2 ways to teach empathy that work - and why it matters

Ginny Bootman has found two ways that work well for helping young children understand the concept of empathy that will set them on a path to a kinder future

Ginny Bootman

What all teachers need? Empathy and a moral imperative

The role of empathy within the school setting is so important. It is something we need to teach children as a life skill for them to use throughout their lives.

But in my experience this can be quite difficult. 

We come across children who, through previous life experiences, have got templates which mean that they find the concept of empathy very difficult to understand, never mind impart to others on a daily basis.

Too often I have modelled empathy only to realise that some children have not got the capacity at that moment to understand or internalise what I am trying to mirror for them.

This is often the case with children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. Their brains are channelling a pathway which to them is the norm and needs careful guidance to help them build new pathways and new templates.

I have taken a long, hard look at my own practice to see how I can change what I do to help these children who do not seem to be able to access empathy easily via a first-person modelled approach.

It became clear to me as I unpeeled this onion of empathy that it was at times threatening for children to say that they had done something wrong. They had a barrier, a shield as a protection mechanism that they weren’t ready to let any in.

I’m guessing it was linked to trust. If I trust you and tell you, then you will judge me as others have in the past. This breaking down of barriers is so difficult. As one boy said to me recently, "Shout at me like everyone else does, I just don’t hear it."

1. The third person

A new way I have found to model empathy is by using the third person. Such a simple idea and yet one that is relatively new to me.

This helps children to identify their behaviour through another individual, this could be by referring to the person we are talking about as "the other you" or in the form of a puppet or Lego figure. I would love to know of any research which backs this up as I find the whole concept so interesting.

I often use this and it has very positive results as the child seems far more prone to identify the behaviour in this other person and find fault with them and give them advice on what to do when it happens again and ways to manage this in the future.

The great thing is that in time this then paves the way to change from the third person to the first person.

It is like a bridge they cross as their understanding of empathy increases and they feel valued and listened to and trust is built.

2. Character building

Another way I have found to help children empathise is by helping them relate to a character in a book.

This is very powerful and once again elicits empathy as the children are once removed from the character they read about. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a book I love for this purpose.

To me Edward is not an imaginary porcelain rabbit. He is a person with feelings and a heart. The way Kate DiCamillo introduces us to this little fellow in all of his finery makes us love him from the first page. His adventures send him through so much angst and all we want is for him to be safe and loved.

When my class and I talk about Edward Tulane we hold our hands to our hearts because he truly has a place in all of our hearts. We all want to be safe and loved. It is a fundamental of life and without it we are lost and afraid.

You no doubt have other books you love that could provide a similar sense of togetherness in class and promote feelings of empathy.

This is important. Empathy is a fundamental we should all be helping the children in our care see as a given.

Follow the empathy road. Just remember we don’t all start at the same place on that journey.

Ginny Bootman is a speaker regarding looked-after children and the role of empathy within the classroom. She is Sendco within Evolve Church Academy, South Northants

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