The importance of empathy

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Empathy is one of the fundamental values underpinning our work at Lyfta. In this blog we discuss the scientific evidence for empathy, and talk about how we can nurture it in ourselves and in the children we teach.
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"Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world."

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The importance of empathy

The importance of being able to have empathetic connections with others is more important than ever, especially after a global pandemic where people were isolated and since a focus on wellbeing has become so important. Children all have the potential to build a more peaceful and sustainable world, and empowering them with a strong sense of empathy will enable them to navigate this challenge with sensitivity and compassion.

But what is empathy?

Some confuse empathy (feeling with someone) with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone), but Dr Brené Brown does a good job of explaining this and highlighting Dr Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:
  • the ability to perceive others' feelings
  • to not stand in judgement of those feelings
  • recognising or imagining the other person's emotions
  • communicating this effectively.
When we connect empathetically, we have better relationships, we become better co-workers and managers, but more importantly, we become more compassionate people - and compassion is vital to a sustainable and humane future.
Over the past two decades, the evidence that human beings are wired for empathy and social cooperation has grown considerably. Neuroscientists have identified areas of the brain that, if damaged or compromised, can affect our ability to identify and understand others' feelings. Psychologists have shown that children as young as 18 months are capable of attributing mental states to other people.
But empathy is not a fixed ability. Evidence suggests that we can continue to develop our capacity for understanding others throughout our lives, but busy lifestyles and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, mean that we are not often encouraged to take a moment to connect with others.
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"Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You're not alone'."

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How can we teach empathy in schools

So how can we actively become more understanding, and nurture this ability in the children we teach? Here are four ways we can develop empathy in our students:

Be curious.

Student on the Lyfta platform
Student on the Lyfta platform
We increase our capacity for empathy when we interact with people outside of our usual social circle, and encounter lives and world-views very different from our own. You could encourage students to gain new perspectives by seeking out people they wouldn't normally interact with. They could spend time talking to an elderly relative, new child at school or a friend of the family.
Research has shown that reading fiction helps people to improve their ability to understand others. Try to find stories from as wide a range of perspectives as possible for both yourself and the children you teach.
Lyfta is all about encouraging curiosity and gaining new perspectives, and we introduce students to the lives of people from all around the world. Students could meet a NASA scientist one day and a tribe in Amazonian Peru the next day. With our short Lyfta Time sessions (which can be delivered in 20 minutes), they could meet someone new at every form or assembly time throughout the school year!

Challenge your prejudices.

We all make assumptions about people, and often these are completely unconscious. These might be based around gender, age or racial stereotypes that prevent us from appreciating each person's individuality. Our biases can seriously hinder our ability to become more empathetic, but acknowledging and challenging them is the first step toward becoming a more understanding person.
In the classroom, why not open up discussions on the nature of stereotyping and prejudice, and ensure that you expose your students to people, places and stories that defy stereotypes. Lyfta gives you access to real immersive human stories from around the world, helping you to start conversations that might otherwise be difficult to initiate during lessons. In the storyworld Journey to a new home issues of migration, inclusion and belonging are explored when we meet Adhanom who has journeyed from Eritrea to Sweden. Students are encouraged to see the point of view of this refugee who has had a difficult journey combined with the challenge of having to fit into a new life. This can lead to discussions about the importance of having compassion and how to show care and concern to others. Also, they can learn to recognise why some people may feel lonely or excluded and ways they can help include them.

Listen (and be vulnerable).

Fun learning and teaching
Fun learning and teaching
Being an empathetic conversationalist means listening actively. Encourage student to be completely present to the feelings that a person is communicating in conversation and to do all they can to understand the emotional state and needs of the other person. You can model active listening with the children you teach by making sure you give them your full attention during one-on-one conversations, and by reflecting and repeating back what you think they may be feeling to make sure you fully understand.
In our storyworld Compassion is Key we meet Leah and learn that she volunteers at her local nursing home. Leah takes the time to listen to the elderly residents, she talks to them and plays her violin to them. Spending time with the elderly residents, she says, makes her feel better and helps her get over the death of her own grandparents.

Take action.

Volunteering can be a great way to experience other lives first hand, create real change, and model empathy to others. Discuss ways the children can volunteer with local organisations. You can also encourage your students to join (or set up) clubs at school, such as environmental or equalities clubs, or to take action in response to local issues such as going on a litter pick or organising donations to a food bank in your area.
In the Lyfta storyworld High Water we visit a village in Guatemala that has been flooded by devastating hurricanes that have affected the community. We meet Carlos and find out how he and his community have taken the initiative to take action and help the people of the village as they struggle to access basic facilities and supplies. Students will be inspired by their resilience and resourcefulness.
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"Empathy has always been important. Through empathy we understand and support others; it helps us build trusted relationships and our own peace of mind. Building on the strong foundations developed by its founders, Lyfta, and the approach that it nurtures, helps teachers and students raise their awareness of what is going on around us, of other people's lives and of the wider world. Such awareness is probably more important now than ever before – at school, at work, and in life. I am glad to have experienced and grateful for Lyfta's contribution to raising awareness, thinking of others, and developing skills appropriate to learning development; to strengthening of empathy; and to building the capability of all students."

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Nurturing empathy is one of Lyfta's fundamental aims. We believe that empathy is the first, and possibly most important, step to building a more compassionate, sustainable and equitable world. Our real immersive human stories provide a powerful way to foster empathetic understanding by giving students access to a wide and diverse range of global perspectives, challenging their misconceptions, and motivating action.
Character & Values
Global Learning
Human Stories
Social Emotional Learning