Lab at Rutgers University, eloquently reminds us: “Kindness can be taught, and it is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society.” To this we say, “Yes!” And to help you get started, or move ahead even further in fostering kindness, here are three concrete things you can do right now:
1. Model, teach, and expect acceptance, empathy, and kindness.
Modeling and expecting kindness is critical. Kids watch us for clues as to how to behave. Even though middle schoolers are pretty peer-obsessed, our actions and attitudes hold more weight with them than we realize. Modeling kindness is key. Equally important is expecting kindness from your kids. Never let cruel behavior go unchecked. Each time we do, we normalize meanness.
The activity below is a wonderful vehicle for promoting acceptance, kindness, and empathy. It’s based on the true story of Coach Biff Poggi of Gillman High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Poggi prized kindness and empathy over all else. The character expectations he set for his football team far exceeded his expectations for prowess on the field. Poggi’s hard and fast rule was “Empathy and kindness for all.”
Share the story “Coach Poggi’s Golden Rule” with your class. Go over the discussion questions together. Ask your kids how they can apply Coach Poggi’s philosophy in their lives, in your class, and in your school. Make sure to do the “Real-Life Challenge” at the end of the handout, too. It will extend the real-life relevance of this activity.
See if you can be as steadfast as Coach Poggi in your commitment to empathy, kindness, and acceptance among your students.
2. Help your kids see cliques and social groups through a lens of kindness.
Peer acceptance is more important than ever in middle school. Tightly knit groups form quickly at this stage, and some kids relish the social power of being in the “in-crowd.” Others struggle to fit in, and being excluded chips away at their self-esteem. Kindness can fall by the wayside when kids become more focused on popularity than on respecting their peers.
Social groups based on common interests can provide kids with a sense of safety, purpose, and belonging. Cliques, on the other hand, can also provide these—but at a cost. Cliques are exclusive, and kids in them often discourage members from expressing individuality. They create unhealthy peer pressure for kids to fit in. More powerful members of cliques tend to mistreat less powerful members, who often put up with bad behavior just to stay in the group. Even more problematic is the use of collective power to ignore, tease, or bully others. Ultimately, cliques chip away at the possibility of a culture of kindness.
Your kids might not be aware of the advantage of forming inclusive social groups based on common interests rather than cliques. Understanding the negative impacts of cliques will also help your kids make better choices about which group to align with. Take a look at the following activity. Discuss it with your kids and help them see the benefits of opting for social groups and avoiding cliques.
Activity: Exploring Social Groups and Cliques. Think of a social group you belong to. This group must include one person in addition to yourself. It could be a group of friends you spend time with socially, friends from your sports team, kids in band or chess club, and so forth. Once you have thought of a social group, read the characteristics below. Circle the characteristics that describe your social group.
People in my group:
- Share similar interests
- Place a high value on popularity
- Support one another
- Are kind to people within the group and outside of it
- Are encouraged to act the same as other members of the group
- Exclude other students
- May feel pressured to do certain things to fit in with the group
- Are given the freedom to be themselves
- Make fun of, or look down on, students not in the group
- Are members of several groups
- Which of the above characteristics seem positive to you?
- Which could have a negative impact on students in the group?
- Which could have a negative impact on students who are not part of the group?
Think About It
If your group includes more negative characteristics than positive ones, it might be a clique. A clique is a social group of students who may exclude, tease, or bully other students.
Choose Kindness Over Cliques
What are some actions you can take to ensure that you and your social group are kind, inclusive, and respectful of other students in your social group and students not in your social group?
3. Teach kindness—literally.
You can plant seeds of kindness in your classroom every time you talk about its importance and model it through your behaviors and attitudes. Help your students understand the basic human need all people have for being treated with acceptance, respect, and empathy—the fundamentals of kindness.
Here’s something else to remember: Just as kindness spreads, so can cruelty and callousness. A Harvard study of 10,000 middle school and high school students reported that 80 percent of students were more concerned about their own success and happiness than they were about others’. The report states something all of us have seen: “When caring takes a back seat, youth are at risk for being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest.”
On the other hand, when enough kids treat each other with kindness and respect, others are likely to follow. This happens because of “mirror neurons” in the brain that prompt people to unconsciously mimic others’ behaviors. According to neuroscience researchers Sourya Acharya and Samarth Shukla, mirror neurons are activated when we observe the actions of the people around us. This helps explain why kids learn through imitation. We have to fill our classrooms and hallways with enough empathy, kindness, and respect to motivate every student toward kindness and away from cruelty.
One final thought: When you wonder how you can fit one more thing into your day, please remember that your efforts will touch your students’ lives in fundamental ways. Remember, too, that in this changing world, any infusion of kindness is both necessary and valuable.
Naomi Drew, M.A., is an expert on conflict resolution and peacemaking. Her work has been instrumental in introducing the skills of peacemaking to public education and has been recognized by educational leaders throughout the United States and Canada. Naomi is also a dynamic and inspiring speaker. She serves as a consultant to school districts, parent groups, and civic organizations and is a registered provider with the New Jersey State Department of Education Character Education Network. She lives in New Jersey.
Christa M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit www.peacepraxis.com to learn more about her work.
Naomi and Christa are coauthors of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying.
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“10 Kindness Week Ideas for Schools,” Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. Great ideas to help prompt acts of kindness in your kids.
“Mix It Up at Lunch Activities,” Teaching Tolerance. Organize a Mix It Up at Lunch day at your school to help your students get to know others who aren’t in their usual social groups.
“5-Minute Film Festival: Videos on Kindness, Empathy, and Connection,” Edutopia. Check out the video playlist of kindness- and empathy-related topics and tons of other resources.