This last school year, I had my first grade level of students who had been together since kindergarten with no merging of kids from different elementary schools to shake things up. You might think that these students would all be friends since they had many years together, but the exact opposite was true. This group had a very complex history that would not be characterized as kind. Today, I am going to share some ideas for teaching kindness because, as you will see below, my students needed it.
In fact, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when I saw a student drop her tray in the lunchroom and as I (the teacher) was helping her pick up her mess, two students walked by and pointed and laughed. They pointed and laughed while the teacher was there. I was shocked. When I tried to have a conversation with them about the incident, they struggled to understand how that was unkind. Clearly, we needed a lesson on kindness.
Teaching Kindness to Middle Schoolers
Middle schoolers are easy to tease and joke with. Regretfully, some of my best jokes have come at students’ expense, and I have had to apologize. I learned early in my career that while teasing might build rapport with some students, it can also damage your relationship with others. If you are going to expect kindness from your students, then students must expect kindness from you.
After all, teachers should be demonstrating the character that they want their students to model. It all makes sense and sounds easy until it’s time for your most challenging class (after lunch, of course), and no one seems to want to behave. A few quick ways to model kindness:
- Greet each student when they come into your room.
- Find one positive thing to say to each student while they are in your class.
- Ask them how that one extracurricular is going.
- Acknowledge their hard work and effort verbally.
After my experience in the lunchroom with those two students, I received some advice from Noelle about how to encourage kindness in my grade level. She suggested using a Bingo Board from Ashley at Teach Create Motivate. Any time I witnessed sincere kindness in my classroom, I would have students draw a Bingo piece. The class that scored a Bingo first would earn a class party. This worked because students liked the positive reinforcement, but also because when I heard/saw the kindness, I would publicly acknowledge it to the whole classroom, so students heard another example on how to be kind.
In my experience, I think that teaching students to “not bully” is not nearly as effective as teaching students to “be kind.” It promotes a positive action. It’s the same idea as when teachers say “walk” instead of “stop running.” We want to tell students what they SHOULD BE doing, not what they SHOULD NOT BE doing.
You may have heard of respect agreements. Respect agreements are a contract that everyone signs in your classroom, including the teacher. They can also be kindness agreements. Generally, the kindness agreement answers the questions:
- How do we show kindness to each other – peer to peer?
- How do we show kindness to the staff – student to teacher/principal/lunch lady/front office workers?
- How do we show kindness to the students – teachers to students?
- How do we show kindness to the school – the supplies/technology/bathrooms?
One idea is to write each question on chart paper and participate in a Gallery Walk, where students write an example of how to show kindness in these specific circumstances. (Or you could have students complete a Gallery Walk using dry erase markers on your tables). Type up the ideas that students come up with, copy it, and have every student sign it. Post it somewhere in your classroom as a reminder of the ways you have all agreed to be kind.
Hold Students Accountable
In middle school, holding students accountable for every interaction that students have with each other is impossible, but you can hold them accountable by just being around. Make an effort to stand in the hallway between passing periods; students may choose kindness when they know that a teacher is watching.
I held those laughing students accountable by having a quick private conversation with them. I asked how they would feel if they had dropped their food and then were laughed at. Their response — bad. I asked them to tell me what they should have done. Helped her. I asked them what they should do. Say sorry. I told them to go do it. The whole conversation took one minute, and I watched them apologize.
Teaching kindness may not be a required standard for teachers to teach, but it is just as important as any math or reading skill. Do any of your students struggle with kindness? In what ways have you taught kindness in your classroom?