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

Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 15, 2020

Denmark is consistently voted one of the happiest places in the world, according to the UN's World Happiness Report. It does many things right as a nation, and one of the most visible is the way it educates its child population.

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"The Danish Way of Parenting," a book by Danish psychotherapist and educator Iben Sandahl and American author and psychologist Jessica Alexander, describes the way that children in Denmark are taught about empathy, both inside and outside of school, suggesting this 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

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She described students examining and talking about these picture cards, describing what they are seeing and what the children in the pictures are sensing. The activity teaches them to conceptualize their own and others' feelings, engendering empathy, problem-solving, self-control and how to read facial expressions, among other things. "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.

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CAT-kit reportedly focuses on how to articulate experiences, thoughts, feelings and senses, again using picture cards, this time 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, that 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."

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Schools in Denmark 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.

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"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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