My touched more on sadness than hope. This week, it's time to look toward a brighter tomorrow.
I'm pinning that hope for tomorrow on a bunch of teenagers and eight year olds, crossing my fingers that they'll become experts in being the kind, compassionate adults of the future -- and spread that knowledge with others.
Those kids are gaining that expertise through a new program being piloted right here in the metropolitan area.
For the last two years, the Westport school district has been integrating an empathy-based anti-bullying program called Kool To Be Kind (K2BK). And it's based on one very elemental premise: that kids learn better from other kids.
Behind that simple premise is a very thoroughly developed, educational and research-based curriculum that trains high school students to go into third grade classrooms to lead the younger students in lessons about empathy, kindness and how to handle difficult, interpersonal social situations.
The high school and elementary students build a mentor-based connection through five in-classroom visits over a year.
The third grade teachers reinforce the lessons that the older kids have brought in, and in turn the third graders bring home specific activities to share with their parents. There's also a component that involves community participation, so that the messages are reinforced at many levels.
And lo and behold, it seems to be working.
For one, you can ask a parent who has been involved with the schools for a long time. Marianne Goodell, a former president of the elementary school and council PTAs in Westport, and who has studied education and peer-to-peer communication, was an early supporter.
"When I heard about K2BK I was very excited," Goodell said. "I've always felt the only way we're going to get rid of bullying is if the kids decide that it's not cool to do. As a group they have to influence each other that, 'Bullying isn't cool and we shouldn't be doing this.' It only takes a couple of kids, and hopefully it's 'the coolest' or most respected kids in the school to make that change, and everybody else will follow. I could see that would be a very powerful and unusual model."
Goodell participates in the K2BK program as a parent volunteer, helping to train the high schoolers and going along on their visits to the third grade classrooms. She works closely and frequently with the older kids.
"All of them said that even just the initial training session started to change them into becoming better members of their own community, in terms of treating people nicely, stepping up to be the ally -- things they said they might not have done before," she said. "From that point of view, it's a very powerful program. And from the point of view of them feeling like they're really making a difference -- they definitely get the sense that they are making an impact on those third graders, and that's very empowering for a 15 or 16 year old."
The teens taking part say it's working based on what they've seen over the course of the last year with the third graders -- and what they experience themselves, too.
Bo Gibson, a senior at Westport's , said it was obvious that the program was having a positive effect.
"Going in the third graders' classroom, like every two months, each time you see new kids sitting together and talking," Gibson said. "There seems to be more of a sense of community and the kids are more open with each other, talking to people they wouldn't have otherwise. I'm not going to take credit for changing the kids themselves, but I will take credit for making them aware of the situation. I think they all have that power to be good in them and they're kind people at heart. They just don't realize what their actions are doing. Making them aware of their actions makes everyone aware and more accepting."
A 'test drive'
Bo's twin brother, Jack recalled putting his third grade students to the test to see if they were integrating what they were learning into action.
"The third lesson we went in and I pretended that my car broke down, so I walked in late," Jack Gibson said. "My group members pretended to exclude me. The lesson was about being an ally, but we didn't even have to teach the kids -- they immediately raised their hands and told me, "Oh you can come sit next to me!" It's teaching them to be more open. I definitely see the kids being more kind to each other."
K2BK was created by four local women -- educators, psychologists and moms who have been long-time advocates for anti-bullying awareness. They were inspired by their work with the education committee of the Anti-Defamation League, for which they'd talked with numerous teens and kept hearing the same thing: bullying problems started in elementary school, and their lives would be different if they had the tools to deal with the situations back then.
The four women -- Cindy Eigen, Lynne Goldstein, Sarah Green and Melissa Shein -- learned there were very few thorough anti-bullying programs targeting kids at the elementary age groups.
"By having high school students come into the third grade classrooms and show -- not just tell, but show -- them that it's important to be an ally, to include others and that it is cool to be kind, the third graders are more likely to listen, learn and act," Eigen said.
Watching the 30 or so teens at a recent K2BK training, I listened to them practice for an upcoming return visit to see their young friends. They worked on perfecting the role playing activities they'll bring into the classes, showing how kids can think of possible solutions to help friends or find the strength to stand up for themselves and others, to recognize bullying and to get kids who bully to realize the impact of their actions.
They laughed easily and encouraged each other as they practiced the skills.
"When I was in third grade I started wearing glasses and the kids made fun of me," said one girl. The others formed a circle around her, play-acting at making her be a target. That is, until another teen stepped forward to help. "Hey, I like her glasses, and that's not kind!"
Hopefully, when they bring the skit in front of the third graders, they'll be able to give them the words, tools and methods to use for real on the playground, in the class or anywhere.
All the teens immediately agreed that they wished they'd had this kind of program when they were in third grade, and that it's much needed still.
"Everyone has been bullied, and everyone has been a bully at some point in their life, whether they realize it or not," said Staples senior Izzy Baker. "Third grade is when people start to establish social ranking, and that's when bullying starts. The program has such a good message and a good purpose: instead of trying to stop bullying, they want to give kids tools to defend against bullying and it's really to teach compassion. And I think if you can teach compassion, that's the best way to get change and replace bullies. Because we get kids to see how good it feels to be nice to someone, and how bad it feels to be the bully."
One other exciting things is that the K2BK program has had just as strong an effect for the older kids as it's had with the elementary students.
"There are kids in the club from completely different friend groups and through this process they've become friends because they have had something to bond over. While they might not hang out all the time and they may not be as close as with the friends in their groups, they're still breaking borders between cliques, which is a huge deal. I think every high schooler in the group realizes and feels a change," said Staples senior George Goodell.
As one of the creators of the program, Eigen said it's been very encouraging at every level to see the program that she and her friends conceived really have an effect.
"The school administrators are very supportive and they see the positive impact it is having. To see it working and to witness the effect it has is so gratifying and energizing. I feel very proud watching the high school kids in action -- they are just so amazing. They get all the credit!" she said, adding, "It gets me fired up to want to spread 'Kool To Be Kind' as much as possible."
The program is available to other schools -- which is something high schooler George Goodell thinks would be a wise move for any district.
"It really does make a huge difference and has a powerful impact, both for the high schoolers and the third graders, beyond belief. It's incredible, the change that it makes. You wouldn't expect it, but once you go and watch or become involved with the younger kids, you realize that it makes a huge difference in their lives, and also in our lives."
For more information about Kool To Be Kind, please email K2bkind@gmail.com.
I’d love to hear about similar inclusive, anti-bullying programs or innovations that are happening in your town. Email me to tell me what is happening in your town -- I’d love to spread the word about other efforts and creative, unique ways to get the community to buy in and change bad behaviors into kind, good ones.