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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

The Healing Power of Altruism

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For at-risk students, opportunities to help others may provide a way to break the devastating cycle of failure—to substitute caring for anger and replace low self-esteem with feelings of worth.

Bill, a 4th grader in a rural community, was surly, fought constantly, and did little schoolwork. The best way to describe his home life was toxic: an alcoholic mother, a father in jail, few friends. Bill had already started drinking heavily in times of stress.
In an unusual experiment, Bill's principal, school counselor, and teachers assigned him the task of helping a wheelchair-bound 1st grader on and off the bus everyday and being the child's protector. The only stipulation was that if Bill got into a fight, he couldn't help the 1st grader for the remainder of the day.
Bill took his assignment seriously, watching over the younger child like a mother might watch her baby. The children became friends, and one day when the younger student was ill, a teacher saw a tear coming out of Bill's eye. Bill did not become a model student. He still fought on occasion and struggled academically. But his attitude changed significantly. Someone was depending on him, and he felt needed and important.
For students with poor academic achievement, classrooms are a breeding ground for feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. At-risk students are continually confronted with failure and told they are worthless. Many schools try to compensate by offering special programs to increase self-esteem. However, even the best activities do not significantly influence children who continually receive negative messages about themselves. Children are acutely aware of where they stand in the school community and how teachers and other students perceive them. Thus, a “Catch-22” is created. Students will rarely be successful in school without hopeful attitudes, but they need to be successful before they can feel optimistic.
One way to break this cycle is to actualize the basic human need to be altruistic. Two decades of declining altruism in our culture show how powerful this need is, and what happens when it is ignored.

Feeling Good About Doing Good

When we help at-risk students, we inadvertently give them the message that they are in an inferior position. Reversing this role builds pride. Students feel good when they see themselves as genuinely useful. Helping others is therapeutic. No smiley faces, silly marbles, or point systems are necessary. Altruism is an antidote to cynicism, encouraging those who “couldn't care less, ” to begin to “care more.”
To understand the power of helping others, ask yourself which enhances your self-concept more: Someone you love says “I need you,” or someone you love says “You need me.”
My son David illustrated this phenomenon when he was a sophomore in high school. I was asked to help a group of teachers work through a serious school problem. When one of the key teachers canceled an hour before the meeting because her baby-sitter couldn't make it, David saved the day by volunteering to take care of her 4-year-old at the school site.
When David and I arrived, the child was cranky and wouldn't leave his mother's side. Several teachers tried to distract him by making things with his Legos. Intuitively, David sat beside the boy and asked what the Legos were. The child said, “You build things with them.” David asked the child to show him how to build something. For the duration of the meeting, the youngster taught David how to make things with Legos. Why did the child resist learning about Legos, but eagerly teach about them? Because as a teacher, he was competent, important—and in control. The same phenomenon applies to at-risk children.

Creating Helping Opportunities

  1. Select opportunities that are genuine. It is hard to disguise an artificial situation to look authentic. Students see through the rhetoric quickly and respond cynically.
  2. Choose tasks that match the ability of the student. Not all students have the ability to be helpful in the same way. Do not ask students to help by doing a task that will most likely lead to failure. On the other hand, be careful not to pick demeaning chores that are beneath the student's ability. If a child has a specific skill or ability, try to use it in choosing a helping task.
  3. Make the opportunities optional. Forcing students to help will not only increase resistance but will minimize the healing effect. If students are required to perform helping tasks, they will have trouble taking credit for what they do.
  4. Do not praise the helper, especially in public. The goal of helping is to give the student an internal feeling of worth. Public acknowledgment is an external reward, and it can cheapen the experience. If you want to express your appreciation, do it privately, and as simply as possible.Eventually, if a student has clearly shown a change in attitude and behavior, the best way to bestow public honor is in the context of recognizing other students as well, without singling any one out. Focus on the internal gains, and keep the pressure off. A student in the formative stages of helping still doubts whether or not he or she can succeed. Undue public praise may undermine the potential benefits.
  5. Do not worry about rewarding negative behavior. Educators may mistakenly ask, “Why let the kids who are always in trouble get to do something fun?” Rewarding negative behavior, a partially accurate description, is a trivial consequence compared to the good that can result. Giving at-risk students the opportunity to help others will not induce “good kids” to suddenly behave badly because they want to be helpers. If this fear exists, quell it by giving all students the opportunity to be helpful.
  6. Provide a variety of possibilities. Develop different kinds of helpful activities to meet various needs: some once a week, others every day; some at the school site, others in the community; some informal and some involving academic credit.
  7. Have students help others with similar problems. Sometimes students can resolve their own problems by helping others with the same difficulty. Students who are loud in the hall often make good hall monitors. Students who fight on the playground can frequently stop others from fighting. Because they understand the problem from a different perspective, they can sometimes be more effective than teachers and, in the process, learn to see their own behavior more objectively.
  8. Provide enough time for positive results to occur. Don't expect instant results. Give the healing effect of helping time to occur, at least a month or two. As long as things are not getting worse, stay with the process.
  9. Make sure those being helped want to be helped. Diagnostic questioning of reluctant helpees might identify certain conditions under which gentle persuasion would lead them to give it a try. Some helpees might be reluctant to work with students who have a “poor reputation”—a situation that might be altered when the helping student has a chance to show another side of his or her personality. However, if the resistance is too strong, don't push it.
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Examples of Helping Opportunities

