Fostering a Culture of Kindness

My head was suddenly jerked backward. It was my high school freshman English class. A boy sitting behind me, whom I didn’t know very well, had a fistful of my hair tight in his hand. He leaned in too close and whispered a threat. It hurt. I was startled and trying to think what to say or do to get out of this situation when the teacher walked in. The boy turned me loose. Perhaps the teacher didn’t see – he certainly didn’t acknowledge anything. I leaned forward, fearful. I said nothing. I did nothing. After that, I was careful about where I sat.

Bullying is generally defined as repeated unwanted aggression between or among school-age children. So my one-time experience doesn’t qualify. Semantics aside, this incident represents awful feelings of powerlessness and anger, as well as the casual attitude toward unkindness, teasing, and violence that often seems to be adopted by bullies and bystanders.

Almost 40 years later, I have learned some things about bullying from the students and teachers at our small, intentionally diverse Quaker school northwest of Philadelphia. It is not that students here are chosen for a propensity to be kind, or that faculty and staff deploy a replicable anti-bullying curriculum. It is that Friends School Haverford has fashioned a culture of kindness.

The culture begins with the youngest students, who use a method of conflict resolution devised by our kindergarten teacher. It’s called the “Ice Cream Cone.” Our students move through the steps of identifying a problem and sharing with one another their perspective – each step adding a scoop to the cone. They listen, and then brainstorm solutions. The cherry on top is trying one of the solutions.

Middle school students studying peer mediation follow comparable steps. Role-playing to practice conflict-resolution skills, and abundant opportunities to consider and discuss the impact of our words and actions give students strategies to navigate difficult situations.

Friends School Haverford invests time. If someone is upset about something that happened at recess, and students are pouring into the classroom agitated and talking about what happened, the teacher will pause to discuss the event and how it might be addressed. Unresolved conflict distracts from learning. Too often, teachers are pressured to stick to the academic program, as though students could focus on reading or mathematics while adrenaline-charged thoughts and feelings occupy their minds.

A school must also have a sufficient number of adults who periodically pass through or spend time in the nook-and-cranny spaces where student social interchange happens, adults who are empowered to address deviations from kindness. And, yes, the line must be drawn as close as “deviations from kindness.”

In addition to having shared expectations and a framework for conflict resolution, community meetings are held in every grade. Questions of how to be a good friend, a good member of the community, a good student, and how to respond to the feelings that well up when conflict or unkindness arises are asked and answered in the calm time when nothing in particular has happened. Students help teachers identify problems and come up with anti-bullying strategies.

I was recently asked whether the strategies of a small Quaker school in a safe neighborhood have any purchase on the violence in schools where students must pass through metal detectors. The problems are more severe, but the tools of solution are the same.

At one time or another, we’ve all experienced, literally or metaphorically, having a fistful of our hair in a bully’s hand. It is troubling to know that such situations – and much worse – are a daily reality in the lives of so many. It is gratifying for me to be part of a culture of kindness. There is no easy solution for the world at large, but we know what we have to do.