Replacing Hurtful Words with Kindness

“Losers! Losers!” shouted a kid on the opposing soccer team. My fifth grader and her teammates were headed to the parking lot after a 0-7 game. “We did our best and had a good time,” said my daughter, as her friends nodded. But I could see the hurt on all their faces from being taunted.

Hurtful words can sting at any age. But around 3rd or 4th grade, children are able to see and feel things from another’s perspective. They recognize the effects of their words and actions and should be held accountable when they are disrespectful and unkind. Yet they are also still experimenting with the power of language and how it affects relationships. They need adult help to learn how to be respectful and kind in their social interactions.

Psychologist Maurice Elias suggests that leading children through a fictional case study is an effective way to build these virtues. Try this modified version of his hands-on activity with children in the upper elementary grades.

Prepare a life-size figure. Using butcher or wrapping paper, cut out a life-size person. Avoid using any color paper or shape that might suggest a particular race or gender. (A solid green color or neutral print are good choices.)

Set the stage. Invite children to think about a time when they felt disrespected or left out. Ask: How did you feel? After children have responded, state that you are going to explore a scenario where a new child is trying to join a group and how others might respond.

Introduce the figure. Show the children the life-size figure and invite them to give it a name. Explain that [name] is new to a group like yours and wants to fit in. But [name] is having a tough time because the group members already have formed friendships and created routines that [name] doesn’t know. Explain that you are going to tell a short story about what happens when [name] tries to join the group. Say: “Every time you hear something mean said to [name] in the story, raise your hand.”

Tell the story. Use the story template provided in the Related Resources (or create your own story). Whenever the children raise their hands, pause and rip or cut off a big piece of the paper figure. Hand the piece to one of the children to hold. Continue until the story is finished.

Reflect together. Ask the children: “After this experience, how do you think [name] is feeling?” Encourage them to name several emotions a person who has heard unkind and disrespectful words might feel. Then say, “Let’s think about what kind of apologies and other words might help [name] feel better.” As children name the positive words they might offer, help them tape [name] back together. Once the figure is whole again, notice that the tear/cut lines are still visible. Say: “Even though our kind and respectful words have repaired some of the damage, [name] still has scars. The pain of hurtful words can linger for a long time.” Invite children to share about their own scars and brainstorm ways to substitute kind words for hurtful ones every day.

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