What a difference a year can make. Between spring 2008 and spring 2009, student achievement at our district’s five K-4 schools improved 5 percent in reading and 12 percent in math, rising from below the state average to 6 percentage points above. At our three Title I schools, students outperformed state expectations by more than 20 percentage points.
Yet improved test scores are only part of this remarkable turnaround. “Before, I couldn’t wait to get out of here at the end of the day,” said Julie Langton, secretary at one of the Title I schools. “That’s all different now.” Langton and her principal, Pete Otterson, give much of the credit for the change in school culture to The Kindness Project: A Comprehensive Elementary Counseling Program.
In summer 2008, Minnesota School District 197, which has schools in West St. Paul, Mendota Heights and Eagon, Minn., received a three-year federal grant to fund The Kindness Project, which allowed us to hire an elementary school counselor for each of the district’s elementary schools and develop a comprehensive school counseling program wrapped in the mantle of kindness. Rather than emphasizing negative behaviors such as bullying and disrespectful attitudes/language, our project twists these common behavior problems to accentuate their antithesis: kindness. In other words, the focus is on how to act instead of how not to act. The Rev. Dr. John Snider, the pastor of a large local church and a member of The Kindness Project’s advisory group, describes the character education embedded in the project as “exactly what we teach in church without the religion.”
Creating a Culture of Kindness
It begins with the creation and nurturing of a school culture based on kindness. When we were designing the program, Lani Bennett, Ph.D., a practicing clinical psychologist, our school board chair and now the volunteer chair of the Kindness Project Collaborative, helped us focus on creating schools where children feel so safe and comforted that external factors detracting from their ability to learn are mitigated.
In a cash-strapped district such as ours, in a state with no mandate for elementary school counselors, we spent the decade with our district’s most significant demographic changes without a single K-4 school counselor on the payroll. Although we had a growing number of students and families grappling with assimilation and language issues, lack of adequate prior schooling, cultural barriers, extreme poverty and feelings of isolation, we also knew many of the barriers to learning in our schools crossed all ethnic and economic lines. Bullying was the barrier most often cited, but teachers and principals could recite a host of other problems besetting young students.
Whether the result of students’ personal turmoil was withdrawing, lashing out, crying or tormenting others, it was affecting the learning environment. Our school counseling program encompasses far more than kindness, of course, but the Kindness Project name became a rallying cry for refocused efforts to create school environments where all students felt safe and comforted. And we knew that was a good place to start.
Terry Green, a part-time family support worker employed by the Community Action Council to help families at one of our schools, created the precursor to our program six years ago. She called it Take Time To Be Kind (TTTBK). In those early days, some people wondered why we would need a kindness program. After all, shouldn’t we all just be kind?
“We did sort of roll our eyes,” said Ann Siegel, a kindergarten teacher for 25 years at the school. “Then, we began to see how talking about kindness helped teachers as well as students. We began to see that the constant reminders to be kind were catching on with the kids and helping the adults in the building embrace our rapidly changing demographics.”
After the pilot program’s success, staff was fully on board. Teachers at all five schools signed letters promising to support the program if our grant were approved.
Sharing a Common Language
Our school counselors spend 30 minutes a week with each class. This isn’t release or prep time for the teachers. For the program to work, staff must speak the same language the children are learning. Although the focus of the early sessions is on kindness in its multiple forms, we also use the Second Step® curriculum, adjusting lessons on empathy, impulse control, problem solving and anger management to reflect the proactive kindness angle.
For example, during an empathy session on learning to respect differences, Perry Tinjum, school counselor, held up a large photo of a roller coaster and asked a class of fourth-graders to express their emotions. Most used words like “exciting” and “cool.” Then Tinjum shared his fear of roller coasters and let the students practice kind ways to react to his fear. “It was a simple process for them to make the connection between my fear of roller coasters and some of their peers’ fears, and then we made the connection between differences in appearance and dress,” Tinjum said.
“When there is a universal expectation of kindness and the entire school community shares a common language, it makes a huge difference in the culture of the school,” said Jennifer Parker, a 10-year teaching veteran at a Title I school. “Each of us used to have our own language for teaching character-related issues, but a lot of our kids come to us with absolutely no understanding of the words, much less the ability to apply abstract concepts to their own behavior.”
“Good character equals good learners,” adds Steve Goldade, principal at one of our high-achieving, middle-class schools. He says kids are more empathetic and accepting of differences, teachers feel more supported, and parents are happy to have an extra layer of concern for their children’s well-being. “Kindness has become our common language,” he said.
“When we think of character education, we think of big, broad words like respect and cooperation,” said Mary Bowman, principal. Because the school counselor at Bowen’s school is such a visible presence, he has a solid grasp of the day-to-day situations children experience at school, Bowman said. He takes those situations and incorporates them into classroom lessons, giving children multiple opportunities to practice better ways to solve their problems and control their emotions. “Most of our kids can talk the talk,” Bowman said, “but it takes someone right here to see what they’re doing and give them opportunities to practice that has made all the difference.”
Although the selection methods vary, each of the district elementary schools has a Kindness Patrol. Teachers nominate students at some schools, students fill out an application at others, and one school counselor prefers to make his own selections. In all cases, Kindness Patrol members are fourth-graders, the highest grade at the schools. They make posters and signs, write announcements, perform skits that teach kind behavior, create certificates and contests recognizing kindness, help at kindness assemblies and organize other kindness-centered activities. “It’s amazing to see the level of pride and ownership these students have,” said Steph Rieppel, school counselor. “They take their roles seriously and work hard to encourage kindness throughout the school.”
Past service opportunities have ranged from organizing food drives for local food shelves to collecting coats as the harsh Minnesota winter approaches. Children at one school recorded books on CDs and delivered new, donated books with a CD in an attached pocket to a nearby children’s hospital. Children have also responded to various local, national and international disasters with fundraising drives.
This year, we’re trying to help students spread kindness beyond the school walls. In our end-of-year evaluations, we could see that kindness was taking root in classrooms and on school property, but problems still existed on school buses and in neighborhoods. We began this year by meeting with bus drivers to help them better understand the language of kindness and expectations for student behavior. We stepped up communications with parents and shared our story in various publications.
Carissa Rutz, a family support worker at a Title I school, said she has noticed more and more children are trying to share “the kindness language” with their families, and she is seeing some overflow from school to home. “We’ve had kids tell us their mom or dad isn’t kind at home, or the cops were at their house again. But even when their home lives are chaotic, they know they will find kindness and safety at school,” she said.
When Melanie Parkinson, school counselor, asked students what kindness meant to them, she heard many uplifting stories, including one from a child who had been bullied at her former school and was loving life in her kind new school. “It makes me happy to know our Kindness Project is making such a difference in kids’ lives,” Parkinson said.
Even children who had never heard the word “kindness” before coming to school quickly learn that it feels good to be on the giving end as well as the receiving end. And the school staff sees a difference every day in the school climate – and student achievement.
Gloria Gritz is special projects assistant to the superintendent of West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan area schools and was the primary grant writer for The Kindness Project. She can be reached at email@example.com.