NASHVILLE, Tennessee — In recent years, Catholic Charities school counselors have noticed an unsettling trend of more anxiety and less empathy among their young students.
A variety of factors, including increased screen time and social media usage, more homework and extracurricular activities, along with less recess and unstructured free time, is leaving children “missing out on connection-with each other and with their communities,” according to Catholic Charities counselor Melissa Smith.
“It sometimes seems like we’re putting out fires, and we wanted to be proactive instead,” said fellow Catholic Charities school counselor Amy Sturm, who began brainstorming the idea for a “kindness campaign” last spring. “We knew we needed to give kids active opportunities for them to be kind and connect with others.”
That realization has prompted all schools in the Diocese of Nashville to kick off their own incarnations of a yearlong kindness campaign.
“We’re very excited that the schools are running with this,” said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville. “This is a very intentional effort to be who we’re called to be by Christ.”
By designing the kindness campaigns to run in all schools in the diocese for the entire school year, the counselors are hopeful that it will have a lasting and positive impact.
“It’s like preventive medicine,” said Smith, who counsels children and families at St. Edward School. If schools actively embrace a culture of kindness, she said, “hopefully we’ll avoid some anxiety, bullying and friend trouble,” and ultimately have less anxiety and depression among young people.
Some schools, including St. Edward, have been utilizing anti-bullying programs such as Olweus for years, but “we wanted to put a more positive spin on the language,” Smith told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.
“Even the littlest ones can understand acts of kindness,” said Marsha Wharton, principal of St. Edward.
At the school, which is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the diocese, “the kids are accepting and respectful of all different kinds of people,” she said, and the kindness campaign is an ideal way to reinforce respect for other cultures. “It’s a strength of St. Edward that the students learn to be kind and accepting of people different than them.”
“We’ve seen a decline in civility in the larger society and we don’t want that to be reflected in our schools,” said Smith.
“Kids are hard-wired for kindness, but they do need to be shown models of kindness,” she added.
The school counselors designed the campaign to intentionally weave empathy and kindness back into the schools and to better meet the social and emotional needs of students. But they knew it had to be accessible for teachers and parents and fun for students to get the necessary community buy-in.
Sturm, the counselor at Immaculate Conception School in Clarksville, helped design a kindness campaign kickoff event with the theme of “Mission Possible,” held earlier in September. The children were given cards identifying each one as an “official agent of kindness,” and given envelopes bearing special “missions” like “make someone else smile.”
“The kids were so excited to have these little missions,” said Sturm. “This will really help them become ‘agents of change.'”
At St. Edward, Smith helped organize a pep rally to kick off the kindness campaign and held an evening session with parents to talk about how they can model kindness at home as well as help their children cope with tough issues.
“For this to be successful at school, we also have to promote a culture of kindness at home,” she said.
Smith, along with other volunteers, plans to post affirming messages in the school restrooms. “A lot of times when kids get overwhelmed, that’s where they go, and wouldn’t it be nice when they went in there if they saw a note that says, ‘you are loved’?”
Each school may have their own twist on promoting kindness this school year, but “they are all taking the initiative to lift other people up,” Hammel said.
Generally, each school will set up a “kindness committee,” made up of teachers, parents and students to organize events or activities that help enrich the kindness experience on each school campus throughout the year.
Schools are encouraged to start and end each day with an intentional focus on kindness such as a short prayer, quote, or student recognition.
Catholic Charities counselors have also designed an online “kindness toolkit” full of age appropriate resources including books, videos and activity suggestions. The toolkit will have information readily available to teachers to implement in their classrooms.
At the heart of the kindness campaign, for all children in Catholic schools, “we’re called to love our neighbor,” Smith said. “And we show God’s love by how we love one another.”
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Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.