The importance of kindness during a pandemic | Education Support

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Kindness in schools and colleges

The importance of kindness during a pandemic

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week's 2020 theme of kindness Adrian Bethune looks at why kindness and compassion is more important now more than ever and how it can be best cultivated in schools and colleges.

As the impact of the global pandemic starts to be felt more acutely, and schools are on the cusp of opening up further to returning students, kindness and compassion have never been more important. The last few weeks of lockdown have shown us that people are hardwired to be kind to one another. You need not look further than the monumental effort of Captain Tom Moore who has raised over £30million for the NHS at 100 years old, or schools and universities across the country making protective equipment for medical and care staff, to see kindness shining through.

The research shows that when we cooperate and show kindness to our fellow humans, we become healthier, happier and more successful. And schools and colleges are the perfect place to breed more kindness not only as a means towards a more harmonious society but also as a means to helping everyone through these tumultuous times. 

Kindness as an antidote to stress

The uncertainty of Covid19 has put many people’s mental health and wellbeing under immense strain. Teachers have been stressed trying to juggle online learning, with school rotas and, in many cases, also trying to home-school their own children.  When you consider that ‘emotional contagion’ means that our moods and emotions are contagious, it doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that at least some of this teacher stress is passed onto their students, or their own children at home. Teaching staff’s stress levels are likely to be on the increase as schools prepare to reopen.

So, how can kindness help alleviate this stress? Well, studies show that when we do, receive or witness at act of kindness, our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin. In his book, The 5 Side Effects of Kindness, Dr. Hamilton explains that oxytocin acts as a direct antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. It also helps lower our blood pressure, and reduce inflammation and free radicals in our cardiovascular system (that cause tissue damage and ageing).

Although staff will be returning to schools where social distancing will be the norm, it doesn’t mean that we can’t look out for our colleagues and students more. Pay compliments, make cups of tea, hold doors open, show an interest in people’s lives, and express concern and offer help when people are suffering. Schools that encourage care and concern for everyone in their community are less stressful places.

Kindness as an antidote to perfectionism

Something that can seriously undermine our mental health and wellbeing is comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we come up short. Many teaching staff will have felt under pressure to produce the best online learning resources, or be available 24/7 to respond to their students’ questions because social media has been awash with examples of what schools are doing to support their students. Social media taps into this innate instinct to want to know how we are doing compared to everyone else, and when we see other people’s ‘perfect’ lives, it can undermine our happiness. The need to do better than our peers can drive a desire to be perfect.

So, how can teachers and schools cope better in this competitive environment? Self-compassion might be the answer. In a meditation practice known as ‘loving kindness’, meditators begin by cultivating kindness and compassionate feelings to themselves, then they extend these feelings to people they care about, then to strangers, and even to people they are having difficulty with.

There are many empirical benefits to a loving kindness meditation and one of the most important effects is that we tend to cut ourselves and others some slack. When practised regularly, this meditation can help us remember that no one is perfect and we’re all just trying to do our best whilst, undoubtedly, making some mistakes along the way.

Tips for cultivating kindness

Keeping the above in mind, the following five tips will help put kindness at the heart of your school:

  1. Model kindness – lead by example and show your students what being kind looks like.
  2. Encourage kindness – schools can get students and staff involved in supporting their local communities by organising collections for local food banks, continuing to make PPE, or creating art for local care homes.
  3. Notice kindness – recognise and praise students when you notice them being kind and supportive to one another.
  4. Cut some slack – understand that students and teachers will experience the effects of the pandemic differently. If students, parents or colleagues’ behaviour seems particularly ‘reactive’ cut them some slack and offer support and understanding.
  5. Be kind to yourself – cut yourself (and others) some slack by not expecting perfection. Aim for ‘good enough’ and relax as it is.

Moving forward

Our teaching staff, children and their families face an uncertain future. We must embrace our innate ability to support each other and navigate through this rocky terrain together. We must do so leaving no one behind. As Dr. Christopher Kukk says, “It is the compassionate people who win.”

Adrian Bethune is a primary teacher, founder of www.teachappy.co.uk and the author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom. He tweets @AdrianBethune

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