In Denmark, a country that is consistently ranked as one of the "world's happiest," schools prioritize teaching empathy and consider it as important as teaching math and literature - and it all starts with a piece of cake.
From their very first day of school until they graduate from high school, Danish kids spend an hour every week on “Klassens Time” or the “Class Hour.” Kids take turns bringing in a cake or another treat for the class to share. While they eat it, the students gather to talk about problems they’re having and, together, the class discusses possible solutions.
“The important thing is that everyone is heard,” says Jesper Vang, a middle school teacher in Odense. “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.”
Research has found that empathy appears to be innate in children but the degree to which it develops depends on how it is cultivated over time.
In contrast to Denmark, a University of Michigan study recently found college students in the U.S. today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, while narcissism is on the rise. Such a trend is worrisome not only for its impact on society at large but for the kids themselves.
More empathetic kids are more successful adults. Empathetic kids graduate from high school and have full-time jobs at higher rates than less empathetic youth who are more likely to drop out of school and go to juvenile detention.
Given all of the benefits of cultivating children's empathy, following Denmark's example both at home and in schools could have a profound effect on children’s happiness and success.
During the “Klassens Time”, the students are encouraged to discuss challenges they are experiencing both in and outside of school. If no student has a problem to discuss, they simply come together as a group to relax and "hygge" or cozy together. If teachers observe any issues emerging among students,they also use the gathering as an opportunity to explore any problems together.
Anne Mikkelson, a Danish high school student, recalls the impact of "Klassens Time" in improving social dynamics: "I remember when we were 10 or 11, we often talked about girl cliques. That was a common topic, and we would discuss it and try to solve it together.Sometimes that just meant the girls being more aware and trying to interact more with others, but it always helped us to talk about it together.”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? Incorporating ‘Class Hour’ in North American schools and improving empathy could be, literally, a piece of cake.