Bullying and anti-bullying initiatives are on the radar of most schools these days. One local educator has decided to flip the current thinking on its head. Rather than focusing primarily on repelling bullies as the popular WITS approach suggests (the acronym stands for “walk away, ignore, talk it out, and seek help”), Jenny Shinder has pioneered a program she hopes will take root in local schools and beyond.
It focuses on a simple concept: kindness.
Shinder, a former director of the Soloway Jewish Community Centre’s Ganon Preschool, believes that setting aside one period per week to teach kids how to be kind would go a long way toward preventing bullying later on.
“The more practice and exposure kids have to lessons in kindness, the more natural it becomes,” Shinder explained.
This past year, Shinder brought her program to Hopewell Avenue Public School. Visiting a Grade 3 class weekly, she began by familiarizing the students with a series of concepts – respect, generosity, fairness, honesty, and compassion – through a variety of cross-curricular activities involving art, music and drama.
To reinforce the concepts, the students were regularly encouraged to nominate a classmate they felt was exhibiting one or more of these traits, identifying the particular behaviour they witnessed, and labelling it with one of these terms.
“What I started to notice was that it was exciting for them to notice others’ positive behaviour,” Shinder said. In turn, she added, students became “excited to look for opportunities to be kind.”
Students were also asked to keep a kindness journal to document any act of kindness they witnessed or performed. They were also asked to write about a “magic moment,” a term Shinder uses to help students describe how an act of kindness they see or perform makes them feel.
“The kids started to recognize that kindness can be as small as a smile or as grand as saving a life,” she said.
For every 20 journal entries, Shinder presented them with a small prize: a pom-pom critter.
“Young children start by being motivated by prizes,” Shinder explained, but “slowly, the prize element started to dwindle out of the program and it took on an intrinsic element.”
For Kindness Week, a city-wide program founded by Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka in partnership with the United Way, Shinder encouraged her Grade 3 class to take a leadership role in the school.
The students handed out “Just Be Nice” buttons and co-ordinated a school-wide paper chain, with links added every time an act of kindness was observed. Shinder recalls great excitement around a student finding a wallet and being able to return it.
“The student had an opportunity to shine,” she said.
The final segment of the program focused on “giving back to our community and our world.” For this, the students organized a table at the Great Glebe Garage Sale where they sold their own handcrafted creations and raised $500. A spell-a-thon followed at which $1,000 was raised.
Shinder had pledged to match dollar-for-dollar the amount generated by the spell-a-thon. In the end, the students presented a cheque for $2,621.84 to CHEO, the charity they chose in a vote.
“The students felt so great about it,” said Shinder.
Perhaps most gratifying for Shinder was how some kids, who had earlier been considered “difficult” by their teachers or parents, seemed to blossom.
“All the teachers said they were like a transformed bunch of kids. It was amazing to see,” she said.
In English, the word “kindness” feels so simple and prosaic that when I tried to think of an equivalent in Hebrew to try to connect the idea to Jewish ethics, the Hebrew word, at first, eluded me. When I soon realized the word was chesed, I understood how prevalent the idea is in Jewish ethics – and historically in Jewish communities that required a strong philanthropic basis to support their members. Still, one need not search deeply into religious or ethical thought to realize how powerful a basic kindness orientation can be to encouraging goodness to spread wherever its spark is ignited.
Shinder encourages readers who would like to bring her kindness program to their school to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.