  • Tutoring younger students. Having students instruct younger children can be a positive educational experience as long as tutors are monitored to ensure that they don't communicate false information or errors. Here's an example.After attending a Discipline with Dignity workshop, Vicki Hartzig, a 1st grade teacher in Michigan, thought of how helping might benefit a rowdy 4th grade student in her school. Tom typically was dressed slovenly, swore voraciously, and refused to try even the simplest assignment. After careful negotiations with his teacher and the principal—who were reluctant at first to reward negative behavior with a “positive” opportunity—Hartzig invited Tom into her class to tutor any students who needed help. He could come once a day as long as he was relatively neat, did not swear, and caused no problems with her students. If none of her students needed help, Tom could sit quietly and do his schoolwork until a need arose.Within a week, the 1st graders cheered when Tom entered the room. They fought over whom he would help first. Tom began combing his hair and tucking in his shirt before entering the room. He was polite and friendly. One day, after struggling to teach a concept to a 1st grader, he told Mrs. Hartzig, “Boy, being a teacher is harder than I thought.”Tom's regular teacher noticed a distinct change in his attitude. At first, he still did little work, but was not rude or mean. Later, he began trying his assignments and even asked for help when he didn't understand how to do something.
  • Performing for other students. Another way students can help is to read to or to act for peers or younger students. Performing might also include creating school- or classroom-related artwork, such as posters or decorations.My colleague Al Mendler works a couple of times a month in a facility for juvenile delinquents, teenagers convicted of criminal acts, in upstate New York. He describes how difficult it is to reach many of the hard cases, especially youth who come from the streets of New York City. One of his most successful strategies is to bring in professional clowns, who teach the adolescents how to dress and act like clowns. The clowns-in-training then put on performances for hospital-bound kids. The young patients love the show, and the teenagers, in turn, get to feel needed. Mendler reports that behavior of these youths improves for significant lengths of time and that they are much more reachable to discuss their problems.
  • Serving as monitors. Another avenue for helping is to have students serve as hall, bathroom, or playground monitors. The sense of responsibility students gain is beneficial to their self-esteem.
  • Performing administrative/secretarial tasks. Students can also help teachers and administrators by taking attendance, collecting papers, making phone calls in the office, running duplicating machines, delivering written messages, collating materials, or answering phones. While it is almost always preferable for a student to work with people than it is to, say, sweep floors, some of these types of tasks can be helpful for some students.
  • Serving as task force leaders. Task forces composed of students can be given the responsibility of developing suggestions for school or classroom problems. Give as many leadership opportunities as possible to the target students.
  • Raising money for school programs or charity. The traditional bake sales and selling candy are obvious examples. Others might include collecting cans or bottles for deposit, auctioning off students to act as helpers, and doing odd jobs for local businesses, especially ones that sponsor schools.
  • Being a big brother/sister. With the help of community service experts, educators can set up big brother/sister programs in schools and teach skills to the target students. Some students might even have had big brothers or sisters themselves and understand how to behave in this role.
  • Assisting disabled youngsters or nursing home residents. To find suitable recipients, schools can work with special education programs and community service agencies. An experiment that has been tried in California, and is now spreading to other areas of the country, regularly brings tough adolescents from alternative schools to geriatric nursing homes and hospitals for physically disabled children. These youths—many of whom have been involved in gangs—read stories, help with exercises, and in general do what they can to be helpful.The results have been remarkable. For a majority of the youths in the program, significant changes in attitudes and behaviors have occurred. Having formed close attachments with the people they help, they go out of their way to listen to their problems and offer advice. Not only do these formerly difficult youths become enthusiastic and reliable about their new roles, but many say they want to go into a “helping profession.”

Replacing Anger with Caring

These examples illustrate that altruism is a powerful concept. When given the responsibility to be caretakers, tutors, and helpers of people in need, at-risk students respond responsibly—often in dramatic ways.
No longer do the labels “bad,” “slow,” or “at-risk” apply. The change in labeling comes not from discussions or activities about self-concept, but from genuine experiences. Those who are helped don't see the students as failures, so the labels become inappropriate. The attitudes of all concerned are forced to adjust. And changes in attitudes lead to hope—something that at-risk students desperately need.

Richard L. Curwin (1944–2018) was an author, trainer, speaker, and experienced education practitioner who worked with teachers, administrators, and parents throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

His works explored issues of student discipline, motivation, and behavior and classroom management. He served as a 7th grade educator, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and a college professor.

Curwin and his colleague, Allen N. Mendler, founded Discipline Associates and created the Discipline with Dignity program.

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