Empathy education: ‘It’s just as important as maths or Stem subjects’

Is time to make empathy classes mandatory in schools?

The recent suicide of UK television presenter Caroline Flack shone a spotlight on online abuse and how people who are decent and mannerly to each other's faces can often be cruel and thoughtless online.

In the wake of Flack’s death – just days before she was due to go on trial for the alleged assault of her boyfriend – both mainstream press and social media users were accused of abusing and harassing Flack and other famous figures.

The hashtag #BeKind trended on social media. Numerous hair salons have vowed never to stock gossip magazines and people were urged to look at their own online and real-life behaviour.

Does this incident highlight a problem with empathy, or are people precisely as unkind as we’ve always been? And is it time to mainstream empathy education?


Prof Pat Dolan, joint founder and director of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, recently launched Activating Social Empathy, an initiative to introduce empathy education for adolescents in secondary school.

It's part of a suite of work undertaken by a team of researchers at the university and is designed to form part of the Junior Cycle well-being programme.

“Empathy education is urgently needed in schools to curb hate speech aggression and racial and other forms of negative profiling – it is imperative that the new incoming Minister for Education adopts empathy education in the same way as maths or other Stem subjects,” Dolan says.

Hugh Fitzmaurice, an English and history teacher at CBC Monkstown in south county Dublin, has been involved in the pilot programme.

“The course consists of 12 40-minute classes,” he explains. “In the first stage, we talk about understanding empathy, and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

“We also encourage students to have empathy for themselves, particularly in the transition from primary to secondary school, which can be hard. If you start with empathy for yourself, it can extend out to global empathy on issues like climate. But even small irritants like queue-skipping in the canteen reduces when students consider another person’s feelings.”

The full, evaluated programme will be available as a free resource to schools from September 2020.

The new second-level initiative is building on the work of Roots of Empathy, an international and evidence-led programme aimed at developing empathy among primary school children. In Ireland, the project is delivered by children's charity Barnardos and is led by Susana Nunez.

“The programme addresses the emotional learning side of the curriculum,” Nunez explains.

“We bring in a parent from the neighbourhood with a new baby, and the children in the classroom learn from them. The children try to understand what the baby is feeling and thinking; this is a way for them to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and to understand other people as well.”

The programme runs once a week over the course of a school year and is facilitated by a trained instructor. It fosters empathy and emotional intelligence, while studies have shown it can also reduce bullying and aggression as well as promote prosocial and kinder behaviour.

“If the baby is crying, for instance, the instructor in the class addresses crying and why a baby might cry, and what a parent might feel when their child cries. But we also ask the children in class how they themselves feel when the baby cries, have they ever seen someone cry, what did it feel like and what they would do to help them.”

Each family visit is preceded and followed by a session with the instructor, who helps the children to process what they have learned.

“When the baby first comes to class, they’re between two and four months old and in their parent’s arms; by the time they leave, the child can be crawling, so the class gets to celebrate those milestones and they feel pride. What is pride? It can be hard for a child to know what that is, but they know they feel it when the baby does something,” says Nunez.

“Then we can expand that out to a time they did something that made them feel proud. In one class where I was the instructor, a pupil said they were proud of learning to cycle, but when another child said he had nothing to be proud of, his classmates intervened and started listing all the good things he had done.”

Because resources are limited, the programme runs primarily – but not exclusively – in schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.

“In one school where the children have been affected by trauma or violent incidents, they understandably struggled with attention and instruction. But everything changed when the baby came to the room.”

Nunez believes we are born with the capacity for empathy, but that it needs to be encouraged and nurtured.

“It makes children kinder. It leads to less problems in school. It gives hope to teachers. It helps us in conflict resolution. It leads to less bullying. It creates better, more well-adjusted adults and citizens. It makes better neighbours. More people are beginning to understand it is not just a wishy-washy concept, but something that we need for the world to be a better place.”

‘In Denmark each class has a “Klassens tid” hour every week where students learn about listening to and understanding each other’

In 2012, a group of writers and educators in the United States turned their attention to how storytelling could foster greater empathy, connection and wellbeing.

Irish writer Colum McCann was one of the people who got the organisation up and running and, more recently, social entrepreneur Ruairí McKiernan took over as the organisation’s European director.

“Narrative 4 trains and supports teachers and youth workers to facilitate an evidence-based process known as the story exchange,” McKiernan says.

“This offers young people a space to reflect, consider their own lives and stories and to connect and learn from others. A big part of the magic is witnessing someone else relay your story back to the wider group. It requires a little vulnerability but this feeds into an alchemy of sorts.”

The programme has expanded through the US and is now working in South Africa, Mexico, Palestine and elsewhere, with Limerick as the European headquarters for the operation.

Research by academics at Yale University and other institutions have shown that the programme can make a real difference to the lives of young people.

“I was attracted to it because I feel something is missing in society that offers a space of the soul, time for people to stop, pause, reflect and connect,” says McKiernan. “It’s a place for seeing the richness and power of stories. Empathy is a huge part of that, the ability to go beyond ourselves and connect with how another person or group might be feeling.”

Denmark, consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, has had mandatory empathy education for six- to 16-year-olds since 1993.

“Each class has a ‘Klassens tid’ hour every week where students learn about listening to and understanding each other,” says McKiernan.

“It gives a space for expression, to share problems and work together to find a solution. There is great work going on in schools in Ireland too, but we need to do more to mainstream it.”

We need a “kindness revolution”, says McKiernan, author of Hitching for Hope – a Journey into the Heart and Soul of Ireland.

“Blaming migrants for our woes is part of a divisive rush to other people, and it distracts from the root causes of inequality, greed and poor leadership. This is a top-down issue, especially when you look at how bullies maintain and seize power. Life is short and can be hard going but it can be so much sweeter when we invest in kindness as a core currency.