Reading, writing and empathy: How Denmark is a leader in teaching social skills
A PATH TO PROGRESS
The country's status as a leader in teaching social skills is one reason it’s often ranked as the world’s ‘happiest’ country. Do Danes know something the rest of us don’t?
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Jennifer Larsen, a soft-spoken Danish teacher, strides into the classroom undeterred. She tells the 12- and 13-year-old students to put away their cellphones and fidget spinners. Some continue to goof off. But as she starts her weekly lesson in “social learning,” which begins with a “check-in” to gauge how each child is feeling, they quiet down.
Ms. Larsen’s main lesson of the day involves taping two signs to different ends of the classroom with the words “I agree” and “I disagree.” She then reads a series of personal statements: “I want to be better at solving problems with my friend.” “When I get angry I want to hit someone.”
The students in the sixth-year class at the Møllevang school in Faxe, a municipality in rural Denmark southwest of Copenhagen, have answered these questions before. But that exercise was done anonymously: Their heads were down and they responded by raising their hands. This time they are told to move to a side of the room that best characterizes their answer, publicly staking positions that even some adults might find hard to be candid about.
“I have friends who help me when I’m sad or mad,” Larsen continues. The children shuffle around the room, but, in the end, only one boy stands at the “I disagree” wall. With a nervous laugh, he notes his solitary position. “But you are very honest – that is very good,” Larsen says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have any friends.”
As rudimentary as it is, the lesson in this kinetic classroom of students in hoodies and track pants is designed to teach social awareness and instill empathy – and in the process make Denmark and perhaps even Europe a more civil place to live. It is part of a mandatory course added to the curriculum in this municipality in the hopes of teaching students to care for one another at a young age, a quality that school leaders worry is being increasingly lost in modern society.
Around the world, the importance of empathy as a character trait is garnering increased attention in an age of rapid technological change that experts worry is breeding narcissism and physically cutting people off from one another. This is to say nothing of the polarized politics that has deepened a sense of “us” versus “them” in many Western democracies, including the United States.
At its deepest level, encouraging empathy is seen as a step toward moving away from the ethos of individualism that characterized 20th-century societies toward a greater tolerance of other cultures in the interconnected world of the 21st century.
Numerous pilot programs are under way in the US to foster emotional intelligence in students, including an $11 million experiment in Kentucky called the Compassionate Schools Project. Other initiatives are taking root from China to Finland.
In Denmark, empathy has long been a part of the zeitgeist of the nation, taught and valued everywhere, from preschools to corporate suites. Many parents consider their children’s kindness in the classroom just as crucial as their math or science scores.
But here, too, pressure is mounting for the country to do more. Debates about immigration rage domestically and across Europe amid the refugee crisis and a wave of terrorist attacks. At the same time, access to the internet is increasing the chances of cyberbullying and the isolation of young people. As a new school year starts in Denmark, teachers and academics are refocusing attention on some of the country’s oldest methods of empathy education, and establishing new programs such as the one in Faxe, which they say is crucial to countering all the negativity and division.
“Empathy is very important for democracy,” says Mette Løvbjerg, Møllevang’s headmaster. “You can’t have a democracy that is functioning if nobody puts themselves in another one’s shoes.... If we don’t teach our children that, then we don’t have a democracy in 50 years. It’s under pressure already.”
Bullying, teen suicide, school shootings: these were the crises that generated some of the new thinking about educators’ responsibility for the emotional health of students in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Schools in the US and other countries urgently devised prevention programs, while a more ambitious movement took root. Known as social and emotional learning, it has spread rapidly, going from fringe idea to mainstream acceptance in the past decade.
SEL programs go much further than specific prevention campaigns. The curricula aim to help students navigate negative emotions, empathize with peers, foster more resilience, and stay calm and focused. Research has shown these skills not only correlate with academic achievement, they can also predict future success, in some cases more than traditional markers such as grades. One 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health followed kindergartners over almost two decades. Researchers concluded that those with greater social-emotional skills were more likely to experience “future wellness” in schools and jobs. They were less likely to become criminals or have serious substance abuse problems.
Mark Greenberg, a leading researcher in the field of emotional development in schools who co-wrote the 2015 study, says these revelations changed perceptions in educational circles. “I think the whole issue of social and emotional learning as a central issue for education is growing dramatically in schools around the world,” he says. Empathy in particular has gotten increasing attention for a variety of reasons, he says, among them “the problems of hatred that we are seeing, and the [decline in] understanding others.”
SEL is not without critics. Some worry that it conflicts with the rigors of academia. Others don’t see the classroom as being the place to teach everything about human character. Still others, including Dr. Greenberg, say that while many programs – such as meditation – sound like a good idea, schools often don’t measure their effectiveness.
In Denmark, the tension between academics and well-being is less pronounced, even if it is growing. Developing the “whole child,” not just good students, is a mantra heard from the Ministry of Education on down. Teaching is understood to entail both uddannelse and dannelse, the first being the classical concept of academic training, the other the formation of good citizens and their ability to morally relate to the world.
“What comes first, academic skills or well-being? We can’t answer,” says Jonas Borup, who works on the inclusion team at the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen. “You have to feel good in school to learn something. For us, you can’t have one without the other.”
Recently some academics in the US have proposed that schools should integrate such instruction into daily teaching, rather than offer weekly or monthly SEL classes.
In other words, do what’s de rigueur in Denmark.
On a recent morning, first-year teacher Helle Eskesen at the Øster Farimagsgades school in Copenhagen receives a visit from a young student who has injured her eye. The girl tells her instructor she is concerned that other students will make fun of her because of the swelling. So Ms. Eskesen makes a quick decision: She calls a “class meeting” to talk it through to prevent any teasing.
Later in the class, the teacher spends time with each student before they break for recess, going over what activities they plan to do and ensuring that no one is left out. Both moves are classic Danish empathy education, moves fused into normal instruction and going beyond just holding an occasional class on the subject.
“It’s not Empathy 101 in Denmark,” says Jessica Alexander, an American writer who co-wrote “The Danish Way of Parenting,” which looks in part at how empathy is taught in schools, with Danish family psychotherapist Iben Sandahl.
Danish schools are staffed by “AKT” teachers (the initialism stands for behavior, contact, and well-being in Danish). Larsen, the teacher at Møllevang, is one. Like her, other AKT teachers often have their own classrooms, as well as the responsibility for addressing social conflict as it arises. They help students work together and engage those who feel lonely or left out.
Klassenstime further buttresses character education. It is an hour traditionally set aside for teachers to deal with the social side of their students. The concept has recently been revamped, but it is so ingrained in the culture that there is a cake named after it.
Sometimes klassenstime works almost like mediation to tackle a problem. Girls and boys might be separated to deal with specific issues. Other times instructors teach emotional awareness with programs such as Cat-KIT, a communications tool to help students navigate many different situations – for instance, when a child gets angry during recess, says one of its founders, Annette Nielsen.
This kind of attention to children’s emotional needs – and their awareness of others – is widely supported in Danish society. “As a parent, I treasure much more that they’re good people ... than that they get high grades,” says Ms. Sandahl, who is also a former schoolteacher and has written a new book, “Play the Danish Way.”
By many measures, Denmark already excels at instilling emotional well-being. Since the European Union started ranking happiness in 1973 as part of its Eurobarometer surveys, Denmark has come out on top almost every year. Other polls rank Danes among the highest in the world in caring, freedom, health, and income.
Foreigners have been fascinated by the country’s culture, writing a multitude of books on everything from the ethos of hygge, which roughly translates into being together in a cozy manner, to its generous welfare systems to its flat corporate hierarchies. Christian Bjørnskov, an economist and leading researcher on Danish happiness, says he believes trust in others lies at the heart of the Danes’ sense of satisfaction.
“The more you learn about other people, and are taught to respect them and tolerate the way they live, the more you trust others,” Mr. Bjørnskov says.
Still, Denmark is facing challenges that would sound familiar to American educators. The first is academic pressure. On tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that measure scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, science, and reading, Denmark was coming in below its peers in northern Europe. What alarmed administrators was how much those from disadvantaged homes, including immigrant households, lagged behind. Bridging that gap was the impetus behind a far-reaching educational reform in 2014 that, among other things, made the school day longer by about an hour. The latest rankings show Danes scoring above the OECD average in all three subjects for the first time.
Some teachers complain that the latest reforms are still too academic in focus. They formally removed klassenstime as a subject set aside in the schedule, for example, though teachers have the autonomy to continue it during allotted “extra hours.” “Everything is now about what the students can do, and can’t do. Everything is measured,” says pedagogical supervisor Elina Sommer, who co-created the “social learning” program in the Faxe schools. “The soft values, like empathy, how to be social, well-being, it’s like they are faded out.”
