Cultivating Kindness in young children can seem like an impossible task at times, in large part because developmentally the brains of toddlers and preschoolers are still forming the neural connections that help them to understand that other people have feelings, opinions, and thoughts that are different from their own. They are also still working toward developing the part of their brains that helps them to control impulses and understand that their actions can have consequences. However, with careful facilitation, there is so much that we can do to scaffold the development of empathy and help Cultivate Kindness.
Each year, right around the time fall begins to turn to winter, I always begin to notice my four and five year olds getting a bit carried away with bossing each other around, are getting into more arguments, and are using not so nice words with their classmates and teachers. This is my cue to start bringing attention to any act of kindness I notice throughout the day, no matter how small. Something like “Wow! I just noticed that my friend Max is helping to put away the legos today, even though he didn’t play with them. That is so kind of you, Max. Thank you.” Or “Thank you for picking up that marker I just dropped. That was very kind.” Or “I just heard someone use their very kind words to ask a friend to give them some space right now.” Until eventually someone finally asks “Miss Sam, what does kind mean??” And we’re off on our journey to Cultivate Kindness.
The Journey to Cultivate Kindness
As with any big question that comes up in my classroom, we start with a Circle Time discussion about the topic. First, I explain that kindness can be a lot of different things. It can be helping someone, using nice words, making something, or just noticing what’s happening around you. It makes you feel good to be kind. Then I ask, “What kinds of things can we do at school that are kind?” Then, because I never miss an opportunity to imbed literacy in anything we do, we make a big list of everyone’s ideas. After we make our list, we read the book “Be Kind” by Pat Zietlow Miller, and that gives us even more ideas to add to our Kindness List. We refer to the list often throughout the first day, and then we start a new end-of-the-day ritual. Where we usually share our favorite parts of the day, we now take time to say out loud what kindness we noticed in ourselves or in someone else. At first it can feel like students are only being kind to each other to gain recognition, and sometimes students get off track and really want to talk about things that happened that weren’t kind, but we can always refer back to our list to help guide us. As students begin to pay more attention to their surroundings and look for opportunities to be kind, we have more and more to share during our Kindness Circle, and eventually I begin to notice quiet acts of kindness, the kind that no one but a teacher would notice; chairs get pushed in, voices become gentler, and there seems to be a lot less to pick up off of the floor every day. And just like that, kindness is woven into the culture of our classroom seamlessly.
This past week I noticed two instances that prove that we’re succeeding in creating the neural connections needed to help these tiny humans turn into empathetic, kind and caring adults. After school one day, a child was very sad that the puppet he made had gone missing. Then, without missing a beat, his classmate said “You can have this one I made. I made two!” And taking into consideration the strong emotional connections children have with the things they make themselves, this act of kindness was truly selfless. Then, at lunchtime we were having a particularly messy batch of pasta (giving everyone quite the sauce-stache), and a student went into the bathroom to wipe off her face. She came out with a stack of paper towels and asked each person at the table “Do you want a napkin, too?” Now, this was the absolute best way to get a dozen 4 year olds to wipe their faces without protest and without any help from an adult.
Cultivate Kindness at Home
You can follow a similar timeline to Cultivate Kindness in your own home.
1.) Start by noticing- out loud- every act of kindness you see when you’re with your child. Whether it’s at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or even on TV.
2.) Answer your child’s questions about Kindness.
3.) Make your own Kindness List and display it in your home. Pictures can help remind younger children what you’ve written down.
4.) Take time every day to reflect on the kindness you noticed in yourself, in your child and in others. You can do this at the dinner table, in the bathtub, or right before bed.
If you take the time to look for kindness in your life, you’ll notice it’s everywhere. In the famous words of one of my own personal heroes, Mr. Rodgers:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘ Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world.”
I find so much comfort in knowing that we are helping to shape the next generation of kind and caring helpers. I hope you do too.
Samantha Perry is the Director of Bubbles Academy’s Arts-Integrated Preschool Program. She is also the recipient of the Harris Foundation’s Scholarship for Excellence in Leadership and received her Master of Science in Child Development with a specialization in Administration at Erikson Institute. The Harris Excellence Scholarships are awarded annually to a select number of students with excellent academic credentials and a demonstrated commitment to the field of early childhood.
Sam is grateful for the opportunity to use both her theatrical expertise, and broad knowledge of needs of young children at Bubbles Academy’s arts-integrated preschool program. As an educator, Sam strives to inspire confidence, independence, curiosity and creativity in each of her students every day.