I was reminded of this recently, after a project about refugees prompted one to tell me: “I used to think that refugees were different from us. Now I don’t.” Another said, “This was probably some of my favourite work that we’ve ever done. We’re learning about the real world and how we’re all part of it. Like, everyone, not just us and the people we know.”
Related: Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy
That work was part of a pilot project my school, Moorlands primary academy in Norfolk, was trialling for EmpathyLab. As a teacher, I’ve long been aware of the importance of using stories to help develop children’s understanding of other people. But I hadn’t thought about how to embed it more systematically into the classroom until I was at an English conference in 2015. There, I was introduced to Miranda McKearney, founder of the Reading Agency. She shared research by the Cambridge University professor Maria Nikolajeva which found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
A genuine shift in attitudes
My school got involved as part of a long-term strategy to improve children’s attitudes to school, each other and the local community. The five EmpathyLab topics that teachers were encouraged to explore were friendship, loneliness, bullying, refugees and homelessness. At Moorlands, my year 6 class focused on refugees first. We spent time reading books, such as Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman and Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird, as well as non-fiction including Who Are Refugees and Migrants? by Michael Rosen.
The impact on the children was striking. It was the first thing that they spoke to their parents about at the end of the day and they immediately wanted to have a class meeting to think of ways that they could help. Several of them talked about how when they had seen stories about refugees on the news they didn’t really pay attention before, but felt they now would.
Not all books in a classroom need a message, but when they have one, we must be prepared to discuss it with children
The school invited speakers from Amnesty International and the local charity Great Yarmouth Refugee Outreach Support (Gyros). Each pupil wrote a letter to a child refugee from Syria as part of Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign, and the two Gyros representatives (who were both refugees) shared their stories of fleeing home.
To hear genuine first-hand accounts about life as a refugee was a unique experience for the children, and caused a genuine shift in their attitudes. Before getting involved with EmpathyLab, we might have just tried to raise some money, which is perhaps more akin to sympathy rather than empathy.
The school also organised a refugee sleepover for the year 6 students. They were told they could only bring five items with them in a plastic bag to give them a small insight into what it would be like to be a refugee. This led to much discussion and, even though they knew they would be going home in the morning, many talked about how difficult it was to choose.
‘I’ve always had empathy, I just didn’t know what it was called’
The focus on empathy across the year had a significant impact on the children’s attitudes – and led to an improvement in their emotional vocabulary and comprehension skills. The Amnesty letters were undoubtedly the most powerful pieces of written work my students have produced, simply because they knew there would be a genuine audience for their work. Year 6 students have since been involved with planning lessons about refugees for other year groups, which has created a real sense of cooperation and teamwork among the class. I have also been struck by the thought that empathy had never been taught explicitly to them before. One child told me: “I’ve always actually had empathy with other people, I just didn’t know what it was called.”
Related: Emotional intelligence: why it matters and how to teach it
This year, the whole school will be involved with the project, focusing on loneliness. One of the year 4 classes, inspired by the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant, has already arranged and hosted a tea party for 30 elderly residents from the local village. It’s just one example of how a focus on empathy has improved relationships between our school and the local community.
Going forward, the project has made me think carefully about the books I read to the classes and those the school buys for the library. Not all books in a classroom need a message, but when they have one, we must be prepared to discuss it with children. As one parent said to me when asked for feedback, “I love how you’re teaching them about the wider world and the difference that they can make to it, not just getting them ready for SATs”. That’s something I believe all teachers want to do.
Jon Biddle is a year 6 teacher at Moorlands primary academy in Norfolk. Teachers can get involved with Empathy Day 2018 on 12 June by registering here.