The Missing Piece to Establishing a Culture of Kindness in Schools

Schools make it a practice to teach children to perform acts of kindness, and for good reason. Patty O’Grady, PhD, an expert in emotional learning states “Kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it.” When they feel good after being kind, they are likely to repeat it.

This tackles good deeds such as holding the door for someone, but a vital piece is neglected when it comes to a true culture of kindness. Most schools are lacking a plan to address the bigger problems kids encounter in their interpersonal communications and that is how to deal with emotions they don’t understand and cause them to act in a way that isn’t kind. Behaviors most associated with bullying. Until children can identify the root cause of their emotions and actions, they are going to have a difficult time responding to them appropriately. It sounds like a tall order, however if approached using simple steps, it can become habit.

First, it is important for them to understand how the brain works. Two parts of the brain work together and are responsible for triggering negative feelings. Part one is the observer, which observes what is going on around us without passing judgment. “I’m safe.” “My friends are laughing.” “A kid is talking about me.” The second part is the critter brain which has one big job, keeping us alive. To do that it reacts with stress to whatever is being observed that it feels will threaten our survival.

Incorporated in that is if it senses that any of our most important emotional needs of love, safety and belonging aren’t being met, it will do ANYTHING to restore what is not intact. Have you ever asked yourself “Why would my friend be mean to me?” or “Why would I treat my friend like that?” Those answers may have just become clear.  

A common example of this is Child A talks badly about Child B to other friends in their group. The likely cause is Child A’s sense of belonging is threatened and is not a result of anything Child B has done. Child A isn’t feeling like a part of the group so they act in a way to position themselves to be acknowledged, even at their friend’s expense.

Child B, understanding why this situation occurred, serves as a tool to help them with self-examination, which will prove invaluable throughout their lifetime. Knowing how the brain works, they can better focus on their response to their emotions or actions of others. Without this understanding, it is common for children to feel as if their negative feelings/behaviors or being treated poorly by others are due to them not being good enough, resulting in decreased self-esteem.

The “belly test” is a good way to know if their actions were the cause of such behavior. A very wise mentor of mine taught this to me early in my career, which I apply to just about everything.

The belly test is thinking about our actions and seeing if we get that yucky feeling that occurs when we did something wrong. Passing the belly test helps the child realize that the issue is most likely not about them and a result of something the other child is experiencing. This also teaches children to trust their intuition, which is innate but often taught to be dismissed.

Children will say things like “I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.” In this case, ask them what need (love, safety or belonging) do they think was not being met to cause them to act this way and why. After being guided through this process a few times, they will start to do this on their own before responding to situations, and as a result will have less regrettable reactions.

Addressing poor treatment of others with only disciplinary action is detrimental to progressing toward a kinder school culture. Empowering children to recognize the cause of their feelings and to react in a way that can positively solve the problem of a need not being met is a game changer for our children and schools.

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7/15/2020 7:00:00 AM
Jill Sodini
Written by Jill Sodini
I am a certified health coach and author who is dedicated to helping others improve their health and wellness. I have been published by, Professor's House, Elephant Journal,, and I am also an affiliate for HempWorx providing CBD products to my clients. With the right system, su...
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