Category: Helping

November 8, 2021 by Sarah Brown 0 Comments

Raising Young Upstanders from the Start: Advice From a Preschool Leader and Mom

For young children, the classroom is a community: a small version of the world.

As such, it is too often a place in which there is inequity, unkindness, and bullying among peers — and it’s also a place where children can practice being upstanders who stand up for friends.

Bullying remains pervasive in school settings. Some recent facts:

  • 20.4% of children ages 2-5 had experienced physical bullying in their lifetime and 14.6% had been teased (verbally bullied) (source)
  • About 1 in 5 U.S. students aged 12-18 say they have experienced bullying (source
  • Children say they’re being bullied in school hallways or stairwells; classrooms; cafeterias; bathrooms; and playgrounds  (source)

As the director of a progressive preschool program and as the parent of a kindergartener, I deeply feel the need to help my child — and the children in my school — grow into empathetic friends who can stand up for what they believe is right and be “upstanders.” 

The idea that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and kindly is the heart of social justice, and preschools often work to put these values at the heart of their curriculum. These are skills that must be learned early, to help children grow into empathetic and kind adults, who will stand up for those not being treated kindly or fairly. 

We All Have a Role to Play in Creating a Culture of Upstanding
Sarah Brown & Baby
The author with her own child as a baby.

Teachers have an active responsibility of ensuring safety, kindness, and equity in classrooms, and parents also cultivate these skills at home. 

Learning to be an upstander ties together a lot of social and emotional skill “basics” like feelings, empathy, friendship. It’s something that we can start teaching when children are as young as two — and it is something we can practice throughout our lives. 

While learning to be an upstander can take work — it makes a difference: Research shows that when children stand up for each other, and are active when they witness bullying, this involvement is hugely effective in curbing the behavior. When upstanders intervene (child to child), bullying behavior stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time (source).

Start with Feelings and Empathy

How do we encourage young children to grow into upstanders — people who will stand up for what is right and help peers feel safe and welcome? 

For the very young, it begins with digging deeply into first noticing the feelings of others, and growing empathy.

For very young children (ages 2-4), the idea of standing up for other people will, at first, be beyond their grasp. Children at this age — by nature — have a very ego-centric view of the world. As they move through the preschool years, they develop the neural connections to be able to see the world from another’s perspective, and understand that others have feelings that may be similar or different from their own. 

Raising upstanders begins with growing empathy and cultivating the urge to help when someone else is feeling sad or having other uncomfortable feelings. 

At our preschool, social-emotional learning is an integral part of the curriculum. For two year olds, it begins very simply — when navigating conflict, teachers offer simple language, and encourage children to notice how their actions affect their peers. 

For example: “Look at Sarah’s face. She looks so sad. She didn’t like it when you pushed. Let’s go get her an ice pack to help her feel better.” 

Soon, teachers notice children responding to others in need, offering a friend a tissue, their lovey, or patting their back gently when they notice someone having a hard moment. Even two year olds are familiar with the warm feeling that comes with helping someone else.

The three- and four-year-old students at our preschool spend time actively learning about feelings as a curriculum theme. Group discussions are a way for children to build their own understanding on a theme by using each other as resources. 

During a recent feelings study in a 4s classroom, a teacher asked the group at morning meeting: “When someone is feeling sad, how can we help them feel better?” 

Children had many ideas: 

  • Child: “They might need a tissue!”
  • Child: “A hug.”
  • Teacher: “Mmm. Who else has an idea? How can we help a friend who is sad?”
  • Child: “Go find a teacher?”
  • Teacher: “A teacher can always help children when they’re feeling sad.”
  • Child: “Maybe they miss their mom.”
  • Teacher: “Do you think that’s why they’re sad? What do you think would help?”
  • Child: “Maybe to see their mom. Or hold their family collage?”
  • Teacher: “Ah, yes! Those usually have pictures of grownups from your family.” 
  • Child: “Sometimes I miss my mama.”
  • Child: “Sometimes I miss my grandpa”
  • Teacher: “It sounds like a lot of children feel sad when they’re missing their families.”

In this conversation, children were ready with ideas about how to comfort or care for someone. When they found common ground (many children thought about missing their family), the teacher noticed and reinforced the idea that many children can have that same strong feeling. 

The teacher recorded children’s ideas with an idea map, including  illustrations of different strategies to comfort or help a friend.

Upstanding

This image will stay on their classroom wall throughout the year, an easy reference when children were engaged with each other in the classroom.

Learn From Examples Through Upstander Stories

As children develop the ability to empathize and think outside themselves in the 4s and 5s, they also often become interested in the world around them, and the non-fiction section of the bookshelf becomes enticing. 

This age is perfect to introduce simply books and biographies about people in history who are “upstanders,” those who noticed unfairness and inequity, and who stood up for those who weren’t treated with kindness and fairness.

There is a growing set of wonderful picture books that help children think about inclusion, friendship, and how to support their peers. Some great ones to start with include: 

These stories serve as a jumping off point for rich conversations about justice, fairness, and how we can help make the world a safer, more equitable place. 

