As soon as teacher Kim Smith mentioned “belly buddies,” 16 little bodies dropped to the classroom floor and fell silent.

The children arranged themselves in a circle on their backs. Smith gave each one a small rock — the belly buddy — to rest on his or her stomach.

“Watch it go up and down as you take your belly breaths and calm your body,” said Smith, who teaches 4-year-old kindergarten at Stephens Elementary School in Madison.

The exercise, done regularly in Smith’s classroom, is part of a “kindness curriculum” developed at UW-Madison. By helping children focus on what’s happening to their bodies, the hypothesis goes, they will learn to respond with more compassion and less anger when they’re frustrated.

It’s an appealing idea, and now hard science suggests it has merit.

In a just-released study, UW-Madison researchers found that kids who had participated in the curriculum were less selfish and exhibited better social skills and greater mental flexibility than children who did not do the exercises. And in an added bonus, the kids who did the kindness curriculum earned higher academic marks at the end of the school year.

The findings, recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology, are encouraging because they suggest that skills critical to future success, such as the ability to pay attention and to control emotions, can be cultivated, said Lisa Flook, the study’s lead author.

“If we can promote these skills early on when there’s a lot of plasticity in a child’s brain, it could really improve future outcomes in so many areas, from the cognitive and academic to the social and emotional,” she said.

Plus, the curriculum could simply help create nicer community members, the researchers said.

To do the study, the researchers secured permission from the parents of 68 Madison students during the 2012-13 school year. All were in the district’s 4K program.

Thirty children were randomly assigned to classrooms where they received twice-weekly kindness lessons for three months. Children in the control group did not receive the lessons.

The curriculum is rooted in adult mindfulness-based practices adapted to a child’s developmental ability, said Laura Pinger, the curriculum’s lead designer.

She and the other researchers are affiliated with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the UW-Madison effort founded by Richard Davidson, an international leader in mindfulness training.

The 24 lessons in the research study used hands-on activities involving music, books and movement. The “belly buddy” activity, for instance, allowed children to experience internal quietness, Pinger said.

The kids also made homemade snow globes — jars filled with water and glitter. When a child got frustrated, he or she was encouraged to shake the “mind jar” and breathe deeply until the glitter settled.

A poster of a “Friendship Garden” adorned each classroom wall. If someone did something kind for someone else, each child — the one who was kind and the recipient of the kindness — put a flower sticker on the garden.

“So there was this visual representation of the kindness that children were offering each other, and then we talked about how it felt,” Pinger said. “The children were surprised, I think, to hear that the person offering the kindness was just as happy as the person receiving it.”

Later, the children were given numerous tests, including one called a “sharing task.” Students were given 10 stickers and told they could keep as many as they wanted for themselves and give away the others.

“The children in the kindness group gave away roughly half of theirs, whereas the control group kept more for themselves,” Flook said.

Additionally, teachers rated the children who’d been through the kindness lessons as more able to control their emotions and to show empathy.

The kindness students also had higher report card grades in learning, health and social development at the end of the school year.

Larger studies are needed to determine the curriculum’s true power, Flook said.

Smith and Pam Jung, another teacher at Stephens Elementary School, were among those whose classrooms were used in the study. Both received extensive training prior to the study to help them teach the kindness curriculum, and both have decided on their own to continue using it.

Jung said she explicitly teaches parts of the curriculum two or three times a week but that aspects of it are woven informally throughout every school day. The kindness lessons align well with the district’s own curriculum for the social and emotional development of children, called “Second Step,” she said.

“The empathy these children are beginning to show is really amazing for 4-year-olds,” she said. “If someone drops a bucket of crayons, practically the whole class rushes to help out.”

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