Image of students hugging with caption students spread kindness to build character and reduce bullying

Bostian Elementary in North Carolina is a school that cares about building character and empowering students with kindness and empathy. I recently connected with 4th Grade Teacher, Donna Rymer about the great work the teachers are doing to make kindness the norm in their school.

Donna explained that they saw a problem in the world with a lack of kindness contributing to sadness, and saw a need to bring happiness and compassion back. They decided they needed to start in their school and launched their kindness initiative to encourage more empathy and ensure less anti-social behaviour. 

Their campaign was triggered by a conversation she had with a colleague who had been given a wristband by a kindness ambassador. They decided to invite Rebecca Sutton from The Kindness Revolution to speak to their grade 4 students. Once they heard her speak they were convinced that they needed to expand on her presentation and turn it into a full-blown PBL (Project Based Learning) to reach the whole school and community.

Donna was keen to share how staff and students have worked to promote kindness in the hopes that it will inspire other teachers to also start a kindness initiative at their school. 

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Experts advocate for teaching kindness and empathy in schools to reduce bullying. Why? Because kindness is the antithesis of bullying and empathy is the foundation of kindness.  

Being kind means that you consider the needs, feelings and concerns of others to ensure you act appropriately. Having empathy means you're able to put yourself in someone's shoes to understand their needs, feelings and concerns. 

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Images of trees made from paper with wording 34 Inspiration Kindness Trees building character in schools.

A Kindness Tree is a creative and beautiful way to encourage and acknowledge acts of kindness within a school. As a whole school project, it's a heartwarming way to help foster kind, supportive relationships amongst students and teachers. Watching the tree come to life as good deeds are added creates positive and uplifting feelings and behaviour, making it a highly effective way to build character and reduce bullying.

As you'll see by the examples below there are many variations, some big, some small, but each one beautiful and unique. There are no rules when it comes to creating your kindness tree. Use your imagination and encourage student involvement. For the tree itself, you can use paper, fabric, paint, crepe paper or real tree branches. Tree leaves upon which kind deeds are written can be made from paper or card in the shape of leaves, hearts or even hands.

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Book cover with a girl looking triumphant with her dog. The words reflections and video reading by the authors Rose and Hope McCallum.

Book Title:  The Watermelon Shield

Authors:  Rose and Hope McCallum

Illustrator:  mikemotz.com

For ages:  6-10 years (a good read for all ages)

Topics:  bullying, kindness, compassion, empathy, character development, juvenile self-help

Related learning areas:  social and emotional learning (SEL), well-being/self-confidence, communication/healthy boundaries

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Five children lying together on the ground with text next to image saying tracking student relationships to improve well-being and reduce bullying.

How important are relationships in education? 

Rita Pierson, in her classic TEDTalk, says “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I thoroughly agree and I would like it mandated that every teacher watches her talk every year!

I want to expand her sentiment to include student to student relationships.

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Aaron Stark had a painful and abusive childhood which almost ended in tragedy at his school. It was a not so extraordinary act of kindness and a strong and understanding childhood friend that changed his destructive mindset and saved his life.

After a decade of recovery and sharing his story, Aaron has been able to put the past behind him and dedicate himself to his family. He’s a man on a mission to use his very personal story of triumph to help other young people feeling lost and confused walk into the light. He wants to reassure those who are suffering that there are people who care and that they’re not alone.

This video highlights the importance of seeing and helping children in pain. Please do not see those who bully, those who are quiet and introverted or those who are needy as children who are trying to push your buttons. Take some time to investigate and find out how their needs are not being met and how you can make a difference.

Phrases like "random acts of kindness" and "pay it forward" have become popular terms in modern society. There are even special days dedicated to performing good deeds and organisations who specialise in altruism.

But why has kindness become so popular? Perhaps it's best explained by those who have identified a deficit in their lives that can only be filled by giving.

Science proves there are good reasons why so many of us can't get enough of those addictive, feel-good emotions and explains why kindness is important with evidence of many physical, emotional, and mental health benefits. But of great significance for schools, it's a powerful and free resource to reduce anti-social and bullying behaviour.

"Unlike previous generations, today's adolescents are victimizing each other at alarming rates leading adults to ask why."
Shanetia Clark and Barbara Marinak

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The power of classroom circles for fostering emotional intelligence, improving well-being and creating a culture of kindness is well documented. Circles are important tools for nurturing relationships and feelings of community and can be used in any classroom.

Schools with a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) often use circles to help build a positive culture to reduce bullying. Circles work because they help all children to feel loved and encouraged while creating bonds between peers. They are especially important for nurturing feelings of belonging, acceptance and stability in troubled children.

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Supporting children to stop bullying.

Bully! It’s an ugly word because it involves ugly actions. This little word can stir the strongest emotions in people from all walks of life. Why, because it doesn’t discriminate and a high proportion of the population have been either directly or indirectly affected by it.

Bullying has become an overwhelming social crisis. When it touches the life of a child, it can have a devastating and long-lasting effect not only on them but also their family and friends.

Childhood bullying can negatively impact the physical, emotional and mental health of bullies, the bullied, and bystanders well into adulthood.

A meta-analysis of 80 studies reported a mean prevalence rate in 12-18-year-old students of 35% for traditional bullying and 15% for cyberbullying involvement. Given that another study reported that only 36% of bullying victims reported being bullied, it’s difficult to know how accurate these figures really are and frightening to think they could be much higher.   read more →

In the book, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, she writes about Choosing Kind as the best option in life. This phrase resonated with me and sparked a new appreciation on how I discuss bullying with my 6th graders.

I then came across an article on the Edutopia website titled, “Why Teaching Kindness in Schools is Essential to Reduce Bullying” and knew this was the right angle to take with my incoming 6th graders. They have all heard the lectures about how bullying is wrong. I wanted to attack bullying from a different point of view. After reading the Edutopia article, I decided to teach kindness. What does it truly mean? I wanted my students to reflect on the meaning of kindness. I wanted them to pay it forward and start applying kindness to their peers at school.

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As important as it is for parents to encourage, love and support their children, it is just as important that children learn to create this within themselves. It is very empowering for a child to create positive beliefs in themselves so it is much harder for people to tear them down.

As our children learn behaviours and wire their brain, affirmations are very effective in nurturing self-belief in childhood, which will stay with them throughout their life.

We all develop our belief systems about ourselves and the world around us from our environment. Our family and friends, role models, television, magazines and advertising can either be nurturing or damaging.

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My daughter has been having difficulty with a girl at school. This girl “Mary” became a bit of a stalker and it became quite intense.

It was manageable during school hours, but it was the constancy of exchanges on Instagram that became overwhelming. Relentless messages from Mary accusing my daughter of bad behaviour. Mary snapping a photo of my daughter’s private messages, where she revealed her crush and then showing him. Not cool. In the end, we advised our daughter to block Mary, at which point the girl jumped on to my account. Yikes, it was intense.

A meeting was held at school and the cyber issue was resolved. Several minor incidents occurred thereafter, but nothing that we couldn’t handle.

Then, one day my daughter came home from school furious. We sat down as I listened to the drama that had unfolded this time. Mary had taken a rotten piece of fruit and had thrown it at one of the boys. This particular boy is very shy, a bit of a recluse, an easy target. The fruit hit him. He did not respond and simply continued staring at the floor. My daughter then flew into action (she has a very strong moral compass).

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears
of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

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