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The City Journals

Students welcome kindness campaigns in schools

Jan 25, 2019 03:59PM ● By Julie Slama

dgemont Elementary held its Look for the Good campaign to help students become positive and express gratitude. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When identical twins Lucy and Ellis Herring created the video “Rise Up” as sixth-graders last year, little did they know their entire student body in middle school would be watching it.

The video inspires students to “rise up” above bullies and negativity and to show kindness.

“It is just amazing and impactful,” PTSA adviser Julia Simmons said. “The students in the video had different demeaning labels on their arms. The message was so powerful. Even as an adult, I feel at times there are labels on my arms, as other adults can be unkind or make me feel insignificant.”

That video helped kick off a yearlong school theme, “Rise Up.”

“We wanted to bring positivity to our school and awareness that oftentimes, people feel alone and need to feel connected,” Simmons said, adding that student leaders welcomed students to school, giving them high-fives.

Simmons said oftentimes those who aren’t included can struggle with anxiety, depression, drugs or other issues.

“I see the world changing with the internet and social media. There’s a lot more bullying on sites than we realize and students are connecting to those on their phones, not to each other. Often, if people are depressed, anxious or nervous, they’ll pull out their phones and isolate themselves more. We need them to connect in the present, to become a friend, to talk to people in a conversation, not on Snapchat,” she said.

South Jordan Middle is one of several schools that is introducing kindness campaigns at its school to welcome, connect and include students so they don’t feel isolated or anxious, which experts say can lead to destructive behaviors.

However, South Jordan Middle didn’t stop with just watching the video. Students set personal goals by completing the sentence, “I will rise up by.” Simmons said the notes then were posted to spell out “Rise Up.” 

“We had students write that they will rise up by being kinder, by stopping bullying, by eating fruits and vegetables and more,” she said. 

That week, as throughout the year, students completed bingo cards that tied into the year-round theme as well as monthly focuses. In February, the focus was set to be Kindness Week.

“It’s something we’ve done the past few years instead of Valentine’s week,” student body adviser Annelise Baggett said. “It’s after winter break, when there are few breaks in school and it’s not an exciting time and the weather is dark. Then right in the middle of it, kids are showing that people care and they can get through it all together. Kids can struggle with self-worth, especially this time of year, and in middle school when they are questioning who they are and want to be. Instead of going to social media for validation, Kindness Week connects them and helps form friendships.”

Baggett said student leaders are motivated to connect with others through lunchtime activities, service projects and mini-lessons that are given to their homerooms. The activities include students posting notes in the hall of kind acts their peers are doing.

“It delivers a big message when friends are noticing kindness at school, in the community in our homes,” she said. “Our big focus will be to connect with others and get them involved. We tell students the more you share your talent and help out others, the more validated you are and better you feel.”

At nearby Bingham High, the largest student club is one where everyone is welcome: the Golden Gate Club. It first began as a club where all students felt accepted and welcomed and now is expanding to other schools in the area as well as the nation.

“Our theme is to ‘make someone’s day, every day,’ whether it’s smiling and saying hi or doing a simple act of kindness. It’s become a turning point for so many kids’ lives,” said school hall monitor Jo Ward, who helped start the Golden Gate Club two years ago. “It’s not an anti-bullying or anti-gang club, but a pro-social club that helps kids be included and accepted, which is what kids want.”

Ward said that with a large school, students can be “lost in the cracks, so we don’t want them to feel alone.” Student members receive daily text messages, eat together at lunch and make sure everyone has someone to attend after-school activities with as well as help with school events. 

“We want everyone to feel like their family and other kids have their back. We see the difference — everyone watching out for one another. It’s changing the culture of our school,” she said.

West Hills Middle in West Jordan added aspects of the club into its existing Be the Change program.

“We’ve incorporated Golden Gate’s pledge and principles suited for middle school students as well as the practice to reach out and befriend another into the Be the Change program,” assistant principal Mike Hughes said, adding that last year they also incorporate five-minute mini-lessons into their curriculum. “Middle school and high school students want to belong, and with the support of their peers, it will help them determine success for their rest of their life and give them a positive outlook.” 

In the Daybreak community, Daybreak Elementary students also are taking part in a yearlong kindness push. Fresh off of being awarded a $500 Stand for Children grant for the national Middle School Kindness Challenge last spring, students are continuing to give positive messages of kindness throughout the school, said Wendy Babcock, who heads the school’s faculty kindness committee.

“We need to teach kindness, and if we start with the young ones, they can teach the rest of us,” she said. “Schools need to teach it now. There are so many pressures that this generation has with technology that didn’t exist, so now we’re needing to teach them how to connect and show they care about each other, which they don’t get on Snapchat or texting. Students may be bullied, feel sad or isolated and those feelings can lead to further acting out or anxiety and mental health issues. Kids need to learn and practice how to play and make friends away from technology, and they need to learn kindness.”

Daybreak began with Start with Hello, a weeklong program that addresses those concerns.

