Finnish Research on Social-Emotional Education

by Ellen Harper and Evan Gong

On January 30, the Nordic Studies Program at IES was pleased to welcome Finnish researchers Inka-Kristiina Hanhivaara (Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University) and Mervi Pänkäläinen (Founder and CEO of Mightifier), who delivered a presentation entitled: “Social-Emotional Skills in the Digital Age.” 

The researchers began by referencing many international metrics pointing to the increasing number of young people who feel socially isolated, lonely, and bullied. However, Finland is a noted exception. Despite its dreary weather, this country is noted for its high rankings in happiness, psychological safety, and societal cohesion, particularly among youth. One reason for this, noted Hanhivaara, was that the Finnish national curriculum emphasizes the joy of learning, self-care, and mental well-being and safety over a competitive culture.

Pänkäläinen then spoke about her work with Mightifier, an online strength-based program she developed to enhance students’ social-emotional skills and well-being. The program was co-created with Finnish schools, teachers, and students in 2016 and focuses on how to build character strength, a growth mindset and self-determination. In particular, one module teaches students how to recognize good in another person, thus promoting courage and trust. The reason for testing Mightifier with Finnish students was to better understand why these students are “the happiest in the world,” and how to potentially export Finnish pedagogical models to other countries.

In a compelling Q&A with the audience of 25, Hanhivaara and Pänkäläinen compared Finland to the U.S. in terms of how children behave and how this relates to their well-being. The discussion centred around how Finnish children take and deliver peer feedback, valuing constructive comments based on their performance, such as ‘I like your curiosity in this topic’, over simply saying they were ‘Fantastic’. In fact, Finnish children believe these types of comments do more harm than good, and that they leave one with nothing to work with. Finally, the speakers discussed the differences in Finnish mentality when it comes to the behavior of children. Compared to individualistic tendencies in American society, they noted, Finnish culture is deeply rooted in the concept of a collective society, which they argue leads children to become more responsible for their own learning.