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Kindness on Campus: Inviting College Students to Be Kind

Integrating kindness into coursework bolsters students' well-being.

Key points

  • Kindness can be integrated within college coursework.
  • College students who are intentionally kind to others experience well-being benefits.
  • Some of the obstacles to performing acts of kindness include lack of opportunity and reception by others.

“Kindness is showing respect for people, animals, and the land.” —Study Participant

A lot is asked of college students today, and the post-secondary experience is known to be stressful. Students, especially first-year students, must adapt to the demands of coursework, adjust to communal housing, and establish new friendships and social networks as they find their footing. None of that is easy, and, increasingly, concerns have been raised about the stress levels and overall mental well-being of college students. Recognizing the well-being benefits that arise from being intentionally kind, we asked college students at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus to plan and perform a series of kind acts as part of an undergraduate course on health and wellness. Their insights about kindness are shared in a new publication in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.

Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

Being kind bolsters well-being.

There is burgeoning research attesting to the well-being benefits that arise from being kind. In short, the empirical evidence points to both the initiator of the kind act and the recipient experiencing well-being benefits. We might think that the recipient of kind acts is the one who profits or benefits the most from kindness (i.e., knowing that they matter to someone else and that time was taken to demonstrate kindness to them), yet the initiator stands to profit from being kind as well.

Initiators of kindness are known to experience boosts to their happiness, life satisfaction, and peer acceptance. Being intentionally kind has been proffered as a way to bolster mental fitness (“Kindness and Your Mental Health Workout Plan”).

Ask college students to be kind.

“I’m going to ask my roommates how they are really doing and be present when they tell me.” —Study Participant

Along with colleague Dr. Sally Willis-Stewart from the Faculty of Health and Social Development and a small army of undergraduate and graduate students, we sought to examine the effects of integrating a kindness assignment into the syllabus of an undergraduate elective course on health and wellness. The kindness assignment we infused was mandatory for all students, and although participation in the study was optional, we nevertheless saw 93 of the 127 enrolled students agree to participate in the study (i.e., > 70 percent). Students were asked to plan and deliver five acts of kindness over the course of one week with pre- and post-test measures administered to capture any changes in outcome variables, such as self-ratings of kindness, peer and campus connectedness, and students’ understanding of what it means to be kind.

Analyzing the findings by the number of their assigned five acts they completed, the results revealed that students who did at least three of their five acts reported significantly higher scores on their self-ratings of in-person (vs. online) kindness and peer-connectedness. That is, students who earnestly engaged in doing a series of kind acts saw themselves as kinder and felt more connected to those around them. We might consider completing a series of kind acts a low-cost yet high-yield intervention—a considerable psychological payoff for relatively little effort.

Our analyses also included examining just how students, when asked to be kind, were kind. As part of this study, students planned a total of 492 kind acts, and thematic content analysis revealed that the kind acts done by students were characterized by the salient themes of helping others, giving, demonstrating appreciation, and communicating.

“I will ask a person on my floor who I think eats alone to eat supper with me and my friends.” —Study Participant

As part of the study, we also wanted to explore why students struggled to complete all of their assigned kind acts. Students identified the key obstacles to being kind, which included students forgetting (33 percent) or that there was no time to be kind (31 percent). Students also cited that there was no opportunity to be kind (12 percent) or that sometimes their kindness was unwelcome (10 percent).

Part of our hope in running this study was that we could illustrate that kindness can be infused within course curricula and that it warrants real estate within course syllabi. Doing so provides a structure for students and invites them to be kind—it provides an opportunity for them to take care of themselves and those around them through small intentional acts. It merits noting, too, that having students engage in a series of kind acts also helps shift or create a positive learning ethos within college classrooms. Faculty stand to profit from this as students connect with one another in class, and rapport between students and faculty is fostered.

College administrators, staff, and faculty are collectively responsible for creating optimal learning conditions for students. This includes ensuring that students feel socially and emotionally supported in addition to feeling academically supported. In fact, it’s in the best interest of colleges to pay attention and devote resources to creating these optimal learning conditions as students who feel supported will engage more meaningfully with their coursework, create connections with their instructors, seek help when needed, and create a community of support that will help uphold them through especially stressful times.

References

Binfet, J. T. (2015). Not-so random acts of kindness: A guide to intentional kindness in the classroom. International Journal of Emotional Education, 7, 35-51. https://doaj.org/article/3706dae6f26b427caf8641d27d3f4983

Binfet, J. T., Willis-Stewart, S., Lauze, A., Green, F. L. L., Draper, Z. A., & Calibaba, B. (2021). Understanding university students’ conceptualizations and perceptions of kindness: A mixed methods study. Journal of Further and Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1967895

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