Helen Sundaram, Founder and Director of the Kindness Bank, discusses the importance of kindness and how schools can promote this to improve wellbeing.
A year ago, I was mentally abused at work. It was deeply distressing, and extremely damaging to my mental health. It impacted not just me but my family too, and I struggle with the repercussions even today. I felt forced to resign from a job I loved, without the compensation I was owed. I was broken, unable to fight and in need of the help of a therapist.
I've heard it said that difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations. And as I tried to pick up the pieces, I vowed to do everything I could to make the world a kinder place. Naïve some might say. But as someone who works in education, I'm finding leaders very receptive to conversations on kindness. Because there is a need, a very real need to understand it, and inspire more of it. Never more so than in the wake of Everyone's Invited and in these times of climate crisis.
What I've discovered, from my own experiences, therapy and from developing educational programmes in consultation with an experienced psychotherapist, is that kindness and mental health are inextricably linked. And kindness itself is often misunderstood. It is something of a superpower, and quite the wonder-drug when tackling mental health challenges and difficult behaviour. But it can be extremely difficult to elicit, because our ability to be kind is so rooted in how we feel about ourselves inside. It is only through these discoveries, and the help of my therapist, that I have been able to make sense of the abuse I received, and try to move on.
You see, unless we feel good about ourselves and comfortable with who we are, it is very difficult to show kindness to others. No amount of encouragement to behave kindly will work if the only way a person can feel better is by dominating, controlling, abusing, bullying and so on. As behaviour is an expression of thoughts, feelings and emotions, the sad fact is that it is often a signal that someone is hurting and/or feels inadequate. Such feelings frequently stem from childhood, through family dynamics, abuse, grief, parental pressure to succeed and so on. Educational institutions are often left having to deal with the fallout, which if not addressed can go with the individual into adulthood... and the workplace.
I was really interested in Westminster School's review following Everyone's Invited. I applaud them for publicly standing up to try to drive change and share information widely to promote good behaviour. What I noticed though, is that there was no real focus on where the behaviour had come from, on why children felt the need to subject others to such awful treatment. If we don't put that under the spotlight, things are unlikely to change, for the reasons given above.
We have been focusing on children's mental health for years, yet the problems are worsening: 52% of 17-23 year olds have experienced a deterioration in mental health in the last five years.¹ And let's not forget teacher stress levels, with 91% reporting that their job adversely affected their mental health in the last 12 months – the main stressors identified as pupil behaviour, pupil wellbeing and pupil academic performance.²
I believe we have an obligation to our children to look deeply at this. At society's belief structures, which place more value on academic achievement than the wellbeing of our children. At our education system, which rewards for academic achievement, when we know so many children struggle with learning. When you consider that our workplaces today, need creative thinking and diverse teamwork, why are we still so fixated on individual, academic assessment, which stifles creativity and breeds competition, rather than collaboration? How is it right that some children leave school having failed, where others have succeeded – don't we want them all to thrive in life? Is it any wonder really, that so many people enter the workforce suffering from feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism, low self-esteem, self-doubt and imposter syndrome? These feelings, which we know can impact not only themselves but the people around them too?
So, in the absence of a whole new education system, what's the solution? Well, I believe we need to create truly inclusive environments in school, where the causes of difficult behaviour are explored and unravelled, and the child is supported, not excluded and punished. Where every child is regularly recognised and rewarded for the value they bring to the world, whatever that may be. Where the focus shifts from 'mental health difficulties', to 'kindness to self', positively helping children to feel good about themselves inside, and comfortable with who they are. So, they don't need to diminish or demean others to make themselves feel better, because they already feel good. Where classrooms are founded on team spirit, and peer support, with children helping those who are struggling, with the mindset of "I only succeed if we all succeed".
And we need to help parents to recognise all this too. To understand that any insecurities they themselves hold are likely to play out in their children too. That as parents (and leaders, teachers and staff), we each have a responsibility to model helpful behaviour. This may require us to face into our personal difficulties, with professional support. Shining a spotlight on the importance of self-care and our responsibilities to the people around us, may go some way to encouraging this.
Schools and universities have an opportunity to promote so much more than academic achievement. Our knowledge of neuro-diversity shows us not only the value but the necessity of creative thinking. We need to remove the 'disorder' labels and promote instead the power of diverse thinking.
Solving the difficult problems we face in the world today, like climate change and the social challenges, requires a kind outlook and a healthy mindset. One which is equipped to embrace friendship, generosity and consideration. With our next generation confident, empowered and excited by the challenge, working together and motivated, making good things happen not because they're told they have to but because they care so much, they want to.
Practical suggestions for promoting kindness in your organisation
1) Model responsible leadership – look at how you operate as a leader, and a person. Do you send emails out of hours? Do you set too high standards for yourself? As a leader, you have a responsibility to model wellbeing, and positively influence the wellbeing (and thus the behaviour) of your pupils and staff. You or your colleagues may need professional support. Make it available to all, and be open if you need to use it yourself. There needs to be no shame or stigma in asking for help, and responsible leadership requires authenticity, transparency and showing ourselves as human beings, not super-human beings.
2) Celebrate and embrace diversity – encouraging diversity must not become a tick box exercise. It is a superpower. The world doesn't work without it – so celebrate it, reward it. Individuals with 'disorders' or 'difficulties' may be being overlooked. But our lives are richer and our teams are more successful, when we understand, embrace and celebrate diversity. Are there ways you could tailor your curriculum and recruitment policy, for example, to attract more diverse, particularly, neuro diverse candidates? Consider the example set by your board of governors and leadership team.
3) Discipline – take a look at your traditions, reward structures and punitive measures. Does your organisation unwittingly compound behavioural problems by punishing or shaming individuals? People who bully and behave unkindly may be hurting inside – are there ways you can help them feel better about themselves so they are able to be kinder to others? Consider whether your traditions and practices may be exacerbating the problem.
1 First Port of Call, the Children's Society, 18 Jun 2021
2 NASUWT Wellbeing at Work Survey 2021, ran from Dec 2021-Jan 2022, 11,857 teacher responses.
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