When students at Rio Rico High School in Arizona’s Santa Cruz County see a person doing something kind, they can take the Be Kind/Step Up bracelet off their wrist and give it to that person to let them know their kindness was noticed and appreciated.
“Any time you can recognize kids, especially high school kids, for doing the right thing and being kind to each other it’s good,” said Shelly Vroegh, Rio Rico principal. “It’s not just an elementary (student) thing, you have to teach high schoolers sometimes how to be kind as well.”
Rio Rico is one of 200 Arizona public schools and 320 nationwide that have joined the Kind Campus movement that was started in Tucson and has attracted the attention of researchers at the University of Arizona.
While many schools nationwide include character education and anti-bullying efforts to develop students’ social and emotional skills, more schools are now focusing on kindness and compassion as ways to foster positive behavior, decrease referrals to the principal’s office, improve the learning environment, naturally grow friendships, make schools warm and inclusive and reduce bullying.
“Kindness really is a learned skill,” said Amy Collinsworth, marketing and communications manager for Ben’s Bells Project, a Tucson nonprofit that developed Kind Campus to promote kindness at school and in the community.
“Students and schools are a wonderful place to start with kindness education,” Collinsworth said. “Children are so naturally open to learning and enthusiastic about new ideas. If you can teach them that being kind is important from an early age, they will carry that with them for life.”
Just two weeks ago, a Science of Kindness conference, sponsored by Ben’s Bells Project, Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families, and Banner University Medical Center, was held in Tucson.
At the conference, Dr. Jeremy G. Richman, Ph.D., whose young daughter Avielle was killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., spoke about how important it is to build social, emotional, and leadership skills in children by teaching and modeling them ourselves and community-wide. The Avielle Foundation, that Richman and his wife founded, seeks to better understand the biological and environmental factors associated with violence and compassion so these insights can be used to help people identify the signs of someone in crisis, responsibly advocate for those at risk of violence and develop kind, healthy, compassionate individuals and communities.
Kind Campus program
Kind Campus was developed by Ben’s Bells Project, which was founded by Jeannette Maré, a Tucson mother who said others’ simple acts of kindness after her two-year-old son Ben suddenly died, helped her family get through each day and begin to heal.
“All of us have this need for more kindness,” said Maré, founder and executive director of Ben’s Bells Project. “I think that the way we frame the practice of kindness is very real. It’s not just be happy or be positive. Our programming really acknowledges that it’s challenging being a human being and we experience all sorts of ups and downs in our lives.”
“What we can really do for each other is support each other in kindness,” Maré said. “But that kindness is actually a skill set we need to develop. It doesn’t just happen.”
Creating a culture of caring at school
Kind Campus is provided to schools at no cost, promotes the benefits of kindness and helps students, teachers, administrators and staff create a culture of kindness in their schools through ideas and materials that can be easily adapted for all ages.
“The Kind Campus program helps schools create an environment where it becomes cool to be kind, and students and staff start recognizing each other for their kind acts,” said Celeste Goguen, kindness education coordinator for Kind Campus. “It helps boost morale, school spirit and gives a common language for the whole campus.”
Teachers and staff say that using Kind Campus program greatly improves the school environment, and end of the year surveys indicate positive changes in the way students and staff treat each other, Goguen said.
“We hear about the decrease in referrals and the increase in positive language and problem solving of difficult situations,” Goguen said.
Kind Campus helps children understand that “when we commit to practicing kindness together that we get to create a community that’s stronger and safer and more supportive for all of us,” Maré said.
The University of Arizona’s Community Research, Evaluation & Development team is doing research on the effects of the Kind Campus program and will present their findings at the American Evaluation Association’s annual meeting November in Chicago, Maré said.
“They are very interested in looking at the work we’re doing because it different from the traditional character education programming in that it’s very organic, very bottom-up and very community infused so it’s not a packaged program that a school would purchase from a company,” Maré said. “It’s this community-based program so what we see is that it behaves differently, because of that and the team has been really, really fascinated to try to figure out what the effects are.”
Maré said measuring the effects of the program has been challenging, “because the typical measures won’t be able to capture all the nuances of how people are using it.”
“The first question becomes: What is kindness and what does it look like? Then: What sort of instruments do we need to be able to adequately measure it,” Maré said, noting that the UofA team did a pilot study at Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson last semester.
The power of Kind Campus is that it’s accessible to everyone, said Maré.
“That’s why we believe it’s working, and the university’s interested in it, because people can just sort of take it and run with it and incorporate it into their everyday lives so it doesn’t have to be this burdensome thing that sits off to the side,” Maré said. “It’s just embedded into our everyday.”
Spreading kindness from students to the community
Rio Rico High School students noticed when the Be Kind mural, created through a partnership with Ben’s Bells Project, went up in the middle of the school’s courtyard at the end of the 2013-14 school year and they started asking questions, Vroegh said.
“We talked about the program and said you’re going to hear more about it later on,” Vroegh said. “Then Jeannette Maré, who is the lady behind the Ben’s Bells Project and Kind Campus, shared with the entire school what it was about and the meaning behind it.”
When staff sees a student being kind, they give the student a Be Kind/Step Up bracelet, Vroegh said.
“If you catch somebody being kind, you share your bracelet and then you can actually track the number on the back of it on the website, so you can actually see where it goes, which is kind of cool,” Vroegh said.
Kind Campus has become part of the Santa Cruz Valley Unified school’s positive behavioral intervention and support program and the mural has been a key tool to spread the message about kindness to parents and the rest of the community, Vroegh said.
“The mural is in a pretty central location where everybody has to go past it, whether it’s to the cafeteria for parent-teacher conferences or to the gym for a basketball game. It’s right there, and they see it,” Vroegh said. “The message that it sends to everybody about being kind has been extremely positive.”
Ben’s Bells Project installed its 100th community mural at Roadrunner Elementary in Marana last month and its first mural outside of southern Arizona at Victoria Soto School in Connecticut this summer.
“Most of us want to do better. We want to be kind, but we put our heads down and we get stressed out and we sort of rush,” Maré said. “Talking about it, reminding each other, seeing these messages, learning to breathe and recognizing that it’s hard sometimes – all of that creates an environment where we’re allowed to make mistakes, apologize for those mistakes and get better the next time.”
“We don’t have to be perfect, and we don’t have to be happy all the time,” Maré said. “You know it’s just a very sort of no-shame sort of approach. It’s about having empathy for each other.”
Kindness education in pre-school
Emily Meschter Early Learning Center in the Flowing Wells Unified School District in Tucson has been using Kind Campus for the past two years and has tailored the wording in resources to be more meaningful to younger children, said Benjamin Collinsworth, a teacher and kindness coordinator at the school.
“The teaching staff has seen a sizable change in the way students react to and speak about conflict or disappointment,” Collinsworth said. “Focusing the language of our instruction through the lens of kindness has helped us speak clearly to our students about community, respect, and self-worth.”
Students who are kind are recognized at school with Kind Kid medallions from the program, Collinsworth said.
Staff have let Collinsworth know they appreciate the Kind Campus program and enjoy working in a place where the importance of kindness is recognized.
Kindness practice is part of all staff functions, and “at our monthly staff potlucks, we nominate and recognize a Kind Colleague who demonstrated a kind act,” Collinsworth said.
“I look forward to someday reconnecting with former students and hearing about how learning about intentional kindness shaped their early character education,” Collinsworth said.