EmpathyLab is a new organisation passionate about the power of empathy to make the world a better place and the power of stories to build empathy. They believe that as a society, and from within our education system, we are massively under-exploiting the power of reading to build the next generation’s empathy skills. Working with a number of pioneer schools across the country, they are testing a new Empathy Explorers programme, aiming to roll this out in 2019.
Scientists and academics are increasingly able to show that literature provides a fantastic empathy workout. Simply put, fiction improves what psychologists call “theory of mind” – an understanding of how other people feel and think. As we read, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story and the empathetic emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
Coddington School is fortunate to have become one of EmpathyLab’s pioneer schools. We joined forces with them in November 2017, when I was invited to attend a meeting in London. Expert briefings developed my understanding of the science of empathy and I gained an insight into how the other pilot schools have used EmpathyLab’s ideas. I came away inspired, ready to take their message of the importance of empathy and the power of storytelling back to my school to share with staff, pupils and parents.
Upon my return to school, I created an action plan which linked EmpathyLab approaches to our School Development Plan – you need empathy skills to understand literature and secure emotional wellbeing in order to access the curriculum and to succeed in later life.
In order to kick start our involvement we dedicated an Inset day to staff training – this enabled us to develop a common language around empathy – crucially exploring the differences between empathy and sympathy. This was led by Miranda McKearney OBE (one of the founders of EmpathyLab and a passionate advocate for the power of reading to enhance empathetic skills and to change lives). Staff worked on listening and questioning skills, and discovered books with strong empathy links. They were given time to choose books and plan activities designed to enable our pupils to develop their empathetic skills.
We launched our whole school initiative on World Book Day, introducing the children to the concept of empathy by reinforcing the link between reading high quality texts and using them to enhance our own innate empathetic qualities. Subsequently, our pupils have been reading, sharing and discussing carefully selected texts within their classes.
Books read so far have included
Can I Join Your Club? By John Kelly and Steph Laberis, Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies, My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milne, Longer texts have included: Wonder by RJ Palacio, Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo, The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, Cogheart by Peter Bunzi (These are only a few of the books read and shared)
We use these texts (and others) not only as part of our EmapthyLab initiative but as part of our Reading For Pleasure focus and through this our hope is to engage our pupils in a lifelong love of reading.
From an empathic stance it has been really important to guide our pupils in how to look from other people’s perspectives, in how to engage in active listening and how to understand that somebody’s body language can give you clues about their real emotions.
We were building EmpathyLab approaches into work we already do – developing listening skills thorough circle time and by teaching a robust PSHE and RE curriculum. We have a firm foundation in our 7 Rainbow Values and we decided that Empathy would become our overarching value.
EmpathyLab has a “triple win” approach – an approach which aims to build, simultaneously, children’s empathy and literacy skills and their social activism.
As a school we have started an inter-generational choir – by inviting grandparents and the elderly in our local community to come and sing with us we hope to highlight the issues of loneliness and isolation and to enable our pupils to look outside of themselves and to begin to engage in the wider world. Our first gathering will be on Friday 8th June; we will have four rehearsals and then hold a short concert, to which members of the public will be invited. This is our first foray into developing our school’s social activism and we have many other ideas to be implemented in the future.
Empathy Day on Tuesday June 12th is a day designed to highlight how we can harness the power of reading stories to develop empathy skills.
The whole school will be involved – we will be hosting ‘reading cafes’ at the beginning and the end of school day –quiet areas where parents/carers and children can sit and read and share books together. We have linked up with a local secondary school and some of their pupils will be in school that day – they have been accessing the invaluable resources created by the EmpathyLab team and will deliver short sessions to different classes across the school. We will hold whole school assemblies and extend our Empathy display area.
We are just at the start of our EmpathyLab involvement – the possibilities for further embedding it in our school are endless – parents and carers have been very engaged with what we are trying to do and the pupils themselves are enjoying developing their love of literature, their empathetic skills and learning more about the world around us.
Personally, I feel that it is an initiative of vital importance and I am lucky to be part of it.