EmpathyLab blog

By EmpathyLab 25 Jul, 2017

  Since Empathy Day on 13 June, we’ve been hearing from librarians who made things happen in communities, from empathy themed class visits to creative events based on a single book. They welcomed the chance to focus on how reading can help children build vital empathy skills – as one enthusiast tweeted: “libraries are Empathy Warehouses!”.

 19 library services and two Schools Library Services joined in with Empathy Day, from North Tyneside to Devon. This was far more than we were expecting, and we’re thrilled by their creative response and the interest they generated in their communities.

Sheffield Libraries involved Chatterbooks reading group children from all over the city in a creative writing session led by author Nik Perring. Librarian Tina Barber reports: “children’s writing was based on empathy themed books that they’d read. We asked them to put themselves in a book character’s shoes and write a letter advising them how to make their situation more bearable. This produced some profound and moving pieces of work”. Nik Perring says “ This was something different. One of the most important things we can do as people is to think about what other people might be feeling, and putting ourselves in character’s shoes made for some really interesting discussion…we had characters with OCD, autism – we had bullying – all sorts. I met brilliant and talented and caring young people who made brilliant art and stories”.

St Helens libraries ran a series of very well received empathy class visits for targeted schools, exploring feelings and characters’ perspectives through a shared book. Younger children focused on David Litchfield’s  The Bear and the Piano , and older children took a fresh look at what Goldilocks did before she broke into the bears’ house. Library staff created displays of books using the theme “walk in their shoes”. Kathryn Boothroyd, Service Development Manager, says: “libraries have a very important role in highlighting the vital part reading plays in supporting empathy skills, and help schools find suitable contemporary fiction for their pupils”

North Tyneside library staff made wordles based on their favourite children’s books. These were tweeted, posted on the library facebook page and used in an Empathy Day display.  “Creating wordles made people think about the emotional impact of their favourite books, reinforcing the power of literature to enhance self awareness and a greater understanding and connection to the lives of others”.

Totton library in Hampshire worked with a local school, Netley Marsh Infants, supporting children’s work on making Empathy Awards to book characters showing exceptional empathy. The schools’ Executive Headteacher stationed herself at the library to encourage families to make several library visits in the run up to Empathy Day. The children loved it:  We can’t wait to find out which book has won the award. I am going to go to the library next time to get my book chosen.”  (Y2 boy).  

Essex Libraries piloted an empathy-focused event for young library users in Chelmsford, basing it on Oliver Jeffers’ superb book,  The Day The Crayons Quit . Children aged 4-7 were very thoughtful in exploring the squabbling crayons’ different viewpoints, and learnt new words for feelings. This was a very different kind of story event, involving explicit exploration of emotions and different perspectives. 

A big thank you to the library services and the many, many individual librarians who joined in Empathy Day. In creating libraries’ plans, we were delighted to be supported by the Society of Chief Librarians. We’re now talking to them and the participating library services about developing an exciting library for future Empathy Days.

By EmpathyLab 04 Jul, 2017

A huge thank you to everyone who got involved on Empathy Day, June 13. There is clearly huge public interest in the cultivation of empathy as a beacon of hope in our divided world. 

As our name suggests, we’re experimenting with new ways to build children’s empathy skills, and Empathy Day was our first national activity. It started as a small scale activity in a handful of schools, but the idea caught fire, and we worked with authors, publishers and libraries to trial a wider model. 

To our delight and astonishment, by 11am #EmpathyDay was trending on twitter, and continued to do so throughout the day, reaching over 5 million twitter accounts on Empathy Day alone. 

Based on the hard new scientific evidence showing that reading stories builds real-life empathy, we ran a social media  #ReadforEmpathy  campaign encouraging everyone to share empathy-boosting reading experiences and recommendations. This had a similarly high reach of 1.6 million twitter users, with an outpouring of recommendations for books which people said were empathy-boosting. 

And beyond the sheer volume of activity around #EmpathyDay and #ReadforEmpathy there wwas rich input around both hashtags from parents, schools, academics, charities and social justice activists.  

We’re now sifting through all of the insight from the day to understand what it was that captured so many people’s imaginations. We’ll share this, and the activity in different settings, in future posts.  

By EmpathyLab 15 Jun, 2017

Empathy Award character winners..St Hilda's kids voted for Miss Honey, Cinderella, Miss Honey, the BFG and Charlotte's Web

By EmpathyLab 13 Jun, 2017
Cathy Cassidy visited Sheffield’s Beck Primary School as part of Empathy Day, using characters in her new book  Love from Lexie and to inspire an understanding of empathy. 
By EmpathyLab 13 Jun, 2017
The wonderful Gemma Cairney visited ICS London and inspired students to make Empathy pledges as part of Empathy Day.  
By EmpathyLab 08 Jun, 2017

For us at EmpathyLab, empathy is a desperately needed force for understanding and connection in our divided world. We want to see an empathy revolution in homes, schools and communities, achieved by harnessing the power of stories to help us become more empathetic.  

