Geoff Johnson: Kids need empathy training in school so they don’t become ‘me first’ adults


Danish pupils take compulsory empathy lessons as part of the school curriculum. Why not here?

Years ago, legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what she considered the first sign of civilization in a culture.

Unexpectedly, Mead didn’t mention the discovery of fire or that the first stone tools were developed by humans at least 2.6 million years ago.

Instead, Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a human femur (thigh bone) that was broken and then healed.

She explained that in primitive times – and even now in the animal kingdom – a broken leg was kind of a death sentence because the injured animal or human couldn’t flee from danger or hunt for food. or even go to the river for a drink.

In primitive times, a severely injured human could become the meat of roaming beasts, and they were unlikely to survive a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

However, Mead explained, the discovery of a broken femur that had healed is evidence that someone took the time to stay with the injured, and may have transported him to safety and cared for the person during recovery. .

Helping someone else through hardship is the starting point of civilization, Mead said, and a civilized person is at their best when serving others.

Perhaps this is the reason why Danish students have compulsory empathy lessons as part of the school curriculum.

In their book Danish parenthood, Danish psychotherapist and educator Iben Sandahl and American author and psychologist Jessica Alexander explain that in Denmark, children learn empathy from an early age, both inside and outside of school.

“Children in the Danish school system,” say the authors, “participate from preschool in a compulsory national program called Step by Step. Children start by discussing pictures of children who each exhibit a different emotion: sadness, fear, anger, frustration, happiness, etc.

The program involves students teaching students to conceptualize their own feelings and those of others, as well as empathy, problem solving, and self-control.

“An essential part of the program is that facilitators and children do not pass judgment on the emotions they see; instead, they just recognize and respect those feelings, ”the co-authors write.

According to them, this could be one of the reasons for the long-term well-being and happiness of the Danish people.

According to the World Happiness Report, which uses data from the Gallup World Poll, this happiness is closely linked to social equality and community spirit.

Denmark is doing well on both counts, based on a strong sense of shared responsibility for social protection.

This raises the question, particularly relevant in these days of “all about me and my freedoms”, of why most school systems focus primarily on academic subjects such as math, English and science, while excluding from the curriculum some of the most important lessons about kindness, empathy, humility, and other-centered behavior in an increasingly complex world of social responsibility – or the lack thereof .

The ominous consequences of this oversight are becoming evident in the kind of news we hear every day about the pandemic-related “me alone” decline of civilized behavior for the common good.

All of this makes a 2012 UBC study that examined the impact of the Roots of Empathy program on the social and emotional skills of school-aged children even more relevant in 2021.

Roots of Empathy focuses on reducing children’s aggression, including bullying, and increasing prosocial behaviors such as kindness, caring and inclusion, by bringing a baby and parent to the neighborhood in the classroom, with a Roots of Empathy instructor. The goal is for children to learn to identify and understand the baby’s feelings, themselves and, ultimately, others. Since 2000, the program has reached 165,000 students from Kindergarten to Grade 7 in English and French in British Columbia. Created in Toronto, it is now available around the world.

The UBC research team of Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, Veronica Smith, Anat Zaidman-Zait and Clyde Hertzman interviewed 585 children ages 9-12 (grades 4-7) and 28 teachers in Vancouver and in Toronto.

The study found that children in Roots Of Empathy classes showed significant improvement in social behavior and an observable decrease in aggressive behavior.

These findings support other recent research examining the positive impacts of classroom social and emotional learning programs on children’s social development and behavioral adjustment.

As Margaret Mead has said on another occasion: “The solution to adult problems depends to a large extent on how our children grow up today.

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.


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