How to teach empathy at school?

From the start of the school year in September 2024, pupils in France will benefit from enhanced teaching of psychosocial skills (CPS) and empathy classes, an initiative promoted by Gabriel Attal during his tenure as Minister of Education. This measure aims to respond to a number of contemporary issues affecting young people, including bullying. The nationwide introduction of these courses is based on an experimental phase in 1,000 pilot classes, where several methods were tested. What are the expected effects of such an approach, and how can empathy be taught at school?
Babaoo The Mag How to teach empathy at school?
teaching empathy

Empathy at school: what are we talking about?

What is empathy?

Empathy, defined as the ability to understand how another person feels, plays a pivotal role in successful human interactions. It enables us not only to perceive how others feel, but also to react appropriately to those feelings.

In a school setting, developing empathy in students fosters a respectful learning environment, encourages cooperation and reduces conflict, while preparing young people to become responsible citizens sensitive to the realities of others.

Psychosocial competencies (PSC) linked to empathy

Empathy is intrinsically linked to three major types of skills:

  • Cognitive, to understand and analyze thoughts and emotions;
  • Emotional, to feel and regulate one’s own emotions as well as those of others;
  • Social, to communicate effectively in interactions with others.

The empathy teaching program proposed by the French Ministry of Education is based on these 3 types of skills, which it breaks down into 16 detailed competencies (in French – translated below).

Empathy-related psychosocial skills at school

Classification of psychosocial skills supporting empathy according to the French Ministry of Education, based on the Santé Publique France classification. Source : Kit pédagogique du Ministère (volume 1)

Enhancing self-understanding: cognitive skills

Cognitive skills are essential for students to analyze and understand their own thoughts and behaviors; skills crucial to their personal and academic development. Cognitive skills include:

  • Positive self-evaluation : recognizing one’s own strengths and successes, which boosts self-esteem and motivation.
  • Strengthening attention : focusing on specific goals or tasks, and resisting distractions.
  • Know your personal goals : define and visualize your short-, medium- and long-term objectives.
  • Achieve your goals and manage your impulse : plan steps to achieve your goals while resisting distractions and impulses that would get in the way.
  • Resolve problems creatively and effectively : think innovatively and logically to overcome obstacles.

Increasing understanding of emotions: emotional skills

These skills enable students to recognize, understand and manage their emotions and those of others, which is essential for their well-being and social success. Emotional skills include:

  • Knowledge of emotions : knowing the different emotions and their effects on behavior.
  • Identifying one’s emotions : recognizing one’s own emotions, in particular via the physical feeling provoked by them.
  • Managing other emotions (pleasant/unpleasant) : developing strategies to maintain emotional balance, even in stressful situations.
  • Regulating stress : developing strategies for managing stress, which also help prevent anxiety and other mental health problems.
  • Expressing emotions constructively : communicating feelings in a healthy and respectful way.

Communicating constructively: social skills

Social skills are crucial to establishing and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Social skills include:

  • Empathetic communication: listening actively and responding compassionately.
  • Communicate effectively: express clear and unambiguous requests to the other.
  • Asserting oneself through consent and refusal : communicating one’s limits clearly and respectfully.
  • Develop social bonds : build and maintain balanced, mutually enriching friendships and social relationships.
  • Resolve conflicts constructively : manage and resolve disputes effectively, minimizing negative impacts.
  • Develop pro-social attitudes and behaviors : promote actions that benefit others, and thus strengthen solidarity and mutual support.

Teaching empathy at school aims to develop these 16 skills in students in order to foster learning, their self-fulfillment, but also their overall long-term health.

Why teach empathy at school?

Scientific foundations

Published in 2022, the report by Santé Publique Franceon the state of scientific and theoretical knowledge demonstrates that effective psychosocial skills education programs contribute positively to academic success, emotional well-being, and bullying prevention. For more than three decades, research has shown that Psychosocial Competencies (often referred to by the acronym PSC) play a crucial role from an early age, influencing not only children’s personal development, but also their overall health and academic performance.

