Study: Kindness helps students become more popular and improves school culture

30 Dec

Whenever there is a mass murder like happened at Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, the focus turns to the killer. Often,these killers are loners with few social skills. Sarah D. Sparks wrote Education Week article Experts Begin to Identify Nonacadmic Skills Key to Success which examines some of the traits which can lead to success both in college and later life.

Dispositions for Success

Across education and industry, research by Mr. Sackett; Neal Schmitt, a psychology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing; and others shows the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by such traits as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next-best predictors of college achievement, followed by variations on extroversion and openness to new experiences, Mr. Sackett found.

If you take a close look at these commercial tests [given during job interviews], they are compound traits of the top three traits” predicting post-high school success, he said, and the top three traits are also closely associated with a student’s ability to perform well on a task and avoid bad work behavior, such as theft or absenteeism.

Each student’s personality is different, of course, Mr. Sackett said, but, “we have to differentiate between that and behavior.”

You can learn to behave contrary to your disposition,” he added. “You can learn to behave in dependable ways. For some people, it’s second nature, for others, it’s a real struggle.” Either way, he said, schools can teach and measure noncognitive, college-readiness skills just as they do reading or mathematics—and they may be just as important.

More and more researchers are beginning to study the concept of emotional intelligence.

Business Balls.Com has a concise summary of emotional intelligence:

Emotional Intelligence – EQ – is a relatively recent behavioural model, rising to prominence with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 Book called ‘Emotional Intelligence’. The early Emotional Intelligence theory was originally developed during the 1970s and 80s by the work and writings of psychologists Howard Gardner (Harvard), Peter Salovey (Yale) and John ‘Jack’ Mayer (New Hampshire). Emotional Intelligence is increasingly relevant to organizational development and developing people, because the EQ principles provide a new way to understand and assess people’s behaviours, management styles, attitudes, interpersonal skills, and potential. Emotional Intelligence is an important consideration in human resources planning, job profiling, recruitment interviewing and selection, management development, customer relations and customer service, and more.

Emotional Intelligence links strongly with concepts of love and spirituality: bringing compassion and humanity to work, and also to ‘Multiple Intelligence’ theory which illustrates and measures the range of capabilities people possess, and the fact that everybody has a value.

The EQ concept argues that IQ, or conventional intelligence, is too narrow; that there are wider areas of Emotional Intelligence that dictate and enable how successful we are. Success requires more than IQ (Intelligence Quotient), which has tended to be the traditional measure of intelligence, ignoring eseential behavioural and character elements. We’ve all met people who are academically brilliant and yet are socially and inter-personally inept. And we know that despite possessing a high IQ rating, success does not automatically follow.

Researchers are studying social interactions among students and how these interactions affect the climate of a school.

Mathew Tabor writes in the Education News article, Research: For Students, Kindness to Others Boosts Popularity, which describes a study about kindness behavior among adolescents.

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, social interactions between students is gaining more attention, with some experts saying that the way students treat each other can be a determining factor in a school’s overall well-being. And now research from Kristin Layous, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside may show that students who are kind to their peers experience an individual benefit — a boost in popularity.

In an observational study of students in Vancouver, British Columbia, researchers had students aged 9-11 perform three acts of kindness per week over the course of a month, while others visited three places. Results showed that:

Students in both conditions improved in well-being, but students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance (or sociometric popularity) than students who visited places.”In short, students demonstrating kindness reaped benefits of their own as their peers recognized their efforts and rewarded them socially.

There appears to be a reciprocal link between student happiness and positive behavior. Happier students tend to be kinder to others, and extending kindness to peers results in happier students.

Here is a portion of the press release:

Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being

  • Kristin Layous mail,
  • S. Katherine Nelson,
  • Eva Oberle,
  • Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl,
  • Sonja Lyubomirsky


At the top of parents’ many wishes is for their children to be happy, to be good, and to be well-liked. Our findings suggest that these goals may not only be compatible but also reciprocal. In a longitudinal experiment conducted in 19 classrooms in Vancouver, 9- to 11-year olds were instructed to perform three acts of kindness (versus visit three places) per week over the course of 4 weeks. Students in both conditions improved in well-being, but students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance (or sociometric popularity) than students who visited places. Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied. Teachers and interventionists can build on this study by introducing intentional prosocial activities into classrooms and recommending that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully.

Citation: Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S (2012) Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51380. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051380

Editor: Frank Krueger, George Mason University/Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, United States of America

Received: August 12, 2012; Accepted: November 6, 2012; Published: December 26, 2012

Copyright: © 2012 Layous et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: These authors have no support or funding to report.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

* E-mail:


At the top of parents’ many wishes is for their children to be happy, to be good, and to have positive relationships with others [1][2]. Fortunately, research suggests that goals for happiness, prosociality, and popularity may not only be compatible but also reciprocal. Happy people are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior [3][4] and have satisfying friendships [5]. Similarly, students who are well-liked by peers (i.e., sociometrically popular) are also helpful, cooperative, and emotionally well-adjusted [6][8]. Past studies indicate that the link between happiness and prosociality is bidirectional–not only do happy people have the personal resources to do good for others, but prompting people to engage in prosocial behavior also increases well-being [9][12]. Based on this prior research–which is predominantly cross-sectional–we predicted that prompting preadolescents to engage in prosocial behavior will boost not only their happiness but also their popularity.

