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Behavior Impacts Behavior: Diving Deeper Into Children’s Perspectives on Kindness and Caring

May 17, 2018
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Behavior impacts behavior—what we express as adults, even if not created with children in mind, absolutely informs their experience.

Recently I visited a local art museum that tends to specialize in outsider and folk art exhibitions. After walking through three major installations, I came to a separate gallery of work created by local children in response to the featured pieces created by adults.
As I walked through, I was stunned and delighted to see the unbridled candor and creativity in the work of these young artists. They were able to distill strong emotional themes from the works they’d been shown, and they were fearlessly original in putting their own spin on the pieces they’d seen. I was reminded that children are profoundly capable of innovation and creativity—and that their awareness of the world is often sensitive to details that adults take for granted.
Strolling through the children’s gallery was ultimately far more personally fulfilling than exploring any of the other installations, probably because it forced me to consider the fact that despite generational and cultural differences, we all live in the same world. We perceive many of the same events, too—though not always in the same ways.
Ultimately, as we say here at CPI, behavior impacts behavior—what we express as adults, even if not created with children in mind, absolutely informs their experience. 

A recent survey has gathered children’s feedback—and what they have to say is vital to preventing violence.

In a previous post about the case for a culture of caring in schools, we touched on a 2017 survey conducted by the Cartoon Network and the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (you can read the full report here). As we continue to talk about the importance of caring and safety as foundational elements of violence prevention, it’s time to take a deeper dive into this survey—because it delivers important feedback directly from children that can inform the choices we make as adults.
More than a thousand children, aged 9 to 11, were surveyed about issues surrounding kindness and caring, with the goal of identifying ways that adults can proactively address aggressive and disruptive behavior, particularly bullying, and help all children to thrive. The survey's ultimate takeaway seems to be that the key to effectively addressing the risks of violence—not just in schools, but in our communities at large—is to collaborate with children. If we do not work intergenerationally to cultivate compassion and empathy, we simply cannot expect trends of violence and aggression to correct themselves.
The entire report is worth reading, but here are some key takeaways: 

Children are more likely to say that “caring about others” is the most important to themselves, than to say it is the most important to their parents.

“If kids’ parents would teach them to be kind at home then they would be kinder at school,” one student reported in the survey. Knowing that not all children have access to stable and supportive home environments, it becomes critical for all adults to exhibit the constructive behaviors that help children develop compassion and empathy for one another. Practices like PBIS and restorative justice are excellent ways for adults to engage with children in building prosocial skills—and in building communities. In an educational environment, these practices also support greater direct instruction time and are tied to improved student outcomes and school climate, meaning children are more likely to take these values of caring and kindness into adulthood. 

Values are important to children—and those who place an emphasis on the values of caring and kindness are much less likely to have engaged in bullying behavior.

This one might seem obvious, but what’s important is the behavior that stems from the values of caring and kindness. Children who placed caring for others as a high priority were twice as likely to say they had gone out of their way to do something kind for another child, and half as likely to have reported participating in bullying behavior. This makes it critical to be mindful of what values we prioritize as adults—because the next generation’s prosocial abilities depend upon it. 

When kids don’t know what to do or say about a child who’s being picked on or excluded, they don’t do anything.

“I’m not sure of myself sometimes,” said one student. Not knowing what to do or say when another child is being picked on is the leading reason that kids don’t act—a far more prominent influence than the fear of making things worse, the fear of getting hurt, or the fear that other kids might tease them. Modeling supportive behaviors can help children trust themselves to make the best and most constructive choice when presented with a challenging situation. 

When it comes to what adults can do to help children be kinder to one another, the numbers are truly staggering.

When asked, “What would help kids your age be kinder?”

  • 83%: having somebody who really cares and listens
  • 77%: having somebody provide ideas for what to do and say
  • 73%: having an adult help kids deal with anger

Children want the support and guidance of adults in making positive choices and constructively managing challenging emotions—they recognize that our behavior directly impacts the behavioral choices that they make.

Children are far more likely to make positive, supportive choices in their behavior than you might think—but prosocial behavior doesn’t just benefit kids. It’s good for all of us.

Of the children surveyed:

  • 85% say they’ve reached out to new kids in their school or neighborhood
  • 80% say they’ve been kind to another child who was struggling or feeling sad
  • 75% say they’ve gone out of their way to support a child being picked on or excluded

Did these stats surprise you? Given the media coverage around bullying and violence in schools, it’s easy to erroneously assume that children lack the inclination for prosocial behaviors. And it’s even easier to make the mistake of thinking that children choose these behaviors independently of the guidance they receive from adults. What might be more accurate is concluding that children are highly thoughtful, highly sensitive, and profoundly impacted by the behavior of the adults around them—positive and negative.
Children are asserting that they do believe in the values of caring and kindness, that they are highly likely to exhibit these behaviors, and that adults can play a significant role in helping them be kinder and more supportive. 

Whether in professional or personal capacity, a supportive stance is the one that facilitates the most potential for a positive outcome.

Modeling prosocial and positive behaviors when interacting with children isn’t just about children—it’s about our own experience as adults. Understanding that behavior impacts behavior should immediately solidify that it matters how we interact with one another just as much as how we interact with children. Whether in professional or personal capacity, a supportive stance is the one that facilitates the most potential for a positive outcome.
Children’s perspectives matter—when we’re contemplating how to take meaningful action as a society to prevent violence, particularly in schools, it’s vital that we listen to what they have to say. Are we helping children develop prosocial and positive behaviors by embracing these approaches ourselves? Or is it just another case of “Do as I say, not as I do?”

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