The Power of Kindness in Improving Brain Health

Summary: Teaching children to be kind and practicing kindness at home improves a parent’s resilience and a child’s empathy.

Source: Center for BrainHealth

Kindness is powerful and does not just affect the recipient’s feelings—kindness can also impact an entire family’s brain health.

A cross-disciplinary team of researchers and clinicians from Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas sought to understand whether an online kindness training program improves preschooler’s prosocial behaviors and their parents’ resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings were published recently in Frontiers in Psychology by BrainHealth researchers Maria Johnson, MA, director of Youth & Family Innovations; Julie Fratantoni, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist and head of operations for The BrainHealth Project; Kathleen Tate, MA, clinician; and Antonia Moran, a graduate student at UT Dallas.

The team discovered that teaching and practicing kindness at home improves both parents’ resilience and children’s empathy.

The researchers studied the impact of an online kindness training program, adapted from the curriculum of Children’s Kindness Network, founded by Ted Drier, on 38 mothers and their 3- to 5-year-old children.

The program, “Kind Minds with Moozie,” features five short modules where a digital cow (“Moozie”) describes creative exercises that parents can do with their kids to teach kindness.

“We aim to encourage parents to engage in practical, brain-healthy interactions with their children that aid in a better understanding of one another, especially during times of stress,” said Johnson.

“Research shows that kindness is a strong potentiator of vibrant social engagement, which in turn is a critical component of overall brain health.”

To determine how kindness influences brain health, the team asked parents to survey their own resilience and report on their kids’ empathy before and after the training program.

They found that parents are more resilient and preschoolers are more empathetic after kindness training. Both resilience and empathy require cognitive skills like responding well to stressors or considering different perspectives.

Their findings therefore support the idea that kindness can influence cognitive function and overall brain health.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that children’s empathy levels remained below average despite the noticeable improvement after training. This might be because COVID-19 safety measures significantly limited kids’ normal social and emotional learning.

The researchers also tested whether understanding the science behind the kindness training program affects parents’ resilience.

This cartoon shows a little boy helping up a little girl who has fallen over
The team discovered that teaching and practicing kindness at home improves both parents’ resilience and children’s empathy. Image is in the public domain

A random group of 21 participating mothers received a few additional paragraphs to read on the brain’s flexibility and plasticity, but the researchers did not find any differences in the parents’ level of resilience, or their children’s empathy, with the addition of brain science teachings.

Parents can learn simple strategies for practicing kindness effectively, right in their own home, to create a brain healthy environment for their kids. “In times of stress, taking a moment to practice kindness for yourself and model it for your children can boost your own resilience and improve your child’s prosocial behaviors,” said Fratantoni.

“Do not underestimate the power of kindness, because it can ultimately change and shape brain health.”

The impacts of kindness may even extend beyond families. “Kindness can be a powerful brain health booster that raises resilience, not only for parents and families, but for society as a whole,” said Johnson.

About this kindness and brain health research news

Author: Gina Mantica
Source: Center for Brain Health
Contact: Gina Mantica – Center for BrainHealth
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Parenting With a Kind Mind: Exploring Kindness as a Potentiator for Enhanced Brain Health” by Maria Teresa Johnson et al. Frontiers in Psychology


Parenting With a Kind Mind: Exploring Kindness as a Potentiator for Enhanced Brain Health

A growing body of research has suggested that high levels of family functioning—often measured as positive parent–child communication and low levels of parental stress—are associated with stronger cognitive development, higher levels of school engagement, and more successful peer relations as youth age.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought tremendous disruption to various aspects of daily life, especially for parents of young children, ages 3–5, who face isolation, disconnection, and unprecedented changes to how they engage and socialize. Fortunately, both youth and parent brains are plastic and receptive to change.

Resilience research shows that factors such as engaging in acts of kindness, developing trusting relationships, and responding compassionately to the feelings of others can help lay new neural pathways and improve quality of life. Yet, little research has investigated the effects of brain healthy parental practices of kindness with pre-school aged children.

The current study examines whether an interactive, parent–child kindness curriculum can serve as a potentiator for brain health as measured by resilience and child empathy levels.

During a peak of the pandemic, mother participants between the ages of 26–46 (n = 38, completion rate 75%) completed questionnaires on parental resilience levels and parent-reported child empathic pro-social behaviors before and after engaging in a 4 weeks online, self-paced, kindness curriculum.

Half of the group received additional brain health education explaining the principles of neuroplasticity, empathy, perspective taking, and resiliency. Mothers in both groups showed increased resilience ( p < 0.001) and reported higher levels of empathic behavior in their child ( p < 0.001) after completing the curriculum.

There was no significant difference between groups. Comparison of mean resilience levels during COVID-19 to pre-pandemic general means indicated that mothers are reporting significantly lower levels of resilience as well as decreased empathetic behaviors in their children.

These results support the notion that kindness is a powerful brain health booster that can increase resilience and empathy.

This research study was timely and relevant for parents in light of the myriad of stresses brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There are broader public health implications for equipping individuals with tools to take a proactive and preventative approach to their brain health.

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