Where’s the happiest place on earth? Hint: It doesn’t begin with the word “Disney”. For close to 50 years, Denmark has been ranked as the happiest country on earth. Why? Well, researchers can name quite a few reasons, but one of the most interesting ones to me has to do with the national school curriculum. In Danish schools reading, writing, and arithmetic are valued but no more so than empathy is. Empathy is implicitly taught. As a matter of fact the empathy curriculum begins in preschool and goes up through high school.
Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl, social researchers, talked with numerous Danish teachers and students across Denmark. They found in preschool the curriculum involves showing pictures of children’s faces, and the preschoolers trying to figure out what emotion the child on the card is feeling. They discuss the emotion and how they could help the child on the card feel better. In this way they learn empathy, how to read facial expressions, and how to make nonjudgmental statements. As the children age their curriculum changes.
Alexander and Sandahl, also, found one program that began the first day of school for six year olds and continued through high school. That program is called Klassen Time or the Class’s Hour. During this time each week all the students in a class come together with the teacher in a cozy spot to discuss concerns which have arisen during the past week. These concerns may be friendship problems, academic trouble, hurt feelings, or something not related to school at all. The class tries to solve the problems together. If there are no problems brought up by the students, then the teacher may mention some issues she has noticed. Regardless, it is a time to come together, relax, and maybe work towards solving a common problem. Alexander and Sandahl quote one middle school teacher as saying, “Our job as the teacher is to make sure that the children understand how the other feels, and see why the other feels as they do. This way, we come up with a solution together based on real listening and real understanding.”
To make the time even more inviting, during each Class’s Hour a cake is served to the students. Each week a different student either bakes a cake or brings a premade one in for the class to enjoy while relaxing. The “Class Hour cake” is such an integral part of Danish culture that it even has its own recipe. (If you’re interested in the recipe and can read Danish, click here.)
So what does this mean for us in the United States? Jessica Alexander writes, “It’s interesting to think what implementing the Class’s Hour in the U.S. school system could do for our future. By dedicating an hour a week to teaching kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes from the ages of 6 to 16, and helping to find solutions together, what kind of changes could we bring about? Looking to the world happiness reports year after year, I can’t help but think that incorporating a version of the Danish Class’s Hour in our schools and improving empathy could literally be a piece of cake.”
If you’re interested in reading more of Alexander’s and Sandahl’s work, go to the website, “The Danish Way of Parenting”.