Acts of Kindness 3 to 4  by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Excitedly, 4-year-old Rosa runs toward the window to place her cup of newly planted seeds on the sill when she trips. Dirt and seeds scatter all over the floor. While Rosa cries and tries to scoop up the dirt with her hands, her friend Hillary gets the brush and dustpan. She begins to sweep up the mess. Upset, Rosa grabs the brush and says, "Let me clean it up. I made the mess." Four-year-old Hillary gently pats Rosa's shoulder and says, "I'll help. I'm your best friend."

During this simple act of kindness, an altruistic Hillary demonstrates one type of peer reinforcement that helps to shape children's prosocial behavior. At 4, many children begin to value special friendships. Hillary shows this with her voluntary and spontaneous displays of kindness as she helps her best friend.

In contrast, although threes recognize feelings and distress, their social skills are still developing. Unlike 4-year-old Hillary, some threes may not always verbalize their feelings or make an actual physical connection with another child.

At other times, young threes may appear to be unkind or to ignore another child's feelings simply because they are more involved in their own activities. As she tries to encourage kind behavior, Mrs. Fisher explains to Derrick: "Michael is sad. You need to help him build his block tower back up." While demonstrating with his whirling arms, a seemingly unsympathetic Derrick exclaims, "My helicopter crashed!" Clearly, Derrick was too absorbed in his own activity to respond to Michael's sadness.

As threes develop, people's feelings become more important than toys and other objects, and we see efforts to share, compromise, and take turns.

Around 3 or 4, preschoolers begin to interact with each other during shared role play. In the dramatic-play center, Owen calls out, "Help, the cat is stuck in the tree!" Aaron, wearing his fire helmet, brings a ladder. Owen climbs up and rescues the fluffy stuffed cat. Then he gently pets the "frightened" cat. Opportunities often arise during sociodramatic play, including make-believe situations where conflicts exist or where problem solving is called for, and rescue-theme play, allowing preschoolers to try out and practice nurturing and humane roles. Themes with "sudden threats" encourage them to be kind and even forbearing in the face of "danger" as they learn to develop their prosocial skills in positive ways.

What You Can Do

  • Make a kindness list. Ask children to describe altruistic acts performed by fellow classmates.
  • Foster situations in which children can demonstrate generosity and nurturing. Work in cooperative groups where children can build things together and share ideas.
  • Ask questions to extend children's experiences with empathy and tolerance. Pose open-ended questions such as, "How do you think Lisa feels?"
  • Show pictures of children being kind. Use posters or take actual pictures in the classroom. Encourage discussions of these actions.

Expressions of Kindness 5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church

Miranda is sadly looking at a book in the library area, sniffing back the last few tears of the morning separation from Mommy. It is the first few days of school, and children are busily engaged in activities in the various learning centers. Ms. Hunter notices that Miranda is starring to feel a bit better and moves on to talk with other children before circle. Ira, a small and bouncy boy, notices Miranda and comes over to sit by her Silently he takes a little toy truck out of his pocket. Smiling shyly, he places it on her lap and walks away.

Acts of kindness in kindergarten come in all sizes and styles. Ira, the sensitive little boy in this vignette, could feel that Miranda was sad. Not knowing exactly what to say or do, he offered her an object from his pocket. A small act of kindness such as this (which may or may not have been recognized by the receiver) is very typical of 5- and 6-year-olds.

What is kindness to a 5- and 6-year-old? The dictionary defines kindness as: "Warmhearted, generous, sympathetic in nature, friendly, considerate." These are not words we often use to describe young, egocentric children ... or are they? At this stage of development, children are becoming more and more aware of themselves and of others. They are in a transitional stage. At times they can be very egocentric and only think of themselves, and at other times they can sense others' feelings and want to help them. As teachers, we need to remember that this on-again/off-again roller coaster of compassion is normal at this stage. Children will be kind and compassionate one day and self-protecting and even aggressive the next. Interestingly, if children feel they have everything they need and want, they can be kind, generous, and compassionate. But if they are feeling out of balance or in need, they are likely to focus on themselves with little consideration for the needs of others.

Five- and 6-year-olds may have an understanding of kindness but may not be able to act on or verbalize it. Since children may want to help others without knowing how, their little random acts of kindness can be clumsy and can even be misinterpreted by other children. A child plopping a toy on top of a child who is crying may be desperately attempting to try to give something to a sad friend. Unfortunately, all the recipient experiences is hurt!

At this age, children are becoming more aware of the "feeling" of receiving kindness. However they may still be unable to express or acknowledge their gratitude. They don't usually say "thank you" spontaneously when someone does something kind for them. Yet, they do recognize the kindness on some level. You can help by pointing out and celebrating the random acts of kindness you see in children. Verbalize specifically what someone is doing. Don't just describe a child's behavior as "nice" or "good." Children need to hear and understand the specifics of what makes an act kind and compassionate.

What You Can Do:

  • First and foremost, model kindness and compassion.
  • Identify behaviors that demonstrate kindness and compassion.
  • Keep a bulletin board celebrating classroom random acts of kindness.
  • Create an altruistic project for children to participate in. You might have a bake sale or a clothing drive for children in need.
  • Participate in intergenerational activities at a senior center.