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Amy Willoughby and Alan Macdonald sharing their thoughts

Update by Helena Pielichaty, 30th April 2017

Patron of Reading has teamed up with EmpathyLab, a groundbreaking organisation which aims to use the power of books to teach children about that most essential of human conditions - empathy. Patrons willing to participate would be part of the EmpathyLab Author Army, helping to spread the word and perhaps even incorporate ‘empathy’ into their days with their patron school. There are currently ten pilot schools involved and the results so far have exceeded expectations. Miranda McKearney and her team hope to widen the scope further once funding has been secured and more evidence gathered and finalised. Support materials will be available too.

The good news is that we’re probably already doing a lot of what EmpathyLab is trying to achieve every time we visit our patron schools. We use books to engage children and encourage reading for pleasure. We talk about how we create our characters and decide how they should behave and react. We read exciting extracts where we’ve put our characters in unenviable or even dangerous situations. What should they do next? How will they escape? Why did he do that? How does she feel? That’s why authors are the ideal people to help schools put EmpathyLab into practice. Our books, even those not dealing with big ‘issues’ such as homelessness or the refugee crisis, help children connect and children who connect have higher levels of self-confidence, empathy and well-being.

The Patron of Reading initiative sees EmpathyLab as adding another dimension to partnership with our schools; an opportunity to give our tenure real meaning and depth and a brilliant way to keep the momentum going between visits. Better still, a means to use our books in a way that could lead not only to a greater enjoyment of reading but also to kinder, more thoughtful human beings.

Patrons who have been supporting EmpathyLab and working with the pilot schools include Alan MacDonald, Ali Sparkes Bali Rai, Gillian Cross and Helena Pielichaty.

For more information go to the EmpathyLab website and watch out for news and blog updates here.

The EmpathyLab panel at the recent author training day

Introduction to EmpathyLab - Schools Development Group


  1. To become a trailblazing EmpathyLab school
  2. Helping test resources, ideas and training from September 2015 to May 2016
  3. Sharing the learning with other UK and international schools


  1. EmpathyLab is a new catalyst organisation, passionate about the creative power of words and stories to build empathy, and the power of empathy to make the world a better place.
  2. Equipping teachers and parents to help children develop empathy skills, and put them into action
  3. A small team of experts led by Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of The Reading Agency.
  4. At the early stage of building plans to weave a more focused emotional literacy/empathy element into work with children- across schools, libraries, nurseries and health/wellbeing settings.
  5. From 2016 we will offer resources, training and links to authors and publishers. We will run national campaigns, including a new Empathy Day.
  6. Our main focus is working with primary schools. Children aged 0-12 are our main target audience.
  7. We will work with secondary schools to develop empathy buddies for younger children.

Why empathy, and why stories? 

  1. Educating children for social and emotional skills is increasingly being recognised as vital for their life chances and wellbeing. There is evidence that social and emotional competencies are more significant for academic attainment than IQ.
  2. Empathy is a particularly important skill, the bedrock for sound relationships and classroom climate and deeply relevant at a time of rapid demographic change and rising religious intolerance.
  3. Empathy education can reduce bullying and improve behaviour, peer relationships and the learning environment.
  4. Stories can help children handle feelings- their own and other people’s. Neuroscientists say that fiction tricks our brains into thinking we are genuinely part of the story. The empathy we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people. 

Why a Schools Development Group?

We are forming a time limited development group of pioneering schools to test ideas and approaches.

What’s in it for you

  1. CPD opportunities to develop new approaches to building social and emotional skills
  2. Insight into new teaching and learning opportunities using words and stories differently across the school and curriculum
  3. Insight into relevant policy and research
  4. Links to authors
  5. Credited as a trailblazing EmpathyLab school on our website and at events

Who will be involved in the Group

  1. Mixture of UK schools- in terms of geography, intake and motivation for being involved
  2. International schools from Canada, Holland, USA, Israel and Australia
  3. Education partners on our reference group, including United Kingdom Literacy Association; Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

What you will be testing and feeding back on

We will send a menu of options and you can work on as much or as little as you like. Ideally we’re aiming for whole school approaches, but as long as the Headteacher is aware and involved, elements could be trialled just by one class. Examples:

  1. Developing a whole school approach- cross curriculum plans
  2. Training ideas (empathy: theory/neuroscience; child development; listening; deep conversation; book talking; book knowledge; mapping/planning)
  3. Approaches to working with authors
  4. Peer reviewed resources, including digital approaches (Storykits; immersive activities; book lists; book groups; lesson plans)
  5. Models for secondary school pupils acting as empathy buddies to younger children
  6. Advising on when to hold Empathy Day and what schools could do on it
  7. Identifying any policy gaps
  8. Feeding back on our proposed impact measurements- on skills, behaviours, classroom climate etc. 


  1. Mostly virtually- by email and Skype
  2. But if it would be helpful, EmpathyLab staff are happy to visit you (free)
  3. If there is an appetite, we can arrange a free development day in London
  4. If there an appetite is we could set up a telephone action learning set


  1. Time limited: September 2015- May/June 2016
  2. Review July 2016 for action the following academic year
  3. But we are happy to start sending Storykit material now