What if…. kindness is made a priority in primary education?

A group of primary education aged children standing in a circle and holding up a rainbow coloured parachute

This month we hear from Anna Clark, Head of a junior school, about what happens when primary schools prioritise kindness. She shares how it benefits the children and the whole community.

In 2020, the world as we know it changed.

Up to this point, the key focus in primary education had very much been ensuring children reached their potential in regard to anything measurable- Reading, Writing, Grammar, Maths. Testing was essential; data was king. Ensuring all children reached the “expected” standard and begin “secondary-ready”.

Of course, schools were always about far more than this, but there was an over-riding obsession with league tables, OFSTED’s judgements and ensuring children make expected progress in key subjects. In summary, personal academic progress was the focal point in most primary schools.

The global pandemic has forced us all to view the world with different eyes; the lockdowns that we have all endured have made us re-think what is important – what really does matter in life – and what does not.

Developing the whole child

In terms of education, it has pushed children’s mental health sharply into focus. The global pandemic has shown us what we already secretly knew – that educating our future generation successfully involves far more than teaching children about basic skills and subject knowledge. It is our duty to ensure that we are developing the “whole child” and growing a generation of children who understand that showing kindness and compassion to others is essential to create a harmonious society.

Kindness is something that all primary schools legally must “teach” to children. It is part of the statutory PSHE (personal, social, health education) and appears in the curriculum for key stages 1 and 2.

But what happens if schools prioritise kindness as a core value where all pupils and staff demonstrate and understand the importance of kindness within the school community?

Focus and priorities

I have worked within the same school for over 20 years, but I have had regular experience visiting local schools, supporting training students and as a writing moderator. When I enter different settings, I am always surprised how different these schools are even though they often serve similar communities.

Even returning from the first global lockdown, there was a marked difference between how schools operated and the priorities they focussed on; some focussed purely on how to “catch up” with lost learning (subject knowledge and skills) whilst others (including my own school) entirely focussed on mental well-being, supporting children with their anxieties and helping them to reconnect, and understand what each other had been through.

At my school, our philosophy was simple: You can’t learn if you are not in the “right” place to learn. No amount of “catch-up” in terms of lesson objectives will stick, unless you have other needs met first.

Rather than jumping in with maths and English lessons initially, we followed a recovery programme of lessons focussing on:

  • Belonging and feeling safe at school
  • Reconnecting with friends at school
  • The Coronavirus explained and keeping safe and well
  • Managing worries, fears and anxieties
  • Being positive and looking forward to learning
  • Gratitude and appreciation
  • Loss and bereavement

As a school, we were very aware that children had been through different experiences. Before their return, we asked all parents to fill in a questionnaire to let us know how their children had coped during the lockdown. The results of this helped us to plan appropriately for each class and individual.

Benefits to children

Not only can a focus on kindness in schools actually help children to learn, but it can also have many other benefits. According to actionforhappiness.org, evidence shows that promoting kindness among young people directly reduces bullying and disruptive behaviour.

Scientific studies have also shown that kindness changes the brain, producing endorphins that are associated with pleasure, social connection and trust which in turn encourage more kind behaviour. Furthermore, kindness increases our ability to form meaningful connections with others, heighten our sense of well-being and helps children to appreciate the good things in their own lives.

So how can primary schools ensure that kindness is at the heart of all they do?

Live and breathe the value of kindness

Most schools have a motto or a set of values which they follow. In the most successful schools, the values are tangible – you can visibly see them in action in everything the school does and they are referred to often. All members of staff model the behaviour that we expect of all children and consistently reward children who demonstrate that behaviour. The displays around the school, the school newsletter and the language used in the school reflect the importance of kindness. Children actively notice acts of kindness around them and the effect that this creates.

Promote activities which involve kindness

In schools where the value of kindness has high priority, there are regular planned creative sessions where children experience kindness. This might mean regularly working with different types of children, including younger peers, role playing situations and plenty of discussion activities designed to promote compassion.

At my own school, we regularly organise activities where children work with younger children to support their learning – for example, hearing them read or support them with a physical activity. We also ensure that circle time activities remain a priority on the weekly timetable. These are sessions where the children sit in a circle, play games designed to develop friendship, kindness and understanding and have an open forum where many issues are discussed.

At times, these are planned by the teacher, with activities to discuss in pairs or groups, but at other times circle time can act as a problem-solving forum. This allows children to role-play or re-play situations which have occurred in the playground which have caused hurt or upset and talk though “what could have been done differently to show more kindness”.

Facilitate regular sessions for children to listen with understanding

Circle time can often be squeezed out of the timetable due to many other curriculum pressures. If schools plan a regular session on the timetable, it can provide a great opportunity for children to learn to listen with understanding. This develops their empathy and kindness. We have found that first thing on a Monday is an excellent choice for timing.

Share kindness

The more we live and breathe kindness in schools, the more it permeates to our community, creating a kindness revolution! The more it is talked about and shared with parents, kindness soon becomes both an expectation and normality.

If we train our young people to have a mindset of kindness and compassion by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11, it helps with their own self esteem and ensures they are more likely to engage in critical thinking, express creativity and communicate with others effectively. These are essential skills for their future lives and ultimately the lives of others.

If schools want to increase children’s social and emotional well-being (and thus impact on children’s academic learning), I believe that we must make learning about self-esteem, belonging and love. In other words, we must prioritise the values of kindness and compassion.

Resources

PSHE programme

Websites which have fantastic ideas for teachers

Anna Clark is Head of School at Furze Platt Juniors in Maidenhead. Her school’s philosophy of dealing with children who have caused upset to others revolves around the idea that all behaviour is a form of communication. Children who are unkind to others are trying to tell us something; they aren’t deliberately being “naughty”.

Image: Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

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