Transcript of Miranda McKearney, OBE (EmpathyLab Founder) and Professor Robin Banerjee's (Psychology Department, University of Sussex ) speech given at The Bookseller Children's Conference (London, 26 September 2017)
I want to start our session with my perspective on why I think the topic of empathy deserves your attention, perhaps now more than ever.
As a developmental psychologist, I have a primary interest in the well-being and mental health of children and young people. Unfortunately, recent news stories highlight challenges in this area right through the lifespan, from concerns about “ UK youth suffering low mental wellbeing ”, to a general sense that “ universities need to put student mental health first ”, right through to worries in the workplace, where one recent report suggests that “ one in three sick notes are for mental health problems ”.
There is good evidence that a lot of the problems might begin in childhood. And it’s not hard to see why. Children can experience a multitude of stresses, from family conflicts to stresses about school work and the testing culture . And one area in which I have done a lot of research relates to the child’s peer group . Problems such as bullying – not just physical but also relational (e.g., excluding others, or spreading rumours) – can have major impacts on children’s lives. And I think we are all more aware now of how social media has the potential to exacerbate these problems.
Coupled with these concerns are a whole range of global issues that children might encounter: things like the effects of climate change , highly polarised debates about immigration and racism , worldwide terrorism , and homelessness on local streets.
Now, I promise I’m not trying to put a huge downer on this wonderful event! But I want to illustrate why I think the need for empathy is so important – perhaps especially now. In fact, many psychologists and educators are flagging the importance of so-called ‘soft skills’ – things like emotional literacy , and character and values (such as resilience, grit, but also care and compassion). There are lots of terms out there and I’m not going to get into the nuances of all of these, but I want to point out that one key construct binding them all together is EMPATHY . If you are interested in how you can foster children’s well-being and resilience, then there is good evidence that empathy should be a key priority.
This is not about encouraging children to be completely wrapped up in other people’s feelings, becoming biased and ‘emotional’ instead of rational and objective. In fact, empathy is pretty complex. Of course, there is an important emotional dimension to it, but we also need to think about how children are actually behaving , how they are thinking (cognition) , what goals are driving them (motivation) , and what their social relationships are like.
Many researchers – using cutting edge research techniques from neuroscience, as well as experiments, surveys, and observational studies – now distinguish between at least three major aspects of empathy:
1. one part of this is how you react emotionally to other people’s displays of emotions – such as fear, or distress, or indeed positive emotions such as happiness and joy.
2. Another part is the accuracy and depth of your cognitive insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings – how are other people (who might be quite different to you) likely to see and experience the world?
3. And third – quite crucial as it turns out – is what you actually do with those emotional and cognitive reactions: things like comforting, helping, and supporting others. The translation of empathic thoughts and feelings into behaviour requires a motivation of care and compassion within one’s relationships .
I hope it’s clear that an imbalance could be seriously problematic. If you constantly feel someone else’s distress but have very limited understanding, you would probably be a nervous wreck! But if you understand other people’s thoughts and feelings well but you behave in a callous way because you don’t feel the distress or you simply don’t care , you could be a manipulative sociopath! But put all three together, and you’ll find that something rather special can happen.
And this is where I hand over to Miranda to tell you more about EmpathyLab and why we think all of you people here have a role to play!
Thanks, Robin. We’re not born with a fixed empathy quotient. Our brains are plastic and 98% of us are capable of improving our empathy skills, and excitingly, scientists are now able to show that reading is a potent tool.
Research studies are showing that the brain reacts to fictional worlds as if they were real, and this helps us practice our social skills. As we read, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story. So the empathic emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
For me, that’s explosive stuff, and with four fellow founders, I have started a new organisation called EmpathyLab. We want to see an empathy revolution, and to do it through literature.
I suggest it’s explosive stuff for the book world too, because if books are now proven to be empathy building, it gives parents and teachers an added purchasing motivation.
Worldwide, there are no programmes which systematically harness the power of stories to build children’s empathy skills. That’s EmpathyLab’s focus. We support 4-11 year olds, and the Lab bit of our name is deliberate – we’re experimenting, and so far have piloted: a schools programme, new kinds of festival events, and a national Empathy Day. After two years of testing it’s clear we’re on to something big.
On our website you’ll find the impact report of our work with the leadership teams in 14 pioneer primary schools. Together, we’re testing an Empathy Explorers programme which simultaneously builds children’s empathy and literacy skills, and social activism.
One of the schools is in Great Yarmouth, a town with tricky community issues around attitudes to the migrant population. The school focused on empathy, with refugee themed books as their class readers. Local war refugees and Amnesty visited and Year 6 taught empathy lessons right down the school. Author Elizabeth Laird made an electrifying Empathy Day visit, talking about Welcome to Nowhere which she researched in a Syrian refugee camp, resulting in wildly fired up children organised a fundraising sleep out. Troy said: “this was some of my favorite work that we’ve ever done. We’re learning about the real world and we are all part of it. Like, everyone, not just us and the people we know”.
As soon as EmpathyLab started we had the backing of some great children’s authors, and this April we ran a training day for 30 of them. We were blown away by how hungry they were to use an empathy focus to offer more meaningful events, and they saw new opportunities to position their work against wellbeing agendas. And authors say how much they want to do something, horrified by the way our society feels so divided, and the 89% rise in hate crimes in schools.
In June we piloted a new Empathy Day. We were over the moon when the #ReadForEmpathy hashtag started trending on Twitter– there was an outpouring of people welcoming the idea of using books to help us get out of our echo chambers .
By Christmas we’ll be ready to go with a 3 year plan, and we hope that the book world will be major partners. By 2020 we aim to: roll out a schools programme; establish an annual Empathy Day; build a band of 60 trained Empathy Authors, and launch Empathy Explorers as a national children’s programme.
And we so hope you’ll get involved! There are real commercial opportunities and surely there’s a massive moral imperative. None of us can stand idly by while hate crimes rise - we need that empathy revolution! Your books can help develop children who challenge prejudice, build community and embrace diversity.
If you’re a publisher, do get in touch to talk through these opportunities:
- Put your books forward for a new Read For Empathy Guide we are developing with Peters Library Service
- Help us identify the right writers to join that band of 60 trained Empathy Authors
- Include us in your author tour planning
- For Empathy Day on 12 June next year…inspire your authors to get involved, join in the social media campaign and maybe become a workplace pilot
- Support us as an organisation: we offer a powerful Corporate Social Responsibility focus
And I’ll finish with ten year old Layla, whose mind-set has been completely changed by her school’s empathy work - "I thought that refugees were different to us and now I don't." I think that says it all. Thank you.
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.
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.
Empathy Award character winners..St Hilda's kids voted for Miss Honey, Cinderella, Miss Honey, the BFG and Charlotte's Web
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.
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."