Parents of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting victims introduced the program: “Social isolation is a growing epidemic in the United States and within our schools. In fact, one study reports that chronic loneliness increases our risk of an early death by 14 percent. Furthermore, young people who are isolated can become victims of bullying, violence, and/or depression. As a result, many pull further away from society, struggle with learning and social development and/or choose to hurt themselves or others. Start with Hello teaches students the skills they need to reach out to and include those who may be dealing with chronic social isolation and create a culture of inclusion and connectedness within their school.”

The concept of the program teaches students that when they see someone alone, they can reach out and help simply by saying hello.

“We had students invite others to recess, play on the playground and sit by new people at lunch. There was great effort to start new friendships,” Babcock said. “It also has helped as new kids move into the school; they’re making sure they are included and aren’t standing around.”

In the late fall, the student council created challenges and posted them on flyers around the school. The Choose Kind challenge allowed students to tear them off and initiate the step of being kind and building a sense of community, she said.

That then went into the next phase of the kindness campaign, where students identified each other performing random kind acts and wrote them on paper light bulbs. Then, students posted those on a paper tree in each grade level’s pod, allowing students to “light our school with kindness.”

“The faculty and staff spontaneously started writing down those they saw of each and started a light bulb chain around the office that then spread into all these trees full of lights. Identifying kindness really made a difference for our entire school,” she said.

Currently, Daybreak students are performing 100 acts of kindness and promoting the phrase “when you see something, say something” into one of positivity and kindness. They also plan to take part in the same kindness challenge this spring.

In White City, Bell View Elementary school psychologist intern Danielle Rigby introduced Start with Hello week in the fall since she was new to the school and trying to meet all the students. She used ice-breaker games and incorporated the campaign into their structured recess program.

“We talked about being kind, being a friend and had students pledge they would say hello or make new friends,” she said. “Students would stop in the hallway, introduce themselves and use key words at recess and lunch. Seeing their kindness was really impactful.”

The students also wore green, the program’s color, to show their support of being kind.

As a reminder of their pledge, this spring Rigby plans to distribute green silicone bracelets that say, “Start with Hello.” She also is looking into getting the school a buddy bench, where students can invite those sitting on it to play at recess. 

“All schools need to have a kindness program,” Rigby said. “Initially, this all started from school shootings, but now kids need it. People are more inclined to internalize everything as it’s not as easy to look up around them or step out from themselves to show empathy. But this is teaching students the first step to show kindness when they see someone alone. We need this kind of positive uplifting.”

At nearby Edgemont Elementary, students, faculty and staff all took part in what was expected to be a 10-day Look for the Good campaign, but with sticky notes of compliments filling bulletin boards, they remained up for months. The national campaign was created by kids for kids and was led by the school’s student council.

“The program teaches that everyone can respect one another and answer the question ‘what makes me grateful?’” Principal Cathy Schino said. “It’s an important question because it opens up your heart and shifts your thinking to others. It tells us to avoid that crabby voice inside that tells us we aren’t good enough.”

Students also took turns standing on circles that asked, “What makes you grateful?” to share with others how someone made an impact on their lives and how they can help make a difference. 

“This gives them extra confidence to share, say something positive and be thankful,” first-grade teacher Joyce Acosta said. 

A first-grader in her class, Kody Brinkeroff, spoke up at the kick-off assembly that he felt safe and was grateful “because there are no bullies that do mean things to anyone at our school.”

They also passed along cards that said “you matter” and shared the microphone at morning meetings talking about the positivity in their lives.

Schino likes the shift in attitude to focus on gratitude. 

“If you look for the bad, we can always find it, but when we look for the good, and retrain ourselves to do that, then we can find that and lift ourselves up and give students the tools to lift up others.”

Student council adviser LuAnn Hill said it helps to create a more caring environment.

“It makes school a better place to be, with students showing kindness and expressing their gratitude,” she said.

Last spring, after the Parkland, Florida shootings, Butler Middle School students wanted to show they cared, more than take part in the one-day protest, school librarian Jennifer VanHaaften said.

After seeing a Facebook post about doing 17 acts of kindness, Butler students jumped on board to pledge to build a positive sense of community at the Cottonwood Heights school. Then, they participated in random acts of kindness.

“We saw a group of girls post uplifting notes on the lockers of 900-plus students. Kids introduced themselves to new friends and sat together at lunch. They were giving smiles and high-fives. Middle school can be a hard time for some students and our students brought a positive light to our school,” VanHaaften said last spring.

At nearby Union Middle School in Sandy, the kindness effort began by a student who realized positivity was needed, said Principal Kelly Tauteoli.

“She got it going, just by putting sticky notes on lockers,” she said.

That evolved into the school’s third annual Kindness Week during March 25–29. In the past, students have posted compliments about each other on the windows, provided service, said hello to others in the hallways and around school and continued with the sticky note campaign.

“I think it’s life skills that schools learn through academics, but students also are members of the community and they need to understand we all have differences and need to work through conflicts and learn life skills that create a safer, welcoming environment that is kind,” Tauteoli said.

Alta High Principal Brian McGill agrees.

“We need to have a climate where students feel a connection with one another and the school with kindness, caring and compassion,” he said. Both the annual Kindness Week and the introduction the past few years of the Hope Squad and Link Crew have helped to make the Hawk community more welcoming, McGill said. “We’ve worked hard to create a positive culture where students find support and look out for each other.”