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Help children choose kindness

November 9th, 2020 By Jeannie Skinner

Read about some great celebrations, conversations, and books to help children choose kindness.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
Dalai Lama

The magical thing about kindness is that it benefits the receiver, and the giver. Being kind to others increases our own feelings of wellbeing – it makes us feel good about ourselves and improves our outlook on life. Kind and compassionate children tend to have more positive connections with their peers, higher academic achievement and a greater sense of happiness.

He aroha whakatō, he aroha puta mai.
If kindness is sown, then kindness you shall receive.

World Kindness Day

World Kindness Day is on 13 November, so here's a great opportunity to focus on this essential human quality. This international observance day began in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement. In New Zealand, we also have 1st September as Random Acts of Kindness Day, founded in 2005, so that could be another date to consider featuring on the school calendar next year.

'Kindness conquers all' red, black and white wall mural
Kindness conquers all by Tim Green. Flickr. Some rights reserved: CC BY 2.0

Books as empathy engines

We learn kindness through direct instruction and seeing how others — our role models — behave. Another powerful way to increase and develop kindness and empathy is through reading, especially fiction, which helps us connect imaginatively with the experiences of others.

Author Kate Di Camillo put it beautifully in her 2014 Newbery Award acceptance speech when she spoke about making hearts large through story, '...hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world'.

Two articulate reading advocates, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, have both described books as efficient and effective 'empathy engines'.

Children’s books are engines for empathy. They allow us to see through the eyes of others. By transporting us to other worlds they help us to understand our own.
Chris Riddell, UK Children’s Laureate (2015–2017)

Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency 2013 lecture, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, argues passionately for the importance of reading and being read to. This fosters the development of empathy, and understanding to make the world a better place.

Empathy, literature, and social action

Having an insight into the feelings of others is a great start, but the next important step is what we do with those feelings and how they translate into positive behaviours.

At a UK Bookseller Children’s Conference in 2017, psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee from the University of Sussex described 3 elements of empathy.

  1. How you react emotionally to other people’s displays of emotions — such as fear or distress, or indeed positive emotions such as happiness and joy.
  2. The accuracy and depth of your cognitive insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings — how are other people (who might be quite different from you) likely to see and experience the world?
  3. What you do with those emotional and cognitive reactions like comforting, helping, and supporting others. The translation of empathic thoughts and feelings into behaviour requires a motivation of kindness and compassion.

His talk was followed by Miranda McKearney who described the initiatives of EmpathyLab, an organisation focusing on empathy, literature, and social action. One approach suggested when using books to develop empathy may be to simply focus on the characters and examine their feelings and emotional growth through the story as well as readers' reactions.

As we read, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story. So the emphatic emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
— Miranda McKearney


Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.
R.J. Palacio

Spreading a message of kindness, tolerance, and acceptance is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This debut novel took the children’s literature world by storm in 2012. It has since been followed up with related books including 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts, a picture book We’re All Wonders (which the author calls 'a haiku version' of Wonder), a film, an app, and a website World of Wonder.

At a library network meeting, Tina from Kaipara Flats School shared how they read We’re All Wonders to every class — a 'One School, One Book' experience. This generated conversations across the school about kindness and made connections with the school’s values around respect and inclusion. It also tied in nicely with their inquiry topic at the time about planet Earth and beyond – a happy alignment of inquiry, literacy, values, and school culture facilitated through a picture book.

Wonder has been used as a successful 'One Town, One Book' choice in various cities, and was also the inspiration behind the UK’s Annual Kindness Day and as part of The Diana Award anti-bullying messages.

Visit our Bullying topic on Topic Explorer to find a range of digital resources such as articles, videos, and websites, which provide support and help. Our newly updated topic Hauora: Wellbeing, health, and physical education also has resources to support teaching and learning about kindness.

World Kindness Day may just be a single day, but perhaps it can be a catalyst for having a conversation in your library, classroom, or school about bringing kindness to the forefront, and doing something practical to encourage, celebrate, and reward kindness.

