Teaching kids in school how to be considerate is “innocently simple,” admits Gary Dixon, who oversees Random Acts of Kindness, a foundation supported by philanthropist Philip Anschutz. But it is not easy. When it was first launched in 2000, the mission of RAK was spreading inspirational ideas and kind behavior. Shortly after Philip and Nancy Anschutz accepted the Simon Prize in 2009 the foundation started looking for ways to have a more direct and deeper impact. The staff went to work on bringing “character education and social and emotional learning” to schoolchildren.
RAK has developed a K-8 curriculum now being used by over 30,000 students in Colorado, where the foundation is based, as well as a few school districts in California, Wisconsin, Texas, and Kansas. “With younger kids, we start with the question ‘Who am I as a person? What character traits can I attribute to myself?’” says Brooke Jones, vice president of RAK. “We build on that.” Students are then taught to ask, “How do we treat each other? How do we define respect? How do we engage a larger circle, like our school or our neighborhood or family?”
Recent incidents in some schools have sent principals, teachers, and parents scrambling for curricula to combat bullying. Popular lesson plans and training can often run $30,000. The RAK curriculum, by contrast, can be downloaded for free by any teacher or school district. Conventional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and even homeschoolers can use it.
The foundation has employed scholars at institutions from SRI to Harvard to the University of Colorado to independently study the program’s results. One thing they are measuring is the level of trust among teachers, students, and staff. At one early session, the RAK trainers asked teachers to write down something they thought could be improved about the school. The teachers initially asked the trainers not to post the answers publicly because other teachers would recognize their handwriting and know what they said.
According the data collected so far, the RAK curriculum has managed to more than double the trust level among teachers at schools using it. Anecdotally, Dixon and Jones say that they have heard from parents, teachers, and administrators who notice a difference right away in their school.
RAK is now expanding its curriculum for high-school students to address conflicts via social media. Foundation staff have been invited to speak to representatives of the U.S. Department of Education, which has a growing interest in social and emotional learning. In addition, the University of Colorado has just approved a massive open online course, based on RAK, dedicated to showing teachers how to teach kindness in their classrooms.
As one of the Stanford researchers who has been studying the program told Jones: “Kindness is what is underneath everything else. When you’re involved in kindness, everything else goes better. Relationships go better. Achievement gets better. Teachers are more engaged and feeling good about what they came there to do. Kindness is a remarkable catalyst.”
It is that idea, among others, that earned the Anschutzes the Simon Prize. “Having known and admired Bill Simon personally, we were honored to receive the Simon award,” says Philip Anschutz.