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

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According to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report, Denmark is one of the happiest places on earth. [1] With that, it might seem obvious that the country has something to teach itself and the rest of the world. What would that something be? Empathy. Most people learn empathy when they are children — or they should have. It’s the key to kindness and altruism, both of which this world needs a little more of. 

Instead of just hoping their children will pick up this vital trait, Denmark guarantees the opportunity to learn it. Therefore, their schools teach empathy classes alongside more commonplace academic subjects. 

Teaching Empathy Classes to Children 

Many people attribute the high happiness rate in Denmark to empathy education, including Danish psychotherapist and educator Iben Sandahl, and American author and psychologist Jessica Alexander. In their book, The Danish Way of Parenting, they state that children in Denmark are taught empathy in and out of school, and this is very likely to contribute to the wellbeing of the country.  

“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 on the Atlantic. [2] 

She explains the program, which includes children discussing the pictures and putting into words the emotions they see. This helps them imagine feelings they see in themselves and others, as well as promoting problem-solving skills and self-control. 

“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. 

Read: Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist

More Programs in Denmark to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence

Another popular empathy program is CAT-kit, and it also helps improve emotional awareness. It focuses on how to empress feelings, experiences, thoughts, and senses through pictures of the body and facial expressions. [3] 

“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.” 

Teaching Empathy Outside of Class 

Schools also incorporate a more subtle empathy training by mixing children with different strengths and weaknesses together. For example, shy kids are paired with outgoing ones, and academically skilled are paired with those with less academic prowess. This helps show the children that everyone has different capabilities, and encourage them to support each other when they face their weaknesses. 

“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.” [4] 

Empathy teaches children how to learn from others and how to teach others. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it’s a vital trait for successful leaders, entrepreneurs, and managers. It reduces bullying incidents and helps foster healthy relationships. And good relationships are quintessential for people’s well-being according to much research. [5] 

Read: Physician: American Children ‘Immersed in a Culture of Disrespect’

How Parents Can Teach Empathy to Their Children 

Whether or not your children’s schools teach empathy, it’s a trait that should be nurtured and practiced at home. Here are some ways you can teach empathy and improve their emotional intelligence: 

  1. Ensure you are meeting the emotional needs of your children. They must know they could count on their parents or caregivers for emotional support before they could give it to someone else. 
  1. Teach them how to cope with negative emotions with positivity, problem-solving, and sympathy. 
  1. Ask them, “How would you feel?” when they misbehave or hurt someone else. 
  1. Identify and label emotions as much as possible. For example, “I know you are feeling angry, but your friend became sad when you hit him.” Or, “It was very nice how you made your friend happy.” 
  1. Use books, movies, and real life as teaching examples for good and bad behaviors and their effects. 
  1. Set a good example. If you are kind, loving, and supportive of others, you are teaching your children to be the same. [6] 

Keep Reading: The Scary Truth About How Technology is Harming Our Children’s Mental Health

References: 
  1. “World Happiness Report 2020.” WHR
  1. “America’s Insensitive Children.” Jessica Alexander. The Atlantic. August 9, 2016 
  1. “Students in Denmark have mandatory empathy classes as part of the school curriculum.” Jisha Joseph. Upworthy. October 15, 2020 
  1. “The beautiful reason why Danish schools teach empathy to kids.” Jamie Orsini. Motherly. Ocrober 20, 2020 
  1. “Relationships and Well-being.” Kenneth Tan and Louis Tay. Purdue University.  
  1. “Why It’s Important to Nurture Empathy in Kids.” Katherine Lee. Very Well Family. June 14, 2020 

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