By Guest Blogger Kelly Gunzenhauser, a local Kindergarten teacher

As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we reflect on what he is best known for: leading the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. But in this age of continued racism and discrimination, Facebook rants, partisan political infighting, cyberbullying, and school shootings, Dr. King’s words and legacy are as important as ever.

According to the “Overview” from the King Center website, Dr. King shaped his philosophy through “both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi….While others were advocating for freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence, Dr. King used the power of words and acts of nonviolent resistance, such as protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience to achieve seemingly impossible goals.” Two things jump out at me as highly relevant to all children: “peaceful teachings” and “nonviolent resistance.”

As someone who works with “little guys” in kindergarten (and in other elementary grades, as well), I know first-hand that children frequently come into conflict. Who gets to be first in line, whose turn it is to use the restroom, who called someone a name on the playground, who ran faster, who didn’t win and who did, who gets to answer the next question, who gets to use the pink pencil, etc., are all potential injustices that seem small to adults, but are often huge to children. What child cares about learning to fill a tens frame or recognize 3-D shapes when someone has hurt his or her feelings? Without peace in a classroom, very little academic learning can take place. Therefore, in spite of all the emphasis on reading, math, and other measurable skills, the need for teaching very young children to live and work peacefully together, even as they are resisting injustice (e.g., standing up for themselves, or getting a turn to use the pink pencil), is critical. Hurt feelings easily escalate into anger and retaliation. As children get bigger and grow older, if they fail to learn to regulate their behaviors and temper their responses to perceived and real injustices, they instead learn to fight back and win, “by any means necessary,” including the undesirable outcomes listed above.

Empathy and kindness are qualities that need to be taught, practiced frequently, and polished. The teachers I know do their best to teach young children simple things like asking for a turn, using kind words, and avoiding name calling. We work on walking quietly in the hallways, not because we don’t want kids to have fun or expect them to behave like robots, but because other classrooms are working and we need to be considerate. We help children learn to apologize, but also to put into words what exactly it is that they are apologizing for. We emphasize that accidentally getting bumped as we are lining up is not that big of a deal, and shouldn’t result in a shoving match. We repeat these lessons over and over in hopes that children will learn that not only do their words and actions matter, but they also affect every other child in their classrooms, on their school buses, and in their families.

In his address at the Morehouse Commencement, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, 2 June 1959, Dr. King stated that, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” Striving for peace even in the face of dealing with conflicts seems a worthy goal for children and their families and teachers. The teachings of Dr. King remain relevant and urgent even to our smallest citizens, over 50 years after his death.

*Note: This post was inspired by my co-worker, who pulled a book about Dr. King off the shelf on a day when some children were having a particularly hard day being peaceful together.

~ For more blogs about kindness and compassion, visit these archived posts on TMoM!
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