Children, young people and families, Emotion

The superpower of kindness

Liz Bates on writing a storybook for children and accompanying guidebook for adults, published by Routledge. Plus, Janet Raju with a view from school, and Liz’s daughter Dr Sophie Bates with a clinical psychologist’s view.

30 May 2022

As Henry James said, ‘Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind’.

During many years of working with schools in the area of emotional health and wellbeing, I often supported their anti-bullying work. It became increasingly apparent to me that a shift was required in approach, language, mindset and understanding. Having introduced schools to the right to feel safe, kindness as a choice, kindness as a superpower and even encouraged some to replace the term ‘bullying’ with ‘unkindness’ and ‘anti-bullying’ with ‘the right to feel safe’, I coalesced my thoughts into what became the book set Cool to be Kind and A practical resource to negotiating the world of friendships and relationships.

The resource took shape – a children’s storybook about Coco, Otto, Ollie and Ling as they negotiate the sometimes tricky world of friendships and relationships, observing unkindness and using their ‘superpower’, kindness, to change the lives of others. The storybook is accompanied by a practical guidebook that adults can use to help children explore what it means to be unkind, why that unkind choice is sometimes made and how usually there is another choice – to be kind. The adult can support children to see that kindness can be a cool choice to make and discover other ‘powers’ –friendship, difference and language.

Having discussed the book with my daughter, Dr Sophie Bates, it was her clinical and therapy expertise that led me to include the final section in the guidebook – to help children consider the other element of kindness which plays such a crucial part in the lives of some young people, self-compassion and being kind to themselves. Lack of self-compassion can lead to a drive to be perfect which can become a threatening and sometimes uncontrollable aspect of someone’s life. Comparing and measuring one’s own life by the apparent achievements of others and perceiving only failure if not successful, has to be talked about and explored. Only then can adults help children and young people have their own internal measure and recognition of self-worth.

Professor Robin Banerjee from the University of Sussex and of The Kindness Test, has shared how work like this with children at schools can be a key way of fostering positive relationships and more generally a kind culture for the whole school community. 

There is no escaping the rise of unkindness in its most evident, explicit and toxic form. The internet has allowed an anonymous, no-rules onslaught of unkindness which is almost impossible to challenge. But that is no reason stop trying to overcome it; there is always more that can be done.

The school view, from Janet Raju of Stow Heath Primary School

Drawing inspiration from Liz and her Frederick Douglass quotation to me, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’, I was introduced to the Cool to be Kind resource during Liz’s wellbeing visit to my school. Many of my children’s behaviours were a survival instinct and affected not just staff but the wider community. The impact was a spiral of judgement and misconceptions about the child who was just trying to make sense of where and how they fit into this very complicated world of school. They were not able to connect their thoughts and feelings to their wider responses and as a result, established a negative perception of those around them and themselves.

Our school prepares children for adulthood from its earliest years. Underpinning the values developed by Piaget in cognitive and moral development, we follow the pathways of independence, physical and mental health and wellbeing, preparing children for employment and developing friendships, establishing themselves in the community. By connecting cognitive and moral development as a child’s ability to think and reason, our purpose to develop their ability to make moral and logical decisions is at the forefront of our personal development teaching. 

The Cool to be Kind resource fits neatly alongside and within this model in a visual and functional way. It has a clear aim of enabling children to work their way through the often confusing and mind-blowing world of friendships and relationships at an age where acceptance and belonging is most important to them. It allows our children to incorporate new information and ideas about friendships and relationships into their existing thought patterns and experiences. With ongoing, daily support from staff, they adapt their thoughts and responses into their daily experiences. They adapt more positively to new situations, can articulate events more effectively and reduce frustrations and negative emotions. Alongside our PSHE curriculum, the use of Emotion Coaching techniques and Zones of Regulation it complements what we are already trying to achieve in school.

Cool to be Kind is supporting a particular group of Year 4 girls with a reputation of falling out. Through negotiation and compromise, they are retraining, looking at their peers and their responses through a different lens. They are developing their superpowers! I am particularly interested in using this resource for future planning for an individual child with social and emotional needs and for a group of pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and seeing how it can be adapted to meet their needs particularly within the area of transition – between provisions within school and into secondary education.

