Inclusion and wellbeing

Raising empathetic children takes an hour a week

Does Denmark have it right? Let’s look at how the Danes nurture emotional development, and why this makes children into empathetic adults.
February 24, 2021
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Pressed for time? Here are the key points
  • Your response to children’s issues and worries has a massive impact, and children carry your response in their back pocket well into adulthood.
  • Klassens time gives children the chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and helps them develop empathy.
  • By allowing children to share and engage as part of a group, they get a sense of belonging – they realise that they’re a collective and not the only ones with feelings and problems.

As practitioners, you go to great lengths to make your settings as nurturing and as calming as possible. From your wall displays to your play corners, you take so much care.

But is this calming environment enough to make children feel safe, and able to share those big, scary problems sitting on their little shoulders? Giving them that nurturing space and the right response to their emotions absolutely essential.

This is where Denmark comes in. Danish schools have a wonderful thing called klassens time – a special hour where children are free to share those big emotions they’re struggling with, or a problem that’s eating away at them. Whatever the problem – klassens time is a way of validating children’s emotions and putting them to the forefront.

In the Early Years, that could be discussing big ideas like why parents are recycling their rubbish, or simply why they’re angry that their socks don’t have caterpillars on them today.

I wanted to find out if this helps children’s emotional development, and if we should be using it back in the UK. I chatted to Dr Helen Demetriou, an expert in emotion and empathy in Education at the University of Cambridge. Down below, we’ll discuss why validating children’s emotions is the key to healthy emotional development, and how this helps prevent mental health issues later on in life.

Let’s take a look at klassens time and why introducing a similar concept in the Early Years may be the best way forward.

The big ideas

Klassens time at a glance

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take a quick overview of what klassens time actually is. Jakob Waag Willadsen, an early years care researcher at the University of Copenhagen, sums it up perfectly:

“It’s one activity which brings the individual child into the whole entire group. It’s definitely about letting children think about really big ideas they may not understand and expressing emotions, but it’s about being together as a ‘collective’ and belonging to the entire group.”

The activity lets children freely discuss any issues or problems that may be sitting on their shoulders. Maybe a few children keep fighting over the same thing day after day, or a child keeps being left out of an activity by the others in the group.

It’s nothing fancy – it’s giving children the tools to work through problems together and create a shared atmosphere of understanding. But it does make children more empathetic, as it lets them see the world through a different pair of eyes and understand that they’re part of a large group – it shows them experiences beyond their own. Think of it like the PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education) we have in schools in the UK.

Helen explains that a ritual like klassens time can help young children develop basic empathy skills. “Children don’t immediately understand that their behaviour has an impact on those around them […] but empathy can be taught,” she says.

There have been countless studies on how empathy is taught, and why sharing experiences matters. Let’s go back to the 1960s to see this in action. A hugely influential class experiment showed children how it felt to be discriminated against, using the colour of their eyes in place of skin colour. In doing this, they realised what it was like to be discriminated against, and showed them how their own actions impacted and affected other people. This study revealed that as adults, this exercise had a lasting impact on them in their interactions with other people.

That’s why an idea like klassens time is so powerful – it teaches children empathy in a very natural and easy way.

Why is klassens time so important?

Oftentimes, grown-ups dismiss children’s problems as trivial, because to them, they really do seem trivial.

But problems like odd socks aren’t trivial to children. They’re very real to them, and it’s their way of understanding and processing the world around them. Klassens time is part of taking children seriously. It’s about recognising that these small conflicts have huge meanings for children, and it’s introducing children to the tools they’ll use to work through feelings and problems like this in the future.

Maybe most importantly: these lessons stick. Just like the children remembered the feeling of discrimation in the class experiment, we have a chance to teach our youngest ones to understand the feelings and actions of everyone around them, and it will stay with them well into adulthood. It’s equipping them to open up their minds and acknowledge that everyone else has feelings too. And we don’t have to wait until a child reaches school-age to do that.

