When I was splitting my counselor time between the two middle schools in the Maricopa (Arizona) Unified School District, I initiated the Caring, Kindness and Courage Project.
Caring, of course, is a feeling. When you see someone suffering, and alone, obviously unhappy, I suggest that you put yourself in their shoes to better understand and empathize with them. When speaking to various classes, in order to help students understand their feelings, I had them participate in writing and/or drawing projects where students communicated times when they might have been sad at school over something going on in their lives. I also asked students to write about or draw about times when they became aware of a schoolmate who they thought appeared to be sad.
The immediate result of these discussions was the students’ surprise that others had indeed felt like they had, and in effect, they learned they really weren’t alone.
Showing kindness is a behavior. When working with kids on this behavior, I would have students recall either a time when they reached out to show an act of kindness to someone else or a time when someone else showed an act of kindness toward them. This practice was done in order to enable kids to have a level of consciousness about their “better side,” bringing awareness to acts of kindness that either they were the giver of, or the receiver of. Through this exercise, we were able to discuss how they felt to be either the receiver or performer of acts of kindness.
The result was that, in teaching students how to recognize their behavior of kindness and in encouraging students to be in tune with their feelings of caring, students were able to be more conscious of when they were internalizing these feelings and behaviors. When kids have learned to recognize and develop feelings of caring and empathy, and then carry that into the behavior of reaching out with kindness, valuing and advocating for the kind treatment of others comes naturally.
An important component to this project was teaching kids how to embrace their own courage to speak up when they observe injustices occurring. In order to do so, I had them participate in exercises in which I had them reflect on times in their lives when they stepped up to help someone else who was being mistreated and times when someone else came to their aid when someone was mistreating them. We talked about ways to exhibit courage — just telling bullies to stop, or if you don’t want to risk physical confrontation and safety, going to get appropriate help.
Bullies, who in most cases, are former bully victims, depend on approval and acceptance for what they do. They want that crowd around them to yell, nod approval, and laugh and join in when they pick on their victims, whether they be smaller, racially or ethnically different, or have different abilities than fellow classmates. Bullies depend on the unifying of the “us” versus “them” (anybody who shows an obvious difference) mentality.
Courage is standing up for someone who may be different in some way or another, who is being picked on.
Courage is telling the bully to back off and being a voice for someone who cannot speak up for him/herself.
Courage is telling the bully you disapprove of his/her picking on someone.
Courage is making sure you let others see that it is OK to disapprove of the bully’s actions — that it’s OK for others to join you in disapproval rather than joining “crowd think” and laughing/yelling, adding to the embarrassment or and suffering of the victim.
I believe we need to work with our district to implement a similar program, that’s age appropriate for grade levels, or a Mental Health for Teens program, as is circulating in the Northwest. Good citizenship and positive mental health is the best prevention in handling the bullying epidemic we’ve seen in our schools. Further, with the rate of suicide increasing among children and teens, we must provide them with social and emotional support tools to combat this tragic epidemic and it starts early on, through exercises like these.