4 ways to increase kind behaviour in children and young people with social, emotional or life challenges

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When was the last time a child/young person acted kindly towards you in your role as a professional?  I vividly remember an experience I had a few years ago when I had to cancel an appointment with an 11-year-old girl (I was ill that day).  The next session she bought me a detailed “get well” drawing which she had obviously spent some time on.  It was a lovely gesture which made my day - and I stuck it up on my office wall where it stayed for quite some time.  It also told me volumes about this child’s strengths in empathy and emotional connection.

Several studies have found that young people who frequently act kindly towards other people are more likely than others to do well in many life areas.  For example a longitudinal study published in 2015 by Jones and colleagues found that children who showed a high level kindness and other prosocial skills when they were 5 years old had better mental health, lower levels of substance use, better relationships with others and better performance in the workplace when assessed nearly 20 years later (and this relationship held true regardless of level of school achievement at aged five). 

Most parents/caregivers want their children and teens to be kind.  Surveys find that parents/caregivers from all over the world (regardless of cultural background) value kind behaviour more than achievement in their offspring. 

My experience however is that many parents/caregivers don’t always know how to support their young people to act in kind ways – and many also worry about what they perceive as a lack of kind behaviour in their kids. 

I believe this is particularly true for parents/caregivers of young people with social, emotional or life challenges.  Parents of these children and teens often describe concerns about their young person’s difficulty in acting kindly towards themselves, their siblings or their friends.  This is reflected in the research with several studies having documented a link between social and mental health challenges and a lack of prosocial behaviour – and in fact as you are probably aware - some mental health disorders such as oppositional, conduct and autism spectrum disorder actually list difficulties with prosocial behaviour as diagnostic symptoms.

It’s not surprising kids with challenges find it hard to act kindly.  When we feel anxious, depressed, lonely or frustrated, or have significant stressors in our life it is much harder to notice or attend to other people’s needs.  If we also have difficulties with communication and comprehension of other people, then it makes prosocial and kind behaviour very difficult.

Despite these hurdles, I believe almost all young people – even those with significant life or emotional/mental health challenges - can be helped to act kindlier, more often towards others.  I also believe this is be an important area of work for us as mental health and education professionals.  We often spend large amounts of time and energy focused on trying to reduce challenging behaviour and behaviours of concern in young people – but less often do we specifically target the increase of pro-social and kind behaviour.

In my own work with families when I’ve changed my focus from reducing challenging behaviour and increasing kind behaviour (even if just temporarily), I’ve often seen a significant positive change in young people’s relationships.

Here are four strategies I use to help children and young people to act kindlier towards others which you might like to use or adapt in your work.

1. Talk to young people about – and help them experience - the benefits of kindness. 

We know of course that young people (like all of us) are more likely to do something when they know (and have experienced) something positive is likely to happen from doing this behaviour.   I’m not suggesting we should give rewards to children and young people for acting kindly (as you probably know, the risk of rewards is that we accidentally decrease internal motivation).  But I do think we should spend time helping children and young people understand the immense positive power of kindness – both for themselves and others.

Questions to ask young people which may help them do this include: 

“Did you feel like anyone has been helpful or kind to you at school /at home this week?”

 “How did that feel?”

 “Was there anything helpful for you about that?”

“Have you noticed anyone at home/school who was kind to someone else today/this week?”

“I wonder if that helped them in some ways?” (when young people tell us about an act of kindness they observed).

 This happened to me recently (using appropriate self-disclosure and telling them how we felt when someone acted in a kind way towards us), “It made me feel….it did this …”

Have you ever noticed that when someone does something kind towards another person, that person is more likely to be kind back to them or towards someone else?

I also tell young people about “kindness contagion experiments” - research which shows that if you show people kindness, they are more likely to act in kind ways towards others.  One study I’ve found young people respond well to is done by Jamil Zaki (2016) In this study people were given a bonus for completing a task, and then asked if they’d like to donate it to charity.  They were also either told that people in the study before them had donated to charity too – or told they hadn’t.  Afterwards they were asked to write a letter to someone who was having a tough time, and those who had been told that others donated a lot to charity wrote a friendlier and kinder letter than those who had been told that others did not donate much to charity.

2. Talk with parents/caregivers about the effects of modelling kindness

One of the most effective ways of helping young people act in kind ways is for parents/caregivers to act kindly around them – both towards them, and towards others

I talk with parents/caregivers about research about modelling and the subconscious messages children/teens get when they watch “authority” figures such as parents/caregivers act kindly towards others.   For example, I tell them about the classic experiment conducted by psychologist Rushton (2013) who asked preschoolers to decide to either share tokens with others or keep them for themselves.  When a teacher gave away her/his tokens in front of the preschoolers before the children were asked to decide what to do with their own tokens, they were more likely to give theirs away.  This modelling effect lasted in both the short and the long term in some conditions.    

