Elementary programs have a way of communicating essential truths through simple metaphors that I, a high school teacher, really admire. For example, at my local elementary school, teachers use the metaphor of “filling up the bucket” to teach children the value of “put-ups” instead of “put-downs.”
A student described the phenomenon to me like this: “We all have a happy bucket inside, and when it’s full we feel happy, but when it’s empty we don’t. When you give a put-up, you fill up another person’s happy bucket and you also fill up your own. However, when giving a put-down, you not only take a little from the other person’s bucket, but you really take a lot from your own.” The best way to fill up your bucket when you are sad, I was told, is to do something nice, like giving a put-up, for someone else.
The latest in research on compassion confirms my local elementary school’s use of the “happy buckets” metaphor and shows that the brain can, in fact, be literally trained for kindness. In a University of Oregon study, economist Bill Harbaugh and psychologist Ulrich Mayr found that charitable generosity activated the reward center of the brain, indicating that our brains are naturally made for kindness. Furthering this research are studies on compassionate meditation such as one conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which illustrated that through repeated practice of mindful generosity, we can increase empathetic responses to others.
These studies support the belief that educators intent on creating a kind, welcoming classroom environment have always held: Teaching Social Emotional Competencies (SEC) like empathy is essential to building safer schools and a more tolerant, open-minded society that welcomes differences. And SEC teaching should not be limited to the elementary age. Continuing to teach these skills to adolescent and young adult students—no matter how busy and filled our curricula are—shows that empathy, understanding and kindness are valuable throughout life, not just in the sandbox. High school students may be beyond thinking in metaphors, but they are not beyond the application of these important social emotional skills.
Take the opportunity to talk to students of all ages about the need to cultivate gratitude and generosity in our communities on World Kindness Day on Nov. 13 this year. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation sponsors the day, lists more than 322 ideas for kindness acts and provides resources for educators such as lesson plans and school-wide programs to promote kindness in schools throughout the year.
World Kindness Day is a great opportunity for all educators (especially my fellow high school teachers) to begin integrating SEC skills into our curricula. Encourage students to give specific compliments to classmates during peer reviewing or presentations, write positive comments on a class blog, or conduct a kindness experiment where they plan and carry out random acts of kindness as a homework assignment. Nov. 13 can be the start to encouraging and modeling behavior necessary for kinder, more welcoming schools of every level—not to mention a gentler, happier world.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.