A Lesson in Kindness

One of my proudest moments as a parent to date came at a summer camp closing performance. One by one, the six- to eight-year-old participants did an improv dance solo and then finished with a flourish, calling out a word to describe themselves. Several were "Funny!" Many "Creative!" or "Smart!" Then my daughter Klara, the youngest in the group, danced to the center of the stage and proclaimed "Kind!"

When addressing school climate issues in education reform, it is far too easy to focus exclusively on the negative, the bias, the bullying, the violence we all agree must end. However, I and my GLSEN colleagues believe that the only real solution for the "bad stuff" is building a solid foundation of the good: the empathy, connections and healthy relationships that create effective learning communities and bolster individual happiness and success. Accountability and amends are key, but discipline, punishment and so-called "zero-tolerance policies" are not the answer. Students should be as proud of being kind as they are of getting good grades, and adults around them need to recognize that interpersonal qualities like kindness and respect for others are as important as academic achievement to life success.

This approach aligns GLSEN closely with a growing movement to establish social and emotional learning as a critical element of the K-12 curriculum, a movement that has garnered significant momentum from the intense focus on bullying of the past few years. Some states have gone as far as to make social and emotional development standards -- focused on students' emerging self-awareness, social awareness, decision-making and responsible behavior -- part of their curricular requirements. This approach to learning would benchmark students' development of empathy and understanding of others, positive relationship development and effective approaches to conflict resolution among other critical qualities.

GLSEN's programs, advocacy and public education are designed to support schools in ways that bolster this approach to education and promote practices that serve every child in the school community. GLSEN's No Name Calling Week (taking place Jan. 21-25) is a great example. We created the program 10 years ago knowing that students in the early grades must learn about issues of sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity right alongside all other personal characteristics that can lead to name-calling and undermine children's sense of connection to the community. At the time, fear of controversy often led schools to avoid issues such as the pervasive use of words like "sissy" and "fag," or complicated efforts to respond to the growing numbers of children with LGBT parents with inclusive and respectful practices. (While there has been progress, our work on that front is, sadly, not yet done).

No Name-Calling Week has clearly filled an important void. The event grew rapidly and has garnered the support of a powerful coalition of organizations in education and youth development. When the National School Boards Association joined the coalition, they called No Name-Calling Week "one of the most used and celebrated bullying prevention programs in the country." My colleagues and I enjoyed the accolade, but have aspirations for this program that go beyond bullying prevention.

Alongside Ready, Set, Respect: GLSEN's Elementary School Toolkit, No Name-Calling Week provides a critical opportunity to bolster the empathy and understanding that underlie respect of others from the earliest years. Even as the week's lessons and events lead to student understanding of how words can hurt, they also seek to inspire new aspirational visions for young people -- so that being "kind!" in both words and actions ranks up there among the virtues to be celebrated by their friends, their parents and their communities.