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The ‘kindness curriculum’


Over the course of 12 weeks, pre-kindergarten students in Madison, Wisconsin learned their ABCs: Attention, Breath and Body, Caring practice. Not the standard letters of the alphabet, then.

These four- and five-year-olds in the Madison Metropolitan School District were part of a study assessing a new curriculum designed to promote social, emotional and academic skills, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center.

Higher marks

Researchers found that kids who had participated in the curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success. The results were recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

‘This work started a number of years ago when we were looking at ways to possibly help children develop skills for school and academic success, as well as in their role as members of a global community.

‘There was a strong interest in looking at cultivating qualities of compassion and kindness.’

Lisa Flook, study lead author and CIHM scientist


While mindfulness-based approaches for children have become popular in recent years, few are backed by rigorous scientific evidence. The research team set out to change that.

The team developed a curriculum to help children between the ages of four and six years learn how to be more aware of themselves and others through practices that encourage them to bring mindful attention to present-moment experience.

These practices, the researchers hypothesised, could enhance the children’s self-regulation skills – such as emotional control and the capacity to pay attention – and influence the positive development of traits like impulse control and kindness.

Health, wealth and happiness

Past studies show the ability to self-regulate in early childhood predicts better results later in life with health, educational attainment and financial stability.

Flook says early childhood is an opportune time to equip children with these skills since their brains are rapidly developing. The skills may also help them cope with future life stress.

Throughout the study period, trained CIHM instructors taught the curriculum in diverse classrooms throughout the Madison area and worked with students through hands-on activities involving movement, music and books.

The lessons

Each lesson provided students and teachers with the opportunity to participate in mindfulness practices, including activities focused on compassion and gratitude.

For example, kids were encouraged to think about people who are helpful to them – sometimes those they may not know well, like the bus driver – and to reflect on the role these people play in their lives.

Teachers reported one of the kids’ favourite activities was a practice called ‘Belly Buddies’, in which they listened to music while lying on their backs, a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out.

‘It’s something that’s so simple and it allows them to experience internal quietness and a sense of calm’, says Flook.

Mindfulness at work

The curriculum itself is rooted in long-standing adult mindfulness-based practices but was adapted to the children’s developmental ability.

The researchers measured the impact of the curriculum on sharing by using stickers the kids could choose to give to a variety of others or keep for themselves. They measured the kids’ ability to delay gratification by choosing one small reward to have immediately or waiting to receive a larger treat later.

The team looked at how well kids could switch from one mental task to another in a card-sorting activity, where they were first asked to sort by shape, then by colour and, finally, a mix of both. According to Flook, this is a particularly challenging task for children.

The research team examined the students’ academic performance in the months following the study.

The results

In addition to improved academics, the 30 students who went through the curriculum showed less selfish behaviour over time and greater mental flexibility than the 38 kids in the control group.

Flook cautions that while the study was designed as a randomised control trial, additional, larger studies are needed to demonstrate the curriculum’s true power. However, the results demonstrate its potential.

‘I think there’s increasing recognition of how social, emotional and cognitive functioning are intermingled; that kids may have difficulty in school when emotional challenges arise and that impacts learning.

‘Can you imagine how this could shift the climate of our schools, our community, our world, if cultivating these qualities was at the forefront of education?’

Lisa Flook, study lead author and CIHM scientist

Ultimately, the researchers would like to see mindfulness-based practices become ‘woven into’ the school day and adapted to students across grade levels. Ideally they should become a foundation for how teachers teach and how students approach learning, Flook says.

The research team was made up of graduate research assistant Simon Goldberg, outreach specialist Laura Pinger and CIHM founder Richard Davidson, the UW-Madison William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.

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