The importance of kindness in schools | Education Support
Kindness in schools

The importance of kindness in schools

Schools are the perfect place to cultivate more kindness not only as a means towards a more harmonious society but also as an antidote to some of the toxicity in our education system says Adrian Bethune. 

Humans have a selfish gene. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Only the fittest survive. There are many well-used phrases that would leave you believing that in order to be ‘successful’ at this thing we call life, you need to be selfish and  competitive. But this view is very misguided because research shows that not only are we hardwired to be kind to one another but that when we cooperate and show kindness to our fellow humans, we become healthier, happier and more successful. And schools are the perfect place to breed more kindness not only as a means towards a more harmonious society but also as an antidote to some of the toxicity in our education system. As Dr. Christopher Kukk says, "It is the compassionate people who win."

Kindness as an antidote to stress

More and more teachers are experiencing increasing levels of stress as a direct result of the job. And 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. In a system of hyper-accountability, high-stakes testing and league tables the pressure is most definitely on. 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). It means that we need to 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 antidote to bullying

Children who experience bullying are far more likely to do badly at school and drop out of the education system, according to a recent PISA report on student wellbeing. The report also indicates that students who are bullied show levels of wellbeing significantly below the population average and that the effects of bullying are far worse than many other contextual factors that affect wellbeing. It’s true that school-based antibullying programmes can be very effective at tackling this issue but what if the culture of your school was one of kindness and compassion to others? The PISA report shows that preventing bullying is linked with improving student wellbeing in adolescence but also into adulthood.

One of the most effective ways to do this is for adults to model kindness to young people. In some fascinating research that looked into why some Germans had risked their lives helping Jews escape during the Holocaust, Samuel Oliner found that one of the strongest predictors of this courageous altruism was the individual’s memory of growing up in a family that prioritised kindness and compassion. When children witness significant adults in their lives, such as teachers, displaying care for others and standing up for what is right, they often start to mimic this behaviour. It means children would be far less likely to join in with bullying behaviour, and more likely to stand up to it if they see it happening.

Kindness as an antidote to perfectionism

Something that can seriously undermine our mental health and wellbeing is comparing ourselves to others and wanting to lead perfect lives. 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. But our education system taps into this instinct too – schools compare Ofsted gradings, or league table positions, and students compare exam results, or university offers. The need to do better than our peers can drive this desire to be perfect. And in these zero-sum game scenarios, where someone else’s gain means another’s loss, we end up with a system of winners and losers. 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 kindnesshost a kindness week at school where children have to carry out acts of kindness in the local community.
  3. Notice kindness – recognise and praise students when you notice them being kind.
  4. Stand up for others – if you notice students or colleagues being bullied, stand up for them. Give them your support and let them know they’re not alone.
  5. Be kind to yourself – cut yourself (and others) some slack by not expecting perfection. Aim for ‘good enough’ and relax as it is.

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

If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing please call our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.