When Chris Dow looks at the students at Chicago City Day School, he sees smart kids with smart parents being taught by smart teachers. But he also sees kids who are not just nice, but who are learning all about the power of kindness.
That focus on helping kids learn to be kind, along with the rigorous academics City Day prides itself on, is intentional, says Dow, Head of School at City Day. At this small, independent JK-8 school on Chicago’s North Side, success and opportunities happen because students and faculty not only trust and respect each other, but also work to embrace kindness and empathy in everything they do, he says.
“It’s fundamental to our mission,” Dow says. “We prepare elementary students to become collaborative, nuanced thinkers. That can’t happen without kindness and empathy.”
One of the first steps is giving students room to achieve their best academic potential without worrying about superficial letter grades or competing for best-in-class against peers, he says.
“City Day teachers recognize that while students don’t necessarily learn in the same way, all can excel within the school community. Once that is made evident to the kids, starting in junior kindergarten, there’s no competitiveness, no meanness, no comparativeness.” At City Day, students are inspired, challenged, and assessed based on their unique capabilities.
Dow took some time out to share how the kindness lessons play out for Chicago City Day School students.
Kindness starts early
In the play-based junior kindergarten classes, teachers and students spend a lot of time working on social-emotional development. Students learn they are part of a larger community with people who have varying interests, backgrounds and perspectives, he says.
Teachers with master’s degrees in early childhood education work with students to explore their feelings and what it means to be part of a diverse group that does not always agree, but does respect others’ opinions and perspectives, he says.
“It’s not about being nice, it’s about being kind. It’s easier to enforce being nice to each other, saying you’re sorry, saying please and thank you. We do all those things. To go further and be kind means to respect and support one another,” Dow says.
Those lessons continue throughout the program at City Day. In first grade, for example, students begin to develop skills in public speaking, a key focus at City Day. In addition to learning how to be confident speakers, students also learn how to be attentive, respectful listeners, and how to provide constructive feedback to each other.
“It’s striking to see students as young as 6 take such an active interest in their classmates’ success,” Dow says. “And it’s genuine — they truly want to see their classmates do well. And you can see how happy that makes the students who just finished giving their speeches.”
As students move up through the grades at City Day, they understand that it is their own growth that is important, not how they compare to their classmates. And they are held accountable for their own learning.
City Day graduates are prepared for new challenges and greater competition, in high school and beyond. They enroll in some of the most selective high schools in the city, many significantly larger than City Day, but they enter ready not just to contribute, but to lead. They relish these new opportunities and thrive, Dow says.
“It’s because of that self-belief that the students gain within this culture of kindness that they go on to be strong students at the next level. They are confident and comfortable in their own skin, which at 14 years old is quite uncommon. They know how to advocate for themselves because they’ve been treated respectfully and supportively and they know how to treat other people in the same way,” he says.
A foundation for success
Students are challenged in numerous ways at City Day. They are challenged academically and on the sports field. And they are challenged to treat one another with respect and kindness, even when that does not seem easy.
Dow says the key is that City Day students learn to search for what they have in common with others, rather than focusing on differences.
“If you spend the time to get to know others and discover their interests and passions, you’ll find common ground. Maybe the only thing you have in common is you love being at City Day, but that means you have something great in common,” he says.
Not everyone at the school becomes best friends, and that’s OK, Dow adds. But he marvels at how students look out for each other.
“Our numerous overnight trips, to give just one example, provide new challenges for students by taking them out of their comfort zones,” he says. “I always see students support each other, whether it’s when someone is a bit homesick on the marine biology trip to the Caribbean, or struggling with a strenuous hike at Devil’s Lake State Park.”
City Day students are not afraid to take risks, because they know the larger school community offers a strong support system. When a student falls short on a math test, or misses a key shot at the buzzer, classmates, teachers, coaches, and parents are there to help the student learn from the experience and move forward stronger.
In the end, City Day’s culture of kindness gives students a foundation that helps them navigate the array of competitive situations they will encounter in high school, college, and beyond, Dow says.
“We can provide a strong education for these kids without pitting them against each other and like most things, they do much, much better when they are not pitted against each other, when they feel comfortable asking the question and are not worried about feeling foolish or embarrassed in front of their peers,” he says.
Learn more about Chicago City Day School at chicagocitydayschool.org.