To our knowledge, this study is the first longitudinal experimental intervention of prosocial behavior in preadolescents (“tweens”), and the first to link a manipulation of a simple helping behavior to increases in sociometric popularity (as assessed by peer reports). To explore whether doing good for others (versus engaging in a simple pleasant activity) over 4 weeks would simultaneously increase happiness and promote positive relationships with peers, we randomly assigned 9- to 11-year-olds either to perform acts of kindness (“kindness”) each week or to keep track of places they visited that week (“whereabouts”).

Although the efficacy of happiness-increasing strategies is better established in adults [13], some interventions have boosted well-being in children and adolescents by encouraging gratitude [14][15]. Prompting youth to engage in kind acts, however, may have benefits beyond personal happiness, as prosocial behavior predicts academic achievement and social acceptance in adolescents [16]. The dearth of work on enhancing happiness and prosociality in youth, coupled with evidence of their many benefits, highlights the desirability of extending research to this age group.

We predicted that committing kind acts (e.g., carrying groceries) and tracking whereabouts (e.g., visiting grandma’s house or the mall) would both be rewarding activities that would increase well-being in preadolescents. Indeed, the whereabouts task was designed to be a mildly pleasant and distracting control activity (for similar mood-boosting benefits of such activities, see [17][18]). For ethical and pragmatic reasons, we wanted to avoid potential harm or waste by not administering the types of “neutral” activities previously used as control tasks (e.g., listing daily hassles or writing essays), which preadolescents may find boring, pointless, or even unpleasant. We also wanted to include a mildly positive comparison group to rule out the possibility that doing kindness increases popularity merely because it feels good. Accordingly, we expected students who practice kind acts–an activity that promotes positive relationships–to experience increases in peer acceptance in addition to increases in well-being. Distinct from other animals, humans as young as 18 months eagerly engage in altruistic acts [19], suggesting that prosociality has a unique evolutionary advantage for human social behavior. Indeed, prosocial behavior has a strong positive association with later peer acceptance [16], and this relationship is likely bidirectional, as children who feel accepted are more likely to do things for others [20], and, in turn, children who do things for others might gain the acceptance of their peers. This latter path has not been studied experimentally. Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic [21] and social [22] outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied [23].


Our study demonstrates that doing good for others benefits the givers, earning them not only improved well-being but also popularity. Considering the importance of happiness [27][28] and peer acceptance in youth [21][22], it is noteworthy that we succeeded in increasing both among preadolescents through a simple prosocial activity. Similar to being happy [29], being well-liked by classmates has ramifications not only for the individual, but also for the community at large. For example, well-liked preadolescents exhibit more inclusive behaviors and less externalizing behaviors (i.e., less bullying) as teens [20]. Thus, encouraging prosocial activities may have ripple effects beyond increasing the happiness and popularity of the doers (cf. [30]). Furthermore, classrooms with an even distribution of popularity (i.e., no favorite children and no marginalized children) show better average mental health than stratified classrooms [8], suggesting that entire classrooms practicing prosocial behavior may reap benefits, as the liking of all classmates soars. Teachers and interventionists can build on our work by introducing intentional prosocial activities into classrooms and recommending that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully.

Author Contributions

Conceived and designed the experiments: KL SKN EO KAS SL. Performed the experiments: KL EO. Analyzed the data: KL SKN. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: KL SKN EO KAS SL. Wrote the paper: KL SKN EO KAS SL.

See, Kindness Boosts Student Popularity, Study Shows

Creating a culture of kindness in schools has to be an intentional act.

The Arizona Daily Sun reports in the article, ‘Kindness Revolution’ at Killip leaves little room for bullying:

But as we reported earlier this month, even grade-schoolers are jumping on the anti-bullying bandwagon — even if they don’t know it. Killip Elementary School has started a “Kindness Revolution” that gives students tips on how they can make a positive contribution every day — a smile, a word of encouragement, a polite “thank you.” They’ve even learned a word — “empathy” — that most students a generation ago would not have encountered until about seventh grade.

But at Killip, it’s hard for bullies to get much traction when an entire school has signed a contract that binds them to treating each other with respect and compassion so that they feel “happy, safe and loved….”

Schools, of course, cannot entirely replace the life lessons that young people might be missing from parents, siblings, churches and other adult mentors. But as the place where a young person spends about half his waking hours through the age of 18, a school and its culture can’t help but be a major influence in much more than formal academic learning. We applaud Killip and its entire school community for taking a positive and creative approach to a problem — bullying — that has been identified as a major contributor to the behavioral problems of young males later in life. A little kindness indeed can go a long way.

Killip Kindness Revolution Contract

We as the Killip Community

Agree to treat others with kindness

In our words and in our actions

We will treat all people

With respect and as equals

So they feel happy, safe, and loved

We will show compassion

And we will help others in need

As a Killip Cougar

I will show kindness and respect

To all members of my community.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu. Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)


Creating a Culture of Respect and Kindness

Prevent Bullying, Promote Kindness: 20 Things All Schools Can Do


College readiness: What are ‘soft skills’          

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