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Kindness is one of the most important skills we can have when it comes to connecting to other human beings. Showing and practicing kindness builds community and spreads care and compassion through helpful, empathetic actions and words. But just like any important skill, kindness needs to be nurtured, cultivated and practiced. This happens best when modeled and encouraged by caregivers and educators starting from birth.
This page delves into the importance of fostering kindness, empathy, and compassion in young children during their early learning years. Together, we will explore strategies, approaches, and best practices for creating a culture of kindness within early childhood education settings. Don't forget to scroll to the bottom to download the Free Kindness Kit!Table of Contents
During their early years of life, children’s brains develop the fastest. It is during this critical period of development that their brains are most malleable and are shaped and informed by daily interactions and social experiences. This is the most opportune time to lay the foundation for kindness and other prosocial behaviors like empathy and compassion.
It is because of this that early childhood educators and caregivers play such an important role when it comes to children’s development of social and emotional skills. Children are like sponges; they learn by soaking up information from the actions, reactions, and expressions of trusted adults in their lives.
As children’s key socializers, how we show kindness, empathy, and compassion matters. Modeling acts of kindness in developmentally appropriate ways helps lay that strong foundation for positive relationships, healthy interactions, and the overall well-being of children, and plants seeds of opportunity to cultivate empathy, respect, and understanding towards others as they continue to grow.
Research shows that teaching children to be kind during their earliest years can have far-reaching positive effects on their social and emotional development, ultimately enhancing their academic performance and overall well-being. Fostering kindness contributes to the creation of a sense of community and belonging, promotes inclusive environments, and decreases instances of bullying and exclusion.
In fact, over the last couple of decades, kindness was considered so instrumental that World Kindness Day was established to educate and celebrate kindness. So, how exactly do we start fostering kindness in the classroom?
There are a variety of strategies and approaches that early childhood educators can begin to use with children in the classroom that align with their developmental needs. These strategies can be adapted to fit the needs of any age group, from infants up through preschool and beyond.
Children learn best within the context of responsive relationships with trusted adults. They are constantly observing their caregivers and teachers, and what they learn from our actions and words will inform their own actions and words in the future. Educators can model the kind behaviors they want to see by demonstrating empathy, compassion, and fairness in their interactions with children and others.
Practice equality and encourage sharing. When sitting with children in a play space with different toys, say something like: “One for you, one for me.” This helps children understand the concept of sharing and fairness.
Narrate your actions and reactions out loud. This helps to support children’s understanding of kindness, sharing, and empathy. For example, you might say,
Use emotional moments as learning opportunities. When you see a child who is feeling sad, angry, or frustrated, use this as an opportunity to model how to respond with kindness and compassion. For example, you might say,
Continue to model kind actions and narrate your observations like you would with younger children:
You can also ask prompting questions to help older children think critically and practice perspective-taking to build empathy:
Reading stories and engaging children in literature that promote kindness and empathy helps children understand the value of compassionate behavior. Books, puppets, and role-playing activities can be used to explore different perspectives and discuss the emotions of characters.
Point out the kind actions, emotions, conflicts, and resolutions in stories to deepen their understanding. Here are some books we love for different ages to keep in your library center!
Kindness Makes Us Strong
by Mary Murphy
✅ Ages 2-5
|The Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña
✅ Ages 3-5
by Hollis Kurman
✅ Ages 3-6
|All Are Welcome
by Alexandra Penfold
✅ Ages 3-7
|I Walk with Vanessa
✅ Ages 4-8
Encouraging collaborative and cooperative learning experiences provides children with opportunities to practice kindness and develop essential social skills. Group projects, games, and problem-solving activities foster teamwork and empathy. Here are some of our favorite team-building activities to get you started!
Train Track Building (Infant)
Let’s work together on the railroad! Support children’s fine motor skills and teamwork by helping them work together and take turns adding tracks. Then, enjoy playing with the trains together on the track you all built! View full activity here.
Vehicle Rescue (Toddler)
These vehicles are stuck and need your help! Encourage children’s problem-solving and work together to rescue the vehicles that are stuck around the classroom in different ways. View full activity here.
Teamwork Towers (Preschool)
Teamwork and collaboration are important skills to practice when helping children build empathy and strengthen their prosocial skills, and it’s not always easy! Support children in working together in groups to create something awesome with this collaborative building activity. View full activity here.
Team-Building Obstacle Course (Preschool+)
Boost children’s prosocial skills like listening and communicating with others, cooperation, and teamwork with this fun and challenging movement activity! View full activity here.
Teamwork Alphabet (Preschool +)
Let’s build the alphabet…with our bodies! This fun movement activity gives children opportunities to work together, communicate, and collaborate to create the different letters of the alphabet using their bodies. View full activity here.
Encourage Empathy: Teaching children to recognize and understand the feelings and perspectives of others helps cultivate empathy. Engaging children in discussions and activities that encourage them to put themselves in someone else's shoes contributes to their empathetic growth. For younger children, adults can help children begin to identify the emotions of others by pointing out and narrating the feelings that arise throughout the day. For older children, teachers can ask prompting questions in group settings during story time, playtime, and emotional moments to help children connect to their own feelings and better understand the feelings of others.