The resource upskills the staff delivering it and enlightens their perception of what might be happening. By opening dialogue and discussion between child and adult, you can see an increased understanding and empathy through a child’s lens. The aim to create the best version of themselves is only strengthened.

The clinical psychologist’s view, from Dr Sophie Bates

As a clinical psychologist specialising in child and adolescent mental health, I am always interested in discovering and promoting resources that introduce children to psychological concepts and strategies aimed at promoting emotional wellbeing from a young age. The NHS still primarily focuses on acute need, and I mostly work with young people in crisis, when problems have become so critical they need urgent care. Covid has only compounded this issue by increasing demand and placing more pressure on an already limited resource. 

I am proud to promote my Mum’s books, which offer primary schools and other settings a range of resources targeting emotional health. Cool to be Kind focuses on promoting positive relationships and kind behaviour, whilst helping children understand what may be driving unkind behaviour. Bullying is widely understood as an adverse childhood experience which increases vulnerability to mental health difficulties later in life. Approaching this issue in a proactive manner reflects a valuable preventative approach. Rather than treating the children with mental health difficulties due to bullying, we need to be supporting young people to grow up in safer environments. The book’s non-shaming approach will enable children to engage more openly and less defensively in the tasks, and reflect on their own behaviour and what might be driving this. Children can often easily be told what not to do, and this resource offers practical and clear examples about what to do. When working on behaviour change, this is key in supporting positive outcomes. 

Cool to be Kind, like all of Liz’s books, is informed by Narrative Therapy, an approach developed by Michael White in the 1980s. A narrative approach views problems as separate from people and helps them identify alternative stories, challenge old and unhealthy beliefs, and open their minds to new ways of living. Talking about unkindness in a non-shaming way and helping children make sense of such behaviour, as well as introducing the practical skills of kindness as superpowers, enables a child to feel more control over their behaviour, rather than being controlled by it. Such an approach engages with a child’s playful and creative mind to help them think more about the choice and control they have over their actions. 

Not only can kindness reduce harm to others, it can foster positive emotional wellbeing for the individual. Effectiveness in interpersonal relationships supports one’s own sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Making others feel good makes us feel good. Furthermore, my experience in child and adolescent mental health services has opened my eyes to the ever-changing world children are growing up in; with increasing pressures to be better or ‘more like them’, in the context of unavoidable comparison-making compounded by social media. The pressure to be liked and accepted, achieve, and strive for perfection is linked with embarrassment, shame, not feeling good enough and pervasive self-criticism – thoughts and feelings commonly occurring in mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression. The final focus on self-compassion is one I hold close to my heart. I believe teaching children from a young age about skills for self-compassion and self-care, and why this is so important, will build children’s resilience in coping with the inevitable setbacks, challenges, and disappointments in the schooling years, and thereafter.

As adults we need to model and celebrate the importance of self-care for the younger generation. It is not unusual for me to hear older generations talk about self-care as a luxury or see people rolling their eyes at such a suggestion that we take time to look after ourselves. These shaming and toxic beliefs need to be challenged and re-scripted from a young age. Not only should we treat others as we would like to be treated, we should treat ourselves as we would like others to treat us. Children who behave unkindly towards others likely feel badly about themselves. The better we treat ourselves, the better we can treat others – and this can become self-perpetuating in a virtuous cycle.

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For your chance to win 'Cool to be kind' and the practical resource book, see @psychmag on Twitter.

Find more kindness in our archive.

This resource is one of a number of Routledge book sets designed to support the emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people, all with a children’s storybook and an adult guidebook.

Negotiating the World of Friendships and Relationships – A ‘Cool to be Kind’ Storybook and Practical Resource

Something Has Happened – A practical resource for supporting children’s right to feel safe

Feel, Think and Do with Ruby, Rafa and Riz – A practical resource for understanding behaviour and emotions

Myg and Me: My Brilliant Brain – A practical resource for understanding anxiety and implementing self-calming