St Hilda’s Year 6 pupils (as of summer 2017) dressed as empathetic book characters at their ‘Empathy Awards’

In Someone Else's Shoes

22nd September 2017

‘Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for a moment?’ These words on empathy, from nineteenth century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, still resonate today. But while we can all agree that empathy is a valuable human trait, there is some debate as to whether it’s innate, or a quality that can be taught. Lisa Botwright finds out why some educators believe it’s the latter and what they’re doing to put empathy on the timetable.

The end of an academic year generally features fêtes and festivals, social events and speech days, celebrating individual achievements and whole-school success. Back in June, St Hilda’s Preparatory School in Bushey held a ceremony with a difference: The Empathy Awards – the culmination of a project that staff and children have been focusing on for the last two years. The hope is that Empathy Day will become an annual event.

There was a very real sense of excitement. Year 6 children were dressed up as characters from books, and each one had to tell the rest of the school what made their character compassionate and worthy of an award. There were plenty from the works of Roald Dahl, including Miss Honey, the quintessentially kind teacher in Matilda, but also a range of more unusual suggestions, from Parvana (the eponymous star of a story about a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the control of an extreme religious military group) to Mr Pusskins (a grumpy but lovable cat). After the presentations, the pupils then voted for their favourite from each of five categories: children, adults, animals, imaginary creatures and fairy tale characters.

St Hilda’s is one of a number of schools nationwide who are taking part in a pioneering initiative called Empathy Lab. As its name suggests, it’s an experimental approach to teaching children to connect more empathetically with their peers and with the world around them – and a growing bank of neuroscience research shows that literature is a key tool to do this. It has really practical applications, too, as a St Hilda’s teacher told me about one Year 3 pupil: “As a result of empathy work she can now recognise and express her own feelings and those of others. She is calmer in the playground and happier”.

Empathy Lab founder Miranda McKearney calls it a ‘triple win framework for achieving literacy, character education and social action priorities simultaneously, and through normal school activities’. And, as author Neil Gamain, a supporter of Empathy Lab, echoes: ‘In reading you get to feel things, visit worlds and places you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals’.

In May 2015, Janet Rosewall, Head of English at St Hilda’s, read an article in The Guardian about Empathy Lab, which prompted her interest. Miranda, who describes herself as a social activist, had already set up a successful charity, The Reading Agency, aimed at encouraging people to read more and to celebrate ‘the difference that reading makes to our lives’. At the age of 60 she had flirted with retirement, but being the industrious sort, simply changed direction slightly, and began to focus on her interest in the science connected to reading. “It began as a research project initially; but the more I talked about it, the more interest it attracted.”

After The Guardian article, eleven schools got in touch. “They were all very different kinds of schools, and have each interpreted the experiment differently. But broadly, they were all asked to begin by looking at how might books build empathy and to focus on characters that show exceptional sympathy.”

The life chances of the pupils at Moorlands Primary Academy in Great Yarmouth are very different from those at St Hilda’s. Educational outcomes have suffered as a result of multiple changes in the Moorlands senior leadership team over the past few years, for example. The town, meanwhile, has notably the lowest level of library users in East Anglia. Its coastal position means a high number of migrants and itinerant workers, which sadly causes a great deal of tension within the community. “I’d known Miranda for a few years through her charity work,” explains Jon Biddle, the Moorlands Year 6 Class Teacher and English Co-ordinator, “and went to her conference when she began the project. I was pleased to be chosen as one of the pioneer schools. There is such a negative attitude to immigrants and refugees here and I wanted to teach an alternative point of view.”

Jon used the framework promoted by Miranda to challenge the children’s mindsets: not only guiding them to enjoy analysing literature as a benefit in its own right, but also using it as a springboard for inspiring them to be better citizens. He began by introducing texts such as The Journey by Francesca Sanna and Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman, and even by re-interpreting Paddington’s plight in a different light. He invited in two employees from a Great Yarmouth charity, who talked about how they’d fled from civil war in Mozambique and the Karabakh war in Armenia. Next the children had an Empathy Sleepover to raise money, where they slept on mats in the hall and were only allowed to bring in four items from home. “Even though I knew I was going home in the morning, it really made me think about what being a refugee might be like,” reflects eleven-year-old Isobel.

