How One California Teacher is Using The Great Kindness Challenge to Transform Her School
Every November we celebrate World Kindness Day — an occasion that honors and encourages acts of kindness, whether big, small, random, or planned; ones that are shared with friends, family, a co-worker or a stranger. Kindness is all about making the world a better place.
And that better place often starts in our schools. It’s becoming increasingly evident that students must learn the fundamentals of being kind and caring citizens, who have respect, understanding, and empathy for others and themselves. These social and emotional learning skills — throughout which kindness, caring, compassion, and empathy transcend — are the key to shaping students for success in college, careers, and the future as a whole.
One of our favorite ways for schools to celebrate kindness is by participating in The Great Kindness Challenge (GKC) a free, powerful, week-long program that positively transforms school culture through kindness. This annual event aims to spread kindness in schools all over the world. Last year alone, 13 million students in 24 thousand schools across the globe participated, delivering over 650 million acts of kindness, ranging from smiling at strangers to planting trees.
This year’s event will take place from January 27 to 31, 2020. Schools that sign up for the challenge will receive a toolkit full of resources to make the week memorable — most important of which is a kindness checklist, which students work from to show acts of kindness throughout the designated week, and throughout their daily lives as well.
To learn more about the profound effect the GKC has on real schools across the world, we sat down with Kathleen Rosenthal, an elementary school teacher in Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, California. Her school has been participating in the GKC for eight years, and she has witnessed first-hand its empowering, inspiring impact on students, teachers, and the community. Read more about her experience with the GKC below, check out for our webinar, Creating a Culture of Kindness in Your School, which took place on December 4th.
How did you get started with the GKC?
Kathleen: One of my longest and dearest friends is Jill McManigal — the co-founder of Kids for Peace and the GKC So I had a direct-line to her incredible brain child, and I absolutely loved the idea of instilling in children the notion that goodness is contagious. Back in 2011 when she began piloting the week-long event, my school in Fairfield, California was one of the first schools to sign up. And we have been participating every year since!
Our school makes the week an entire celebration — one that the kids say is the best week of the year. We host a kick-off rally really sets the tone for the week and gets the students ready to spread joy and kindness. Each grade performs a song; my second graders love to perform “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” We form a welcome tunnel, and open it up to the whole community — parents, neighbors, everyone participates! We do a door decorating contest, and each morning a student reads an inspirational quote on the PA. Each day we host a different theme, such as Round Up the Kindness and Crazy for Kindness, and students get to dress up. You can just feel the positive energy coming from the campus and spreading into the community. It truly is extraordinarily powerful.
What impact has the GKC had on your students?
Kathleen: Before we implemented the GKC, we did tend to see some behavioral issues among students. Some of our students struggled with communication and problem-solving challenges. But making kindness more of a focus in our teaching — not just during the GKC week but throughout the year — has really lifted them up. We see so much less irritable behavior, and the children are able to relate to one another better. We champion empathy, and challenge students to always think and imagine how their friends and fellow students are feeling. We teach them self-accountability and encourage them to be leaders in both spreading the kindness, but also being kind to themselves.
I think it is so smart that the GKC is held at the end of January. When students and teachers come back to school after the holidays and when the days are shorter, colder, and darker, students tend to act out a little more. Everyone becomes a little more irritable. The GKC gives us something to look forward to and get excited about. It helps reduce those winter-time blues, and leaves us on such a high note that we carry with us the remainder of the year.
What do students get the most excited about when it comes to the GKC?
Kathleen: I am always so excited to see what will inspire the kids. An annual favorite is adopting the global service project, and the kids always devote themselves to it. Last year we participated in the Kind Coins for Liberia Campaign, where we contributed funds to help build a health clinic in Liberia. The students in my class were fascinated with learning about the kids in Liberia — how they live and how they learn. They watched the Campaign video over and over, and went home and told their parents and families about it. I remember there was one very shy little girl in my class, and she really came out of her shell when she got to share with her classmates about the students in Liberia. I think the service project really motivates the kids — they form a relationship with students across the world, who speak different languages and come from different cultures. They learn that the Great Kindness Challenge is much bigger than them, their class, and their school, that it has this profound global impact that can be really life changing.
What kind of long-term benefits has the GKC had on your students and staff?
Kathleen: The more you highlight and celebrate kindness, the more it spreads. And the values we try to instill in our students are ones that will last a lifetime. One of the greatest things about the GKC and teaching kindness is the problem-solving, communication skills it helps develop. In such a technology-dominant world, kids today don’t get the same level of social interaction they used to. They aren’t as equipped to solve-problems with patience — they often just get annoyed and mad. The GKC helps them to look outside themselves, to empathize, which improves communication exponentially and helps the students handle any kind of interpersonal conflict that may occur in the future.
One of the other markedly amazing things about the GKC is its impact on our staff. They, too, need a pick-me-up every once and awhile, and the GKC reminds them to be grateful and show kindness, not only to and for the kids, but to each other always. It helps strengthen relationships between all of us.
What is the one piece of advice you could give schools who are thinking of signing up for the GKC?
Kathleen: Our school certainly goes all out with the GKC, and we are so fortunate to have the resources and support to do so. But you can start small. Even just adopting the checklist can have a huge impact, and is best of all, free! Have fun. Kindness is inspiring for the kids, the staff, and the community. There is nothing more important than shaping your students into good people, into good citizens, and the GKC can help you do just that.
Kathleen Rosenthal has taught Grades 1–3 for 32 years with the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, California. Kathleen is also the mother to four amazing young men, and has been married to the love of her life for 32 happy years. In 2017, Kathleen and two of her sons traveled to Kenya with the Kids for Peace Team, where she experienced first-hand the powerful results of the GKC’s The Great Kind Coins Campaign. Kathleen is passionate about teaching children that kindness really does matter, and instilling in them that they have the power within themselves to be positive leaders. Kathleen will be leading her school, Rolling Hills Elementary, this January in their ninth straight year of participating in the GKC, also known as “The Happiest Week of the Year!”
For more on cultivating kindness in your school, see the resources below.
3 Ways to Teach Kindness and Empathy
Research and Resources Relating to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) from the Experts
4 Ways to Embrace Kindness in Middle and High School
Activities for Secondary Students to Participate in the Great Kindness Challenge