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Sugar House Journal

There's been an outbreak in Utah schools... a kindness outbreak

Sep 17, 2018 16h12 ● By Jana Klopsch

Student leaders at Fort Herriman Middle School greet students in the morning and strive to get to know more people. (Jet Burnham\City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected] 

Navigating the lunch room can be intimidating for teenagers, especially those who feel like they don’t have friends. Several Utah schools are initiating prosocial programs this year, encouraging students to notice those sitting alone and invite them to join table. 

“Teenagers tend to just focus on what’s in front of them,” said Jolynne Ward, Bingham High School hall monitor, who founded the prosocial Golden Gate Club. “But once they remove that and they look to see who else they can elevate, all of a sudden they become happy.”

Programs such as the Golden Gate Club/Initiative and similar Be Kind/Be the Change campaigns promote spreading kindness and finding happiness through connecting with peers. Student leaders, chosen for their natural gregariousness, invite others to sit at their designated lunch table so no one eats alone. But it doesn’t stop there.

The whole faculty is engaged in the Be Kind campaign at Fort Herriman Middle School. Teachers teach mini lessons on social skills, such as how to introduce yourself, how to start and maintain a conversation and how to give sincere compliments. 

“Each month, the whole student body will have a challenge to connect with one another along the lines of social relationship building,” said school counselor Becky Hunsaker. 

Challenges will invite students to meet five new people they’ve never talked to before, have three actual conversations with someone they don’t usually talk to and take a break from social media. 

During the month of October, Fort Herriman students will create a “mile of kindness” paper chain, each link documenting a kind act performed. 

Principal Cody Curtis said Copper Mountain Middle student leaders plan to keep their Golden Gate Initiative going all year long with activities such as Fist Bump Friday, kindness challenges, meet and greets, positive sticky notes campaigns and promoting kindness on social media. 

“We really wanted to bring a positive vibe to the school culture this year,” said Curtis. “We want it to define us.” 

Students who have joined the Golden Gate Initiative look to their pledge as a reminder to incorporate prosocial skills into their daily actions. 

Students who sign the pledge are encouraged to display it in their locker or at home where they will be reminded to smile at everyone, be inclusive and strive to make someone’s day, every day.

“The pledge changes the vibe of the school one person at a time,” said Golden Gate co-founder Mike Hughes, assistant principal at West Hills Middle. 

He has seen introverted kids become outgoing kids and bullies become buddies. He said Golden Gate provides students with ideas of how to reach out past their comfort zones and meet new people. 

“Kids are looking for a reason to be nice to each other but they don’t really know how at this stage,” said Hughes.

Schools choosing proactive approaches such as kindness and inclusion are hoping to prevent negative factors that contribute to high suicide and depression rates in teens. Ward stresses that Golden Gate focuses on accepting and including others, not deterring or preventing behaviors like bullying or suicide. 

However, Hughes has found the net result of the club’s influence does affect those outcomes. 

“We are prosocial, but the effect of prosocial means less bullying and less suicides,” he said. He has seen improved behaviors at West Hills Middle where students used to ignore or even laugh at someone who had dropped their binder in the hallways. Since implementing the Golden Gate Initiative, students now stop and help each other. He cited that WHMS had 87 suspensions in 2017. In 2018, when they introduced the Golden Gate initiative, there were only 15. 

As a counselor at Fort Herriman, Hunsaker sees a lot of students struggling socially and emotionally. She and her colleagues decided to move past prevention of negative behaviors and be proactive with a positive message. 

“Really, it starts with choosing kind for yourself—being kind to yourself, being kind to others and having that mentality in your life to live a healthy lifestyle and to spread goodness and cheer throughout the community,” said Hunsaker.