Research Stories

How Teachers Can Make Caring More Common

Five tangible steps to foster a climate of mutual respect and caring in the classroom

Lory Hough
September 8, 2014
Infographic that shares statistics on what students said was most important to them in a recent poll

If you’re working with young people, of course you want them to be happy. You want them to do well and achieve in life. But what about helping them become more caring for others, and why does this even matter?

According to a recent survey of 10,000 middle and high school students published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, caring for others isn’t seen as a top priority. Asked to rank what was most important to them — achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others — almost 80 percent of the surveyed students chose high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while only 20 percent chose caring for others.

For project coordinators and HGSE faculty Rick Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones, putting personal success over caring for others matters for a multitude of reasons, as it can lead to harmful behavior, including cheating in class and bullying others.

So what can teachers do to help their students become more respectful and caring? Here are five tangible tips from the Making Caring Common Project for educators working with upper elementary to high-school students:

1. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations

Why? In school, students usually know what is expected of them academically and even socially, but not ethically. It’s important that school leaders and staff be explicit that caring for others is a priority for the entire school community.

Try this:

  • Establish specific standards for caring and respectful behavior and guidelines for unacceptable language and conduct. Encourage students to think about why certain words and actions can be hurtful. Consider enlisting students to establish the standards and to hold each other accountable.
  • Don’t just put values and expectations in the mission statement or on a poster — talk about what they mean at school assemblies, expect school staff to model them, and incorporate them into their daily practice. For example, give students regular opportunities to pitch in to support the community. Let students give “shout outs” or awards to each other for especially kind behavior. Provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on whether they are modeling the school’s values.

2. Build relationships and cultivate cohesion

Why? Children and teens often have a great deal of empathy for their close friends and family, but it is often harder to truly value those outside this circle of concern, especially those who are different or who may not be on their radar, such as a new student in class, someone who speaks a different language, or even someone who dresses differently. One challenge in developing caring and inclusive communities is helping students to expand their circle of concern.

Try this:

  • Create opportunities to practice taking another’s perspective and imagining what others are thinking. Play charades, role-play, read and discuss books, and use “what would you do?” style vignettes or case studies.
  • Encourage students to reach out to new students or students with whom they are not familiar. Have students interview a classmate or other member of the school community who is outside their circle of friends and then create a video or short narrative about that person.
  • Engage students in a circle of concern exercise in which they consider who is inside and who is outside their circle of concern. This kind of activity can lead to more diverse relationships and serves as a starting point for further reflection and discussion. For more information about how to conduct a circle of concern exercise, see MCC’s Educator Toolkit.

3. Empower students to be ethical thinkers and agents of change

Why? It’s students themselves who are often in the best position to change social norms and create a positive school culture. It’s important to leverage students’ ability to lead their peers, and with adult guidance and trust, students are well positioned to make positive change.

Try this:

  • Provide students with opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a caring and responsible member of the community. Have students select a project or experience that will “give back” to their community in some way.
  • Create a school climate committee comprising primarily students, or add students to an existing school council committee. This committee can identify an area of concern in the school — for example, many students feel harassed or unsafe in the cafeteria — and then create an action plan. To identify an area of concern, it helps to use survey data. For more details, see MCC’s Educator Toolkit.
  • Pair older students with younger students and have older students act as mentors.
  • Use ethical dilemmas from relevant literature or history to have a discussion with students. Be sure to have a prepared adult facilitate the discussion.

4. Help students manage feelings and overcome barriers to caring for others

Why? Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. Empathy and opportunities to help others can also be blocked by stereotypes or biases.

Try this:

  • Be aware of students’ non-verbal cues and follow up on them. When a student is upset, reflect back his/her feelings or the rationale for this behavior before redirecting the behavior.
  • Give students tools to manage negative or destructive feelings, such as breathing exercises that can help them regain calm.
  • Help students become more aware of their own stereotypes and biases. Use news articles and literature to talk about how stereotypes form and affect us all.

5. Commit to developing and maintaining a culture of caring

Why? Changing social norms does not happen overnight and does not happen through one-time activities or events. Values and expectations must be modeled and practiced if they are to live and breathe and influence students’ thinking and actions in the school from day to day.

Try this:

  • Build activities that emphasize ethical expectations and values into classroom and school routines. For example: dedicate part of advisory time to activities that build positive school culture or start a Youth Capstone Project (see MCC’s Educator Toolkit for more details).
  • Collect data from students at least once a year. Use a school survey to gather information about what students’ value and whether or not they perceive the school to be caring and inclusive. Staff and parents can also be surveyed to provide a more complete picture of the school community. Engage staff and students in reviewing the data and in strategizing about how to improve school climate. Consider engaging parents as well.

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