Madison Lammert | Appleton Post-Crescent | USA TODAY NETWORK – WISCONSIN
APPLETON – It’s a situation educators who work with preschoolers have encountered many times: a 3- or 4-year old child waddles up to a peer and swipes a toy from them. This can result in the kind of guttural screams only young children can produce, with maybe even some hitting mixed in.
But these situations often look different in Katie Dudley’s 4K classroom at Bridges Child Enrichment Center inside Appleton’s Community Early Learning Center. Instead of a breakdown, children use phrases like “I was using that; can I have it back?” or they ask to play together from the start.
Dudley credits the difference to the Kindness Curriculum. The curriculum is a science-based series of lessons and activities for young children that seeks to build skills like empathy, compassion, kindness and forgiveness through mindfulness practices. Activities on mindfulness teach participants to be in the present moment in a non-judgmental way.
The program was integrated into select CELC classrooms during the 2018-19 school year.
Today, more than 150 early childhood education staff members have been trained in the curriculum — and interest is starting to grow beyond classroom settings, according to Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, a mindfulness coach with the Kindness Project, which supports teachers in the Fox Valley in implementing the curriculum.
Here’s what you need to know about the curriculum that is proving to be an integral part of many area 3- to 5-year olds’ early education experiences.
Kindness Project has been teaching friendship, self-regulation and more for five years
A team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed the Kindness Curriculum with the goal of nurturing kindness and compassion in young children.
The CELC’s research committee was looking for ways to support teachers and children’s positive development, said Beth Haines, the Lawrence University professor who co-leads the research committee.
From there, the committee recruited expert “mindfulness coaches” to train teachers not only in how to integrate the curriculum into their classrooms, but also to support the teachers’ own mindfulness journeys. This model is the hallmark of what was dubbed the Kindness Project. The project also supports families through providing resources, mindfulness classes for parents and more, Haines said.
Each lesson focuses on one or more concepts, such as how to nurture friendships or how to take calming breaths, and often includes corresponding books and activities, explained Jan Marnocha, a mindfulness coach with the project. For example, the book “When Sophie Gets Angry” is used in a lesson during which children talk about strategies they can use when they get upset.
The earlier these skills can be taught, the better, coaches say
The earlier children learn mindfulness skills, the better, said past and present mindfulness coaches with the project.
Knowing this, Fox Valley Technical College even infuses the general principles of the Kindness Curriculum into its Guiding Child Behavior class.
“Children’s brains are just like sponges at an early age, and all of those connections that are made in brain development early on are based on the experiences that they have,” said Judi Bourin, an early childhood education faculty member at the technical college. “If we can help them manage those connections in their brain in a positive way early on, that will lend itself to their continued development later.”
The mindfulness project is linked to social-emotional and academic success
The CELC’s research committee found classes involved in the Kindness Project showed a broad swath of improvements.
Children whose teachers were trained in the curriculum and implemented it in their classes progressed in a variety of social- emotional skills. For instance, they are more likely to share and show better empathy skills, as reported by their parents and teachers.
Such skills are important as children return to preschool and child care after being home during the pandemic, Bourin explained.
During the pandemic, children often weren’t socialized with other children their same ages, so when the pandemic ended and children returned to child care programs, those social- emotional skills were lacking, Bourin said, noting that, as a result, teachers saw more challenging behaviors in their students. Bourin, Haines and Kathy Immel, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Fox Cities Campus who also leads the CELC’s research committee, said the Kindness Project can help support teachers in resolving such concerns.
The researchers also noted gains in executive function skills, which includes being able to pay attention, and academic improvements as evidenced by 4K students’ report card grades.
Teachers develop their own skills, lower stress
Teachers who implemented the Kindness Curriculum into their classroom showed lower stress and higher scores on aspects of mindfulness, the research committee found.
Before bringing the curriculum to their classes, teachers attend a 26-hour training. Dudley said it not only taught her how to teach these concepts, but it also emphasized self-reflection and how to implement mindfulness into her own life.
Mindfulness coaches maintain relationships with the teachers after the training, making themselves available to assist in the classroom during Kindness Curriculum activities, to talk one-on-one about teachers’ personal mindfulness or anything in between.
This sort of support, Dudley believes, can help combat the high rate of turnover for child care professionals — more than 40% — and short staffing most Wisconsin child cares face.
“I think that when teachers feel heard and supported, they will be more likely to stay in the fi eld,” Dudley said. “Having someone available as that sounding board can be really beneficial, and it also allows that teacher to have that self-reflection.”
Project grows as more educators, organizations show interest
Boleyn-Fitzgerald said the project is starting to be implemented outside classrooms, with some Catalpa Health therapists being trained in the curriculum and Appleton’s Building for Kids Children’s Museum also showing an interest.
The project is also looking to partner with local domestic abuse and homeless shelters.
Both the curriculum and related resources can be found at the CELC’s website, communityearlylearningcenter.com.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member based at The Appleton Post-Crescent. To contact her, email email@example.com or call 920-993- 7108. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to Report for America.