Last month, Lori Kwee’s third graders at Ala Wai Elementary School were given a specific task: do something nice for somebody else to spread kindness and practice aloha.

Todd Tortona washed the dishes so his mother “can get some rest.” Azurae Sildora told family members she loved them. Rafael Erhan picked up wires from the floor so his brother could vacuum.

And when asked during a recent virtual class visit whether anyone did anything nice for each other, Sano Blailes enthusiastically raised his hand on camera and said he wrote to classmate Todd, asking if they could be friends. Todd replied in the affirmative, saying it felt good to receive the note.

The classroom exercise was part of a weeklong series in late January known as the “Great Kindness Challenge Spirit Week,” one of several school initiatives aimed at fostering kindness and empathy in children as they navigate divisions and fears amid a global pandemic and civil unrest following a bitter election.

Ala Wai Elementary School teacher Lori Kwee assists 3rd grade student Sano Blailes.
Ala Wai Elementary School teacher Lori Kwee assists 3rd grader Sano Blailes in her school classroom. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“I feel aloha is always prevalent and pretty unique to Hawaii, but kindness really falls into social emotional learning,” said Kwee, the 2021 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year. “More so within the past five years, there really has been a drive of encouraging social emotional learning in everyday, daily classes.”

The need for teaching kindness and civility became especially acute during ex-President Donald Trump’s term in the White House, say educators.

The past several years have been highly volatile, starting with the contentious nature of the 2016 presidential election, to Trump’s charged rhetoric and turbulent leadership style and a violent pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol last month. That has infused schools with a sense of urgency to address the discord.

In the past administration, “There was a change in the national discourse around what was acceptable behavior for leadership,” said Amber Makaiau, a specialist at the Institute for Teacher Education at University of Hawaii Manoa College of Education. “It became a moment of cognitive dissonance with teachers and educators and really lighting a fire of, ‘We need to be doing more.'”

May 2017 survey conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that more than half of 1,535 teachers surveyed nationwide said more of their students were experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than previous years.

Just over 20% of the teachers pointed to “heightened polarization” on school campuses and incivility in classrooms, while 41% of the teachers said students were more likely than in the past to reference “unfounded claims from unreliable sources,” according to a summary of the results.

The rapid growth of social media also has fueled a culture of rampant misinformation spread over the internet in recent years, as well as cyberbullying. Add to the mix the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many students to feel socially and physically isolated as schools implemented distance learning to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In Hawaii, the number of middle and high school students experiencing depression already was on the uptick, according to the Hawaii Health Data Warehouse. In 2019, 34.7% of high schoolers said they had felt depressed over a sustained two-week period, compared with 29.5% in 2017, while 30.5% of middle schoolers in 2019 said they felt depression, compared with 27.2% two years prior.

Additionally, 44.5% of middle schoolers reported that they were bullied either on school property or electronically in 2019 while almost 22% of high school students said the same.

The Hawaii Department of Education has encouraged schools to implement gratitude initiatives like “Choose Love,” a social emotional enrichment program, but generally leaves it up to individual schools to spearhead best practices.

Ala Wai Elementary school students study behind plastic barriers on their desks during COVID-19 pandemic. February 11, 2021
A year of mostly virtual learning has caused schools to ramp up lessons on cultivating and maintaining connections with each other and community. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt complex area, which includes Ala Wai Elementary, has been involved in Great Kindness Challenge Spirit Week, a nationwide program, since 2019. But it expanded virtually statewide this year given the importance of maintaining relationships in a pandemic, said Kwee.

Examples of “kindness challenges” this year included “Motivational Monday” or teaching someone something new; “Disco Tuesday,” or dancing along to a ‘70s disco song; and “Gratitude Thursday,” or making a thank you gift for someone.

Kwee, who has taught in Hawaii public school for 32 years, including two decades at Ala Wai Elementary, said technology has drastically changed how much children are exposed to broader problems.

“Rioting, crimes, racism or social injustice or inequities: it’s becoming more pertinent because of YouTube or social media,” she said. “Children have more connection to disturbing experiences.” 

But, she said, social emotional learning helps them process negative or complex emotions and manage relationships, even if it’s tamping down on hurtful online messages to outside friends when playing an online video game, for instance.

In her class, she also leads a 3-minute morning mindful meditation and now that some kids are coming back to school in person, socially distanced yoga to start the day.  

Philosophy for Children

The move toward mindfulness in Hawaii schools can be traced back to the mid-1980s, when Dr. Tom Jackson, who received his doctorate in comparative philosophy from UH Manoa in 1979, helped introduce a learning approach called “Philosophy for Children” to the DOE.

P4C, as it’s known, relies on student-led inquiry, critical thinking and question-and-answer exchanges to encourage curiosity and good listening skills. It has flourished in schools like Waikiki Elementary, and inspired a visit by the Dalai Lama to Kailua High when he came to Hawaii in 2012.

“It’s an approach to teaching that really aims to create kids and people that can think responsibly for themselves in order to create intellectually responsible communities,” said Chad Miller, a former Kailua High teacher and a specialist at the Institute for Teacher Education at UH Manoa. “We think schools have the opportunity to change the communities in which we live.”

Hanahauoli School teacher Amber Makaiau stands fronting a mosaic wall installation that the students created.
Amber Makaiau stands in front of a mosaic at Hanahauoli School, where she is director of the school’s professional development center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Makaiau, another leading proponent of P4C, said the very idea behind the approach is anchored in notions of empathy and listening.

“Inquiry is about community and respect and empathy, where you have to be willing to suspend your own thinking about something,” she said. “This is the whole premise of social emotional learning: we can’t do good thinking if we can’t relate to one another in ways that are productive and kind.”

A group of 19 fourth graders addressed the topic of “change” last month in the virtual classroom of Lory Peroff, a teacher at Waikiki Elementary for the last seven years. They had been asked to view a short video clip several days before class and post the questions that came to mind for them after watching the segment.

“There’s no guidance from the teacher other than the stimulus,” Peroff said of these conversations. “We discuss the question that students want to discuss. It’s completely student-led.”

During the virtual class, students who wished to share took themselves off mute on Zoom.

“Maybe COVID-19 was something good to happen in our lives, because we were so busy and now that we’re home all the time, we can spend more time with our families and we can learn more about technology,” Kaili Shyowski weighed in.

After thanking Kaili for her response, Peroff posed to her students, “I want a counterexample. Who thinks change might be bad?” 

One student raised her hand and offered that “places are closed and you could get sick.”

Kylar Morishige, illustrating the idea behind the exercise, reflected after her, “At first I thought change was good, but after hearing from others, I think it’s both.”

Peroff said discussions don’t always start out by referencing the virus, but the students almost always take it there.

“This practice will teach you how to listen, think, speak and be safe,” she said of P4C. “If there’s nothing other than those four things, I feel I’ve done my job.”

Older students who’ve grown up with this teaching philosophy say it’s helped them disagree with their peers in a civil way.

Angela Abinales, a senior at Hawaii Baptist Academy, said she started joining in P4C circles in the fifth grade as part of an after-school activity.

“It’s disagreeing with their opinion, not with that person,” she said. “In P4C, if you disagree with one issue, you’re still family at the end of the day.”

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