I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.
Neil Gaiman

Online resources about kindness

For the classroom and school

From Services to Schools

Readings about kindness

Books to develop empathy

We need stories that are bridges and roads, connecting that which we know to that which we do not; stories that are safe harbors and welcoming sanctuaries; stories that are armor and shield, friend and companion; stories that free prisoners, heal the harmed, teach the ignorant and feed our aching souls.
— Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, from her 2017 Newbery Award acceptance speech

There are countless books that illustrate kindness and empathy building. Even if not catalogued with 'kindness' or 'empathy' as subject headings (or the less obvious 'conduct of life'), it won’t be hard to find elements of these qualities in most books for children and young adults.

Picture books

Here are a few picture book suggestions from me and my Services to School's colleagues:

  • Amos and Boris by William Steig — one of my favourites for the timeless message of friendship and kindness, delightful sense of the ridiculous, and the exquisite language.
  • Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein — this is a perfect illustration of the ripple effects of kindness, happiness, seeing the good and passing it on.
  • Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill — beautifully illustrated and well-written.
  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis — this book has sparked discussion as there is no 'happy ending' after a student is teased unkindly by classmates. But it is all the more powerful for that, and the lesson resonates about doing better at the next and every opportunity.
  • How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham — the work of this Australian author/illustrator always has a gentle, humorous, inclusive approach, and this title is particularly tender.
  • The Big Book of Love by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Catherine Anholt — delightful and entertaining.
  • What Does It Mean to Be Kind by Rana DiOrio, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch — a lovely picture book that comes with teachers' notes.
  • Oat the Goat — an interactive, online storybook for children aged 4 to 7 years, which aims to teach children about empathy, acceptance, and tolerance. Available in both English and te reo Māori.


For fiction, any title that that challenges us to engage with characters and their thoughts and perspectives, challenges and triumphs will help us enlarge our world-view and increase our understanding of others.


One non-fiction book I’ve read is Where Children Sleep by James Mollison. This book records the stories of children around the world, through unflinching portraits, single-paragraph biographies, and photographs of their bedrooms. These 'snapshots' reveal hardships, excess, and suffering. Some children have too much, some far too little.

I was shown this book by Bernadette at Whangarei Girls’ High School Library who said that it had been hugely popular with the students and had sparked lots of discussion and reflection. It would be hard to read this and not be moved, or to think, 'What can I do to help make a difference?'.

What titles do you share with students that spark conversations about kindness?


Kindness TED talk (YouTube video, 10:16) — this talk by Orly Wahba includes a short film at the 5-minute mark that illustrates the chain-reaction effect of kindness.

The difference between empathy and sympathy (video, 2:53) — Dr Brené Brown describes the difference between sympathy and empathy.

This blog post

This post was originally published in 2017. We've refreshed it for 2020 with some new resource suggestions.

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Jeannie Skinner
12 December 2017 1:06pm

Hi there Linda - thanks so much for your comment - it is so rewarding to get some feedback from a reader! The Ways of Being at Parnell School sounds like a great framework for educating "the whole person", and so right to have the library integrated that way too. What a perfect book for your "cornerstone text" - scope for many meaningful conversations. Have you come across the resource created by Mr W Reads with illustrations of various references in the text? http://mrwreads.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/wonder-pages-1-26.html All the best for a relaxing summer, Linda, with plenty of reading time!

Linda Gray Brett
1 December 2017 11:00am

Thanks so much for this Jeannie. Wonder has become a "cornerstone text" for me and my teaching as a teacher librarian this year. You have given me some great ideas for next year.
Our new principal introduced Ways of Being at Parnell School. They are:- Show Kiatiakitanga, Be Globally Aware, Be an Enabled Learner. I hang everything I do in the library onto these concepts and have co-constructed with the students what they look like in the library. It makes everthing cohese so brilliantly. Kind regards. Hope to run in to you at a conference or event.