 As our Lab name suggests, we’re experimenting with different approaches to achieve our mission, one of which is to test-run the first ever Empathy Day –on 13 June. We hope you’ll join in! 

 Empathy Day started as a small scale experiment in a handful of schools. But the idea has caught fire with authors, teachers and parents, convinced that the cultivation of empathy is a beacon of hope in our divided world. And excited that hard new scientific evidence proves that reading stories build real-life empathy

 So on June 13, please consider joining us to  #ReadforEmpathy

 We’re urging everyone to share their ideas for books which they have found to be empathy boosting. Please join in the #ReadForEmpathy campaign so that we can create a rich and varied bank of book recommendations. 

  If you live or work with children, look out for a new, free  Read for Empathy  Guide on 13 June, featuring 21 “must reads” books for 4-11 year olds. These are recommended by children, teachers and librarians and endorsed by  The Sunday Times  children’s book reviewer, Nicolette Jones. The Guide will be downloadable on the morning of June 13, along with top tips for parents about talking to children about books in ways which build their empathy skills. 

 Let’s change the world, story by story.

By EmpathyLab 31 Jan, 2017

Empathy Lab

We are extremely excited to be one of only a handful of schools invited to trial a new project called Empathy Lab, which is all about how to develop children's empathy skills through books and stories. We will be taking part in different activities over the next few months, such as Empathy Detectives and Empathy Storykits, and then feeding back to the organisers in the summer. The plan is for the project to be launched in schools across the country in September.

Romy, Ethan and Gracie from Year 5 explain a little bit more about what empathy in books means to them.

Romy "Empathy is all about putting your self in other people's shoes, you have to think about how others might be feeling. For example, if a character is lonely in a book, it will make you think about what it feels like to be lonely."

Ethan "I've just read a book called How To Fly With Broken Wings by Jane Elson. There were loads of characters in the story that I felt empathy for, such as Willem, Sasha, Finn and Archie. Although Finn caused a lot of problems, we found out towards the end of the story why he behaved like he did. He was bad because of what happened to him, but he still had feelings."

Gracie "I've finished One Dog And His Boy where the main character is very lonely. When I'd finished the book, I thought a lot about it. One day when I was in the playground I saw a girl who looked really lonely, she was sitting down on her own, so I went and played with her. The book caused me to change my behaviour."

Ethan "I didn't really know what empathy was until we talked about it. It's weird but when I had it explained, I realised that I always try and show empathy to people. I now really look for empathy in books."

Romy "I find empathy in books really interesting, as I didn't used to think how people were feeling, I just used to read. Now I feel a lot more imaginative, it gives the story a lot more background about what might have happened and why."

Ethan "Thinking about it when I read makes me want to read more, because I get so much more involved in the story."

Gracie "I don't always think about what might happen next, but I always think about how a character might be feeling after a story ends. When I read Not As We Know It, I thought loads about the character of Jamie. His brother was probably going to die and I realised how hard it must have been for him to know that. It's never happened to me but I understood it through the story."

Ethan "There are loads of books about empathy. The Ranger's Apprentice has a character who keeps getting told that he isn't good enough. That must have been awful for him."

Romy "I now want to go back and read books like Matilda again, because I want to think more about the feelings of the characters in the story."

Gracie "When I read His Dark Materials, I empathised the most with Lyra's mother. That sounds strange because she's the bad character in the books, but she's only that way because she couldn't see her daughter. All she wanted to do was protect her."

Romy "I always empathise with Harry Potter. In the first book he has no friends and his aunt and uncle only care about his cousin. He must have found that really hard."

Ethan "There's lots of lonely and frightened people in the Harry Potter books. I think that's why so many people love them."

Romy "If other people, who maybe aren't so nice, read some of these books, maybe that would change the way that they acted. They would think more and maybe understand more. I think they should all read more. Perhaps schools should discuss empathy in books every week because it would help people so much."

Gracie "With our class, because we read a lot and always talk about books, we're all learning about empathy and getting on with each other every day. Should other classes choose to read books about empathy such as The Graveyard Book? I think they should."

Ethan "There are lots of books about making friends. Children need to know that it can be really hard if you're different in any way, like the boy in the wheelchair in How To Fly With Broken Wings. He just wanted to fit in with the others. He nearly died because of other people. But they didn't really want that to happen, they just didn't understand."

Gracie "If there's destruction all around you, you don't just see it, you feel it too. When the estate got smashed up I felt so sad because I know people who live in a world like that."

Romy "Can you enjoy books so much without understanding empathy? I don't think you can because it won't mean as much to you. It's just reading then. You don't just read the book, you have to stop and think and then go back to the reading. That's how things make sense to me."

