Teenagers to receive empathy classes under redeveloped transition year

Programme on activating compassion is supported by Cillian Murphy and is found to boost levels of concern and understanding of others

Prof Pat Dolan with actor Cillian Murphy in 2022, marking the publication of a book on empathy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Teenagers will get to learn about developing and practising empathy in their day-to-day lives in-person and online under plans to redevelop transition year at second level.

It follows research which found that a University of Galway programme on activating empathy among 1,600 students at 25 secondary schools in Ireland — supported by actor Cillian Murphy — resulted in significantly higher levels of concern and understanding for others.

Prof Pat Dolan, Unesco chairman in children, youth and civic engagement at University of Galway, said the State’s advisory body on the school curriculum was using the findings to help inform a redesigned transition year programme for 15- to 16-year-olds, which is due to go to public consultation soon.

“Empathy can be very easily overlooked given the pressure schools are under, but activating it among young people is crucially important,” Prof Dolan said. “It’s as important as learning maths, languages or science. In fact, I would argue that it’s even more important.”


Against a backdrop of rising online bullying, racism and homophobia among adolescents in Ireland, he said research shows empathy is key to reducing bullying, promoting understanding and improving social connectedness.

Recent evidence, he said, suggests empathy levels are declining among younger generations, while apathy and individualism are rising.

While progress has been made in making empathy more prominent on the curriculum for younger age groups, Prof Dolan said a key challenge for teenagers was putting it into practice.

“We’ve found that where young people both learn and practice empathy, it benefits their own sense of wellbeing. They also do better in their grades ... more than that, it helps young people emerge from schools as better people, more generous, more understanding and less self-orientated,” he said.

Prof Dolan has worked with Murphy for more than 10 years based on a shared interest in the role of empathy and social and emotional learning in building young people’s capacity to foster social connectedness.

“I have spoken about the role empathy can play and it being the most important tool an actor can have,” Murphy said. “It is thanks to my association with the Unesco centre at University of Galway that I can see the fundamental value of affording all young people the opportunity to learn the place and value of empathy.”

In 2022, Murphy and Dolan co-edited Ionbhá: The Empathy Book For Ireland, which featured a range of well-known figures and people from all walks of life sharing their reflections on the subject.

Transition year, meanwhile, is being redeveloped as part of wider reform of the senior cycle. It is due to place a greater emphasis on the personal development of students and opportunities for the development of skills required for academic study, project work, life skills, managing relationships and student wellbeing.

Separately, Prof Dolan is to be awarded the medal of the Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw for lifelong achievements in the field of children’s rights.

University of Galway president Prof Ciaran Ó hÓgartaigh paid tribute to Prof Dolan’s “strong and sustained contribution to children’s rights. He has pioneered new approaches to research and new attitudes towards working with and for young people.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent