Empathy: why pupils need to develop it more than ever

Ahead of Empathy Day, this author and former teacher highlights the role books can play in developing children's empathy

Cath Howe

Developing empathy is now more important than ever for school pupils, writes Cath Howe

When I go into schools to deliver workshops on empathy, I tell the children about Ella.

Ella is a new girl at school. She arrives with no friends, the wrong uniform on and a family secret that she has promised not to discuss.

“What does new mean? Who here has ever been new?” I ask them. We realise, of course, that we all have.

I pin a dozen negative comments to a school fleece – things said unthinkingly to a new pupil. “Why are you standing there?” “That’s the wrong book.” “Is that really your bag?”

We all agree, these comments are troubling: Ella must feel very alone.

How would you like to welcome Ella? I ask next. We cover up the negative comments with Post-its of the children’s thoughtful suggestions. “Do you want to sit next to me?” “Can I show you around school?” “Can I be your friend?”

Ella becomes real to them, even though she hangs from a coat hanger at the front as a burgundy fleece. And when I get a volunteer to put on the fleece inside-out, I tell them Ella carries everything said to her that day home inside her: all those words, good and bad.

Ella is a character from my book Ella on the Outside. Writers take readers into their characters’ lives: our readers worry, laugh and cry with these fictional creations. The same is true of my second book, Not My Fault, which is narrated by two characters encouraging readers to appreciate opposing perspectives. Put quite simply, books are an incredible tool at helping our children – no matter their age – to develop empathy.

Empathy is a valuable skill

Psychologists have highlighted empathy’s central place in the bank of social and emotional skills that young people need to thrive. Research reveals the significance of these life skills, showing that social and emotional skills are more significant for young people’s academic attainment than their IQ. Our brains are plastic and 98 per cent of us are capable of building our empathy skills at any time in our lives.

Teaching empathy is key because in doing so we alert children to ways of modifying their relationships with one another that benefit the whole school community. Anyone who has read to a class from a compelling story knows the power of it: stories cast a spell.

The demands of the curriculum mean that focused social and emotional learning is often squeezed, or bolted on. Using stories as our starting point produces a lighter touch – listeners are drawn in and able to reflect on human behaviour and motives. If we simply lecture children about caring for each other, they won’t engage in the same way. Also, using stories protects the children in the class who are vulnerable: we explore characters in a story allowing difficult home lives to be held at arm’s length.

Our children are growing up in a society with a major empathy deficit. Hate crimes are at their highest level since records began and there are growing concerns about the empathy-draining effects of social media.

This is not to say that other approaches to developing greater empathy are of no value, but simply to underline the power of story in seeding the ground. If children become more adept at recognising complex emotions, they have a vocabulary for life with which to meet the difficulties they will face and, crucially, we help them to be more aware of the needs of the people around them. Empathy teaching stresses community and the ways in which, for example, casual cruelty impacts on all those connected with it. This greater awareness has the power to influence how they treat one another into adulthood.

Equipping young people with strong empathy skills can be a major engine for social change, because understanding others helps us to become better citizens, partners and workmates. Some 94 per cent of employers say that social and emotional skills are as important in the workplace as academic qualifications, and all frameworks for these skills highlight the importance of relating well to others.

EmpathyLab is determined to ensure that all children develop a strong sense of empathy to ensure that they can thrive throughout their lives. As well as working with 11 pilot schools to integrate an empathy-focus into year-round, whole-school activities and lessons, it has also launched a National Empathy Day, in which it encourage all schools to #ReadForEmpathy. This approach is working: a recent report on pioneer schools highlighted five impacts, including on children’s wellbeing, with 75 per cent of teachers reporting that children were calmer and less stressed and 100 per cent reporting that children could more easily name and share emotions.

Alongside many other authors running events on 11 June, I will lead workshops in one of EmpathyLab’s pioneer schools: Coddington Primary School in Newark. This school already has so many plans to mark the day, including a group of past pupils returning to work with classes, planning activities and hosting reading cafes during playtimes. Children apply to be "empathy counsellors" at Coddington. One such written application reads: “I would look out for people that are feeling sad….. with no one beside them. I would say, 'What is the matter? …..I will go away if you want me to, I will get a teacher but know that I am here for you.'” What an advert for the values of empathy awareness in a school.

One thing is crystal clear: when children become fired-up advocates for empathy, there are no losers. In a very real sense, we all feel better.

Cath Howe is a children's author and former teacher. 

If you want to know more about EmpathyLab and Empathy Day on 11 June 2019, click here and follow @EmpathyLabUK #ReadForEmpathy #EmpathyDay.

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