After my own little boy read Martin’s Big Words with his 4s class, they discussed the story as a class. Their teacher talked in simple terms about the civil rights movement. The teacher helped tell the story with the aid of a toy bus and some figures with light and dark skin. 

My child brought up the book and class discussion often at home, at first talking about “back when things weren’t fair.” We talked about how things were still not fair, referencing our family’s recent participation in a Black Lives Matter protest. He continued thinking through it in the coming weeks, asking questions like, “What other things are unfair for people with brown skin?” and “Why?” Parents and teachers might not have the answers to these big questions, and that’s OK! Sometimes the question “What do you think?” is enough to continue a dialogue that will grow and change as the child does. 

Making a Plan and Providing Language

As adults talk through big ideas with children and allow them lots of space for their own ideas, they’re helping them to learn the language they’ll need to address bullying and become upstanders. 

As children enter the 4-6 range, they are more and more capable to become upstanders among their peers. Sometimes that means simply modeling kindness and inclusivity themselves — inviting someone into a game, or sitting with them at lunch. 

It can help to create a simple script with your child, so they are ready and know what to say when a situation pops up when they see someone being bullied. This conversation may happen out of the moment, or in response to a situation that a child is processing. 

My child reported one day, “W. bumped C.’s ear, and it was not an accident, and the teacher didn’t know!” 

I started by acknowledging how it must be feeling for everyone involved. “It sounds like it made you so mad to see your friend get hurt. Was C. sad? Is he OK now?” 

I asked, “What do you think you could do next time to help your friend?” He suggested finding a teacher. Especially at this age, it’s wise to reinforce that this is ALWAYS a smart option when someone is hurt. We also practiced what my child could say, words such as:

  • “Don’t Do That!”
  • “That’s too rough!”
  • “Stop!” 

Having a script in mind helps children feel like they are ready to help, with a toolbox of effective words. 

Sometimes adults shy away from talking about conflict with young children — as parents and educators, we wish that the world were always fair. It can be hard and sad for us to have those conversations with kids. But we can empower our children by making them part of the conversation, giving them the language to talk about feelings, and sharing tools with them that they can use to stand up for thief friends and be confident in caring for those around them. 

Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lesson: How to Raise a Helper

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen Fred Rogers’ advice for comforting kids: “When I was a boy,” he said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

The quote can help us feel hopeful in trying times. But as Fred showed us in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it doesn’t take a tragedy to bring out the helpers. People also help in small moments and in all-but-invisible ways: A well-timed embrace. A kind word. Even just being there for someone who needs us. (“It’s really tough some days, isn’t it?” we might say to a friend.) 

Fred knew that small moments like these often make the biggest difference. Parents know it, too: Surveys suggest that for most of us, our highest hope for our kids is that they’ll grow up to be caring, generous people who help their families and neighbors.

According to a report released a few years ago by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, kids hear something else altogether: nearly 80 percent of young people say their parents are more concerned with achievement than they are about character. When asked what would make their parents prouder — getting good grades or being a helper — kids were three times more likely to pick the former. 

Be a Helper to Raise a Helper

As we write in our book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, we can look to Fred to find out why.

One of the most important things Fred learned from his mentor, Margaret McFarland, was the Quaker philosophy that attitudes are caught, not taught. We can extol the virtues of helping all day long, but without action to back up our words, our words aren’t likely to stick. The best way to raise helpers, it turns out, is to strive to be helpers ourselves.

That might be easier said than done, especially amid the pressures and stress of modern family life. Even Fred liked to have a reminder: Once, while strolling his college campus, he discovered a plaque that said, LIFE IS FOR SERVICE. The inscription struck him as so simple, yet so profound, that it shaped the rest of his years. He wrote it on a slip of paper, which he put in his wallet and carried for decades. He even hung a photo of the plaque on his office wall. 

Though he’s best known for his make-believe Neighborhood, stories about Fred’s real-world service could fill a book. There’s the little girl whom he helped through a coma. There’s the journalist whose relationship with Fred changed the course of his life. The list goes on and on.

We’ve heard countless similar stories while sharing When You Wonder, You’re Learning with parents and teachers around the world. And we’ve heard them in our hometown of Pittsburgh, where Fred was our real-life neighbor. (There’s even a holiday here that celebrates Fred’s kindness — a holiday that ought to be national!)

Fred was the real deal, as kind in real life as he was on television. The Fred we saw on screen was not an act, but a practice. He led by example, helping his neighbors do the same. He showed the world that “each and every one of us can be as caring, kind, and influential in children’s lives as he was,” wrote his equally kind wife, Joanne, in the foreword to our book. Every last one of us can be a helper.

How to Help in YOUR Neighborhood

What might it look like to follow in Fred’s footsteps in our own lives and our own homes? And how might we raise kind children, remembering — as Fred did — that attitudes are caught, not taught?

