Sarah Mears and Miranda McKearney, leaders of a new empathy army, report back on the work and findings of EmpathyLab.
In today’s divided world, empathy feels in very short supply. How can we witness the plight of a refugee child and fail to take action? How have we allowed the shocking post- Referendum rise in racist hate crimes? Michele Borba, author of Unselfie, says USA research shows a measureable dip in young people’s empathy levels. She says they are ‘the most self-centred, saddest and stressed on record.’
Suddenly the question of how we raise our children to be caring, open minded and unprejudiced people seems so much more pressing, and so much more difficult.
But there is good news! Hard new scientific evidence shows that our brains are plastic and with practice 98% of us can strengthen our empathy skills. Excitingly, neuroscientists are showing that literature is a potent tool.
A building body of research shows that the brain reacts to fictional worlds as if they were real. Fiction develops new neural pathways, improving what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’ - an understanding of how other people feel and think. Scientists say that as we read, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story and the empathic emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
Brilliantly, this emotional engagement with stories also improves children’s literacy and attitudes to reading.
EmpathyLab, a new organisation founded in 2014, is on a quest to help thousands more children experience the transformative impact of stories in building their empathy skills. We target 4-11 year olds, their teachers and parents. Our first big step has been to partner teachers in developing a ‘triple win’ framework which helps children simultaneously improve their literacy skills, their empathy skills and wellbeing, and get involved in social action.
In 2015, EmpathyLab formed an experimental partnership with 11 primary schools to explore empathy-focused teaching and learning through stories. The aim of the year was to test how our strategies and programmes could help build children’s empathy skills, particularly investigating:
the ability to feel, connect to and respect another person’s feelings and perspectives;
empathic listening and talking;
having a language to recognise and share emotions and reflect upon them;
Putting empathic understanding into action.
The schools explored how to embed empathy into the School Development Plan and teaching strategies. They used EmpathyLab programmes to forge different pathways through texts, focusing more on characters and emotions than plot, and using unusual immersive activities to deepen children’s ability to empathise.
In Hampshire’s Stanmore School, children became Empathy Detectives, investigating homelessness. They started with stories like Way Home by Libby Hathorn and Gregory Rogers, worked with author Bali Rai to explore prejudice towards the homeless, had a powerful visit from the local Nightshelter, and experienced an uncomfortable sleep out in the school grounds.
Brockley’s John Stainer School tested Empathy Awards - one of the programme ideas that we think could go national. Children and parents read together to identify and nominate book characters showing exceptional empathy. The whole school voted and the winner - Matilda’s very own Miss Honey - was announced at a red carpet award ceremony.
All the schools participated in BookSpotters. Teams of children identified and shared great empathy texts, contributing to a shared database of empathy book recommendations.
The programmes were underpinned by the explicit teaching of the meaning and value of empathy, alongside creative strategies to help children expand their vocabulary for feelings and practise empathy book-talking.
You can find the full evaluation report here.
We found that the work had most impact when it was clearly embedded within school plans, and championed by the Senior Leadership Team. Teachers’ understanding of the educational importance of empathy rose from 68% to 99%.
We found evidence of impact in five areas:
Literacy: 100% of participating teachers reported a positive impact on children’s reading frequency and range; enjoyment of reading and vocabulary. ‘If you learn about empathy and read books that include it you get more from your reading. When I feel empathy in stories, I slow down; sometimes I stop and think so much more’. (Year 5 boy, Moorlands Primary Academy).
Empathy and wellbeing: teachers reported improvements in all our target empathy skills: ‘As a result of feelings, character and empathy work she can now recognise and express her own feelings and those of others. She is calmer in the playground and happier’. (Teacher St Hilda’s).
Family involvement: Headteachers report higher-than-usual levels of parental engagement. Parents are motivated by the idea of a ‘double win’ – that they can help their child simultaneously develop empathy and literacy.
Social action: EmpathyLab schools have been surprised by how fired up children are becoming about putting empathy into action, at school and in the community.
In 2017 we will work with leadership teams in 15 pioneer primary schools, deepening our testing and evidence base. We also hope to develop an ‘Empathy-Intro’ package for other schools.
We will train 30 authors, as the start of our author Empathy Army; work with an increasing number of publishers and start to involve libraries. We will pilot a brand new Empathy Day on 13 June – do join in by following @EmpathyLabUK and Tweeting your favourite empathy-boosting books on #EmpathyDay.
It’s early days for EmpathyLab, but we are encouraged and excited by the results of this pioneer year. The findings have strengthened our belief in the power of empathy to create calmer, kinder and more tolerant children and communities. And in the power of books to build bridges between us – bridges, not walls.
Sarah Mears is Library Service Manager, Essex Libraries, a member of the Society of Chief Librarians’ National Executive, and was recently Chair of ASCEL (The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians).
Miranda McKearney is a social justice entrepreneur who has spent 35 years turning kitchen table ideas into nationwide campaigns, culminating in founding The Reading Agency, a national charity, in 2002.
Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World, Michele Borba, Simon and Schuster, 978-1-5011-1003-0, £20.00
Way Home, Libby Hathorn illus Gregory Rogers, Andersen Press, 978-1-8427-0232-1, £6.99 pbk
Matilda, Roald Dahl illus Quentin Blake, Puffin, 978-0-1413-6546-6, £6.99 pbk
 Oatley, K. 2011: Such Stuff as Dreams, The Psychology of Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell