Research: Empathy Helps Kids Learn

The empathy a teacher shows a child in the classroom may help them do better on their school work. In fact, researchers in Finland are examining what role empathy plays in that country's high PISA scores.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey given every three years to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. Finland's students came in sixth on their mean score for reading, fifth in science and 12th in math in the 2012 assessment.

Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Turku are trying to figure out what impact a positive atmosphere has on children's learning during the early years as well as the later years when, as they noted, "the academic challenges become greater and the protective teacher-pupil interaction can be less intensive."

The study, hosted by Finnish First Steps, suggests that empathetic teachers enhance children's motivation and academic skills — more so than class size or educational materials. First Steps is a long-term study examining children's early study paths with a focus on children, teachers and parents.

"We are currently studying to what extent the teacher-pupil relationship in the upper comprehensive school, i.e. in grades 7-9, can be linked to Finland's excellent reading scores," said Senior Lecturer of Early Education Martti Siekkinen at U Eastern Finland.

According to Siekkinen, that safe relationship the child feels with a teacher protects children's image of themselves as learners and also guards them against "social exclusion by their fellow pupils."

"It is important that we learn about the mechanisms that inspire children to become active members of their school community, motivate them to study and set goals — in other words, to believe in their abilities to achieve these goals."

Early findings have previously been published in Contemporary Educational Psychology and Early Education and Development.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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