Mental Health: Can Reading Books Really Teach Empathy?

During the pandemic, many children saw their worlds shrink and their lives shrink.

At the same time, many will have witnessed a wave of mutual aid based on reflection on the needs of others: a sort of collective act of taking perspective.

These two factors bring empathy to the fore and make the theme for this year’s Empathy Day (June 10) – walking in someone else’s shoes – particularly relevant.


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Teachers already know the power of empathy and how it can ensure that struggling children feel safe enough to learn. But can we teach children to understand and connect with the experiences of others?

Empathy Day is based on research showing that empathy is indeed learned and that books are a key tool.

Scientists have discovered that only 10% of our empathic capacity is genetic and that all that is added to it can be learned.. We are able to increase our empathy at any point in our life, although this essential life skill is best learned young.

Excitingly, science also shows that we can train our brains through stories. When we read, our brain reacts in the same way as if the fictitious situations were real. This means that we can sense the feelings of the characters, which helps us understand others better in real life.

In choosing the books that will work this magic, we must look for texts that will stimulate empathy and broaden horizons: those that take place in other countries and with characters of different races, religions and cultures than those familiar to us. your students.

Look for books where the characters have very different points of view or experience the same set of circumstances, but from very different starting points. There are many suggestions in the annual Read for Empathy collections.

How to increase empathy with books

  1. When discussing a book, focus more on the characters and their feelings than on the plot.
  2. Allow the children time to think through the answers to gentle exploratory questions: “Which character was the most interesting?” And “Why do you think X behaves this way?” “
  3. Time reserved for reading a shared book aloud, including at the secondary level. It helps to create a community of empathetic readers, each familiarizing themselves with each other.

How Empathy Day Can Help You

The centerpiece of Empathy Day is an online festival featuring top writers and illustrators. The program’s short, creative videos can be streamed right into your classroom to initiate empathy activities and discussions.

Highlights include poet Joseph Coelho taking us on an empathy walk, Malorie Blackman and bestselling authors Holly Bourne and Bali Rai, sharing how they create characters that build real empathy, and Michael Morpurgo talking about putting the spotlight on. empathy in action.

Some sessions will also focus on specific empathy skills: Jacqueline Wilson shares tips for good listening, while AM ​​Dassu and rapper Adisa show how to understand someone else’s feelings by reflecting their body language. There are also 12 free stories from award-winning authors, suitable for all ages.

For more information on Empathy Day, visit www.empathylab.uk and follow @EmpathyLabUK

About Marcia G. Hussain

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