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When Kindness Is In The Curriculum

Scientists just discovered the most brilliant homework assignment: be a decent human being.

I attended preschool nearly 30 years ago, but three things about the experience stick out in my mind: (1) Monkey bars are magical and should be commandeered the entirety of recess. (2) Cottage cheese is the exact inverse of monkey bars. (3) You will never be able to capture the lightning in a bottle that is an afternoon nap after playing with a wooden train for two hours.

Preschool has become much more rigorous since I attended: Today there are practical lessons on colors, numbers, letters, early science, and problem-solving. But just like it was “back in my day,” matters of kindness, generosity, and empathy are often left to learn at home.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Miss Lisa, I was born to be kind.[/quote]

Yet knowing how to relate to others and understand your own emotions is invaluable. These soft skills, known as a person’s emotional intelligence, or EQ, can be a strong predictor of one’s success academically and professionally. It’s really a kind of mindfulness — the practice of being keenly aware of what you’re sensing and feeling. And when it comes to teaching it, schools have been coming up short. Until now.

“Kids actually are pretty naturally mindful,” says Lisa Thomas Prince, an educator with The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which just developed a 12-week “Kindness Curriculum” for use with preschool-age children.

“In general they respond pretty well to the curriculum,” Thomas Prince says. In addition to the many hugs, high-fives, and smiles she’s received when teaching with this method, Thomas Prince noticed a positive change in the feelings and behavior of her students. One little boy even pulled her aside after a session as said, “Miss Lisa, I was born to be kind.”

The curriculum was developed by a team of CHM scientists and researchers who wanted to know what effect a mindfulness-based curriculum could have on children developing skills necessary for academic success. For 12 weeks, CHM-trained educators taught the curriculum to children ages 4 to 6 in classrooms around Madison, Wisconsin.

Associate scientist Lisa Flook (right) and former outreach specialist Laura Pinger (left) teach the Center for Healthy Minds Kindness Curriculum to a group of preschoolers at the Waisman Center Early Childhood Program at UW-Madison. Image via Krakora Studios.

Those positive effects weren’t just anecdotal. Published in “Developmental Psychology” in 2015, CHM’s results reveal, students who received the kindness curriculum showed signs of improvement in academics, mental flexibility, attention, sharing, and delayed gratification.

The program was so promising that the Center for Healthy Minds announced the ”Kindness Curriculum” is now available — for free. With breathing and listening activities, hands-on projects, books, songs, and ample time for discussion, children get an age-appropriate introduction to the practice of mindfulness as well as gratitude, forgiveness, and how to “tune in” to their emotions and feelings.

The 70+ page curriculum also includes thorough instructions and scripts for each lesson along with additional resources and letters to parents explaining the project.

But why start with preschool students? It turns out, it’s all about something called “the perfect window.” Research shows that preschool-aged kids are in a near-perfect period of development to learn a second language or try a musical instrument. New studies reveal that this age may also be the best time to work on social and emotional skills.

“We know that a child’s social and emotional skills when she or he’s 4 to 5 years of age is a very important predictor of major life outcomes when the individual is in their 30s,” says Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.

Intervening in these early years, and ideally continuing mindfulness practices throughout childhood, may have positive effects for decades to come.

“We think it can have enormous impact and multiplicative effects over the course of development, promote wellbeing, and save taxpayers money on all the problems which could occur were these skills not cultivated.”

If your child is past preschool — or you want to become kinder yourself — don’t worry. Improving EQ and mastering mindfulness is a skill that takes lifelong practice, and you can start learning any time.

Image via Krakora Studios.

Davidson says the best way for children to learn these important skills and healthy habits is for parents to model them at home. “Simply by being with a parent who is calm and kind and civil and gracious, the child will learn osmotically from the parent,” he says.

And of course, practicing mindfulness can have positive benefits for parents too, including reduced stress and improved memory and focus. Unsure where to start? Try some of these mindfulness exercises on your own.

While my fondest memories of preschool involve playing outside and naps, I can’t help but wonder how different I would be, how different my generation would be, if this curriculum were instituted in our preschool years. Would we be more patient? More generous with our time and emotions? Maybe, maybe not. But we can certainly do our best to be kinder and gentler with one another right now. Because it’s never too late to do right by each other ... or for monkeybars.

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