Exploring Empathy: the importance of teaching empathy in the classroom – Miranda Mckearney OBE

Empathy is an important life skill for children to learn, and a force for good. Miranda McKearney, the founder of EmpathyLab, explains how Empathy Day uses books to boost empathy by teaching children to see things from other people’s perspectives. 

This year’s Empathy Day is on 9 June. It comes at a time of deepening understanding about the vital role of empathy in children’s lives. Educationalists and psychologists identify empathy as both a crucial life skill and a key factor in children’s wellbeing. Empathy is a critical foundation for strong relationships, and without those, no child can thrive, or learn.

Empathy Day offers teachers and families a profound opportunity to learn about, experience and practise empathy. It’s also creative and fun! The Countdown Fortnight has very practical tools for school and home learning, and on 9 June there’s a truly inspiring author-led programme, opened by Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell.

The science behind Empathy Day

EmpathyLab’s work is based on research with great resonance for educators.

  • empathy is a learnable skill. Only 10% of our empathic capacity is genetic, and 98% of us can improve our empathy skills at any point in our lives.
  • stories are a training ground for understanding other people’s emotions. Neuroscientists say that as we read, our brains experience the story as though it were really happening. So, in identifying with book characters, we learn how other people feel in real life.

This means that schools can teach empathy through the medium of books. With a more conscious focus, teachers can achieve a “double win” – simultaneously developing literacy and empathy.

We’ve been struck by how much teachers love this approach. “EmpathyLab is a return to what teaching should be – it inspires such a natural and meaningful way of teaching and learning. The teachers love it and the children love it. There’s such a buzz around the school”. Yvonne Hartley, Yr 2 teacher, Spinney Primary School 

Six Top Tips

  1. Help children understand empathy: empathy is our ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings. Even young children find it easier to grasp the concepts involved than we sometimes imagine. This Sesame Street video is a great place to start.
  2. Use books: as you read, try focusing more on the characters than the plot. During book-talk sessions, ask gently exploratory questions (“how do you think the character felt?”).  Books which explore different characters’ points of view are great for building the skill of perspective-taking. Gill Lewis’ wonderful Sky Dancer has characters with bitterly opposed views about grouse shooting and hen harriers. In Jo Cotterill’s Jelly, the protagonist learns to deal with put-downs by brushing them off and pretending she finds it all very funny – while making up poems and writing her private worries in a notebook.
  3. Explore other lives: look for stories set in other countries or with characters of different races, religions and experiences. In the Treetops Reflect series, both The Greatest Treasure of All and The Turtle’s Wish are set in different countries and explore different cultures and experiences.
  4. Build emotional vocabulary: Make it easy for children to identify and share emotions. If they understand their own feelings, they’ll be better at understanding other people’s. Don’t miss poet Joseph Coelho leading Empathy Charades, all about naming and understanding feelings as part of the Empathy Day Programme.
  5. Listen: try to listen deeply, with your full attention, to help children feel their emotions are important. By modelling this for children, they will learn to be great listeners themselves. You could use Empathy Day’s Listening Switch exercise.
  6. Build children’s empathy habits: help them take action to make a difference. On Empathy Day, work together to make Empathy Resolution posters.

EmpathyLab provide a rich bank of resources which offer a great starting point for taking a sharper focus on empathy.

  • Schools Toolkit: the free Toolkit has background information on empathy skills, outline assemblies, a special listening focus, and useful case studies from other schools.
  • Family Activity Pack: Empathy is best learnt young and families have a critical role to play in helping children develop their empathy muscles. A free Family Activity Pack has 14 creative activities to do at home, from detecting feelings in faces to making Empathy Awards for book characters.   
  • Empathy-focused readings and short stories: to ensure every child has access to stories, authors are offering an Empathy Read Aloud and eight Empathy Shorts, new (very) short stories from leading children’s writers.

Empathy Day aims to get more people talking about empathy, experiencing its power, and putting it into practice. It focuses on using books to help us step into someone else’s shoes, and encourages everyone to READ, CONNECT, ACT.

For the first time it’s going online. At home or school, children can join in with author role models – like Robin Stevens and Jo Cotterill leading a Listening Switch activity to practise listening 100%. Malorie Blackman dons her Empathy Glasses to lead a massive #ReadForEmpathy recommendation campaign, and Rob Biddulph leads a special empathy-themed draw along.

Empathy Day 2020


  • The full programme is here: https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020
  • Find @EmpathyLabUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and join in with #EmpathyDay by sharing your #ReadforEmpathy Book recommendations
  • Visit https://www.empathylab.uk to download book recommendations, family and school packs, and much more.

Miranda McKearney OBE is the Founder of EmpathyLab. EmpathyLab’s mission is to inspire the rising generation to drive an empathy movement and build a less divided world.

Find out more about the TreeTops Reflect series here, and discover empathy-boosting titles from Oxford.