“You can always, always give something even if it’s a simple act of kindness!”
Anne Frank

When did someone last show kindness to you?

A few weeks into lockdown there was a knock at the door. There was no one there, but left behind was a fragrant homemade curry, neatly accompanied by multiple Tupperware bursting with bread, yoghurt and salad. This was from a neighbour whom until this point we had shared only a few brief, polite interactions with. This was from someone we barely knew, from someone who expected nothing in return. When we had been feeling alone in our high-rise flat self-isolating, this act of kindness made us feel grateful for our local community. This act of kindness made us feel connected.

Since then our local residents Facebook group, previously used predominantly to enquire about missing parcels, noise complaints and car parking availability, has been inundated with acts of kindness. Baked goods have been shared without charge, a bike for a local NHS nurse was crowd-funded for so they could avoid the tube to get to work, a weekly local drop-off of food distributed around the development to key workers was organised by volunteers. Amongst the heartbreaking stories in the media and the devastating daily statistics, the pandemic has promoted kindness amongst strangers.

It is therefore apt given the current climate that kindness is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week.

As a teacher in a London comprehensive school, I am concerned about the mental health of our young people. Mental health is defined by The World Health Organisation (2014) as ‘a state of well being in which every individual is able to achieve their own potential and participate in daily life’. Approximately 1 in 10 young people are affected by mental health problems, many of which start early (before the age of 14) and particularly when left untreated may continue into adulthood (DFE, 2017). A large amount of work has been done in schools to raise awareness of and de-stigmatise mental health and promote student well-being. Most schools now have mental health first aid trained members of staff and lessons on mental health are taught as part of a pastoral curriculum. But more so than this, I believe that it is the culture of the school that truly embeds well being. Yes, schools play an important role in identifying mental health difficulties and are responsible for providing personalized interventions. However, prevention is always better than a cure, so it is imperative that schools cultivate a climate that benefits the well being of their students.

Many parents when asked what they want from their children cite happiness over academic success. This mental health awareness week, I would urge parents and teachers to take this one step further to tell young people what they would like is for them to be kind to themselves and one another. In school I am amazed by the small acts of kindness I observe every day; children in my form supporting a vulnerable non-verbal child with special educational needs, children assisting busy office staff and volunteering to help tidy away. Just before school ended for lockdown, an 11-year-old girl in my form told me how she had carried shopping for an elderly woman who she saw struggling. She had offered her money, “of course I didn’t accept it!” she told me candidly.

It is these every day acts of kindness that has the potential to make the world a better and happier place. But it would be wrong to assume such practices will just occur naturally. Schools can and should cultivate kindness in their everyday routines. At the school I work in, our reward system encourages members of staff to give students achievement points for ‘kindness’. For example, showing a new student to their lessons. Every Friday the student who has received the most points in the ‘kindness’ category is announced in assembly and they are rewarded by meeting the Head Teacher for Hot Chocolate on a Friday. The student who has received the most points for kindness across the term receives a badge to wear proudly on their blazer. Every lunchtime we practice gratitude, as students discuss on their table who they have been grateful for that day and why. A number of gratitude’s are then shared with the whole year, and these vary from gratitude’s to teachers, support staff, parents, siblings and peers. At the end of the term, students write postcards of gratitude. In this way, kindness is authentically embedded in the school culture and the children take this home with them to practice in their every-day lives too.

Alongside kindness, well being can be guided by Martin Seligman’s theoretical model of happiness. As a pioneer of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman (2011) created the PERMA acronym, which as I will illustrate can be applied to schools. When considering student’s well being, it’s worthwhile to consider how far your educational setting cultivates PERMA. ‘

  • Positive emotions – students should feel good. The culture of the school should be strict, but warm. Students clearly know the expectations for the behaviour, but they know teachers value them and their work
  • Engagement – students should be completely absorbed in activities in the classroom. This doesn’t mean lessons should be ‘fun’, but rather means having a challenging but accessible curriculum where students know more and remember more.
  • Relationships – students should be authentically connected to others. Student-teacher relationships are at the core of effective teaching and can mitigate mental-health challenges. Students must feel they can trust their teachers and talk to them about challenges at school and at home. Student-student relationships are of course also essential. A zero-tolerance stance on bullying is critical, including clear sanctions for even minor incidents. Again, this comes from students being kind to one another. In this way, kindness and happiness are reciprocal.
  • Meaning – student’s purposeful existence. Do students understand WHY they are being taught the knowledge that is on the curriculum? Is school meaningful to them?
  • Achievement – students having a sense of accomplishment and success. Lessons should be designed to ensure students have a sense of achievement. There should be a high rate of success in classroom activities. The level of challenge should be high, but how to achieve this work should be broken down into small manageable steps and teachers should model what success looks like to students so they can accomplish this.

As schools begin to reopen to whole year groups, the mental health of students must be at the forefront of any phased return. Many students will have been coping with severe anxiety both of themselves and of the adults around them. Many students will have experienced trauma in the months since schools closed. While it will be important to address the inevitable gaps in knowledge that will have occurred during school closure, it is essential to remember that an anxious child is not a learning child. Before playing catch-up with curriculum content, it is vital that educators ensure students feel happy and safe.

Therefore, by encouraging and rewarding students for kindness, by cultivating a culture of gratitude, by following the principles of PERMA, we help our students become happier and learn better.

 

Thank you to our author Ellie Parrott, a geography teacher and assistant SENCO at a London comprehensive school.

Photo credit: Marcus Spiske