Empathy is generally defined by emotion researchers as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling” (Greater Good Magazine, 2022).

It consists of two parts, the affective which is the emotional response to emotions and emotional situations, and the cognitive which is what enables a person to understand different perspectives.

Stories facilitate the development of both elements of empathy by providing us with opportunities to grapple with the emotions of characters, and to make sense of their thoughts, choices and actions as a plot unfolds. Research exploring people’s responses to stories carried out by Paul J. Zak, the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and his team found that “effective stories transport the story receivers into the worlds of the characters…and once a person’s attention has been focused long enough, they begin to emotionally resonate with the characters in the story and, according to narratologists, are ‘transported’: that is they begin to feel what the characters in the story feel. This ‘transportation’, as Zak describes it, causes people to imagine the lives of others, helps to develop compassion for them and leads to changes in perspective. It is this transportation that promotes empathy” (2013 in Lumgair 2021, page 27).

The psychologist, Peter Gray, says that a “series of studies showed that people who have read a great deal of fiction – especially fiction of the type that deals with interpersonal relationships – score higher on various measures of empathy than do otherwise similar people whose reading centres more on non-fiction... In an experiment conducted in a low-income area of Toronto, the capacity of 4-year-olds to take another person’s perspective and reason from that perspective increased greatly as a result of an intervention in which they heard many stories read to them by parents, teachers, and research assistants.” (2014 in Lumgair 2021, page 28).
Susan Engel (2016) says that “story performs both inner psychological functions as well as social functions’ and Michelle Borba in her book UnSelfie – Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (2016) says that reading makes us ‘kinder’ as well as ‘smarter’ and notes that it “is literary fiction that nurtures empathy and perspective taking. She also explains that “picture books are richer in emotion-charged content than chapter books are, and it’s this emotionally charged content (particularly in the first several years of life) that’s crucial to empathy development” (2016, page 77 in Lumgair, 2021, page 28).

Borba describes practical exercises around empathy, one in which a high school English teacher in Oregon, United States helps her ninth-grade students to understand the perspective of different characters by using paper shoe cut-outs: a test for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet consisting of students taking turns stepping onto each cut-out and describing that character’s views and feeling. The teacher says that “the exercise not only enhances her students’ perspective for each character, but...also is their favourite test”. Another example is “a mother in Liverpool who carries out a similar, powerful exercise but using real shoes. Borba explains, ‘When her family finished reading Charlotte’s Web, she printed each character’s name...on a sticky note and stuck them on her husband’s shoes. Her kids were delighted to jump into each big shoe and pretend to be the character’” (Borba 2016, pages 82 & 83 in Lumgair 2021, page 153).

Stories provide opportunities to further develop empathetic skills by allowing participants to:

  • Identify with several different characters, experiencing “vicariously the sorrows, joys, triumphs, defeats, and ethical conflicts of the protagonist – and maybe those of the antagonist, too” (Gray 2014)
  • Build Theory of Mind: Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to understand that the emotions, knowledge, desires and motivations of others will differ from one’s own
  • Develop a greater awareness of people in the wider world: seeing them as individuals with personal stories and unique characteristics rather than merely as members of a group
  • Join in with discussions around topics raised, communicating information about how it is that they experience life, view events and the world around them, and their resulting thoughts and feelings

The author and researcher, Brené Brown, in her latest book, Atlas of the Heart (2021), has said that she no longer believes “that we can recognize emotion in other people, regardless of how well we understand human emotion and experience or how much language we have” (2021, page 261). Rather, she highlights the sacredness of people’s expressed stories and explains how it is essential that people are acknowledged and listened to, even when their experiences don’t match our own (Luscombe, 2021). She describes what she calls “good story stewardship” as “listening, being curious, affirming and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something’ (2021, page 265).

What we can be certain of is that exposing children to diverse stories with wide ranging emotional content will provide them with opportunities to tune in to their own feelings.

And as they employ a greater degree of accuracy in terms of recognising and naming these feelings, so too will they be better able to imagine what someone else might be feeling.

The more comfortable children become with tales of adversity, with emotional ambiguity, with discomfort and with uncertainty, the greater their ability to bear witness to the stories of others without attempting to narrowly define and or judge their experience and move to ‘resolve’ their feelings.

This breadth of narrative discovery will lead to enhanced critical thinking, with children becoming more skilled at holding space for the stories of others, stewarding them, responding with warmth and compassion, and valuing their content in the way that they would wish for their own voiced stories to be valued.



About the author:

Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.

She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners” and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.

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