The Empathy Project was created in 2017 to teach empathy to participants ages 14 - 25 through the Activating Empathy Curriculum. Activating Empathy is the interactive way to bring an understanding of empathy into your world.

Activating Empathy Overview

“You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this - when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers - it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help." 

– Barack Obama (2006)

Background 

The Activating Empathy Program was developed by the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education at The Pennsylvania State University and the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway. There are two versions of Activating Empathy. The first is designed as a resources for teachers working with 14-18 year old students. The second version aims for facilitators to teach empathy to college students, aged 18 to 25, and has been adapted to meet the needs of a variety of audiences. It also has been used in a train the trainer type setting, educating teachers on how to bring it to their classrooms. The content of the program builds on theory and practice in the area of empathy education and is underpinned by literature reviews on empathy, civic behavior, and empathy education. 

Why teach empathy? 

One of the goals of an education system is to create responsible, caring and socially aware citizens who feel connected to their communities, societies and the wider world. This is a goal that is sometimes lost sight of in the context of exam pressure and overloaded curricula. Empathy matters because of its capacity to foster social connectedness and civic behavior. Empathy education can be seen as a targeted intervention designed to improve empathy skills amongst young people with a view to enhancing their social competence and promoting civic behavior. 

There is a considerable body of research on empathy and civic behavior, which demonstrates the importance of cultivating empathy as a life skill. Key to this is the demonstrated connection between empathy and prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is defined as a voluntary behavior designed to help or benefit another person (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). Some examples of prosocial include sharing to meet others' unmet material desires, comforting another person in emotional distress, and cooperating with others to attain mutual goals. Empathy is claimed to be central in promoting prosocial and altruistic behaviors by increasing an individual's positive, helpful, and thoughtful actions (Gano-Overway et al., 2009; Pavalovich & Krahnke, 2012). Empathy for others and its associated prosocial behaviors are key facilitators of positive social understanding (Hoffman, 1977; Tori & Batson, 1982).

Research has shown that empathy is aligned to a range of beneficial effects on behavior and attitudes. Specifically, empathy and prosocial responding in children and adolescents is associated with:

  • better quality peer relationships (Dekovic & Gerris, 1994; Eisenberg et al., 2006)
  • greater academic achievement (Caprara et al., 2000; Wentzel, 1993)
  • greater social competence (Saarni, 1990)
  • less prejudice (Dovidio et al., 2000; Galinsky & Ku, 2004); 
  • fewer externalising behaviors (Kokko & Pulkkinen, 2000) 
  • lower aggression (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988; Pulkkinen & Tremblay, 1992; Raskauskas et al., 2010)
  • lower engagement in antisocial behavior (Barr & Higgins-D'Alessandro, 2009). 

It is relevant to note that adolescence has been identified as a crucial period for empathy development (Chase-Landsdale, et al., 1995). Research also indicates that the social and developmental experiences that occur during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood can set the stage for citizenship and responsibility across the lifespan (Hope & Jagers, 2014; Wray-Lake & Syvertsen, 2011). 

About the Activating Empathy Program

Activating Empathy consists of twelve thematic lessons that take approximately twelve classroom sessions to complete. Each 50 minute session contains a variety of group activities designed to activate and develop empathy, cultivate prosocial behavior, and recognize the link between empathy and civic behavior. In this curriculum, students will learn how to activate empathy, practice empathy skills, and recognize the importance of empathy to interpersonal relationships and to the wider global community. Students will be asked to reflect on their learning outside of these core sessions using their Learning Journals.

On completion of Activating Empathy, students will be able to: 

  • Define empathy 
  • Explain the importance of empathy in improving interpersonal relationships 
  • Explain how empathy motivates civic behavior, social action and active citizenship 
  • Practice core empathy skills such as empathetic listening, perspective-taking and responding with empathy 
  • Identify and set clear empathy goals relevant to their own lives 
  • Reflect on their learning 

Using Activating Empathy

The sessions have been ordered with continuity of learning in mind. The curriculum begins with an introduction to the concept of empathy. It then introduces students to the practice of empathy skills with particular application to interpersonal relationships. Finally, it examines the connection between empathy and wider social issues. It is therefore recommended that teachers follow the lessons in order. Approximations are given for the timing of each unit and individual activity. 

