Learning empathy at school, a guarantee of success


“Lthere is a blind spot in education, and it is in our interest to work on it! At the initiative of economics professor at HEC Paris Yann Algan, a new study (published last August in the prestigious international journal US Economic Review), conducted in collaboration with the University of Montreal, shows that training children in social-behavioral skills significantly promotes their economic and social integration in adulthood.

The study, the first to establish a link between non-cognitive skills and socioeconomic benefits, was launched in the early 1980s to observe the behavioral problems of little boys (7 to 9 years old) from underprivileged neighborhoods in Montreal — or identified as those running the greatest risk of violence and school dropout.

Two hundred and fifty of them thus benefit from support “in terms of social skills and self-control” (cooperation, empathy, self-discipline, perseverance, etc.) for two years, Professor Algan explains. Then a second group underwent the usual treatment reserved for “disruptive” students at the time (isolation in the hallway, being sent to the principal’s office, etc.).

+ 30% chance of studying

Thirty years later, the results (observed through this panel’s school and administrative/tax records that have come of age) show a long-term impact on the lives these former lead and reveal very encouraging figures in terms of employment, social inclusion, but also crime. .

Thus, those trained in these skills had a 30% greater chance of accessing higher education than those who did not. They also receive an average of 20% more wages than the latter and they use 40% less social assistance (unemployment and absenteeism). Finally, today they are 20% less likely to have a criminal record.

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Among the exercises proposed at the time were fun activities, including role-playing, designed to “promote empathy and socialization.” “An instructor invites the student to pick up the ball in his hand by all means. The latter then wrongs his arm. Then we say to him: The only thing you haven’t done is ask me to give it to you! says the teacher.

Also, while many of these children “have the prejudice that intelligence is innate and that if they are” dummies in mathematics they will remain for a lifetime”, an activity that consists of “showing them videos about how the brain develops, the specialist further exposes. The purpose is to remind that there is no fatality and that the brain develops throughout life.”

Cohesion, a global problem

“We have every interest in developing this in France,” argues the professor, explaining it in The economy of knowledge (Presses de Sciences Po, September 2022), written in collaboration with Professor Elise Huillery (Paris-Dauphine University) and aimed at the recognition and integration of soft skills in our French education system. And this, mainly because “the cost-benefit ratio is extremely high,” he specifies: twenty interventions spread over the two school years of Canadian students were enough to lead to these results.

“We can increase the number of teaching hours or class splits… If we don’t work on this aspect, which is mainly at the root of questions about perseverance and self-confidence, it will be difficult to make progress with these children,” further assures the specialist , while “cooperation and collective problem-solving skills put France in last place among OECD countries” [classement Pisa] “.

Experiments already carried out at the Versailles Academy on high school students (“Energie Jeunes” training) and CP teachers (“Motiva’Action”) give rise to “first remarkable feedback”, in terms of “confidence in oneself” and “ability to work together,” he emphasizes.

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“If these social-behavioral skills are essential for academic success and personal life trajectories, they are also essential at a societal level,” he concludes. A global problem, at a time of “distrust of institutions and multiple crises” [épidémie, guerre, réchauffement climatique] and that our capacities for good citizenship and social cohesion will be decisive”.


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