We’ve covered some great ways for you to start teaching children about kindness in the classroom, but how do you establish and maintain a culture of kindness each and every day? Consistency is key to learning, which means finding ways to incorporate kindness into your classroom routines, structure, and everyday practices will make this matter most. But where do we start?
Establish Classroom Rules and Expectations. What does kindness mean to you? What would this look like in your classroom? Develop clear and age-appropriate rules that promote kindness, respect, and inclusion, and include children in the brainstorming process! Creating a Classroom Charter is a great way to make sure children’s voices are heard, feelings are acknowledged, and mutual respect is experienced in your classroom. Reinforce these expectations consistently by acknowledging and praising acts of kindness you notice throughout the day.
Promote Inclusion and Respect. Our differences are what make us…us! Each child and community member brings their own perspective and experiences to the table, and fostering an inclusive environment where each child feels valued and respected is crucial. Encourage children to appreciate and celebrate each other's differences and create opportunities for cross-cultural exploration and learning.
Celebrate Acts of Kindness. Remember, your actions and reactions matter! Model and praise the behavior you want to see more of. Regularly acknowledge and celebrate acts of kindness in the classroom and find ways to make this fun! Acknowledge kindness as soon as it happens or come together at the end of the day and support everyone in sharing a kind thing they noticed or experienced.
Let Kids Take Charge! Give children agency and control by allowing them to be a leading part of creating a kindness culture in the classroom. By allowing kids to research, create their own questions, and brainstorm their own ideas on how to increase acts of kindness, you can empower them to be the boss of their emotions.
Kindness doesn’t stop once kids leave the classroom! Kindness is contagious, and when given the opportunity, it will spread to the farthest reaches of your community. This begins with one crucial step: involving families! Use the following strategies to guide you in engaging families and continuing to promote kindness in your school community and beyond:
Focus on Communication and Collaboration. Maintain open lines of communication with families by sharing information with them about your classroom's focus on kindness. Be sure to connect with families during drop-off and pick-up times to share kind moments as well as areas of growth so they feel involved, and children’s behavior is consistently supported and acknowledged. Collaborate with parents and caregivers on ways to reinforce kind behaviors at home and establish consistency between home and school.
Home-School Partnerships: Organize family engagement activities focused on kindness, such as family workshops, potluck meals, or kindness challenges. Involve families in discussions about the importance of kindness and encourage them to model kind behaviors at home.
Community Involvement: Engage the local community in promoting kindness by organizing community service projects, inviting guest speakers, or partnering with local organizations that promote kindness and compassion. You can also focus on your school community by practicing acts of kindness with other classrooms!
As children continue to grow and develop their emotional and prosocial skills, educators may encounter developmentally appropriate (but nevertheless, challenging) behaviors. Children will naturally seek out ways to push boundaries with teachers and peers, and it is our job to hold those boundaries and open the door for kind behaviors instead. Here are strategies for addressing some common challenges you may experience:
Dealing with Bullying and Conflict. Exclusion, bullying, and social conflicts may arise in your classroom, and it is never easy to witness. It can also be difficult to know how to be proactive in these moments. Reading stories about these difficult challenges and ways to be kind to others can help teach children conflict-resolution skills, encourage peaceful problem-solving, and provide guidance on assertiveness and empathy.
Addressing Bias and Stereotypes. Remember, children are like sponges soaking up information from what they observe others saying and doing. In order to create an inclusive environment that promotes empathy and inclusion regardless of differences, we also need to do the uncomfortable work of addressing and unlearning our own biases. From there, we can support children in doing the same by including diverse materials, learning opportunities, and experiences in the classroom that help children develop a positive view of themselves and others.
Teaching Emotional Regulation. Everything is more difficult when our emotions and bodies are dysregulated, including being kind to others. Help children recognize and manage their emotions through age-appropriate activities and strategies such as breathing exercises, storytelling, and relaxation techniques. Practice these strategies during calm moments to set children up for success.
Keeping a Kindness List. Creating an ongoing, collective list of everyday acts where children help others or do something to brighten a friend’s day lets us highlight and point children toward spreading kindness. A Kindness List allows children to recognize examples of what acts of kindness may look like while celebrating and validating instances of kindness seen throughout the day. See details on how to create a Kindness List and conduct Kindness Hunts.
Kindness is an important skill that should be nurtured and taught starting from birth. By creating a culture of kindness in early childhood classrooms, engaging and connecting with families, and proactively addressing challenges, educators can foster an environment where young children develop kindness, empathy, respect, and compassion for others. Promoting kindness not only enhances social and emotional skills but also contributes to a more inclusive, harmonious, and supportive early learning environment.
About the Main Contributor: Lauren Sturtz is a begin to ECSEL educator who has worked in the field of early childhood education for eight years. She was a preschool and Pre-K teacher for five years, where she developed curricula and activities that incorporated social-emotional learning. For the past few years, she has been working at Housman Institute developing ECSEL curriculum, educator training course content and resources, and blogs about content she is passionate about, including equity and inclusion, trauma-informed teaching, and process-based, child-led learning opportunities.
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