The earlier we can encourage sharing of problems, emotions and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, the better. Little minds really do remember.

Boosting children’s mental health

We’ve talked about empathy and helping children understand the world around them, but this atmosphere of openness and trust of klassens time can actually boost children’s mental health, too. If a child feels that they are able to discuss a problem without judgement, they’re more likely to share what they’re feeling.

“If a child comes to you and tells you they’ve had a nightmare, the worst thing you can do is to tell them that there’s no such things as nightmares. The child will translate this as the nightmare doesn’t matter, worse, they, the child doesn’t matter. Such rejections in childhood can lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in adulthood,”says Helen.

If children don’t have this space or this time, they might ignore insecurities and fears because they’re terrified that they won’t be taken seriously. This is exactly where mental health issues creep in, as children don’t feel valued as a person. Giving children a voice so they feel empowered is critical – and a lot of that empowerment comes from the respect we as adults give them.

The learned helplessness cycle

Helen uses the idea of a baby elephant to perfectly describe what happens when children don’t have a positive and nurturing environment, and don’t receive validation or respect.

“A baby elephant is tied with ropes and chains at the circus. The elephant grows into an adult, and as an adult now has the strength to escape. But having developed the learned helpless state, the elephant doesn’t attempt to escape. This is what we call a helplessness scenario.”

The elephant has learned to be helpless. Let’s take a look at why this example is so important when it comes to children’s emotions and our response to them.

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What does learned helplessness look like in children?

Learned helplessness is exactly what happens when children’s emotions aren’t validated or taken seriously. Let’s take a look at what happens when an adult doesn’t validate an emotion, and what consequences this has on a child’s capabilities later in life:

  1. An adult dismisses a nightmare by saying ‘Nightmares don’t exist.’
  2. The child hasn’t been given the response they wanted or needed – mainly to feel that their fear is taken seriously, and that it’s real.
  3. In trying to protect the child from the nightmare, the adult gives the child the idea that the nightmare isn’t worthy enough to talk about together, and that it isn’t a real problem to the child.
  4. When the child gets older, they’ll remember the response adults gave when they expressed feelings of fear or anxiety.
  5. They’ll become full of self-doubt in adulthood, as they do not know if their fears or worries are valid in anyone else’s eyes. They will repeat this learned helplessness, just like the baby elephant, and they won’t be able to move forward.

You don’t have to do anything spectacular or be a superhero in your response to stop this – all you need to do is respond with respect so that the child doesn’t bury their own emotions. This small act plays a huge role in creating an environment of trust and openness, and of mutual respect.

How this all relates to klassens time and what you can do next

These are all really big ideas, but they all come back to this idea of klassens time.

Before we can get to the point where we respond to children’s worries and fears to validate and support them, children need to realise that not only are their emotions and problems valid and worthy of an adult’s time, but they’re worthy of discussion by other children, too.

Giving them this space to explore and talk together is a fantastic way to introduce other experiences, shared understanding, problem solving and emotional validation.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Books are a fantastic way for children to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s the perfect chance to bring up a problem and talk about it as a whole group. Why not extend a problem a child is having by exploring it through a book with the group?
  • Cake! A lot of schools in Denmark provide cake during klassens time as a way of marking the time as a special event. This is mainly for older children, but have a think of ways to make this time a special one. By doing this, it shows the children that the activity, and therefore their problems, are special and worthy.
  • For the children who are slightly older, show and tell is another great way to engage in klassens time. The child might bring an object that’s really important to them, and you can ask them why, what it means to them and the emotions they associate with it.

The options are endless – you can tweak them to whatever works best in your setting. The only thing you need to do is create an activity or discussion that involves the entire group. It’s all about togetherness, and you can be as inventive as you like!

If you’d like to read more of Helen’s work on empathy in education, she’s brought out an entire book on the subject.

graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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