So what exactly is empathy and is it any different from simply being ‘kind’? In Settling to Learn, by Louise Bombèr and Daniel Hughes, a powerful book about the importance of nurturing relationships in supporting children’s learning, empathy is described as ‘more than a feeling’. Bombèr and Hughes suggest that it’s ‘an experience involving a reflective component – a cognitive awareness of what the other person might be thinking or of what is bothering them’…

…or, in ten-year-old Moorland pupil Romy’s own words: “Empathy is all about putting yourself 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 to be lonely.”

“Kind acts without empathy don’t have a long term impact on changing people’s behaviour,” concurs Jon.” It’s about embedding genuine empathy that changes how you feel.”

Dr Michele Borba, an American psychologist and author of Unselfie, argues that empathy is not just a ‘touchy-feely trait’, or a ‘nice add-on to children’s development’, but that it’s ‘integral to their current and future success, happiness and well-being’. She has made the study of empathy her life’s work, even spending a decade visiting sites of ‘unfathomable horrors’ such as Auschwitz, the Cambodian Killing Fields and Rwanda: “All I could think about was what causes such inhumanity and how to stop it”. Her research concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a common cause of genocide was always a complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings. In Unselfie, she writes that ‘though children are hardwired to care, they don’t come out of the womb empathetic, just like they aren’t born knowing that 2 + 2 = 4’. She goes on to argue that ‘empathy is a quality that can – and must – be taught by parents, educators and those in a child’s community’.

Miranda McKearney is optimistic for the future of Empathy Lab, and says she is “surprised by the impact we’ve already achieved”. Together with her Empathy Lab colleagues, she has spent the summer looking at the end-of-year reports submitted by each of the schools involved and hopes to formulate it all into a structured plan for other schools to adopt, and to roll it out nationally. She’s aware that teachers are already bombarded with government directives and initiatives, but most of the teachers she has spoken to “agree it makes sense”. Worryingly, she quotes a disturbing statistic that, since Brexit, there has been an 89% increase in hate crimes at school. “Teachers are worried about children’s level of empathy, they’re conscious that the demands of the curriculum and testing are squeezing out social and emotional education.”

The Head of St Hilda’s, Sarah Jane Styles, is unequivocal that the project has been a huge success and intends to continue to embed it within the school’s development plan: “By building the qualities of empathy, we’re equipping children with the skills they need to flourish as they move through education to adulthood.”

Ethan, a Year 5 Moorland pupil, agrees that he’s definitely benefited from the experience, and says: “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 will always try and show empathy to people.”

In ‘Unselfie’, Dr Michele Borba argues that empathy is a talent that can be cultivated and improved, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language. She suggests there are nine essential competencies that comprise empathy, and that they can, with practice, become habits that a child will use for a lifetime to maintain their caring capacities:
1. Emotional Literacy:
Recognising and understanding their feelings and needs, and those of others.
2. Moral Identity:
Adopting caring values.
3. Perspective Taking:
Stepping into others’ shoes.
4. Moral Imagination:
Using literature (and films etc) as a source of inspiration to feel with others.
5. Self-regulation:
Learning to manage strong emotions.
6. Practising kindness:
Acts of kindness to improve the welfare of others.
7. Collaboration
Working with others to achieve shared goals for the benefit of all.
8. Moral Courage
Being emboldened to speak out and step in.
9. Altruistic Leadership Abilities
Motivating others to make a difference
Unselfie by Michele Borba © Touchstone Publishing is £10.99, available from all good bookshops
Settling to Learn by Louise Bombèr and Daniel Hughes © Worth Publishing is £28 and available from

Find Your Local