#ReadforEmpathy on June 13th!
A new UK based organisation, EmpathyLab, has been working in 11 pilot schools with children aged 4 – 11 and their teachers, exploring the idea of empathy. They will all be celebrating Empathy Day on June 13. EmpathyLab’s founder, Miranda McKearney talks to ITM’s Andy Homden.
The importance of empathy
Miranda McKearney, previously the CEO of the Reading Agency, has become convinced by the growing body of research evidence showing that reading builds empathy, and that empathy is vital for both cognitive development and human well being.
Empathy – a handbook for revolution
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What is it?
Empathy isn’t an easy concept as McKearney explains:
“Our understanding of the complex mechanisms underpinning empathy is changing all the time: psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists and philosophers have different interpretations.”
Despite these complexities, according to McKearney
“Empathy is made up of three main elements: emotional/affective empathy where we literally resonate with someone else’s feelings; cognitive empathy or perspective taking where we apply reason to work out how someone else feels and “empathic concern”, which is a powerful motivator for helping others and a force for social justice”.
Empathy, then, is a form of understanding, which for McKearney is part of the way we are. To deny it is denying our human nature. For her, quite simply, empathy “is a core life skill”.
Empathy, not sympathy
Empathy, according to McKearney, should not be confused with “sympathy.” As philosopher Roman Krznaric suggests in his 2014 publication, Empathy a handbook for revolution
“Sympathy typically refers to an emotional response that is not shared”
A sympathetic response can involve pity for someone while empathetic understanding does not involve the same often self–centred emotion.
How empathy helps
The role of empathy in human development is gaining increasing recognition as the result of the work of people like Robin Banerjee, Professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Sussex, who suggests that
“Empathy is a pivotal factor in children’s wellbeing – my research identifies its relevance to behaviour, mental health, and achievement at school. Work to support it is relevant to all children, but especially those who are vulnerable”
Empathy lab and the pilot schools
Not surprisingly, with her love of children’s literature, McKearney is convinced that reading and the capacity of losing yourself in a good story is one of the most important ways in which children can develop their capacity to empathise. In her view
“Helping children learn about empathy through books lays strong foundations for resisting prejudice and intolerance. Neuroscience research shows that the emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people”.
What will be happening on Empathy Day?
The pilot schools who have been working with EmpathyLab will hold Empathy Award ceremonies to celebrate children’s choices of book characters showing exceptional empathy (e.g. Miss Honey from Matilda or Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon). Any school can get involved by creating book displays and joining in the social media campaign, using the hashtags #ReadforEmpathy and #EmpathyDay
The Read for Empathy guide gives parents book recommendations and research-based tips for talking about books in ways which build children’s ability to understand others. This can be downloaded from www.empathylab.uk.
Author partners will be recommending the books which helped them understand other people better, again using the hashtags #ReadforEmpathy and #EmpathyDay, while former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell has contributed a special illustration to be shared across social media. Authors running 13 June sessions in schools include BBC Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney, Cathy Cassidy, Jo Cotterill, Elizabeth Laird, Alan MacDonald, Ross Montgomery, Tamsyn Murray and CBBC presenter Katie Thisleton.
Big hitters get behind Empathy Day
Some of the biggest names in children’s literature do not need convincing of the power of empathy or the ideas behind Empathy Day. According to Dame Jacqueline Wilson:
“To be a successful human being, you need to be in touch with other people’s feelings. I’m fascinated by EmpathyLab, by its ideas, and by the way it’s drawing together the world of words with the fields of neuroscience and wellbeing. I’m delighted to see the launch of Empathy Day and it’s marvellous that schools with be holding special Empathy Award ceremonies on June 13.”
Pioneer schools pilot evaluation
EmapathyLab have recently released a report examining the effect of the work being done in the 11 pilot schools where they have been working. In many respects, they report, the impact has exceeded expectations. This report is now available to download here:
Find out more
To find out more about empathy, its importance for young people and the work of EmpathyLab see:
Andy Homden was talking to Miranda McKearney
Follow EmpathyLab and Miranda McKearney on Twitter
Meanwhile, how about some poetry for June?