Mental health: Can reading books really teach empathy?

The right stories can do wonderful things around helping young people to understand other people's feelings, according to the founders of Empathy Day

Miranda McKearney and Jo Cotterill

What all teachers need? Empathy and a moral imperative

During the pandemic, many children saw their worlds shrink and their lives narrowed.

At the same time, many will have witnessed a wave of community caring based on thinking about others’ needs: a kind of collective act of perspective-taking.

Both of these factors bring empathy into sharp focus and make the theme of this year’s Empathy Day (on June 10th) – walking in someone else’s shoes – especially relevant. 


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Teachers already know the power of empathy and how it can ensure that troubled children feel safe enough to learn. But can we teach children to understand and connect with other people’s experiences? 

Empathy Day is founded on research showing that empathy is indeed learnable, and that books are a key tool.

Scientists have found that only 10 per cent of our empathic capacity is genetic and anything on top of that is learned. We are capable of increasing our empathy at any point in our lives, although this key life skill is best learned young.

Excitingly, science also shows that we can train our brains through stories. When we read, our brains react in the same way as if the fictional situations were real. This means we can experience characters’ feelings, which helps us to understand others better in real life.

In choosing the books that will work this magic, we should search out texts that will boost empathy and broaden horizons: ones set in other countries and with characters from races, religions and cultures different from the ones your pupils know. 

Look out for books where characters have very different points of view, or are living through the same set of circumstances, but from very different starting points. There are lots of suggestions in the annual Read For Empathy collections. 

How to increase empathy with books

  1. When discussing a book, focus more on characters and their feelings than the plot.
  2. Allow children time to ponder responses to gently exploratory questions: “Which character was the most interesting?” and “Why do you think X behaves in this way?”
  3. Ring-fence time to read a shared book aloud, including at secondary level. This helps build an empathic reading community, with everyone gaining insights into each other.

How Empathy Day can help

Empathy Day’s centrepiece is an online festival with leading authors and illustrators. The programme’s creative short videos can be streamed directly into your classroom to kickstart empathy activities and discussion.

Highlights include poet Joseph Coelho taking us on an empathy walk, Malorie Blackman, and bestselling authors Holly Bourne and Bali Rai, sharing how they create characters that build real-life empathy, and Michael Morpurgo talking about putting empathy into action. 

Some of the sessions will also focus on specific empathy skills: Jacqueline Wilson shares tips on great listening, while AM Dassu and rapper Adisa show how to understand someone else’s feelings by mirroring their body language. There are also 12 free stories from award-winning authors, suitable for all ages. 

For more information on Empathy Day, visit www.empathylab.uk and follow @EmpathyLabUK

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Miranda McKearney and Jo Cotterill

Miranda McKearney is founder of Empathy Lab and Jo Cotterill is a teacher and author

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