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Are you in or are you out? If you’re like Simon, a junior in Indianapolis, Indiana, you’ve been both. Standing on the sidelines while his friends were having fun? Been there. Excluded someone else? Yes. Like most teens, Simon has done that, too.

He regrets it now, saying that because he thought he was cooler than the other student, he felt entitled to exclude him. If he had it to do over again, though, he would have said, “This person is my friend and I don’t care what you think.” But that can be hard in the heat of the moment.

“High school students need to be more open to one another,” he says, “even people they don’t know well.”

But how do you stay open when you’re finally on the inside? And what do you do when you notice someone else is left out? It turns out that the best thing to do isn’t to focus on that moment. Instead, continually let people in so kindness kicks in when you’re confronted by that choice.

“It’s tricky for a teen who’s dealing with peer pressure and wants to look cool,” says Audrey Lin, who brings kindness circles into high schools for the non-profit ServiceSpace. In the circles, Lin teaches teens how to nurture the kindness that’s already in them. “It can feel hard to start practicing kindness. But you can do it in little ways.”

Building a universe of inclusion

Take a piece of paper and draw a circle. Inside that circle is everyone you care about, everyone you have some kind of responsibility to listen to or care for, and everyone you have to apologize to when you mess up. Maybe your circle includes your besties, your little sister, your cousins, and your coaches. For sure it includes whoever is raising you—your mom or dad or grandparents. It may even include your dog or cat.

This is your universe of obligation. It’s a phrase taken from Helen Fein, a sociologist who studied genocide. She was talking about nations’ responsibilities to their citizens, but the same thing applies to you, too, says Melissa Ambrose, a wellness counselor at Oceana High School in Pacifica, California.

At Oceana, students use the universe of obligation inside and outside the classroom. They study what it means to be included and excluded. For example:

  • What drove German friends of Jews to turn their backs on their friends during the Holocaust?
  • What happens when you have access to health care—or when you don’t?
  • Who’s in and who’s out at your school today? What about last week?

At Oceana, teachers and counselors remind students that the school expects every student to include everyone at the school, from friends to the custodians to the shy kid at the back of the class.

“What I always tell people is, ‘I’m not telling you to go be best friends with everyone. You don’t have to make plans to hang out on the weekend. But what does being kind at school do for you and do for [the kid who is excluded]?’” says Ambrose. “Imagine the consequences of that simple act.”

The neuroscience of inclusion

The consequences, it turns out, are pretty great. First, understand what we mean when we say kindness. Kindness is a combination of a few instincts:

  • Generosity: Giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return
  • Gratitude: Being happy with what you have
  • Empathy: Imagining how someone else is feeling or how you would feel in the same situation
  • Compassion: Wanting good things for other people

These instincts seem to be connected in our brains. When someone hugs you, your brain releases a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, and triggers a warm, happy feeling.

In addition to hugs, you can generate oxytocin by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy—imagining what it’s like to be someone else and recognizing your common experience—releases oxytocin, according to researchers at Claremont Graduate University in California. And that oxytocin increases the chance you’ll be generous with others.

“There’s a whole bunch of science emerging on the power of kindness,” says Lin. “And it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Even just writing three things you’re grateful for every day makes it so you are seeing through a different lens. You start to include the people who aren’t included, you start to think that way.”

Fighting fire with friendliness

We’ve all heard the horror stories of cruelty and bullying that can drive some teens to desperate acts. But what if kindness can have an equal and opposite effect? That’s what Lin and Ambrose have seen happen.

Here are some little things you can do to insert kindness into your day:

  • Give an acquaintance a compliment.
  • Write something nice about a stranger on a sticky note and leave it on their locker (it can be anonymous).
  • Sit quietly for a few minutes. Think of a classmate you don’t know well and think good thoughts about them.
  • Write a positive comment on someone’s social media post.
  • Smile at a new student in the hallway.

Five ways to increase your empathy (and include others)

It’s easy to get stressed out and forget about the people around you—and what they might need. So consider these tips from Sharon Chappell, PhD, associate professor of Elementary and Bilingual Education at California State University Fullerton, who teaches strategies for inclusion in the classroom.

1. Breathe

“Take a few minutes to breathe in a safe, quiet space. Breathe and observe your surroundings while walking. Notice with all your senses how your body feels,” says Dr. Sharon Chappell, inclusion expert and professor at California State University Fullerton.

When you’re quiet, you might notice that a judgmental thought about another student makes your chest feel tight, or that your cheeks feel hot when you remember someone judging you. Can you notice what body sensations or feelings usually come right before you want to lash out at someone else?

2. Identify

Noticing biases and how they end up excluding people could help you feel empathy. So pay attention: “Do you see people around you making assumptions about others based on group membership [or] physical or emotional traits? How do these biases impact others or yourself?” says Dr. Chappell, inclusion expert and professor at California State University Fullerton.

What does it feel like when you’re excluded for things that you can’t control, such as your body, your clothes, or your skin tone? Can you imagine what others feel when they’re picked on for other differences?

3. Be an ally

“When you see bias or bullying, how do you respond? Are there ways you can intervene, perhaps by talking to the victim? [Or] talking to a trusted adult or person in authority?” asks Dr. Chappell, inclusion expert and professor at California State University Fullerton.

Then, take it one step further. You can get involved in school groups that support people who are different from you. Working for the cause of inclusion can bring everyone together.

+ Learn more about what to do when you see someone being bullied.

4. Get perspective

Instead of just focusing on what you think, get curious. Listen carefully and pay attention to what other people’s experiences are like, how they’re different from yours, and how you might relate to them.

That’s what Taft, a senior in San Francisco, California, did after the Ferguson protests last year. Her school brought everyone together to talk about the protests and the race issues they revealed. When Taft wondered aloud whether it mattered that everyone at her mostly white school was talking about race, another student responded. The student, who was not white, said that she felt that they didn’t talk about race enough at the school, and it made that student feel left out.

“I felt like my blinders had been taken off,” says Taft. “After that, listening was very important for me—just to sit and listen and absorb.”

5. Practice acceptance

Try to include everyone. If you’re hanging with friends and someone is hovering nearby but isn’t quite part of the group, ask them their opinion on something. Even if you’re not friends with them, it’s nice to involve others and see what they think. But if someone doesn’t want to be included, that’s OK, too. Some people are just as happy reading quietly as you might be in a big group of people. Accept that people are different from you and have different levels of need for support and friendship. If you’re worried you might be leaving them out, there’s a simple solution: Ask them if they want to be included.

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Article sources

Audrey Lin, Education Kindness Circles, ServiceSpace.

Melissa Ambrose, LCSW, PPS, wellness counselor, Oceana High School, Pacifica, California.

Sharon Chappell, PhD, associate professor, Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education, California State University Fullerton.

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Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Handlin, L., & Petersson, M. (2014). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

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