By Emily Reynolds

15 June 2015 - 14:37

'To empathise with others from different backgrounds takes an effort of imagination.' Photo (c) Tom, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'To empathise with others from different backgrounds takes an effort of imagination.' Photo ©

Tom, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

To mark World Refugee Day on 20 June 2015, the British Council's Emily Reynolds looks at why empathy is so important and how teachers can help children develop the ability.

What it means to empathise

How would I respond if I were in that situation? What's it like to be in that person's shoes? To ask such questions is to empathise: to look at the world from another person's point of view; to share that person’s feelings and emotions.

You can probably think of lots of examples from your own life. Remember that person at work who started to turn up late or miss deadlines? Perhaps you found out about a problem they were having in their personal lives and, understanding their needs and feelings in this situation, offered to help. Perhaps out of this came friendship.

Why empathy matters

Empathy, as this example suggests, is essential to forming and sustaining human relationships. People who have developed a high degree of empathy are good at managing relationships and relating to others – think of a great manager or teacher. They try to imagine the situation from another person's point of view and avoid judging too quickly.

It's not just about the people around us, though. We can feel empathy towards individuals and groups who are strangers, such as those we see on the news or read about in the papers.

In such situations, empathy is useful because, instead of rushing to judgement, we seek to understand what motivates others and how best to respond. Empathy is therefore a crucial element in helping to understand global conflicts as well as those within our own societies.

We're becoming less empathetic

study published in 2011 suggests that empathy is declining sharply. The results, based on a survey of nearly 14,000 students, show that the average level of 'empathic concern,' declined by 48 per cent between 1979 and 2009. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009.

The authors of the study suggest that the decline might be due to the rise in narcissism among young people, the growing prevalence of personal technology and media use in everyday life, a shrinking family size (having several siblings may teach empathy), and stronger pressures on young people to succeed academically and professionally.

US president Barack Obama went so far as to claim in 2013 that the 'empathy deficit' was more of problem than the federal deficit.

The good news, though, is that empathy can be developed, practised and even taught.

We can use our imagination and challenge our own prejudices

Research has shown that we are more likely to feel empathy for those who are similar to us. However, to empathise with others from different backgrounds takes a greater effort of imagination.

You can't experience everything that happens to another person, but you can use your imagination to give you their perspective.

Stories, books and films are opportunities to practise empathy. What do the characters think and feel? What motivates them to behave in particular ways? The Empathy Library has reviews of hundreds of novels, children’s books, feature films and videos on empathy. Read extensively and aim to focus on the works of marginalised people to better understanding the emotions, behaviours, and intentions of others.

You can also try experimental empathy, which means getting a direct experience of another person's life. An artist friend of mine blindfolded himself and walked the streets of London as a blind man to discover what it was like for those with no eyesight. He found that strangers were much kinder than he had thought. Since the experiment, he has been able to empathise with blind people to a much greater degree.

Similarly, whether or not you're religious yourself, it could be an idea to attend a service of another faith to learn what it is like to hold those beliefs deeply.

Empathy and compassion in the classroom

Despite the decline in empathy, things are being done to develop the skill in the classroom.

Roots of Empathy began in Canada and is spreading worldwide. More than half a million children have taken part in the programme and there is evidence that bullying has been reduced in the schools that have taken part.

Further, helping young people understand what they have in common with others of different backgrounds is crucial in societies that have become more diverse than ever before. Encouraging a sense of empathy in children at a young age helps them develop lifelong skills that will serve to help them understand other cultures and respond positively to them.

Resources for Refugee Week (15-21 June 2015) and UN World Refugee Day (20 June 2015)

Perhaps there’s no greater need to understand others than in the case of refugees. The plight of refugees fleeing conflict, persecution and violence for a safe place – often with tragic consequences – is topical. Refugee Week and World Refugee Day present an opportunity for all of us to empathise with and be compassionate towards refugees. Refugee Week both celebrates the contribution of refugees and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

The following resources for teachers are there to encourage empathy and the feeling of solidarity with children of similar ages, using real-life situations rather than simply comparing food and customs.

Refugee Week resources for primary and secondary schools should help students understand why people become refugees. The resources include details on activities to help students tell the world about the plight of refugees.

Syria: Third Space looks closely at exhibits from Syria that can help children gain a greater understanding of the lives and experiences of their Syrian peers, and the effect the war has had on their lives.

No place like home is a starter activity for younger students to consider the situation of refugees.

Living together is an education pack that encourages discussion of conflict and peace, as well as thinking through what you would take with you if you had to leave your home.

Teaching Divided Histories – International Conflict is a teaching resource that looks at conflicts across the world.

Reversing the decline in empathy

Empathy may be in decline but might there be a comeback? Could the 21st century, as The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests, become the Age of Empathy, when we genuinely seek to understand the lives of others, even those on the other side of the world and in desperate situations? Could there be a new kind of revolution based on human understanding and concern for one another?

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