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Kindness, Empathy, and Compassion: RCSD Students Learn More than Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

Kindness, Empathy, and Compassion: RCSD Students Learn More than Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic


While playing a game of soccer during recess, a fourth-grader spots a younger student standing off to the side of the field, alone and kicking at the dirt. Remembering part of her school motto is to “help others in need,” the fourth-grader decides to call a brief timeout on the game and invites the other child to join everyone on the field.

That act of empathy and inclusion is a small moment in time but may make a huge impact for both children. The choice to be kind and respectful may come innately or over time, but how do we teach kindness, empathy, eagerness, responsibility or other character traits?

Modeling positive behaviors and rewarding children for taking those affirmative steps goes a long way, according to research, and schools nationwide are adopting a structured model for that called PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.

Character building is more than sticker charts or rewards for doing well, or simply telling children how to be nice. The constructive outcome of the PBIS program at Redwood City School District (RCSD) extends much further than the classroom or playground.

The program is an all encompassing approach to social, emotional and behavior support with an aim to improve outcomes for all students in their daily lives at school and beyond. 

Clifford Dolphin Creed

“We have the opportunity to be proactive,” said Antonio Perez, director of Assessment and Student Services at RCSD. “It is worth it to do it.”

Teachers, administrators, and staff work together to map out foundational expectations and goals for the student body and adults on campus through a “behavior matrix.” 

The term “matrix” may sound mystifying but, at its heart, the plan highlights positive values and character attributes in which the school community should strive for, such as being safe, kind, responsible, creative and respectful.  Each character attribute is woven into every aspect of a child’s day.

Building character expectations into each part of the school day sets a constructive tone, Perez said, and “creates a culture that shows we are all loved and taken care of.”

Posters and other material are placed around schools as a reminder of expectations and as a way to represent positive choices, whether it is using “walking feet” in the hallway rather than running or how to safely use playground equipment.

“It’s all in the way we approach the behavior in the student…it has to be modeled,” Perez said, adding that students do indeed sometimes need a little more guidance. “We do not correct in a negative way. I try to phrase it in a way that asks the student to reflect (on desired traits).”

Julie Thompson, assistant principal at Hoover Community School, shared that she finds PBIS is about teaching a mindset and laying the groundwork for students to learn to make good choices on their own.

“A lot of it is a balance between setting a structure and letting them work within that structure,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to make those choices.”

She said that those encouraging actions could carry over at home, as well, by giving children A and B choices, for example.

“It allows a child to think those things through to make a decision,” Thompson said. “It empowers them too, to shift their decision.”

Thompson saw this in force when Hoover was opening a new playground. The students were of course eager to go wild on the new equipment. 

Hoover Students at the Playground

Rather than just opening it up and explaining new rules as issues arose, the staff made a video for the students explaining how to be a good citizen on the new playground. They also added signage that explained expectations.

“We made sure there were pictures of all the equipment being used properly,” she said. “By the time it was open for recess, the kids knew what to do.”

Other important components of PBIS are collection of behavior data, effective praise, and positive reinforcement. 

Thompson said that information and trends about any referrals or interventions are studied so that adults can make plan improvements too.

“We know if  things need to be tightened up or if we might need more supervision (on the playground),” she said. “We have a report we go over and discuss how we can do better as adults.”

Perez agreed that looking to data is essential for implementing PBIS so that “you can see where the issues may arise and make a positive correction and for monitoring progress.”

“We also want to target students for doing the right thing,” Perez said in regard to reinforcing the choices students are making.

“Recognizing everybody is key,” he said. “It is very easy to turn around a student’s emotion with positive interaction.”

One way that Thompson recognizes students “caught doing good” is with Husky Paws, a school currency, or with extra games.

Dolphin Depot

Jude Noyes and Tiffany Parrish, principal and vice principal at Clifford  School, also use character award tickets and blacktop parties for students who follow the school creed.

“We are acknowledging the whole child and appreciating them for being who they are—being open, being thoughtful,” Noyes said, adding that staff focus on teaching the students what they can do, rather than zeroing in on restrictions.

Parrish likened PBIS to an amplified version of positive reinforcement tools that most families are familiar with.

“We are reinforcing the good things they are doing,” she said. “We use that positive reinforcement outline in everything. It is restorative in nature to let them know ‘we know you’re capable.’’’

Students in Line at the Dolphin Depot

Through PBIS implementation at each of RCSD’s schools, students learn that they have the choice to make thoughtful decisions that create positive action for themselves and others at school, at home, and in their communities.

“We’re not just responsible for their education,” said Noyes. “We’re responsible for creating great citizenship.”