How to Design a School That Prioritizes Kindness and Caring

Last updated: 11-15-2018

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How to Design a School That Prioritizes Kindness and Caring

They started by announcing the school’s theme for the year: “Carrollwood Day School: Where Caring is Common.” To bring in parents and teachers, they invited both groups to read Michele Borba’s book UnSelfie, which extols the virtues of empathy, and then welcomed Borba in for workshops.

Realizing that “great ideas don’t always fly with the high school population,” as she put it, Diamond worked with a small student advisory board to create and implement initiatives. It was a turning point that allowed the school’s character lessons to reflect student needs. “Everything we do now is run through the students; they are our vetting process,” she said. After a popular and thoughtful senior died in the fall, students decided to commemorate his legacy by taking active steps to be empathetic. They called the kindness initiative “Parker’s Promise,” after their late classmate. A quote from his college essay—“The fine line between success and adversity can be changed by just a grin or a little eye twinkle”—became their unofficial rallying cry.

The student advisory board, renamed the Making Character Count Committee, got to work. Once a week, these students gather outside before the opening bell rings and greet everyone coming in with candy, music and a big smile. They hang posters with concrete messages on how to be kind: "Hold the door,” or “Smile, it makes a difference.” With Diamond’s guidance, the students meet with some of the 25 different advisory groups and lead conversations with students on how to build empathy. They also do a “mix-it-up” exercise, borrowed from Borba’s book, that moves students around in advisory groups to blend grade levels. And to get teacher buy-in, select students attend occasional faculty meetings to share what excites them about their project and how their classmates are responding.

Carrollwood Day is one of 70 schools around the country who have partnered with Harvard’s Making Caring Common project to make compassion an expectation of their students. “It’s less a curriculum than attending to little things,” said Richard Weissbourd, who heads the university effort. Simple changes can have an outsized effect. Knowing the names of all the students in school, being generous with “hellos,” and encouraging teachers to greet every student by name in class, for example, are low-burden but powerful exercises, he added.

Studies in social-emotional learning show that the most successful “kindness strategies” are short and focused, rooted in relationships, carried out repeatedly, and related to actual events in school, said Luba Feigenberg, who directs research for Making Caring Common project. Teachers need resources and support so that they can act as caring role models for their students, she added.

Two of the most fruitful exercises Carrollwood Day embraced, both borrowed from the Harvard project, were "Circle of Concern" and "Relationship Mapping." In the former, all students were asked to think about who they cared for most, those in their inner circle. Then they were challenged to widen that circle, to consider who was outside and might be welcomed in. The goal was to prompt students to think beyond themselves and their narrow group and to begin to care for others.

During the Relationship Mapping exercise, faculty studied the names of all the children in school and sorted them into two groups: students they were concerned about, and those with whom they had relationships. At the end, the exercise uncovered the most vulnerable students: those identified as potentially troubled and lacking a connection with an adult. At the end, these students were paired with a teacher to serve as a mentor. “This was eye-opening for teachers,” Diamond said.


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