For decades, psychologists have been interested in figuring out what causes behavioral problems in both children and adults. Is it primarily a genetic (nature) cause? Or, can environmental (nurture) influences be to mostly blame? While it’s often a combination of both, no two individuals are alike and neither are their motives.
Equally as important as figuring out the answer to the initial question, however, is discovering how we can raise more stable, happy, well-rounded citizens from childhood all the way through adulthood. Schools in Denmark think they have part of the solution to that by teaching their children, from ages six to 16, how to be empathetic alongside their usual curriculum.
But what is empathy? It’s the ability to understand what others might be going through and then being able to think, say, and do things that are considerate in response. To be empathetic is to be kind, a good listener, thoughtful, accommodating, and most importantly, selfless. Many believe that by teaching empathy, bullying, violence, and crime rates will all decline. Empathy is also important for helping relationships flourish and succeeding at work.
With Denmark remaining on the top three list of the happiest countries in the world for seven years, many think that their schools’ teachings on empathy might actually be a big contributing factor.
For one hour every week in Denmark, students talk about their problems in class. While each student talks, the whole class, including the teacher, sit and listen before providing thorough feedback.
“Together, the class tries to respect all aspects and angles and together find a solution,” says Danish educator, psychotherapist, and co-author, Iben Sandahl. “Kids’ issues are acknowledged and heard as a part of a bigger community. [And] when you are recognized, you become someone.”
Besides talking about problems in class, Danish students are taught empathy via teamwork, collaborative learning, and finding motivation within versus from extrinsic rewards. Psychologist Carol S. Dweck would consider the latter aspect to align well with her coined idea of the “growth mindset,” the mindset that emphasizes a love for learning, finding solutions, seeking challenges, and growing instead of staying stagnant.
Right off the bat, many could see how Danish schools differ from schools in other countries. Many other schools, such as in the United States, often stress personal academic achievement, leaving personal problems outside of the classroom, and rewarding students with physical prizes as a way to motivate them to continue to do well. However, critics believe Danish schools are leading a better example.
Interestingly, empathy isn’t a new topic in Danish schools; it’s been taught since 1993. Nevertheless, other countries are becoming more intrigued in Denmark’s “secret” to happier citizens and better students.
With education on empathy, Danish learners feel more connected with others, learn positive ways of communicating, aren’t as afraid to speak up, work easier with others, and even learn better.
See how Danish students are learning about empathy below! Do you think this should be taught in other countries’ schools?