Reading for empathy
Developing the explicit teaching of empathy through reading
In preparing young people for the challenges ahead of them, empathy has a vital role to play. Reading provides the perfect vehicle to develop this skill, according to Helen Mulligan.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to experience and understand other people’s emotions and perspectives. It builds stronger, kinder communities and it’s a crucial life skill that children need to learn, thrive and make a positive difference.
Importantly, we’re not born with a fixed quantity of empathy. Only 10% of our empathic capacity is genetic. That means it’s a skill we can all learn and helping children learn empathy skills as early as possible is critical.
Why is it important?
In recent years a major body of evidence has developed showing that social and emotional skills are essential for young people to learn and thrive and that they are more significant for young people’s academic attainment than their IQ.
Of these skills, empathy is increasingly recognised as pivotal in educational settings, because it builds the relationships, co-operative skills and feelings of safety that young people need to learn, is a key factor in moral behaviour and is a key foundation to kindness which underpins wellbeing.
What’s the link between empathy and reading?
Exciting research developments have shown that in stories and well-drawn book characters, we have a powerful tool at our fingertips to build our empathy skills. Stories are a training ground for understanding other people’s emotions.
At the heart of how we develop empathy through reading is the way in which our brain responds to stories. When we hear simple facts, the information only hits the language processing parts of our brain, but things change dramatically when we’re being told a story – many more areas of our brain light up. If the author tells us about some delicious food, our sensory cortex lights up. If we read about motion, the motor cortex is engaged. This is so powerful that your brain tricks you into thinking you are really there in the story.
This means that we experience the character’s feelings as if they are real and can therefore understand and experience the emotions and perspectives of people who are different from us. Books are a springboard for empathy-education and a wonderful, safe way for children to learn about other people.
Five tips and tools for using reading to build empathy
- Choose books that are good for empathy work
Books can help children develop new perspectives, name and share their emotions and inspire them to turn feelings of empathy into action.
You should look for books which:
- Have expertly crafted characters who readers care about and which explore characters’ feelings and motivations.
- Challenge tribal thinking through building understanding about different individuals and communities.
- Support the development of key empathy skills: perspective taking (e.g. through different characters’ points of view); emotion recognition/vocabulary; active listening; the ability to put empathy into action.
- Tackle key empathy issues of the day, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis, loneliness, etc.
- Provide insight into other challenging life circumstances like bereavement or bullying.
- Introduce children to stories set in other countries and with characters of different races, religions and experiences.
Don’t forget the pictures – illustrations are especially good for ‘reading’ other people!
- Focus on characters
Focus in on the characters of a book and their feelings instead of focusing on the plot or technical aspects of the book. Leave plenty of space for discussion and reflection, and keep within the safety of the book – children will process their own feelings and understand others through the characters and their experiences.
- Build a language for emotions
In order to share their emotions and understand other people’s, children first need to be able to recognise and name their own. As you talk about books, pick up on new words for feelings used by the author and share what they mean – have fun making the face or modelling the body language that accompanies the feeling.
- Model empathic communication
Listening is a key aspect of empathy, so listen carefully as children explore what they’ve learnt about other people and work on developing active listening skills.
- Put empathy into action
Has a book helped children see the world differently? Do they feel inspired to do something to help others or to combat hatred? Can you act on this as a community, or a family?
How can you get involved?
- Become an EmpathyLab Affiliate School, a powerful whole school programme that develops and embeds empathy as a core skill, value and practice across your school community. Alongside better empathy skills, other outcomes include improvements in reading for pleasure, wellbeing & active citizenship.
- Use our free annual Read for Empathy collections: 65 books for 3-16 year old selected by experts for their empathy-building qualities.
- Join our expert-led CPD training for schools and libraries
- Learn more about Empathy Action Month! Taking place throughout November.
- Use our children’s empathy handbook written by Rashmi Sirdeshpande, We’ve Got This!
- Join us for Empathy Day 2024, an annual campaign led by authors and illustrators, inspiring young people to learn about empathy.
- Explore exclusive author/illustrator content, like Empathy Shorts and the Illustrators’ Gallery
EmpathyLab works with schools (as well as authors and illustrators) to systematically exploit the power of literature to explicitly build empathy skills.
There are lots of resources available on our website to support schools and schools wanting a deeper focus on empathy education can join our Affiliate Schools Programme.
Would you like to partner with us for Empathy Day 2024? We’d love to hear from you!
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Helen Mulligan is EmpathyLab’s School Engagement Consultant. After 15 years teaching and leading schools both in the UK and internationally, Helen now works as a freelance consultant and coach, working with young people and adults to get the results they want.
 Warrier, V., Toro, R., Chakrabarti, B. et al. Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa. Transl Psychiatry 8, 35 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-017-0082-6
 Feinstein, L. Social and Emotional Learning: Skills for Life and Work. 2015
 Bomber, L. & Hughes, D. Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School, 2013
 Decety J, Cowell JM. Empathy, justice, and moral behavior. AJOB Neurosci. 2015;6(3):3-14.
All other images with kind permission from the Empathy Lab