The Case for Teaching Empathy in Schools

Across the globe, leaders are focusing on the idea of teaching empathy to children, to combat bullying and build more successful, helpful adults.

According to an online study conducted by YouGov in 2015, which surveyed almost 5000 teens aged 13 to 18 in 11 countries, including South Africa, an average of 18% of teens across the countries had been cyber bullied. In South Africa, that number was 24%, with 84% saying they know someone who has been bullied online. While traditional classes in maths, science, and languages help to develop future business people, entrepreneurs and innovators – there seems to be a large gap in the curriculum; a lesson in empathy. While many may think empathy is innate, or demonstrated through the actions of a child’s caregivers, it is actually a learned skill – and one that needs constant practice.

In 2010, a University of Michigan Study showed that empathy levels have dropped by 40% in the U.S. in the last 30 years. So it’s no wonder that the idea of teaching empathy to school children is a growing trend globally. In Denmark – which has consistently been voted the happiest country in the world – empathy is considered as important as teaching maths and literature. One of their lessons, which starts in their first year and continues until graduation at age sixteen, is called “Klassen Time” or “the Class’s Hour.” It’s a dedicated time, once a week, for learners to get together to discuss a problem they may be having. According to Salon.com, “Together, the class tries to find a solution. This could be an issue between two students or a group, or even something unrelated to school at all. If there are no problems to be discussed, then they simply come together to relax and hygge (cozy around together).” They also take turns to bake a specific cake, specially for the occasion.

Another example, in the U.S, is Tinybop, a Brooklyn-based app design studio, that has created an app for children called Me, which encourages kids to look inside themselves. They can create an avatar of themselves, and are then prompted to explore their own, and their peers’, emotional states, through fun, themed colours and drawings. Tinybop founder, Raul Gutierrez, told Fast Code Design, “At a time when teachers are reporting an increase in bullying and anxiety among kids in their classrooms our goal with Me is to help kids better understand themselves, the world around them, their feelings, and the feelings of those around them,” he says.

Locally, the idea of teaching empathy to adults, and children, is supported by causes such as The CEO SleepOut™. The event, which sees business leaders spend a night on the streets raising funds for vulnerable communities and the homeless, emphasises the importance of finding understanding and compassion for those in need. The School SleepOut™s – off-shoot events in which learners, teachers and parents spend a night outdoors on their school grounds, collecting items for beneficiaries – also encourage young learners to gain more understanding of homeless life. Watch the full School SleepOut™ Video here. School SleepOut™ Ambassador and Participant, nine-year-old Jack Olivier, says the event did affect his outlook. “The School SleepOut™ made me think differently about the people at the traffic lights, as I thought they were just trying to get money from us, but now I know they don’t have money and are asking for money to buy things like clothes,” Jack says, “I learnt that the homeless children don’t get a chance to go to school even though their parents try their best.”

But why is it so important that children learn empathy from a young age? The effect it may have on combatting the bullying epidemic is clear, but the benefits reach even further than that. Teaching empathy has been proven to make people more emotionally and socially competent. It can also help children become more successful, competent adults. A recent study from Duke and Penn State followed over 750 people for 20 years, and found that those who were able to share and help other children in nursery school, were more likely to finish high school and have full-time jobs.

Is it time our education department placed importance on understanding others – and made it part of a day at school? “Yes, if we want to build a future for our children that includes improved social interactions, academic performance and accomplishments at work – not to mention a much-needed commitment to helping others,” says The CEO SleepOut™ Chief Ambassador, Yusuf Abramjee. Empathy 101, anyone?