You may not be aware but the week of “The Great Kindness Challenge” is upon us. From January 27-January 31 an organization called Kids for Peace is challenging school campuses to create a culture of kindness by having participants commit as many acts of kindness in one week as possible. I love the idea of challenging ourselves and our students to find creative, simple, and small ways to be kind to one another. It’s wonderful to have one week where we specifically explore that topic and focus our attention on doing good and kind deeds. But, if we really want to create a culture of kindness in our schools and in our world, we need to create a culture of compassion and empathy. This requires not one week of committing kind acts but of creating a systematic way of consistently reinforcing and developing compassion and empathy. And, as I have written before, the arts is one very effective way to do just that.
So here’s the good news, bad news portion of this article according to an article in Psychology Today online. The bad news is the harsh truth about us humans, we are by nature egocentric. The good news is that we have a part of our brain, the right supramarginal gyrus, that monitors our egocentrism and tries to correct it. The bad news is that if our brains don’t function as they should or if we are forced to make quick decisions we tend to be less than empathetic and compassionate. The good news is that because of neuroplasticity, our brains can be rewired to strengthen our ability to empathize and show compassion. Cue the arts.
Some argue that the same components that are required in art-making and art-perceiving are utilized in empathy: response, emotion and connection. So occasional art experiences are better than none, but studies have shown that regular involvement in the arts has lasting effects on pro-social behaviors like being kind to friends, increasing young adults’ levels of volunteerism in community organizations and civic responsibility like registering and exercising their right to vote into their mid-twenties and likely beyond.
All of this brings me back to “The Great Kindness Challenge”. I hope that your school has embraced the idea of challenging your students and staff to be extra kind to one another this week and really focus on ways to bring happiness to someone else by treating them as you would want to be treated. That is a great way to exercise the empathy muscles for sure. And, of course, the hope is that once the participants get a taste of making others feel good, they will continue to do good on their own long after the challenge has ended. But if your school is really serious about creating a culture of kindness, compassion, and empathy the best way this can be accomplished is by having students study with, through and about the arts.
They involve not just their analytic brains but their emotions as well and they connect to others via the art they perceive and the art that they make. They build those neural connections so that the part of the brain responsible for overriding our natural tendency to be self-centered is activated and we are able to empathize with others. If truly becoming a kinder, gentler nation is a goal we share than I can think of no better way than to practice empathy through the arts and to challenge our students to take their capacity for compassion and put it into action in their everyday lives.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.