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Leading students towards empathy

Photograph: Unsplash

Text: Michaela Medvedova

Schools are indispensable for building the knowledge of children. But the world is not just chemical elements, historical events, and physical reactions. Human relationships are a vital part of our lives, and we need to learn to approach them with care - and the classroom, where children spend so much time among their peers, is a great place to do so.

Why is teaching kindness important?

Empathy and kindness are key to building positive and productive human relationships. “This is something that we often forget when we think about education and ‘schooling’. Instead, there is an overwhelming focus on ‘knowing’ as much as possible,” says Louise Norup, a teacher at North Zealand International School (NIS).

But a kinder and empathetic environment can also boost children’s learning process. According to Jessica Adair Melgaard, who also teaches at NIS, if learners - especially self-conscious teenagers - don’t feel a positive and responsive environment around them, they will rather stay quiet. “We teach kindness and empathy for many reasons, but firstly so that learners have the space to learn without having to be on edge.”

Being kind also leads to higher peer acceptance - based on 2021 research “Kindness Counts” by Kristin Layous et al., learners who performed three acts of kindness during the week experienced a significant increase in how their peers accepted them. But acting in a caring way can also directly make children happier. According to David R. Hamilton, acts of kindness kick off the elevation of dopamine levels in our brains, leaving us with a natural high.

Teaching kindness in an international setting

Caring for each other can create a greater sense of belonging in a community - and even a higher level of understanding of different communities. This is increasingly more important in a globalised world and in a school like NIS, which learners worldwide attend. But according to their teachers, learners quickly understand that there are many right ways of “being”, and their difference in food, clothing style or accents in extreme cases lead to teasing. Quite the contrary - learners talk about their differences very little and focus on what connects them instead.

A respectful and understanding global setting has its unique challenges for teachers. “It’s commonplace that I have learners sitting next to each other that culturally represent opposing sides of current global conflicts. It provides ample opportunity to discuss what’s going on in the world in a neutral setting. It helps humanise ‘the other side’,” says Jessica.

"Empathy and kindness are key to building positive and productive human relationships."

Danish empathy

Leading learners to be empathetic is an essential ingredient of international schooling. In fact, ever since 1993, empathy lessons have been an important part of the Danish curriculum for learners between 6 and 16 years old.

Alongside mathematics or languages, classes allocate an hour a week for Klassens tid, an hour for any learner to talk about their issues - school-related or personal - with the entire class cooperating on finding a solution. It teaches children to listen to each other with empathy and understanding and recognise emotions without judgment.

How to teach students to be kind?

This concept has its place at NIS, too. “We have a lesson a week we call ‘homeroom’, and it’s a space for us to have discussions about relationships and conflict. We have the chance to take up real-world examples, as well as discuss things going on in the class,” says Jessica.

The school aims for learners to be empathetic and principled global learners. “We endeavour to acknowledge these traits in the learners’ behaviour but also give them opportunities to recognise them in all aspects of the content of their learning,” says Louise. This may take the form of discussing characters and historical figures or reflecting on their approach to tasks.

Both teachers agree it is important to lead by example - showing kindness and respect to learners, especially when a conflict arises. “I also like to be sure that the content of stories I read or global issues I raise have a focus on kindness and understanding of others’ points of view. It is important that the children always understand that their experience is not always the same as someone else’s,” concludes Louise.

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