The Ministry of Education counters that the reforms are aimed at improving academic performance and preserving the enduring focus on contentment and character. Mr. Borup notes, for instance, that along with the reform package the ministry implemented a national assessment of well-being for every class in 2015.
Until recently, encouraging social cohesion has been relatively easy in Nordic societies, which have long been far more homogeneous in terms of culture, religion, and income than most countries. Yet immigration, especially as migrants poured into Europe in 2015, has caused more dissension. Newcomers from the Middle East in particular have become a flashpoint, giving a boost to the anti-migrant Danish People’s Party that has hardened political rhetoric across the board.
Last year Danes stunned the world with the adoption of a controversial “jewelry law,” which allows authorities to confiscate cash and goods from refugees and asylum-seekers to fund their integration costs. The law has sparked the kind of incendiary rhetoric that has characterized immigration debates in the US under the Trump administration and in Britain after a majority there voted to leave the EU.
It’s also brought new tensions to classrooms.
At the Hedegårdenes school in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen, one-third of the 400 students, from the first year of school through the ninth year, come from immigrant backgrounds, and another third from what administrators call troubled homes. The school has received 50 Syrian refugees as well. As a result, says Thomas Brinch, vice principal, “the work with empathy is more important than ever.”
“The kids need to treat each other with respect no matter where they are from, what their religion is.” But it’s also important, he says, that children from other countries learn how to fit into Danish society.
Schools see empathy as a way to deal with another challenge as well: the saturation of social media. The impact of technology on young people’s behavior is being carefully monitored in Denmark, simply because it is one of the most connected countries in the EU, says Camilla Mehlsen, who writes about education and technology (and whose 9-year-old has an iPhone). According to EU Kids Online, an international research network, 81 percent of Danish children use the internet daily, compared with an average of 60 percent in Europe overall.
Social media is the subject of klassenstime on a recent day in the classroom of Ida Nielsen, a fifth-year teacher at the Hedegårdenes school. The class has drawn up social media user guidelines together and is now discussing what they mean in practice. One of the first rules sounds simple enough: Don’t say anything mean.
But it leads one boy to question if that just applies to people, or whether they may make negative statements about not liking longer school hours. Another asks if they are allowed to say mean things about Donald Trump in relation to climate change, after he pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord. “But he is also a person, too,” another classmate counters.
Such discussions are crucial, says Ms. Nielsen, when asked about the pressures to devote time to academic learning during the day. “This is their lives,” she says. She also sees fostering well-being as a way to clear space for academics. “It sets you free to learn stuff,” she says, “if you don’t have a lot of conflicts and problems all the time.”
Students are given a lot of freedom. In Nielsen’s class, one youngster chooses not to sit at his desk at all. Elsewhere students drape legs over chairs. In a first-year class at another school in Copenhagen, one boy says he is feeling angry so he tells his teacher he is leaving the room – and does cartwheels down the hallway for a few minutes.
It would be easy to conclude that it is the students who rule the schools. But Mr. Brinch, Hedegårdenes’s vice principal, disagrees. “They have to feel comfortable to learn,” he says. “Sometimes they need to take a walk. Adults, we like that, too.”
Still, some Danish educators think the country isn’t doing enough to encourage empathy and well-being.
In Faxe, teachers recall a group of sixth-year students a few years ago who were part of what became known as the “hell class.” Students often booed each other and hurled insults. Jane Sterup, who works as a special educator and pedagogical supervisor with Ms. Sommer, was called in to sort it out.
She instituted new forms of communication, started the daily “check-ins,” and tried other exercises to promote tolerance and respect. “There was no more booing,” says Ms. Sterup.
Today those efforts have evolved into a mandatory course for second- and sixth-year students and is being adopted as a requirement by all schools in the area. Sommer and Sterup are sharing their lesson plans with other districts across the country as well.
Students, for their part, don’t seem to mind the character training along with the reading and writing, either. “It teaches us to be together in a good way,” says Cilie Noddebo, a 12-year-old emerging from Larsen’s “social learning” class.
Still, not everyone embraces so much emphasis on students’ souls. Sterup says some parents have told them the lessons they’re imparting belong at home. “They say, ‘that is the parents’ problem, not the school’s problem.’ But the problem is in school, so it is our problem,” she says.
The two have been called “old-fashioned.” That’s just fine with them.
As Sommer puts it: “Let us be together, like humans, to have hygge time, to talk, play games, not always be with a phone or an iPad, not always think about studies, tests, academics, career. Just be together.”