Teaching empathy to children to combat bullying

Life skills make a significant contribution to reducing bullying and violent behavior among young people. The implementation of generic PSB programs has led to a 15% reduction in violent behavior across all age groups, and up to 29% among adolescents. These interventions promote a healthier school environment and reduce various risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, through integrated preventive strategies from the very start of schooling.

Developing students’ empathy to improve their well-being and social relationships

Psychosocial skills improve children’s general well-being and their ability to deal with stressful situations. They also help improve relaxation and problem-solving skills, reducing anxiety and suicidal thoughts. In the long term, these skills enable young adults to better know and care for their mental health, and develop greater social acceptance towards people with mental disorders.

Teaching empathy to promote academic success

Effective school-based CPS programs show a significant influence on students’ academic success, notably because they reduce disruptive behavior in the classroom, and promote better integration of children with academic difficulties. These positive results extend into adolescence, with a reduction in addictive behaviours and involvement in criminal activities. These improvements are seen thanks to the implementation of rules of behavior and teamwork from an early age.

Empathy education: how it’s going elsewhere

Internationally, several countries have adopted programs to teach empathy and psychosocial skills with demonstrably positive results.

In Scandinavia: the Danish example

In Scandinavia, integrating psychosocial skills into school curricula from an early age has led to a notable reduction in bullying and an improvement in students’ mental health.

In Denmark, teaching empathy has been part of the school curriculum since 1993. Every week, during an hour of “Klassens tid” (class time), pupils aged 6 to 16 take part in empathy classes, where they discuss the problems they encounter and work together to find solutions. This practice encourages students to actively listen to their peers and approach problems collaboratively, strengthening their ability to respect and understand the feelings of others. This approach aims not only to prevent bullying, but also to strengthen interpersonal relations within the school.

The Danish method also reserves an important place for collaboration between students: pupils are accustomed to working together on projects, learning the importance of mutual aid and collaboration. This approach has been widely beneficial, not only for the students’ well-being but also in terms of academic performance and the development of social skills.

The positive impact of these programs on students’ well-being and socio-emotional development is also reflected in international rankings, where Denmark is regularly cited among the countries where children are the happiest in the world.

In Canada

In Canada, teaching empathy in schools often integrates social-emotional development programs that aim to improve students’ social interactions, academic success and overall well-being. These programs encourage students to understand and manage their emotions and develop positive relationships with others, leading to a significant reduction in bullying and an improved school atmosphere.

The “Roots of Empathy” program

Created in 1996 by social entrepreneur Mary Gordon, the school program Roots of empathy was designed to develop “emotional literacy”, empathy and social understanding, through observation… of a baby!

Over the course of the school year, students receive 27 visits from a partner family and their baby, who is 2-4 months old at the start of the program. These unique interactions allow them to directly observe the baby’s development and behaviors, fostering a better understanding of their own and others’ emotions.

The effects of the “Roots of Empathy” program are well documented. It has been shown to reduce levels of relational aggression among participating students, increase sharing, caring and inclusion, and improve resilience and overall well-being. In addition to these behavioral impacts, the program positively influences the school climate, reducing incidents of harassment and improving interactions between students. The program is now being implemented in several provinces across Canada, reaching urban, rural and remote communities, including aboriginal communities, providing a robust and adaptable model for teaching empathy in schools worldwide. It is estimated to cost around 400 Canadian dollars per student.

How to teach empathy in schools from the start of the 2024 school year?

The teaching kit provided by the Ministry

The French Ministry of Education has developed a pedagogical kit in several volumes. This kit is structured to eventually cover all psychosocial skills through activities adapted to the different ages of pupils, from kindergarten to CM2. Each activity is accompanied by a practical worksheet, and is designed to be easily integrated into existing programs.

