SPECIAL REPORT: Kindness in the Classroom

Published: May. 11, 2017 at 2:45 PM CDT
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An ongoing study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds is working to incorporate mindfulness techniques into everyday activities for elementary students.

The Kindness Curriculum helps students focus on their minds and bodies, while also adding elements of kindness and empathy.

"It's hard growing up and you need coping mechanisms," 5th grade teacher, Amber Fiene said. "I felt it would be really beneficial to introduce them to this practice that I found beneficial in my life."

That practice is the Kindness Curriculum.

Created by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it incorporates elements of mindfulness, allowing students to be more in tune with their surroundings and their bodies.

Researchers are now studying and implementing that curriculum into a small number of elementary classrooms.

"We know that a child's emotional intelligence for example, trumps IQ, grade point average, and standardized test scores, in predicting major life outcomes when they're young adults," Dr. Davidson said.

Outreach specialists at UW-Madison like, Chad McGehee, are working with teachers in kindergarten and 5th grade classrooms, when, they say, young minds are particularly receptive. He demonstrated one of the motions they're incorporating into their routine.

"We call this the slow motion catch. So, the balls in the air, hands open and then it's coming but instead of catching the ball, you catch the end of your breath. So, breathing in, breathing out, catch the end of your breath," McGehee explained.

Miss Fiene says adding the techniques into just a small portion of their day, about 20 minutes after lunch and recess, helps her students become more empathetic.

"We have created a culture of respect and communication through mindfulness," she said.

In the Madison area, school staff who are willing to test out the program, can get in touch with members at the Center for Healthy minds, to possibly give the Kindness Curriculum a try.

But, a little closer to home, at the Montessori School at Horace Mann, there are some parallels between their adoption of the "Virtues Project" four years ago, and that of the Kindness Curriculum.

Upper elementary Montessori teacher, Charles Patten explained,"It gave us this shared vocabulary with our students. So, we can talk to them about the virtues that we think are important for building a kind and nurturing community of learners."

While Montessori's methods have been around since the early 1900's, the popularity of yoga, and other mindfulness techniques over the past decade seems to be shedding new light on alternative styles of learning.

"People sometimes, and should be openly skeptical to any new things that we're bringing into schools. The fact that what we're bringing in has a research base, I think makes a big difference and allows people to be open to exploring these practices," McGehee said.

According to Patten, "The investment in time and the payoff in terms of the orderliness of your classroom, is really good. It's a small investment of time, with a really big payoff, and so as a teacher that's really appealing to me."

Ongoing studies about the overall impact of the Kindness Curriculum are still necessary to really gauge its overall effectiveness.

But, based on the response from teachers we spoke with who've incorporated it into their classrooms, it only takes a few months to notice small signs of caring and patience in their students.