Kindness in the classroom

Kelly April Tyrrell, On Wisconsin Magazine

A study finds that early mindfulness training leads to improved academics.

Kindness curriculum
Students increased both compassion and attention with help from UW researchers, who taught them breathing exercises with “belly buddy” stones resting on their stomachs. Photo: John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal.

What if teaching young children compassion and kindness made them better students as well as better people?

Researchers with the UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center recently tested that hypothesis with preschool students in the Madison Metropolitan School District, after years of work developing a curriculum designed to help children develop both kindness and self-regulation skills.

The team designed short lessons to bring attention to the present moment, such as breathing practice and movement exercises, and to focus on compassion and gratitude. Teachers reported that one of the kids’ favorite activities was a practice called “Belly Buddies,” in which they listened to music while lying on their backs, with a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out.

“It’s something that’s so simple, and it allows them to experience internal quietness and a sense of calm,” says Lisa Flook, a scientist with the center and the study’s lead author.

Mindfulness-based approaches for children have become popular in recent years, but few are backed by rigorous scientific evidence. The twelve-week UW study found that kids who participated in the kindness curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not.

The findings reinforce the idea that social, emotional, and cognitive functioning are intermingled, and kids can struggle to do well in school when emotional challenges arise, Flook says. Ultimately, the researchers would like to see mindfulness-based practices integrated into the school day and have them become a foundation for how teachers teach and how students approach learning.

Early childhood is an ideal time to equip children with these skills, since their brains are rapidly developing, Flook says. “Knowing how critical these skills are at an early age,” she adds, “if there are ways to promote them, it could help set kids on a more positive life trajectory.”