Ethan "If you're younger you can still understand empathy. Stick Man, Hugless Douglas, The Day The Crayons Quit has got loads of perspectives and each colour is misunderstood. When orange and yellow argue about being the sun, that's how some people argue about silly things."

Gracie "I never thought I would care how Stick Man felt but now I really do. He's not just a stick, he has feelings."

Ethan "If you learn about empathy and read books that include it, it helps you get more from your reading. When I feel empathy in stories, I slow down, sometimes stop and think so much more. I turn the pages more slowly."

Gracie "Sometimes I empathise with more than one character in a book. It's really hard when characters aren't treated fairly."

Romy "When characters are separated from people they love, that always makes me think. I've had to move away from my friends and books make me feel better, like I'm not alone."

Ethan "Books that make you feel empathy can just change the way you are. They really actually change you."

By EmpathyLab 31 Jan, 2017
Eve Ainsworth blogs on schools, empathy, and her debut novel 7 Days…

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Quite a simple concept when you think of it. But how much importance do we really put on this, especially when working with young people, the one group of individuals that probably need to understand the concept the most?

My understanding of empathy grew whilst working in a large secondary school. Sprawling and multicultural, this educational setting supported some of the most deprived families in the area. From my first day I was exposed to huge and fundamental issues of poverty, abuse and mental health difficulties that young people were experiencing first hand. It was devastating. But it was also a revelation.

In my role, I had to support teenagers experiencing issues both at home and within school. As a result, on a daily basis I would be dealing with bullying and the huge fall out this caused. Bullying was a big problem (as I’m convinced it is in most schools). It seeps into daily life and through the aid of social media, an individual can now no longer escape its grasp, even at home. My task was talk to both victims and bullies themselves to try and resolve and mediate. To begin with, my views were pretty clear. Bullies were bullies – what they were doing was wrong and there could be no excuse. I was to quickly change my mind. Within weeks I had met young people that were under enormous amounts of pressure, children that couldn’t cope, who were so angry and frustrated that their only answer was to lash out at others. These young people were dealing with things that they really shouldn’t be expected to. Some were young carers, some lived with violent siblings, some watched as their mum’s starved themselves in order to put money in the electric meter. They had worries bursting out of them and they were scared and unable to cope with their feelings.

I began to see that in the majority of cases I worked on, bullying had more than one victim and it was an empathic and supportive approach that was needed to help both parties. First I would speak to the victims of bullying and try to help them to understand that they were not at fault – that there was no stigma at being targeted and that actually victim was the wrong term to be using. They were just unfortunate to meet someone who was struggling to deal with their emotions appropriately.

Then I would speak to the bully, addressing their issues, talking about how they could cope better with their pressures, letting them understand the harm that they were causing to another and how to stop this.

Hopefully, I was able to show them a different way.

Through this work, I began to write my debut novel – 7 Days, which told the story of bullying from both the bully and the target. I hoped that this would enable people to empathise with both parties and that we could also open discussions around bullying and the reasons behind it. I have already had readers contact me to tell me how helpful they have found the book.

As individuals we need to develop more empathy towards others and in schools perhaps the need is even greater. In today’s society, teenagers have never had it so hard and they need not only our understanding, but also the skills to be able to develop their own understanding for others.

Eve Ainsworth photo SevenDays
By EmpathyLab 31 Jan, 2017
Librarians at Essex Libraries have been asking the question: what makes for a book that is great for supporting the development of empathy?

They looked at the attributes that a book needs to be empathy boosting and also which titles they’d recommend to help promote empathy in children and young people. Here they share with EmpathyLab the key factors they discovered make for great empathy-led books:

Good well rounded characters that the reader can believe in. Even in a fantasy situation the characters should have shades of black and white;
Even if they are doing terrible things it should be possible through the story to understand the character’s motivations. The reader should be thinking: “if I were that character in that situation I can see how I might react in that same way”;
Stories which challenge the readers’ perceptions are great for developing empathy for example The Boy in the Dress shows the central character wanting to wear dresses, interested in fashion and he is such a strong character that it just feels perfectly natural and the reader sides with him and against those who condemn – they are the negative figures in the book.
It should be child centred and accessible but treating readers with respect – not patronising and not over simplistic;
The writing should be subtle, conveying no judgement. The story should tell itself and should open emotional channels allowing the reader’s empathy to grow as they get to know the characters and as the story unfolds;
Feelings also need to be dealt with subtly. They should not be “over-described.” A reader will understand the feelings of the character if the character is allowed to demonstrate them through an integration of their own thoughts, their actions and how they interact with others;
The ending should not necessarily be completely resolved but satisfactory. There should be some kind of resolution or comfort.
Download the list of empathy boosting books for children and young people selected by Essex Libraries.

What factors do you think make for a good empathy boosting book? Tell us on Twitter #empathybooks

With thanks to Essex Libraries for the image of one of their Rhymetime sessions.
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