Random acts of kindness are everywhere at Lisa Park Elementary School. “Kindness Matters” is boldly proclaimed from the windows at the entrance of the school and the hallways explode with messages of good will.
Through an initiative by school counselor Stephanie Morvant, now in its second year, kindness is becoming something of a theme and way of life at the Houma school.
The move to bring more positivity to the school began when Morvant recognized the overuse of the word “bullying.”
“I’ve always tried to teach them the Golden Rule,” she explained. “Last year, I was just trying to do something different because of the fact that I was sick and tired of hearing the word ‘bullying.’ I thought, ‘What spin could I put on that without it being negative?’ Bullying is so negative and all they hear is bullying, bullying, bullying. That’s what in their heads so that’s all they think about. I wanted to turn it around into a positive way and say kindness, kindness, kindness.”
Through encouraging kind acts, she also hopes to clarify what true bullying looks like. In Louisiana, the Department of Education defines bullying as “a pattern of written, electronic or verbal communications that threaten harm, obscene gestures, taunting or malicious teasing, persistent shunning or excluding of a student, or physical harm, such as hitting, pushing or damaging personal property.”
“I hate to use the word,” she said. “I think it’s overused today. Everybody assumes that something is bullying. Bullying is very serious and there are laws against it, but the definition of bullying is not clear to anyone, really. So if somebody is simply being mean, which is very serious, it’s not bullying. I try to clarify what that means. They are mean to each other, but not necessarily bullying each other.”
Since creating the kindness initiative, Morvant has rallied students to create banners, decorate classroom doors and even stage a pep rally centered around the word. The winning banners were made into vinyl signs to be hung on school grounds and the pep rally brought students together to show off their talents in a creative environment. This year’s rally is set for the end of the school year to build interest and motivation to continue good deeds throughout the year.
“We did it in January last year and everybody was being kind and it was great, but then what happened was, it kind of fell off. I was only here three days a week and that’s kind of hard to keep things going,” Morvant said of her schedule last year, which included splitting time between Bayou Black Elementary and Lisa Park. “By May, they were being kind of mean again. Whenever it happened, though, it was amazing. We really did go down on bullying, referrals, everything.”
The counselor also established a Kindness Club, a place for those to commit to a more good-natured lifestyle. In addition to meeting regularly, the members hand out Random Acts of Kindness cards, which encourage the students to perform a kind act, like holding a door open for someone, and then passing the card on to keep the good will going. She also plans to create a friendship bench for the playground to encourage club members to include those who may be having a hard time making friends. Members will be trained to befriend those sitting on the bench in an effort to reduce exclusion, one of the biggest issues Morvant sees.
Although she said a majority of the issues faced come from fourth graders, that’s also the class with the most club enrollment, a sign that the students are receptive to her work.
“They do try. It’s hard for them sometimes to follow through with it, even though they want to be nice and they want to be kind. You never know what they had to encounter before they came to school and if they are having a bad morning, they take it out on someone else,” she explained. “… If I can get them to be kind and really follow through with that, do social skills lessons with them and teach them kindness activities, then fifth grade will be better and sixth grade will be better. That’s what my goal is, to change the climate.”
Each of the school’s 700 students will also be encouraged to participate in The Great Kindness Challenge, a nationwide initiative held each January, established by global non-profit organization Kids for Peace. The challenge encourages kids to perform as many kind acts as possible in a week from a provided list. More than 2 million students in Pre-K through 12 grades participate annually in the anti-bullying initiative.
On a daily basis, Morvant focuses primarily on fourth through sixth grades, but she works to spread the message of kindness throughout the school by going into the classrooms to talk about how students can spread goodness and the importance of a kind gesture. Younger grades are included in some of the activities and Morvant often refers to a wall near the entrance of the school that was created last year filled with words each of the students wrote down to describe themselves. The answers are surprisingly honest – “jerk” and “judged on how I look on the outside” among the mix – but the words are a reflection of the counselor’s goal: to create a more understanding and accepting environment in which kindness prevails.
“I’m finding that a lot of kids just don’t have respect for one another,” Morvant said. “They don’t follow the Golden Rule. I always tell them it’s simple. It’s this simple, two words: be nice. If you are nice to people, there’s nothing else that you really have to worry about….I know we have bullying in schools. Sometimes it is bullying, sometimes it’s not. If we focus on kindness and that’s what I always tell them now, if you are truly kind to somebody, we don’t even have to worry about bullying because it’s not going to happen.” •