Examples of activities to work on cognitive skills

Positive self-assessment

  • Cycle 1 : “Something I’m proud of” is a ritual in which kindergarten students are invited by their teacher to share their achievements, and how they’re proud of them. The desired effect is to boost self-esteem, and lay the foundations for confidence that comes from oneself, not just from the outside world.
  • Cycles 2 and 3 : “The Qualities Game” enables pupils aged 6-11 to recognize and express their personal qualities and those of their classmates, thus fostering a positive classroom atmosphere.

To reinforce Attention

  • Cycle 1 : “Strengthening attention to breathing” is a mindfulness activity adapted for young children, inviting them to fix their attention on their breathing.
  • Cycles 2 and 3 : “Strengthening attention to the outside world through the five senses” offers several activities that encourage students to observe and describe their environment with their 5 senses, thus mobilizing their ability to focus.

Examples of activities to work on emotional skills

To increase knowledge of emotions

  • Cycle 1 : “Recognizing the manifestations of emotions and their external triggers” helps little ones identify what triggers their emotions, better equipping them to manage them.
  • Cycles 2 and 3 : “The 7 Families of Emotions Card Game” is an interactive method for students to learn to recognize, name and categorize the different primary emotions (joy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, love) and the associated secondary emotions (nuances of the previous ones).

Learning to identify emotions

  • Cycle 1 : “How do you feel now?” is a ritual that invites kindergarteners to put their emotions into words, a prerequisite skill for then learning to manage them.
  • Cycles 2 and 3 : “My emotions in action” is an activity that encourages primary school children to explore how their emotions affect their behavior and to find strategies for managing them constructively.

Examples of activities to work on social skills

Learning to communicate empathically

  • Cycle 1: “The round of emotions” engages children in a game where they express and listen to the emotions of others, reinforcing empathy and mutual understanding.
  • Cycles 2 and 3: “Écouter pour mieux s’entraider” is an activity featuring scenarios where students practice active listening and empathetic response, essential for peer support.

To learn how to communicate effectively and positively

  • Cycle 1: “The Sweet Secret” is an activity that encourages children to share compliments, which enhances positive communication and strengthens social bonds.
  • Cycles 2 and 3: “Clear and Ambiguous Messages” provides a framework for students to distinguish between clear and ambiguous communications, improving their skill in expressing their thoughts and feelings effectively.

Tips for effective empathy lessons

For empathy teaching programs to be effective, several key elements need to be considered.

Instructional structure and scientific scaffolding

Firstly, sessions must be well structured, focusing on clearly defined, research-backed skills. The quality of implementation is also crucial: successful sessions are generally sequential, focused and explicit, designed to actively engage students in the learning process.

Teacher posture: the metaphor of the oxygen mask on the plane

Teacher posture also plays a decisive role in the success of programs teaching empathy, and psychosocial skills more broadly.

As emphasized in the preamble to the Teaching Kit provided by the Ministry, it is essential that teachers adopt a caring approach to themselves and remain attuned to their own emotions. Not only does this help to embody and model the behaviors expected of students, it also creates a supportive environment where students feel safe to explore and express their own emotions.

Encouraging teachers to practice self-kindness and recognize their own limitations, asking for help, can help them maintain a positive and inclusive classroom climate, which is essential for the success of CPS teaching programs.

Like the safety instructions reminded before an airplane takes off, the adult must first put the oxygen mask on his or her face, before helping his or her child to do so!

Educative app for children Babaoo

The Babaoo recap

The introduction of empathy teaching in French schools from the start of the 2024 school year represents a significant evolution in the way education is perceived and delivered. This initiative, which focuses on psychosocial and emotional skills, prepares students to better know and understand themselves to better manage their emotions and in fine, communicate constructively to maintain healthy and harmonious relationships with others.

The expected impact is a calmer school environment, where mutual respect and understanding foster more effective learning.

The widespread introduction of empathy classes in elementary school bears witness to a growing appreciation of emotional intelligence within the education system.

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