Education Professor John-Tyler Binfet explores what it means to be kind in schools
November 8, 2019
Associate Professor & Director of B.A.R.K.
Okanagan School of Education
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, University of Calgary (1987)
Bachelor of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1991)
Master of Arts in Measurement, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1993)
PhD in Educational Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver (2000)
“I’m a big proponent of intentional kindness — planning kind acts, mentoring young people in planning and being kind.”
“WE’RE ALL SMART. DISTINGUISH YOURSELF BY BEING KIND,” recites John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the Okanagan School of Education. Binfet is sitting in his office, chew toys strewn across the carpet, while his recently adopted dog, Craig, dozes in his bed nearby.
“It’s an internet quote,” he chuckles. “A tweet sent out by an individual named Anne Galloway several years ago from a piece of advice she received when she entered academia; it still resonates with me today.”
Kindness is more than a few inspirational words for Binfet. For the last seven years, he has dedicated himself to researching how children and adolescents think about and enact kindness.
“I created positive work conditions for myself,” he says with a smile. “I know I only have so much energy and intellectual capacity and I want to put it into something positive. I want to scientifically understand the good things that people do, and how to create conditions for students to do more of that.”
THE SCIENCE OF KINDNESS
When Binfet began his research on kindness, very little was known about how students understand and demonstrate it.
“My first step in understanding kindness was to seek a way to measure it. Despite all the talk about kindness in schools, no one had come up with a way to assess it.”
Binfet teamed up with UBC colleagues Anne Gadermann, assistant professor at the Human Early Learning Partnership, and Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, applied developmental psychologist and a professor at the Faculty of Education, and developed the School Kindness Scale to assess students’ perceptions of kindness in schools.
Since 2012, more than 3,000 public school students in the Okanagan Valley between kindergarten and Grade 9 have been interviewed about kindness.
“The scale was pioneering,” he says. “There are countries across Europe and several U.S. states that are undergoing research using that scale right now.”
It has also been translated and used in Philippine high school and Turkish elementary and middle school studies.
From compiling the interviews, Binfet found that the majority of students showed kindness in two of the ways people typically express kindness — by helping others emotionally and physically.
Emotional kindness might be demonstrated by including a student who has been left out, whereas physical kindness might be demonstrated by picking up a student’s dropped books in a busy hallway.
The research also helped to reveal a unique type of kindness.
“We often think of kindness as being intentional, meaning you plan to be kind, or random where the kind act happens spontaneously, but the students identified a third type of kindness — quiet kindness,” explains Binfet.
“It’s the type of kindness where the act doesn’t draw attention to the initiator, and the recipient and initiator may not even know each other, like leaving change in the vending machine for the next student.”
During his research, Binfet learned being kind doesn’t come easily to all students and there are some students who need extra support to understand the concept of kindness. When asked, they struggled with defining kindness, identifying who should be a recipient, and generating examples of what they could do to show it.
To help, Binfet is currently working on a book, to be released in late 2020, that focuses on how parents and educators can support kindness in children and adolescents.
“I hope my work counterbalances the bullying literature and that it elevates the discussion of kindness.”
In the schools where he conducted his research, Binfet noticed a shift was underway with teachers and administrators. They were moving away from anti-bullying initiatives to efforts that embrace and promote prosocial behaviour — the kind of behaviour they want to see in students.
“This shift is due largely to the influence of positive psychology and positive education in classrooms,” he explains. “Many studies have shown that students’ academic achievement is bolstered by them feeling socially and emotionally settled in the classroom. And kindness helps to achieve that.”
With all his researching, reading and interviewing on kindness, it’s no surprise that Binfet has picked his favourite type.
“I’m a big proponent of intentional kindness — planning kind acts, mentoring young people in planning and being kind, and being intentionally kind to both those we know and to those we don’t yet know,” says Binfet.
His own intentional acts of kindness have become the start of an unfurgettable legacy on campus.
TAKE A ‘PAWS’
Binfet is the founder and director of the popular Building Academic Retention through K-9’s (B.A.R.K) program at UBC Okanagan.
“B.A.R.K helps students to foster connections, to combat home sickness and it supports their overall social-emotional wellbeing,” says Binfet. “I see the program as my kind act to the campus community.”
The B.A.R.K. program stemmed from Binfet’s daily cross-campus coffee walk with his dog, Frances.
“We couldn’t walk down a hallway without being stopped. As much as I’d like to say it was me they were stopping for, it was all for Frances,” he says with a laugh. “These students would eventually look up at me from petting Frances and say, ‘As much as I miss my family, I miss my dog more’.”
Binfet brought his idea to Ian Cull, UBC Okanagan’s associate vice-president, students.
“Ian Cull became an early champion for the program,” recalls Binfet. “I think he knew where I was going with the idea for the program before I did.”
It took a year before the B.A.R.K program was up and running. It had a humble start in 2012 reaching 60 students with 12 dogs and five student volunteers. Today, the program has grown to 60 dogs, 25 student volunteers and more than 4,000 student visits per year.
Binfet says that much of the credit for the program’s growth is due to the students and volunteers. They have solidified the reputation of the program within the larger community by sharing their stories with friends and family.
“I often receive calls and see messages on our online donation portal from parents that thank us for the program,” says Binfet. “They’re telling us that their children are coming home over winter or summer break and all they’re talking about is how much they love the B.A.R.K. program.”
And it’s not just parents who have positive feedback.
“Over the years, we’ve heard two things consistently from students: ‘one reason I came to UBC Okanagan was because of the dog program’ and ‘I didn’t drop out of university because of the dog program’,” says Binfet.
Cull says Binfet’s acts of kindness are bettering the lives of students.
“The B.A.R.K program has helped to enhance our vibrant student life by offering an opportunity for students to connect in a different way,” says Cull. “It adds to what makes the UBC Okanagan student experience unique.”