I write contemporary middle grade fiction for so-called “tweenies”- readers from top primary into early secondary school. I also work in schools each week teaching creative writing and performance.
The pandemic has thrown some issues into sharp focus and one of these is the mental health of children. We have witnessed families under severe strain and a teaching profession burdened with a complex range of broader concerns about the communities schools serve. Schools are social spaces where relationships are central, and children need to feel comfortable in their skins to enjoy learning. Even before the pandemic struck, concern had been growing about our increasingly polarised world.
My first Nosy Crow novel, Ella On The Outside was chosen in the Read For Empathy collection and I became inspired by EmpathyLab as an exciting new force for change. In 2020, I took part in an EmpathyLab Masterclass and this gave a solid underpinning to my work in schools as I learned about research showing how much empathy is a learned skill and not a fixed quantity from birth.
Teaching about empathy can help children to understand one another in hugely powerful ways which promote tolerance and act as a spur to real social change. EmpathyLab training has boosted my confidence to try new approaches. Key to their mission is the principle of authors using their own books to illuminate issues and concerns in the children’s own lives. Authors can have a lasting impact because children are fascinated by how our books came into existence and the imagined lives of our characters.
Previously, the author might be regarded as a champion for writing but also as something of a celebrity. With an empathy approach, we are more equal, sharing common human weaknesses and challenges. Authors need to give away some of their 'authority role’ and create an atmosphere of trust.
Children feel just as deeply as we do. I create a 'safe space' by using my characters. Through approaches such as role play, drama, writing and discussion, I encourage children to explore the storylines and dilemmas and build their own empathy toolkit.
I ask them to imagine my character, Ella, a new pupil in a school and we create a tableau of Ella on her first day, placing her in different scenarios and brainstorming lines of dialogue. We discuss how she might behave and how she might cope better. In my story, another child in Ella’s class appears silent and unfriendly but, gradually, we discover that this girl, Molly, is facing difficult challenges at home. “Why doesn't Ella realise how sad Molly is?” a pupil asks. We discuss how Molly appears ‘from the outside’ and the way we jump to conclusions about people, thinking someone is unfriendly who is perhaps just shy or burdened. Children instantly grasp the idea of exploring someone else’s perspective and discuss animatedly, becoming very invested. I want to provoke some new thinking. I want to leave them with powerful questions about how we relate to one another.
The developing movement kickstarted by the work of EmpathyLab shines a spotlight on the books we write. Demand is growing for books with a deeper impact and the publishing industry needs to respond. We appreciate the wonderful empathetic storylines in picture books for the youngest age group. Adults, with a child on a knee, may themselves be most open to key themes of kindness, love and concern for outsiders. But, moving up the age range, themes around friendship, family and life experiences could be foregrounded more as these are central to children's secure sense of themselves.
Some of the more empathy-rich books are what the industry has traditionally labelled ‘quiet’. Get to the action faster, authors were told. Fast moving plot is what interests children. By focussing on action, what is lost in terms of characterisation?
I think we underestimate children’s interest in complexity and the dilemmas that real life presents, offering them simplified baddies to hate and keeping the psychology limited. When Ella on the Outside was published, I heard it said that ‘books with feelings are for girls’. This kind of thinking is very concerning.
Schools must work alongside authors for a stronger empathy focus to work. It makes a huge positive difference if authors are booked because a teacher has read and enjoyed our books. We should prepare for and celebrate children’s work and ideas. Authors could connect with a school or group of schools throughout the year as a 'Patron of Empathy'. We can become collaborators rather than rare breeds or celebrities. This is an idea that EmpathyLab is actively exploring for the future.
Today marks Empathy Day 2021. On the EmpathyLab website, you can find my Empathy Short script for children to experiment with perspective-taking. I’ve also created a holiday postcard from the Family Activities pack based on my latest novel How To Be Me. We owe it to children to embrace this exciting movement for good.
Cath Howe is an author and teacher working in South West London writing for, and working with, Key Stage 2 primary age children. Her books include Ella on the Outside, Not My Fault and How To Be Me. You can find her on Twitter at @cath_howe. Empathy Day takes place on Thursday 10th June 2021. For more on this year’s free activities and digital events, visit: https://www.empathylab.uk/.