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How reading can boost empathy

On the second annual Empathy Day, pupils are being asked to #ReadForEmpathy and put themselves in someone else’s shoes

Empathy Day

On the second annual Empathy Day, pupils are being asked to #ReadForEmpathy and put themselves in someone else’s shoes

Here’s a question for you: how empathic do you think you are? As a teacher, it’s likely your answer will be ‘very’. But how empathetic do you think your pupils are? This answer may vary more.

In a society in which hate crimes are rocketing and public discourse is arguably more divisive ever, being able to empathise – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person – is something that every member of our society should be able to do.

But what about those who seemingly have low levels of empathy? Can they become more empathic? Is it a skill that can be taught?

Yes, says Miranda McKearney, founder of community interest company Empathy Lab.

“All of us can improve our empathy skills because our brains are plastic. We’re not just born with a fixed quantity of empathy. And psychologists advise us that it’s best to do that young, in school-aged pupils,” McKearney says.

At this point, teachers across the country may groan: is 'teaching empathy' yet another task to add to their already long to-do lists?

No, says McKearney, the answer to increasing empathy lies in something that schools already practice every single day: reading.

“There’s some really brilliant scientific research coming through which shows that immersion in the right kind of literature and identifying with book characters and their emotions builds real-life empathy," she explains.

“What the research shows is that books are a bit like flight simulators in which you’re learning to fly, but you’re not actually flying. The research likens the effects of literature to that: effectively you’re able to practice your social skills by becoming involved in a character and following their emotions. This expands your own understanding of other people’s feelings, and you can recognise those feelings in yourself.

“It’s not rocket science is it? You know that when you’re reading it massively helps you to understand the world and how other people work.”

Empathy Day

Today marks the second national Empathy Day – an event which was piloted by Empathy Lab last year, and which McKearney hopes will become as big as World Book Day. Following on from their 2017 success, Empathy Lab is encouraging schools to #ReadForEmpathy, and has released a list of 30 books to aid four to 11-year-olds with this.

The theory behind the movement is that immersion in literature leads to increased empathy and literacy, which leads to social awareness, and ultimately, increased social activism.

Jane Flood is the head of learning at Netley Marsh CE Infant School, one of 10 "pioneer schools" that Empathy Lab works with.

"We introduced it to the children with a picture of a pair of shoes," says Flood. "Empathy to our children is about standing in someone else’s shoes, seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint."

Netley Marsh has been working with Empathy Lab for two and a half years and the 'reading for empathy' theme is firmly embedded in the school's culture. Not only do the children now read more in the classroom, but they read more at home, too. The school hosts 'empathy cafes' for parents to attend, in which they talk about the books their children have been reading.   

Flood says that the school seen an increase in empathic behaviour (the children are a lot nicer to each other, she says), and also a rise in reading levels.

And reading takes pride of place in today’s Empathy Day activities. Pupils at Netley Marsh will be hosting the ‘Empathy Awards’: which will see the children vote for the book character (pre-selected from five stories) they believe has the most empathy. The awards will be attended by two special guests: author and illustrators Sue Hendra and Shoo Rayner, both of who have a strong affiliation with Empathy Lab, and a belief that reading is the key to building empathy. 

“When you read a book it’s the closest you can possibly get to getting inside somebody else’s brain, and looking out through their eyes,” says Rayner. “When you’re watching a film, you’re seeing someone else do something, but when you’re reading you can really become that person and be in a terrifying, or funny situation, and see the world from other people’s point of view. Which of course, is what empathy is all about.”

Empathy Lab's 30 books to build empathy  

30 books to build empathy

The No.1 Car Spotter Flights the Factory, Atinuke

Leo: a Ghost Story, Mac Barnett

El Deafo, Cece Bell

The Wild Robot, Peter Brown

Willy and the Cloud, Anthony Browne

Tender Earth, Sita Brahmachari

Overheard in a Tower Block, Joseph Coelho

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Grandad’s Island, Benji Davies

King of the Sky, Nicola Davies

Ballerina Dreams, Michaela and Elaine DePrince

Illegal, Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Me and Mister P, Maria Farrer

The Parrot and the Merchant, Pippa Goohart and Marjan Vafaian

The Song from Somewhere Else, A.F Harrold

Colin and Lee, Carrot and Pea, Morag Hood

Can I Join Your Club?, John Kelly

Here I Am, Patti Kim

Sky Dancer, Gill Lewis

Charlie and Me: 421 Miles from Home, Mark Lowery

15 Things Not to Do with a Granny, Margaret McAllister

Lulu Gets a Cat, Anna Mcquinn

The Island at the End of Everything, Kiran Millwood Hargrave

My Name is Not Refugee, Kate Milner

Perfectly Norman, Tom Percival

Smart, Kim Slater

You’re Safe With Me, Chitra Soundar

The Guggenheim Mystery, Robin Stevens

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, Jo Witek

The Road to Ever After, Moira Young

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