It is very important when having these discussions to make sure that parents/caregivers don’t feel we are insinuating they don’t act kindly towards their children or other people.  One way of managing this is to explain that some young people – especially those with social and emotional challenges need more modelling and describing than others.  To elaborate on this point, I explain because young people with emotional health challenges are often less able to pick up on the modelling that others do it can be helpful, to not only act kindly in front of their young people, but to sometimes actually verbally describe their kind behaviour – not in a boastful way, nor lecturing way - but simply and matter of factly.  For example:

“I bought Jane some soup tonight as she was having a hard time”

“I told John that I love his artwork because I know it feels good to have people notice when we try hard at something”

“I just have to make a phone call as I want to ask Grandma if she is okay after her big day”

3. Provide children/young people specific ideas about how to be kind. 

Some of the important work I do with young people in this area is to discuss with them the specific words they can say and actions they can take in order to be kind.

In other words, instead of just telling young people about kindness in general, I want to give them specific options for how to be kind. 

Here are three specific ways of being kind I talk with young people about:

a)  Compliments 

(saying something positive about something a person has, has done or is connected to) – i.e. using “sentence starters” such as:  “I like your…”, “It was fun to …” , “I enjoyed your…”, “You are a great…”. 

b)  Helping people when they have tough times

The first part of this kindness behaviour is of course noticing when people have tough times.  I talk with kids and teens about the kinds of tough times their families and peers might have (from tiny challenges – like dropping something or not being able to open the door – to larger ones – illness, tiredness, hunger – and negative emotions – sadness, loneliness, anxiety).  I then tell them about using what I call “check in sentences” such as “are you okay”, “Is there anything I can do” and “Can I help?”.    Then if they hear someone is having a tough time, thinking about what they might be able do to help the person cope with their challenge.  

c) Helping people have or do something that makes them feel good

For example, noticing what makes people happy and seeing if we can make that happen (letting someone go first in a game, drawing a picture for them, buying them a chocolate bar, letting them choose what to do when hanging out)

Once I have explained these three strategies - compliments, helping people when they have tough times and helping people have/do something that makes them feel good – then I can ask young people about how they might like to use each of these ideas.

For example,

“Are there any compliments you could give your brother/sister this weekend?”

“What makes your friend Jane happy?  Is there anything you could do to make this happen during the week sometime?”

“Is there anyone at school you think might have a hard time with anything today? Is there any “check in” sentences you could use?” 

“What could you do Is there anything you’d like to do/say to offer to help?”

For younger children, sometimes I ask them if they want to complete a “Kindness Detective” sheet to notice (usually just over the course of a week or so) the kind behaviour they have shown to others, and the kind behaviour others have shown them. 

Side note – I find that including parents/caregivers in this coaching session about kindness is really helpful as it gives them ideas about how they might be kind towards their children too, and what kind behaviour to look out for in their young people.

4. Ask parents/caregivers to notice kindness (or any steps towards it) in children and teens – and to acknowledge and thank children/teens for this. 

We know of course that appreciation and encouragement of behaviour in young people does – in general - result in them acting in that way in an ongoing way.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and it has to be done judiciously – but mostly when parents/caregivers notice, acknowledge and thank children and young people for acting kindly it is likely that young people continue to do it.

I suggest comments to parents/caregivers such as:

“I noticed you…I’m sure that made them feel….”
“I felt really proud of you for…..”
“When you did X…for me..it really helped me because…”
“Thank you so much for….I appreciated it because..”
“When you did X for Y, it meant they would have….”

Some research has suggested that a particular kind of acknowledgement of kind behaviour can be especially powerful – and this is“character praise”.  Character praise is telling children and young people we believe they have positive personal qualities, for example:

You are a person who is kind to others.
I can see you really like to help other people
I notice that you are becoming more and more kind to others all the time. 

An experiment in 1980 by psychologists Grusec and Redler  found that 7-10 year old children who were told “I can see you are the kind of person who likes to help others” were more likely to show more helpful behaviour later than children who were praised with the phrase “good helping”.

I use these kinds of “character praise” statements in sessions with young people too, e.g.:

It’s really clear to me that you are the kind of person who tries really hard to be kind (after being told about a prosocial behaviour by them/their parents).
Thank you for helping me pack up the room before we leave, I can see you are someone who does a lot of helping others. 

I do caution parents/caregivers to avoid praising children every time they are kind and to also avoid exaggerated praise (“you are the NICEST child in the WORLD“).  I tell them that genuine and caring acknowledgement is key – rather than trying to control a young person’s behaviour.

To summarise then, here are the key actions we can take to help young people act kindly:

  • Help children and teens see the benefits to others (and themselves) in acting in a kind way

  • Help parents/caregivers to act in kind ways– towards their young people and toward others - to provide a model for children and teens to copy

  • Give young people specific examples about how to say and do kind things (and include parents/caregivers in this coaching wherever possible)

  • Help parents/caregivers to notice when children and young people act in kind ways and gently acknowledge this.

If you would like a free article for parents/caregivers on this topic of helping their children/teens to act in kind ways, please click below for the parent/caregiver version of this article.  You are most welcome to freely distribute this to any parents/caregivers in your networks if you believe it would be helpful.

If you would like to use a 3-minute animated video on kind behaviour for 5-11-year-old children to show them how to use compliments, check in sentences and other kind strategies, and to explain how kindness works – then go to Calm Kid Central below.  Linked to the video is a kind behaviour activity sheet and kind behaviour poster with these ideas listed on it.

All the best with your support of your young people as they discover the joy of acting in kind ways.