In the increasingly complex world of communication and interpersonal relationships, area school districts are navigating new ways to combat age-old issues. A foundation of genuine kindness initiatives, punctuated by positive social interactions among students, have become important underpinnings of the school communities in New Fairfield and Sherman.
Middle schools are often thought of nationwide as notorious for their tough social structures, but at NFMS there is a focus on encouraging the community to be a more accepting environment. With strong, open-minded groups in place, such as their Wingman Program, their students are given a firmer footing in positive communication. The student-led Wingman Program strives to make every student feel accepted, while teaching lessons on empathy, the importance of teamwork, and the power in word choice.
The fundamental, good-spirited climate at NFMS has inspired frequent student-conceived acts of kindness. For example, in recognition of the recent first anniversary of the tragic Parkland, FL shooting, 6th graders Ava VonSteenburg and Tristan Ruiz, approached administrators with a plan to create hearts for each of their fellow students to let them know that someone is thinking about them and cares. Assistant Principal, Cheryl Milo was impressed, saying that the two “spent hours cutting out hundreds of hearts.” The hearts, with names on them for each student, are now displayed in the school’s lobby.
NFHS takes an active approach toward bullying prevention, with strong policies in place to deter it, and offers positive relationship-building strategies. The Link Crew, now in its second year and a rousing success, pairs upperclassmen with incoming freshman, giving the transitioning students built-in supports and connections to their new environment.
With large and active clubs at NFHS, such The Peace Project, the school offers students vehicles to spread kindness and acceptance. There’s also a Safe School Climate Team in place to regularly assess issues at the school and proactively work to ensure that positive school climate measures are in place.
At The Sherman School, the students are taught the importance of the school’s core values: respect, courage, honesty, and responsibility, with the understanding that empathy and positivity are woven throughout the values. Students are recognized for going above and beyond in any of the core value areas by receiving a Sherman Shield–their mascot is a knight. Assistant principal, Andrew Schoefer, explained that there are a lot of activities throughout the year that are intended to promote kindness, including having upper school students teaching Ben’s Bells activities to lower school students. In addition, the school works to spread kindness beyond the school community through activities such as creating Valentine’s Day cards for veterans.
At the elementary level in New Fairfield, the importance of being kind is infused throughout the children’s days. At Meeting House Hill School (MHHS), School Psychologist Sarah Pinheiro, says “We teach students that it all starts with one person and that kindness is just about the only thing in the world that doubles when you share it. Students have learned that they are emotionally rewarded for being kind as one act of kindness releases many feel-good chemicals and actually helps us to feel calmer.”
At both elementary schools, there are incentives in place to acknowledge acts of kindness. At Consolidated School, faculty and administrators distribute kindness strips daily. Assistant principal, Karen Gruetzner described the initiative as follows, “The child or staff member’s name is written on the kindness strip and it is delivered to the main office. Recipients are acknowledged each afternoon on the announcements. The collected strips are linked together in our hallway or made into decorative bulletin boards as a reminder that kindness makes the world a better place.”
MHHS has recently launched a Ben’s Bells “Belling” program in which students who have gone above and beyond will “receive a certificate and one of the beautiful ceramic bells to display in their classroom for the month before it is passed on to the next student,” Ms. Pinheiro explained. Among their first recipients will be a 4th grade class who demonstrated great compassion while their teacher was out after the loss of loved ones.
Ms. Gruetzner explained that for the district’s youngest learners, “Listening with understanding and empathy is a skill that we teach and reinforce in all settings throughout the school day.” In fact, the school sees these as such important skills to track that they’ve recently revised their report cards to monitor progress. “Strengthening this skill encourages perspective taking, which in turn, helps promote kind interactions. “
Consolidated and MHHS are both Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) schools, which means that they reinforce behavioral expectations and put an emphasis on positivity and kindness. The gist of the program is to essentially establish appropriate behavior as a baseline, thereby ideally preventing misbehavior.
Acknowledging the realistic bumps in the road, Ms. Gruetzner says, “Children can be mean sometimes, but we are teaching them to recognize the impact of their words and actions on others. At this young age, it’s about awareness and education, and shaping unexpected behaviors into ones worth celebrating.” All signs point to the positive, she said, noting that “Unexpected and undesirable behaviors are at their lowest, and as a result, Consolidated School’s climate is safe and respectful.”
With all of the programs in place, from the Belling and Shield honors and kindness strip recognitions, to Wingman lessons and Peace Project social justice campaigns, area schools are making significant efforts to promote empathy, prevent bullying, and celebrate kindness at every level.
By Sarah Opdahl