As the children file in, they write their names beneath an emotion written on the whiteboard–some under ‘angry,’ ‘tired’ or ‘sad,’ others under ‘happy.’ And one by one, the teacher acknowledges the emotion of each student. All feelings are welcome, and the children start their day being seen as they are in that moment–there is no wrong emotion. In this gentle way, they learn to simply acknowledge the varying complex emotions we all have within us. It may seem like a simple routine, but it has already made a significant difference to children all over Australia.
Often, we only see the grand gestures as a way of measuring generosity. Yet, the multiple little moments of kindness and empathy can change our sense of connection and make a huge difference to our feeling of belonging in the world.
Katrina Cavanough was a therapist exhausted from years of working with children and adults who had lost self-connection because of varying degrees of trauma. In 2004, she realised the trauma she was witnessing was amplified due to something fundamentally missing in childhood learning. The school system was lacking something vital.
The schools had great behavioural programmes. But I noticed two missing ingredients. The first missing ingredient was empathy. And the other missing ingredient was neuroscience.
Katrina developed a program, Kindness on Purpose, for all young students, starting in early childhood and reaching through until high school graduation. Her vision was to inspire a more emotionally aware generation. In 2005, the first Kindness on Purpose session took place and had an instant beneficial impact.
Brains in Pain Can’t Learn
Katrina is animated and passionate when talking about her work, “Kindness on Purpose is really an empathy program. We are using kindness as an access point to empathy. We know as we increase empathy in students, the better their academic results get. It makes sense because brains in pain can’t learn. So the more empathy for self and others children have, the calmer the brain is, and the more ready they are for learning.”
Kindness on Purpose is about so much more than just academic learning, a Kindness on Purpose school is invited to holistically adopt a caring culture. This involves creating a shared language, a way of communicating that everyone understands and which enables emotions to be expressed in a safe and appropriate way. Students receive core lessons on how to choose acts of kindness, then finish off each day by reflecting and reporting how these deeds made them feel. They are also taught techniques to emotionally regulate and coach themselves.
Katrina speaks of the correlations between empathy and inappropriate emotional outbursts or harming behaviour, “When you increase empathy, you decrease rates of depression, anxiety, and bullying. That’s the research from around the world. That’s what we’re doing with Kindness on Purpose. Every single child will select an act of kindness to do that day. And in doing so, they’ll be mindful of how they’re feeling and how everyone’s feeling while that happens. And that’s a really beautiful process. The schools are immediately noticing a decrease in negative incidents in the playground and a decrease in students who are feeling very alone, and socially isolated because they don’t have anyone to play with.”
When bullying does inevitably happen, students in a Kindness on Purpose school have the tools to deal with the situation, instead of becoming depressed or adopting other unhealthy behaviours, including turning into bullies themselves. This daily practice of emotional awareness naturally promotes healthy emotional intelligence. The children learn to make better choices in self-care and subsequently care for their fellow classmates.
I can hear in Katrina’s voice so much hope as she talks more about instilled early kindness, “Imagine a world where all children had a set of thoughtful steps that they’d learned in primary school, to look after their emotions in a really research-based way. They move through primary school having grown these new neurological pathways, then they get to high school and it’s being reinforced. That’s a big plus because it’s getting repeated over and over.”
Like with any skill, the empathy muscle only remains strong when used consistently. While it’s a practice that can begin in school, students are encouraged to expand it within their family dynamics and home life. It’s from this place the impacts widen and start to create poignant changes within the wider community.
Transforming Trauma into Kindness
It’s not often a guest can walk into a school-room with children from trauma backgrounds and almost get knocked over with love. Yet, this is what happens when Katrina enters a Kindness on Purpose school, many of which are filled with children from challenging situations. Along with the hugs and gifts, Katrina receives more subtle rewards, little transformations that an outsider might not even notice, but are more meaningful to her than any bunch of flowers.
I was working with this little boy and when I met him, he said to me, “I’m not kind.” This is a boy with a severe trauma story, it’s like listening to the worst story, and that had been his life. And by the end of a few weeks, he actually looked at me and said, “Okay, okay. All right. I am a little bit kind, aren’t I?” And while it might seem to the average person a very small victory, it’s not. It’s a truly significant moment for him. He’s an eleven-year-old kid who has never said a positive word about himself.
Kindness on Purpose sees particularly potent transformations for children from problem backgrounds. However, and importantly, the program is directed at the school community as a whole. Everyone is involved and the inclusivity is both profound and healing; it becomes a self-sustaining and self-regenerating ecosystem of care. Children from challenging backgrounds are not singled out or made to feel different; every person, whether they are a student, teacher or auxiliary team member, are all invited to participate in the health of the supportive kindness ecosystem.
The Importance of Flexing the Kindness Muscle at All Ages
“Can you imagine a whole school where kids are consciously being kind repeatedly throughout the year?” Katrina asks. “That’s pretty special. It changes the way their brains operate and their bodies operate the central nervous system. And obviously, it changes how they perceive themselves, how they perceive their relationships, and also how they perceive their school community.”
It’s a beautiful moment when teachers are saying, ‘What’s the most important thing we do here at the school?’ And kids raise their hands and say, “Be kind.”
Even as Katrina talks about the challenges with device-technology, I can feel an acceptance and a solution focus in her tone. “It’s a real change in the culture as we know it. We’re all into social media. Kids have their heads down on their phones, as do their parents. We are more competitive today and there’s a strong cultural focus on the sense of ‘I.’ We’re becoming much more disconnected. So when they’re moving into a school community where they feel connected to each other, it’s beautiful.”
Katrina has already brought the Kindness on Purpose program to many thousands of kids and aims to reach one million students in Australia. Her grand vision is to reach enough people to spark a generational change towards kindness. And when I am sitting with her, it really does feel like the most cost-effective and graceful method of reawakening our innate human propensity for empathy that I’ve ever heard.
Restoring Faith in Natural and Authentic Humanity
The children aren’t the only ones feeling the impact. Due to an influx of requests, Katrina has created a similar program for workplaces. This means the effects have also started rolling into other areas of society. As we forge new conscious-business models, wouldn’t it be amazing if our young visionaries and entrepreneurs already had a head-start in the field of collaborative kindness relating and negotiating?
Katrina has also seen a transformation and healing in her own life, after having been bullied herself, both in childhood and as an adult in the workplace. The gentle habit and commitment to the work act as a self-healing balm. Kindness and empathy beget kindness and empathy. Slowly there is space for the uncomplicated unravelling and dissolving of trauma and old hurts. What fills that gap is higher self-esteem and true self-worth.
“I see kids from really troubled backgrounds connecting with their own sense of calm and being good to themselves and others, it’s really restoring my belief in humanity,” she says, a warm smile in her voice.
What significant random act of kindness will you always remember and why? Perhaps you would like to share them in the comments below? We always enjoy hearing your beautiful stories.
We trust your day will be full with the giving and receiving of kindness.