What Are They?

Compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you perceive another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion can arise from empathy—the more general ability to understand and feel others’ emotions—but goes further by also including the desire to help. Of course, we can feel compassion without acting on it, and not all helpful acts are motivated by compassion.

When compassion does lead to action, we often call the result kindness. Kindness always includes the intention to benefit other people, especially (though not always) at a cost or risk to ourselves.

Research has shown that compassion and kindness are deeply rooted in human nature–our first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete. Even toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of genuine concern for their welfare. This innate kindness, however, often gets lost in a society built on competition. Schools have a golden opportunity to cultivate the compassionate side of students by creating a school culture in which kindness is valued and practiced.

  • A science teacher sets up his classroom to cultivate students’ innate kindness and cooperation, rather than their selfish and competitive natures.
    He takes the time at the start of the school year to get to know students and for students to get to know each other by doing some fun icebreakers from Playworks, like Crooked Circle.
  • To create an inclusive and connected classroom climate, students sit in a large circle for discussions and in small groups during regular instruction.
  • Everyone is encouraged to practice self-care, taking short breaks when they need to in the “Chillax Corner”, and to take care of each other—noticing when a fellow student might be having a hard time and connecting with him or her.
  • The curriculum is taught with a “prosocial” lens, taking into consideration how the scientific content might be used to benefit students’ communities and society in general.

Children’s understanding of kindness and compassion change as they mature. For example, their ability to be compassionate grows as they develop their perspective-taking ability and emotion regulation.
Elementary age students and younger may view kindness mainly in concrete ways, such as in terms of the consequences of actions; whereas, older children and teens can appreciate the intentions behind the actions, allowing them to better navigate complex situations.

  • A first grader might say kindness is asking someone to play, taking turns, or helping someone who is hurt.
  • A high schooler gives his friend a hard time for choosing to go to the movies rather than study for an important test. At first, his friend is upset, but then realizes that the admonishment was made in his best interest.

Why Are They Important?

Research has found that practicing compassion and kindness can improve health, well-being, and relationships, as well as academic achievement. Of course, beyond our own lives, these qualities strengthen our communities and may even be vital to the survival of our species as a whole.

 

Kindness and compassion make us happier.

  • Compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen reward circuits in the brain and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.
  • Compassion training also enables us be more altruistic, and kindness does seem to be its own reward—giving to others activates those pleasure circuits and actually makes people, including kids, happier than spending money on themselves.

 

Compassion makes us more resilient.

 

Kindness and compassion are good for our health.

 

Kindness and compassion improve our relationships.

  • Compassion is associated with more satisfaction and growth in friendships and makes us less vindictive towards others.
  • Compassionate behavior is highly valued in romantic relationships: In surveys of over 10,000 people across 37 cultures, kindness was rated the most important quality in a mate, and the only one universally required.
  • Altruism promotes social connections in general and creates ripple effects of generosity in communities.

 

Kindness and compassion benefit education.

  • Preschoolers and elementary schoolers prompted to perform acts of kindness show increased well-being and social competence; in turn, prosocial (kind and helpful) peer interactions increase middle schoolers’ positive emotions and life satisfaction.
  • Prosocial behavior in elementary school predicts higher academic achievement in middle school.
  • High-quality service learning programs, which put compassion into action by combining classroom learning with real-world community service, have been shown to improve academic performance, student attitudes and behavior, and school climate.
  • When high schoolers see their school as a kind place, they are more interested and motivated to learn.

Practices

Level
Duration
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Students draw and write about ways they have acted with kindness towards others.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students engage in prosocial (kind, helpful) actions for ten days and reflect on the impact of their actions on themselves and others.
Middle School, High School, College
Multiple Sessions
Students reflect on why another person acted kindly towards them, and practice gratitude both verbally & in writing.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students think about a time when they felt close to someone in order to foster a sense of belonging and well-being.
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 15 minutes
Students think about the factors that encourage and discourage people to act when they confront suffering or injustice.
High School, College
≤ 1 hour
Students reflect on acts of kindness and how they often require intention and effort on the part of the person who does them.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
A norm-setting activity to help create an environment for productive, positive, and equitable group work in math class
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Acknowledge the faces of everyone in your classroom or meeting to deepen a sense of group connection.
High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students hear and share inspiring stories compassionate risk-takers and then develop their own service project.
Middle School, High School, College, Adult
Multiple Sessions
Students get a secret kindness buddy to do a kind act for during the week.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
A magical game of tag that promotes inclusion and teamwork.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 15 minutes
Students learn that when someone does something kind, it takes time and effort.
Middle School
≤ 1 hour
Students identify ways that they have acted with kindness towards others.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Build trust and understanding among students by exploring questions of wonder.
Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
Students recognize the costs and benefits involved in a kind act. (Gratitude for Tweens and Teens Lesson 2)
Middle School, High School
≤ 1 hour
Students look for the good in others by acknowledging each other’s strengths. (Gratitude for Tweens and Teens Lesson 3)
Middle School, High School
≤ 1 hour
Strategies for parents and caregivers to help their children consider offering reparations as part of their apologies
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
≤ 15 minutes
A tool for fostering a supportive and equitable classroom and school environment and for promoting SEL.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College, Adult
Students learn how kindness and gratitude strengthen friendships through Splat the Cat.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students identify what gets in the way of expressing gratitude.
Upper Elementary
≤ 1 hour
Students define gratitude and the many forms it takes.
Middle School
Multiple Sessions
Through stories, discussion, and creative presentations about true heroes, students foster their compassion for others and see brave community involvement as an admirable, heroic way of life.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
–Leo Buscaglia