With the holidays fast approaching, it’s a great time to wonder how we might serve others. Maybe there’s a food pantry where you and your family might help. Maybe an elderly neighbor needs help clearing some leaves. Or maybe, in this season of giving, you decide to give gifts a bit differently. Each year on their birthdays, for example, Gregg’s daughters get lots of presents, from which they choose just a small number to keep. They take the rest to Beverly’s Birthdays, a nonprofit organization that arranges birthday parties for kids experiencing homelessness. 

Whatever you do, it doesn’t have to be big. In fact, it’s better if it’s not big — if your helping, like Fred’s, happens in small moments and in all-but-invisible ways. 

“It’s tempting to think ‘a little’ isn’t significant and that only ‘a lot’ matters,” he once said. “But most things that are important in life start very small and change very slowly, and they don’t come with fanfare and bright lights.”

In a time when the brightest lights seem to shine on what matters least, it’s hard to imagine a more important lesson for young helpers. (And for us grown ones, too.)

November 4, 2021 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

Three Little Kids Helping in BIG Ways

Orion Jean’s fifth grade teacher mentioned the National Kindness Speech Contest to him — with just 24 hours to prepare. 

The Texas child, just nine years old at the time, won with his speech on making change with kindness — and put his $500 award toward a campaign he called the Race to 500 Toys, donating hundreds of toys to a local children’s hospital. He went on to launch the Race to 100,000 Meals around Thanksgiving 2020, followed by the Race to 500,000 Books, through which he rallied supporters to donate half a million books to kids in need. 

“If you just believe and if you continue to try your best — even if you’re only able to help one person, it’s definitely all worth it at the end because that’s what it’s about,” Orion said on the How to Help, an episode of the Little Kids, Big Hearts podcast focused on little kids who are big helpers. 

How to Help

All people — kids and grown-ups alike — have opportunities to be helpers every day, and research shows that humans are hardwired to help. Even babies make efforts to help other people, starting as young as 12 months old. 

Many people help others in small ways, but a select few people take on big challenges and find big solutions. 

On the new episode of the Little Kids, Big Hearts podcast, How to Help, host Todd Loyd talks with three little kids who are helping in big ways — making enormous impacts in their local communities and starting domino effects of giving. The episode’s goal? Helping to inspire kids and families listening to become helpers in their own schools and communities! 

Zohaib Begg, 9, Ashburn, VA
Zohaib

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Zohaib’s aunt, an emergency room doctor, told him about the shortage of personal protective equipment and asked his mom if she had extra swim caps she could use for protection.  

Zohaib had an idea: He set off to local hotels in Northern Virginia seeking shower caps and other unused items for frontline workers. He ultimately collected more than 6,000 items, including shower caps, gloves, and face masks, to help healthcare workers at the Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he’d received treatment for a serious health condition when he was just three years old. 

Last spring, he launched a new campaign to help the homeless community in Washington, D.C.. He gathered donations from friends and businesses that he engaged to work together to create kits that he handed out to homeless people. 

Working together with Sharon Wise, who once experienced homelessness and now advocates on behalf of homeless people, he passed out food, toiletry kits, supplies, and comfy Bombas socks to hundreds of people in need.

“I love creating kindness,” Zohaib said on Little Kids, Big Hearts. “I noticed that one person can make a difference … All you have to do is be kind.”

He said to make the world a better place, all you need to do is find one problem and then work to solve it. 

“All you have to find is a problem and a solution and no matter how old or young you are, you can always make a difference by just being kind,” he said. “Even if you just help one person that might change their life and make them think better about something and they help another person, they help another and another, and so on.”

Learn more about Zohaib and support his work here.

Katelynn Hardee, 7, Vista, California
Katelynn

When Katelynn was in kindergarten, she learned that there were kids at her school who couldn’t afford school lunch. She opened a hot cocoa and cookie stand to help out. 

She ended up using the money she earned to pay off all the school lunch debt at her school — and then for her entire elementary school district. 

This inspired a series of projects to help her community including starting a free library in her front yard and a school supplies drive. Katelynn finds ways to spread kindness in simple ways, too, like by drawing inspiring messages on her sidewalk!

“You do something and then it spreads,” she said. “Once I do something, and then the next person does something, then then the next person and then the next person.”

Learn more about Katelynn’s work here (her organization is called Kiki’s Kindness Project).

Orion Jean, 11, Mansfield, Texas
Photo from the Washington Post (McDonald Jean)

Orion’s Race to Kindness project started with an online speech contest, which led him to create a kid-led movement — which has rapidly grown to have an enormous positive impact in his Texas community.

“I think that when I reached my first goal and surpassed it by over 100 toys, then I knew that there truly is hope because people — all people — have the ability to be kind,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes one person to bring it out of them.”

The pandemic interfered with a lot of people’s plans, but Orion says the pandemic was a catalyst for his many acts of kindness.

“Without the pandemic, maybe none of this would have even happened,” he said.

Learn more about Orion and get involved at his Race to Kindness website. 

Listen to the Podcast for More

To hear more from Orion, Zohaib, and Katelynn, listen to Little Kids, Big Hearts episode How to Help wherever you find your podcasts!

As you listen, consider:

  • Do their stories and ideas inspire you to help others?
  • What are some ways you and your family can get involved and help in your local community?