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November 20, 2023

For SPS Dean of Student Support Kate Daniels, positive connections are more than academic.


What does it mean to be kind? What are the powers of compassion? How can thinking more deeply about both things help the world become a better place? These are just a few of the questions Kate Daniels, dean of student support at St. Paul’s School, is exploring in a new “kindness curriculum” she launched this year. The program, a mix of short lessons and group discussions delivered at the School’s weekly Thursday afternoon dorm meetings, delves into the importance of positively connecting with others and the reverberations those singular acts, no matter how small, can have on a relationship and a community.

For Daniels, this is no academic exercise. Research has shown there’s real power in kindness, she says, and not just for those on the receiving end of it. “When we are kind — when we do something kind for someone else — it makes us feel good, happier, more optimistic,” says Daniels, who is the head of Manville House. “When people experience positive feelings like this, they are more apt to continue to be kind. And, when others are the recipients of kindness, they are more inclined to be kind to others.” Daniels draws the distinction between being kind, which is centered on others, and being nice — which is more about a person’s view of themselves and is somewhat transactional in nature. She also notes that some studies indicate that kindness also offers some protection against sadness and depression. “People who do regular volunteer work, for example, show that they have lower rates of depression than people who don’t volunteer, which is really interesting,” she says.

Kate Daniels in house meeting

If everything we’re doing is rooted in kindness, if it becomes a litmus test that we use for any of our actions, then maybe, and I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, it can negate a lot of the unattractive behavior we’re seeing so much of these days.”

— Kate Daniels, dean of student support

Spread out over the course of the year and led by dorm prefects, the curriculum consists of nearly 20 classes that Daniels has developed. Over the course of the 15-minute sessions, students share recent acts of kindness they’ve witnessed or been a part of before diving into a selected guided topic, such as online behavior, navigating unkind acts and the toxicity of gossip. Each session concludes with students discussing what they’ve learned and how they can put words into action before the next meeting.

“If everything we’re doing is rooted in kindness, if it becomes a litmus test that we use for any of our actions, then maybe, and I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, it can negate a lot of the unattractive behavior we’re seeing so much of these days,” says Daniels.

If there’s a person to have shepherded this program into existence, it’s Daniels, who in 2021 was named the School’s inaugural Kiril Sokoloff ’65 Chair. Established to support a faculty member who is an inspirational leader in the School community, demonstrating compassion, kindness, and engagement, the position is more than just an honor for past work. At the heart of its mission is a push to shape how compassion is nurtured at the School. Daniels began laying out the framework for her curriculum during a spring sabbatical this year.

Daniels wasn’t alone in having kindness and compassion top of mind at SPS. Vice Rector for School Life Theresa Ferns ’84, P’19 and Dean of Students Suzanne Ellinwood P’18,’20 also had been thinking about these particular matters in relation to community life and when Daniels approached them about her idea, they quickly signed on. As it happened, the program also dovetailed perfectly with the decision by incoming Sixth Form Officers to choose “trust” as the School’s theme for this year.

“One of the reasons we were all so excited about the idea is that kindness really and truly does increase emotional intelligence, active listening and lots of other leadership qualities,” says Daniels. “So the leaders have been asked to foster a culture of trust and mutual respect here at School; to lead with kindness and curiosity ,and to use kindness to create an atmosphere of safety and belonging, to be empathetic, to be approachable, and to enter each communication from a place of love and kindness. How awesome is that?”

Even more awesome is how Daniels sees the work not just directly impacting the SPS community, but also the lives of its students long after they’ve graduated. Kindness builds its own kind of momentum, she says. A little can lead to a lot. And that has the power to create all kinds of good change.