Students in Denmark have mandatory empathy classes as part of the school curriculum

Students in Denmark have mandatory empathy classes as part of the school curriculum

Children in Denmark are taught about empathy from a young age, both inside and outside of school.

When it comes to educating a child, most school systems primarily, if not entirely, focus only on academic subjects such as math, English, and science. They leave out some of the most important lessons that a young person should learn and hold close throughout their life, such as kindness, empathy, humility, etc. While the devastating consequences of this oversight become evident in the kind of news we hear every day, Denmark — a nation that has been consistently voted one of the happiest places in the world, according to the UN's World Happiness Report — recognized and filled this gap in education years ago.


The book The Danish Way of Parenting, by Danish psychotherapist and educator, Iben Sandahl, and Jessica Alexander — an American author and psychologist — states that the fact that children in Denmark are taught about empathy from a young age both inside and outside of school, might have something to do with the overall wellbeing of the country's population. "Children in the Danish school system participate in a mandatory national program called Step by Step as early as preschool. The children are shown pictures of kids who are each exhibiting a different emotion: sadness, fear, anger, frustration, happiness, and so on," Alexander said in an excerpt of the book published in The Atlantic


She explained that the program entails students talking about the cards and describing what the child on it is sensing. This activity teaches them to conceptualize their own and others' feelings, as well as, empathy, problem-solving, self-control, and how to read facial expressions. "An essential part of the program is that the facilitators and children aren’t judgmental of the emotions they see; instead, they simply recognize and respect those sentiments," wrote Alexander. She also cited another popular program called CAT-kit which is aimed at improving emotional awareness and empathy.


CAT-kit reportedly focuses on how to articulate experiences, thoughts, feelings, and senses, by the use of picture cards of faces and pictures of the body. "Another tool is called My Circle: Children draw their friends, family members, professionals, and strangers in different parts of the circle as part of an exercise on learning to better understand others," explained Alexander. "Denmark’s Mary Foundation has contributed to empathy training in schools, too. It's an anti-bullying program, which has been implemented across the country, encourages 3- to 8-year-olds to talk about bullying and teasing, and learn to become more caring toward each other. It has yielded positive results, and more than 98 percent of teachers say they would recommend it to other institutions."


Denmark schools also adopt less obvious empathy training methods by subtly and gradually mixing children of different strengths and weaknesses together. Students who do well in academics are taught alongside those who aren't as academically strong while shy children are paired with more gregarious ones. By doing so, the schools aim to show students that everyone has positive qualities and thereby motivate them to support each other in their efforts to reach the next level.


"Studies show that this system of interactive teaching involves a steep learning curve. Students who teach others work harder to understand the material, recall it more precisely, and use it more effectively. But they also have to try to understand the perspective of other students so they can help them where they are having trouble," wrote Alexander. "The ability to explain a complicated subject matter to another student is not an easy task, but it is an invaluable life skill. Research demonstrates that this type of collaboration and empathy also delivers a deep level of satisfaction and happiness to kids; interestingly, people’s brains actually register more satisfaction from cooperating than from winning alone."


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