Four Ways to Encourage Kindness in Students

By Vicki Zakrzewski | August 20, 2012 | 6 comments

Back-to-school tips: Research-based steps teachers can take to prime their students for kindness.

When I was a teacher, at the start of each school year I couldn’t wait to try out all the classroom management tips I’d picked up over the summer, convinced that now I had in my pocket the latest techniques that would make my classroom a warm and safe place to learn.

I knew that one of the keys to a caring classroom was encouraging students to demonstrate kind, helpful—or “prosocial”—behavior toward each other. Researchers have found that students who show this kind of behavior: 1) achieve greater academic success, 2) have more friends, and 3) develop better relationships with teachers.

Sometimes my new techniques succeeded; lots of times they didn’t. But as I’ve learned more about the science of prosocial behavior, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it might be a lot easier to encourage kindness among students than I thought. 

The four types of photos used by researchers who found that images with dolls facing each other in the background—like in image (a)—<a href=“http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/kind_kids1”>primed kids to help others.</a> The four types of photos used by researchers who found that images with dolls facing each other in the background--like in image (a)--primed kids to help others.

For instance, in a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science, 18-month old infants were shown photos of household objects, like a tea-kettle. The photos each featured one of four backgrounds: blocks, two dolls facing each other, a single doll, or two dolls facing away from each other.

Turned out the background choice decisively influenced behavior: The infants who saw the dolls facing each other were three times more likely than the infants who saw the other background images to spontaneously help a person in need.

All it took was a gentle reminder of our human connectedness to prompt kids to reach out and help someone else.

When I read this study, I realized that I already had been doing a lot of things that encouraged positive connectedness in the classroom—just like most teachers. But this study and others have pointed me to a few simple, effective, research-based tips for consciously nurturing kindness among students—tips that teachers can start to implement on the very first day of school (if not before!). Here are four of my favorites:

1. When setting up your classroom for the year, hang posters of people interacting with each other. As that study demonstrates, even a subtle image of two people looking at each other can create a sense of connectedness and foster kindness. Such visual cues also let students know that you value this kind of behavior.

2. Greet students on the first day of school—and every day after that—as they enter the classroom. Students are more likely to behave with kindness if they feel a sense of belonging. A study of 158 tenth- and twelfth-grade students found that those who felt connected to their teachers and other students scored higher in empathy—a building block of prosocial behavior.

3. From the first day of school to the last, use a positive, warm tone of voice. Forget the advice to not let them see you smile til Christmas. Students’ prosocial skills increase when they are part of a caring classroom. Modeling kind speech with students tends to have the happy effect of students speaking kindly to each other.

4. To build community in your classroom, give your students chances to help each other. Giving students the opportunity to practice prosocial behavior is one of the most effective ways to promote it. For example, when having them work in cooperative learning groups—an instructional technique that allows small groups of students to work together on a task—inform students that part of their responsibility as members of the group is to help one another. Scientists have found that students who engage more in cooperative learning are more likely to treat each other with kindness.

Knowing how busy teachers are, I find it encouraging that it doesn’t take extra lessons or fancy gimmicks to create a caring classroom community. I’d love to hear about strategies you use to promote “connectedness” in your classroom. Please feel free to share what’s worked for you by posting a comment below or on the GGSC Facebook page. I’ll share some of the responses in a separate post later in the week.

On deck for next week, an important lesson for teachers and administrators alike: How building positive relationships can provide a sense of safety across the school community—a cornerstone of success among students and teachers. In the meantime, please learn more about the GGSC’s new education program, and sign up for our forthcoming education newsletter.

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About The Author

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D. is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center.

  

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Great article—if only more teachers thought about this,
very important

happyboy | 2:55 am, August 22, 2012 | Link

 

Perfect timing! I’m just setting up my classroom, and your
“simple” suggestions will help me so much. I’m new to
positive psychology, but I am committed to staying positive
while we try to save our school from closing under NCLB.
Thank you for giving me the courage to be positive!
Liz Finneran

Elizabeth Finneran | 5:30 pm, August 23, 2012 | Link

 

Hi Liz,
So glad these suggestions were helpful in setting up your classroom for the new year. Your dedication to staying positive in a challenging situation is inspiring to me! Wishing you and your students all the best for a successful and happy school year.
vicki

Vicki Zakrzewski | 9:36 am, August 24, 2012 | Link

 

Hi Vicki,

Great article!  What wonderful ways to teach kids
how to be mindful.  I’m tweeting and facebooking
this article in hopes that some of my teacher
followers will read it.  Thank you.

Are you familiar with Dr. Dan Siegel’s work.  If not,
check him out!  From reading your article, I think
you’d like The Whole Brain Child. 

Wishing you all the best,

Judith (former teacher, now therapist)

judith Barnard | 10:42 pm, September 2, 2012 | Link

 

Thank you Vicki, for your suggestions.

I teach Visual Art to late-teenage students. One
of the things I’ve found helpful is to freely own
up to my own doubts and mistakes. Art is all
about ‘trial and error’, with obvious cross-overs
into the rest of our lives !! Being ok with
producing something that isn’t all that good,
and showing my students my ‘failures’ cultivates
a sense of collegiality.

Best wishes.
Moira

Moira Kirkwood | 6:33 pm, September 5, 2012 | Link

 

Dear Judith and Moira,

Thank you so much for your comments!

Judith: Thank you so much for forwarding the
article and for the heads-up to Dan Siegel’s work. I
know his name well, but haven’t actually read his
books. Now I will! I agree, his work seems very
relevant to the GGSC.

Moira: I love that you embrace failure with your
students. What you wrote is actually very relevant
to the article I posted a couple weeks ago on how
administrators can encourage teachers’ growth -
http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/3_
ways_administrators_can_foster_teachers_growth.
I was considering writing a similar piece for
teachers and their students - so I’m glad to get your
feedback and hear that the same methods I
suggested for administrators work for teachers as
well.

Warmly,
vicki

Vicki Zakrzewski | 12:52 pm, September 12, 2012 | Link

 
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