Each lesson is also designed with flexibility in mind. The Activating Empathy Curriculum seeks to harness young people's individual and collective potential to make a positive contribution to society. For this reason, the curriculum is designed to be student-led as far as possible: students should be encouraged to choose activities, to adapt activities to their own interests, to exercise their own creativity in completing activities, and to direct their own project work. The reflective learning part of the curriculum includes time for students to write about their experiences in empathy in the Student Learning Journals. It offers a menu of activities: teachers and students should choose the activities that would work best given the needs and interests of the students and the available resources in the school. 

It is recommended that approximately 12 weeks in class, 1 hour a week are spent on this curriculum in addition to short assigned homework after each session. 

It has been suggested that if empathy training is to effectively foster prosocial responses, it should be accompanied by prosocial behavior training (Feshbach & Feshbach, 2011). Therefore this resource includes a focus on modelling and practicing prosocial behaviors and on social action projects. 

Further reading on empathy:

David Howe (2013), Empathy: what it is and why it matters. Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peter Bazalgette (2017) The empathy instinct: how to create a more civil society. London: John Murray. 

Simon Baron-Cohen (2011) Zero degrees of empathy: a new theory of human cruelty. London: Penguin. 

Roman Krznaric (2015), Empathy: why it matters, and how to get it. London: Rider Books.

References

Barr J.J. & Higgins-D'Alessandro A. (2009). How adolescent empathy and prosocial behavior change in the context of school culture: a two-year longitudinal study. Adolescence, 44(176), pp.751-72.

Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. (2000). Prosocial foundations of children's academic achievement. Psychological Science, 11, pp. 302 - 306.

Chase-Lansdale, P.L., Wakschlag, L.S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1995). A psychological perspective on the development of caring in children and youth: the role of the family. Journal of Adolescence, 18 (5), pp. 515-556.

Dekovic M. & Gerris J.R.M. (1994). Developmental analysis of social cognitive and behavioral differences between popular and rejected children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15(3), pp. 367-386.

Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Johnson, J. D. (2000). New directions in prejudice and prejudice reduction: The role of cognitive representations and affect. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, St. Louis, MO. 

Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A. (1998). Prosocial development. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & N. Eisenberg (Volume Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3 Social, emotional, and personality development (5th ed.), pp. 701778). New York: Wiley.

Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Spinrad, T. (2006). Prosocial development. In N. Eisenberg (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Social emotional, and personality development (6th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 646–718). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (2009). Empathy and education. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (eds.) The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. pp. 85-97. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 

Galinsky A.D., Ku, G. (2004). The effects of perspective-taking on prejudice: the moderating role of self-evaluation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 30 (5), pp. 594-604.

Hope E. & Jagers R. (2014). The role of sociopolitical attitudes and civic education in the civic engagement of Black youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24, pp. 460-470.

Kokko K & Pulkkinen L. (2000). Aggression in childhood and long-term unemployment in adulthood: a cycle of maladaptation and some protective factors. Developmental Psychology, 36(4), pp. 463-72.

Miller, P.A. & Eisbenberg, N. (1988). The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103 (3), pp. 324-44. 

Pulkkinen L. & Tremblay R.E. (1992). Patterns of boys' social adjustment in two cultures and at different ages: A longitudinal analysis. International Journal of Behavioural Development, (15), pp. 527–553.

Raskauskas, J.L., Gregory, J., Harvey, S.T., Rifshana, F., & Evans, I.M. (2010). Bullying among primary school children in New Zealand: relationships with prosocial behaviour and classroom climate. Educational Research, 52(1), pp. 1-13.

Saarni, C. (1990). Emotional competence: How emotions and relationships become integrated. In R.A. Thompson (Ed.), Socioemotional development, pp. 115-182. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 

Wentzel, K. R. (1993). Social and academic goals at school: Motivation and achievement in early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 13, pp. 4–20.

Wray-Lake, L., & Syvertsen, A. K. (2011). The developmental roots of social responsibility in childhood and adolescence. In C. A. Flanagan & B. D. Christens (Eds.), Youth civic development: Work at the cutting edge. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 134, pp. 11–25.

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