History,
Math,
Science,
Kindness
What happens when kindness is a part of the curriculum?
For one Midwestern school district, the answer is: a lot— including a 50% reduction in bullying in one semester.
In a small, rural school district in northeastern Indiana, a group of administrators, teachers, and students set out to learn the answer to a small but powerful question: What if kindness were a learnable skill, taught in the same way that we teach math or science?

The school district’s superintendent Marilyn Hissong pursued the theory in mid-2018 after she noticed something troubling in her East Allen County Schools district: “I just felt [that students] were losing some of the interactions, the facial gestures, eye contact, body language, and talking to one another about an issue.”

She saw that the students had lost their ability to communicate effectively—and with it, the ability to practice empathy and kindness for one another. Bullying was on the rise. So, rather than sit idly by, Hissong decided to do something about it.

The program has four main goals: develop positive mindsets, strengthen peer relationships, foster empathy, and promote cyber-kindness.

It was around this time that Hissong came across Teach Kindness, a multi-week program designed to teach and foster kindness in schools. The nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children launched the program in 2017, building its lessons upon a unique collaboration of leading social-emotional learning experts from Harvard and Yale, among others. In the program, part of class time is devoted to teaching kindness, including various exercises that help students master the skill in the same way core curriculum classes are taught.

New Haven and Southwick schools employed the lessons from Stand for Children’s program on topics ranging from mindfulness and social media bullying, to the art of apologizing, to mindfulness. One lesson, for example, focuses on “active listening.” “Expressing empathy is striving to validate feelings rather than questioning or defending against them”, the course materials read.

Since launch, the initiative and its message have spread down hallways and through classrooms, and eventually, even into students’ homes. "There's awareness,” says Karen Gilpin, a New Haven Middle School guidance counselor. "Kids are more open and talkative about sharing what they're seeing here since we've embraced Teach Kindness.”

“Giving and accepting apologies sincerely is powerful. But apologies aren’t easy to make.”

One day earlier this year, an eighth grader named Trenton Moss found himself huffing and puffing in gym class. A few classmates started making fun of him for his pace, calling him "fat" and "slow."

Trenton, a 14-year-old who struggles with his weight, was shattered. “The only reason I’m on depression pills is because of these bullies,” he says.

As he continued to make his way around the track, fielding taunts from his classmates, two fellow students came to his aid: Dalton Peterson, 15, and Richard Cory, 13, both eighth graders. They didn’t just tell off his bullies, they started running alongside him to get him motivated, cheering Trenton on every step of the way.

Weeks later, this small act of kindness inspired Trenton to extend the same good will to Mackenzie Kitson, a 14-year-old girl who had been alienated from her peers. One day, when she was at home sick, several girls who sat at her lunch table took a vote that she could no longer sit with them. Trenton noticed, and invited her to come sit with him.“I was bawling my eyes out,” Mackenzie says. “But the next day, I was at Trenton’s table. And I’ve been there ever since.”

“If you were Trenton, would you like someone picking on you?”
Richard Cory, Eighth grade

This act of kindness might seem like an isolated incident—a singular exception to what seems to have become the norm in schools across the country—but it isn’t. In fact, it’s now become the norm in New Haven—and not just for the students. The program also trains the district’s teachers with what's called an “empathetic mindset conditioning exercise.” Originally developed by Dr. Jason Okonofua, the exercise encourages teachers to foster a more empathetic approach when disciplining students. It has been credited with helping to reduce in-school suspensions by 50%, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When you’re kind to somebody else, they might be kind back to you.”
Trinity Turner
“When you’re kind to somebody else, they might be kind back to you.”
Trinity Turner

Perhaps nowhere in the district is this change more apparent than in New Haven Middle School’s data room. Here, Principal Chad Houser points to colorful charts that show that Teach Kindness has measurably reduced bullying incidents. Before launching the program, Houser says the Title 1 school district—where about 45 percent of the students receive free and price-reduced lunches—struggled with rampant bullying and acts of physical violence between students. After meeting with Hissong, he agreed that integrating kindness into the curriculum at his school could make a difference. “There was certainly a need for it,” he says.

“It’s not just the data that proves it.”
Principal Chad Houser

It’s not just the data that proves it. So does seventh grader Konnor Clark. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, Konnor had a problem: At school, the 13-year-old was short-tempered with his classmates and teachers. At home, he was a nuisance to his older brother. But as the Teach Kindness curriculum started to sink in, Konnor began to think about himself and his behavior; and after about five months of working with the lessons, something shifted.

“I don’t know if it’s called this, but the butterfly effect, it’s kind of like that. One person’s nice, then it ripples and more people start to be kind.”

Konnor says kindness has since cascaded into nearly every area of his life, as well as across the school. “One person starts to be kind, then that other person feels good, and then they want to be kind,” he says. “I don't know if it's called this, but the butterfly effect, it's kind of like that. One person's nice, then it ripples and more people start to be kind.”

“I don’t know if it’s called this, but the butterfly effect, it’s kind of like that. One person’s nice, then it ripples and more people start to be kind.”

This domino effect has been key to Teach Kindness’ success. As New Haven art teacher Emily Maroney often tells her students, “Kindness is a chain reaction.” For Maroney, the issue of bullying is a personal one. At 13, she was bullied by classmates so ferociously that she pretended to be sick to miss school. Now 27, Maroney has been an integral piece of Teach Kindness, and one of its biggest cheerleaders. She even developed the “Prints of Kindness” slogan.

Art teacher Emily Maroney with students.
“It’s one of those simple things that we all take for granted many times, of just being kind to one another.”
“It’s one of those simple things that we all take for granted many times, of just being kind to one another.”

For Principal Houser, integrating kindness into the curriculum at New Haven—especially in a community that is struggling socioeconomically—has made a lasting difference. “It's one of those simple things that we all take for granted many times, of just being kind to one another,” he says. “But when you get an opportunity to really put more of a focus on it, the more it takes place.”

Stand for Children is a nonprofit education advocacy organization focused on ensuring all students receive a high quality, relevant education. If you are interested in bringing the Teach Kindness challenge to your school, learn more here.
Photography by Barbara Kinney
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