Empathy Is Taught To Students Ages 6 To 16 In Denmark Schools

The United Nation’s World Happiness Report lists Denmark in the list of top three happiest countries in the world for the past seven years.

Do you think there is a secret?

The book The Danish Way of Parenting, by Iben Sandahl, a Danish psychotherapist, educator, and Jessica Alexander, an American author, and psychologist, explains the real reason and the secret behind the happiness of the Danes.

Apparently, it is all to do with their upbringing, and it is actually a cycle that repeats itself: Danish parents raise happy children who grow up to be happy adults who raise happy children.

Since 1993, the Denmark education system has included mandatory classes teaching empathy to their students, and one hour each week, during “Klassens tid,” students aged six to 16 years old are taught empathy lessons.

From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy is a valuable impulse that helps humans survive in groups. The empathy lessons are believed to help them strengthen their relationships, succeed in work, and prevent bullying.

Empathy promotes the growth of leaders, entrepreneurs, and managers, and empathic teenagers are more successful as they are more oriented towards the goals compared to their more narcissistic peers.

This actually makes sense, as successful people don’t operate alone, and we all need the support of others to achieve positive results in life. Students talk about their problems during this hour, personal ones or problems related to school.

Afterward, the teacher and the class discuss the problem to find a solution. A crucial part of the program is that the facilitators and children aren’t judgmental of the emotions they see. They just recognize and respect those sentiments.

Iben Sandahl explains that together, the class tries to respect all aspects and angles and together find a solution. In this way, the problem of the child is acknowledged and heard as a part of a bigger community, which is crucial, as “when you are recognized, you become someone.”

Children also learn the importance of mutual respect, and journalist Carlotta Balena adds that they are not afraid to speak up, because they feel part of a community, they are not alone.

If there are no problems to discuss, children use the time to relax and enjoy hygge, a word which cannot be translated literally, as it is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture.

Hygge could be defined as “intentionally created intimacy”, and it is a fundamental concept for the Danish sense of well-being.

It creates a calm, friendly, welcome, and warm atmosphere, and it’s also becoming a global phenomenon: Amazon sells more than 900 books on hygge, and Instagram has more than 3 million posts with the hashtag #hygge.

Denmark’s Mary Foundation—named after the country’s crown princess and soon-to-be queen—has been of great support to empathy training in schools, as well.

Its anti-bullying program has been implemented across the country, and it stimulates 3- to 8-year-olds to talk about bullying and teasing and learn to care for each other. The program has positive effects and over 98 percent of teachers say they would recommend it to other institutions.

The Danish Way of Parenting is translated into 21 languages, and authors have conducted field research to understand how the Danes teach empathy.

Sandahl and Alexander found that there are two ways the Danes teach empathy.

The first one is by teaching teamwork. 60% of the tasks done at school already do this, focus on improving the skills and talents of students who are not equally gifted, instead of boosting their competitive skills.

There are no prizes or trophies, and they just motivate students to improve, measured exclusively in relation to themselves.

Alexander also explains that the Danes give a lot of space to children’s free play, as it teaches empathy and negotiation skills. Playing in the country has been considered an educational tool since 1871.

The second way is through collaborative learning, believed by the authors to be the secret to happiness.

Danish society is humane and cohesive, with systems in place to support everyone.

Alexander explained that students are taught that no one can go through life alone. For instance, a child naturally talented in mathematics, won’t go much further without learning to collaborate with their peers, as will need help in other subjects.

Collaborative learning teaches children to communicate and helps them build empathy skills, which are further strengthened by having to be careful about the way the other person receives the information and having to put oneself in their shoes to understand how learning works.


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