The Kindness Effect

Over the last 10 years, research surrounding adolescent wellbeing, translating to academic success, has focused on the importance of our teenagers feeling a sense of connection to each other, their school and the wider local community. This sense of belonging and connection equates to students feeling happier. Psychologists determine happiness as ‘frequent positive feelings and an overall sense that life has meaning’. Further research by Bond et al (2007) established that students with diminished school connectedness are more likely to experience various negative outcomes, including poor health and wellbeing, elevated risk of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of achievement. At St Mark’s, we are conscious of fostering this sense of belonging by connecting students through their Pastoral Care Group, their year level, their House, their Sub-School, their School and the wider local community in which we live. All of us are connected by the common language of our shared values of Respect, Community, Confidence, Responsibility and Knowledge.

This is further supported by the work of Lauren Schiller and Christina Hinton, researchers at Research Schools International who explored the relationship between happiness and student achievement. In a 2015 study, they asked ‘Are happy students more successful in school and what makes students happy?' The findings revealed a significant correlation between happiness and academic success. They asked the question, 'What supports students to be happy?' There was no surprise that the resounding answer was relationships. Relationships – that feeling of belonging and being connected to others – are fundamental to students’ happiness and therefore to their academic success.

These results highlight that the relationships students share with their teachers and peers predict their happiness and, subsequently, academic success. I am privileged to be in a position where I have conversations with students about their goals and dreams and, therefore, the support they need to achieve success. Overwhelmingly, the response is always about supportive teachers, friends and family members who can help them achieve their goals. Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, positive psychologists, pinpoint that in predicting happiness, they look at someone’s social network; friends, family and the strength of these bonds. When I welcome new students to the Senior School, I always emphasise the importance of being connected – getting involved in extracurricular activities, developing friendships and going out of their way to meet and connect with other students.

In January this year, we asked our Year 12s to commit to 20 Hours of Service in 2022 (’20 in 22’). As part of this, every Year 12 student chose from a range of service activities; working with Anglicare, running lunchtime activities for Middle School students, or organising and running Spirit Week for Year 12 students (a week focused on ‘giving back’ to the St Mark’s School Community and spreading joy) and connecting with our local community.

The students who chose the local community option decided to give out flowers to the elderly in our community – the aim was to spread joy (or, as one student said, “we are spreading love and kindness”) and connect with and recognise these community members for their contributions. In collaboration with local organisation, Soul Gestures, spearheaded by Catherine Kolomyjec, and the Westfield Whitford City Shopping Centre, an energetic group of Year 12 students, made their idea a reality. This included liaising with the shopping centre, sourcing brightly coloured gerberas, designing cards and distributing the flowers during lunchtime. I never expected this group to be social media sensations, but their acts of kindness became widely known.

The amazing feedback from the seniors, retail workers and shoppers has been overwhelming. As Catherine said, “This project has shown how the simplest of connections can transform lives. It was created by a magnificent bunch of young people who went outside their comfort zone to bring joy, connection and comfort to many seniors in their community.”

We received emails from wider community members telling us how much the kind gesture meant to them, with one lady emailing us to say, “This young lady came up to me and gave me a bright orange gerbera. She told me they wanted to make someone else’s day a little brighter. Unbeknownst to her at that initial greeting, I had just been to Pinnaroo to go through the process of choosing where to bury my brother’s ashes. I was a bit teary as I told her briefly where I had been and how much this act of kindness from her and your school meant so much to me and certainly brightened my day. This special young lady teared up too. I hope she felt blessed for her act of kindness. I felt it was a special touch from God and my brother looking down on me saying, ‘there you are, little sister, here’s a flower for you.”

There were many similar stories; people going through hardship, people who just wanted to talk to someone and people who experienced an incredible sense of joy as they received a flower. The most amazing part of all of this, for me, was the transformation in our students. Whilst I watched the smiles, tears, and excitement of those who received a flower, I was also overwhelmed by the joy our students experienced. This one simple gesture taught them how helping and connecting with others brings joy.

These comments from our students resonated with the research that equates belonging and connectedness to happiness and academic success:

“At the beginning of the day, I felt like a two – after giving out the flowers, I was a nine. It felt sooo good.”

“I can’t believe how good I feel – I want to do this every day.”

“I get it now; it’s right - doing stuff for others feels good.”

“The lady wanted to share her story, she wanted a hug, and it felt good to share that story and show her that I was there for her.”

“I think we should do more – what else can we do so that people in our community feel valued and heard?”

“I have had the best week at school ... ever! I just feel energised and happy. I don’t usually feel like this at the end of term.”

The Year 12 ‘Spreading Joy’ project also took on a wider dimension when Louise Clarke decided she would like to donate money towards buying our flowers. Her daughter, Bronnie, died in a motorbike accident in 2014, and Louise talks to school students about the ripple effect Bronnie’s decision made on her family, her friends, her school and the local community. Louise wants students to understand the consequences of their decisions and creates a ripple effect by donating the money she is paid from public speaking to projects in schools. Bronnie’s favourite colour was yellow, and as our students gave out yellow gerberas, they created a positive ripple effect of joy in Bronnie’s name.

I am very grateful for the robust community in our School. We strive to create opportunities for everyone to belong, make life-long friends, and make a deep connection with their school. If St Mark’s students stay forever connected with the values of our School; Knowledge, Community, Respect, Responsibility and Confidence, then we will have succeeded.

Mrs Roseanne Madden
Head of Senior School

View our Kindness Effect video here