Lessons From Denmark: Teachers Can Incorporate Empathy in the Curriculum

By Kate Stoltzfus — August 15, 2016 2 min read
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What secrets can U.S. educators glean from classrooms in the happiest country in the world?

After talking to teachers in Denmark, authors Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl discovered a surprising addition to the K-12 curriculum: weekly teaching about empathy. The cultivation of this learned skill in schools can make a difference for students throughout their lives, Alexander wrote in Salon.

In their book The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids (2016), Alexander and Sandahl highlight the power of a school program in many Denmark schools called “Klassen Time,” which translates to the “Class’s Hour.” Once a week, students bring in a traditional cake and take an hour to connect with one another. The practice allows students and teachers to find solutions to unresolved problems they may have with each other, in the classroom, or at home in order to create a culture of openness and understanding.

Alexander believes U.S. schools could adapt similar practices. “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?” she wrote.

This comes at a time when U.S. schools are putting a greater focus on social-emotional learning. But according to one study, empathy levels among college students have declined by 40 percent in recent decades. Many educators echo the need for students to better understand one another in a globalized world. Recent events of terrorism, such as attacks in Orlando, Fla., Paris, and Istanbul, show a palpable fear of difference, wrote Ariel Tichnor-Wagner of ASCD in an August article for Education Week Teacher. As such, she said, students will need global competence to be empathic citizens in their jobs and lives.

In addition to increasing social-emotional competency, empathy decreases rates of bullying and school suspension, research has found. And researchers from Duke University and Pennsylvania State University found in a recent study that kindergarteners who were more willing to share had higher graduation rates and were more likely to hold full-time jobs than students who struggled with social skills.

Developing empathy is not only important for students; it’s a vital skill for teachers as well. When interacting with parents, teachers should develop relationships “by serving as a bridge, not an expert,” wrote pre-K teacher John M. Holland in an Education Week Teacher opinion blog last year. And earlier this year, school leaders across the country participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge to better understand a child’s school day—from eating lunch to riding the bus. (PBS NewsHour recently aired Education Week‘s coverage exploring how one assistant pricipal tackled the challenge.)

One way teachers can help their students develop empathy? Encourage reading. Studies have linked reading fiction with stronger attitudes of empathy towards others. The Washington Post recently shared a list of empathetic K-12 book recommendations for just this purpose, including The Nice Book by David Ezra Stein for younger readers and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie for high school students.

Image source: Image by Flickr user nican45, licensed under Creative Commons

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.