Teaching Empathy Through Storytelling By Lynne Azarchi
Lynne Azarchi, author of The Empathy Advantage, isExecutive Director of Kidsbridge Tolerance Center outside of Trenton, New Jersey—a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering bullying prevention, anti-bias, diversity appreciation, empathy, and empowerment strategies for youth. She is a tireless advocate for improving the lives of at-risk youth in communities across New Jersey. Kidsbridge helps more than 2,500 preschool, elementary, and middle school students and educators improve their social-emotional skills each year.
Azarchi has won many awards and her articles have been published both in newspapers and academic journals. She is a frequent speaker to parent and teacher groups, corporations and major educational conferences. For more information, go to: http://empathyadvantagebook.com/.
Below, she shares how to teach empathy through storytelling.
Cable news shows, newspapers, and other types of media often have a way of leaving us feeling beaten up by all manner of bad news. But if you pick your programs and surf YouTube the right way, you can find media sources that can actually make you and your child feel better. There is a wealth of wonderful documentaries, stories, and images to light up your child with compassion, enthusiasm, and curiosity. And even better – you can use stories to help teach your children empathy.
Empathy – the ability to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ and understand what people different from ourselves see and feel – is the antidote to so many problems we are facing – from bullying and cyberbullying to the rise in narcissism. Research demonstrates that people who can “read” feelings and other nonverbal cues are more emotionally adjusted, better liked, and more successful. They make better leaders, have lower rates of substance abuse, and higher levels of academic achievement. Indeed, empathy is one of the greatest foundations and skills that you can bestow upon your child.
People often think that empathy cannot be taught, but the truth is we can help our children increase their levels of empathy. One of the great ways to do this is to make use of stories. Not only will stories reduce the concept of “the other,” but, in an organic way, it will also create empathy for the hardships that others face. Here are a few ways to introduce stories into your family time.
When you want your children to walk in others’ shoes, discuss what news or historical events interest them because passion will drive them toward learning, curiosity, and epiphanies. They could focus on the victims of a hurricane or any natural disaster. It could be a homeless person they passed on the street. It could be the burning of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil or fires in Australia, which hurt us all. Help them along the way by going to the library or sitting down with them to search online for documentary films that make individual stories come alive.
There are also children’s film festivals around the country. Take your family to one of these festivals or check their websites for resources. PBS Learning Media also offers a large selection of free educational videos and resources for your family.
Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching (all you need to do is take one look at cave drawings, and you’ll know what I mean). It is one of the most fun, creative, and enriching things you can do.
At the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center, we ask teachers to share stories about when they were bullied, excluded, or called a name. Of course, students’ expressions are rapt, and we can hear a pin drop when teachers share their personal experiences. When the teachers are shy, sometimes I share my own stories. I start out with something like this: ‘When I was your age, kids would make fun of my middle name by teasing me, singing a song about it, and making me cry.’ I do this so kids and youth visiting the Tolerance Center know that there is nothing shameful about being teased and that it’s okay to feel a variety of emotions, including sadness.
Share stories that you have heard from your parents or your grandparents. Perhaps you can share tales of the obstacles that your ancestors experienced as immigrants to this country. You might reveal how you helped others, or perhaps how others helped you and how you were affected. The objective for all such stories is to have your children ‘walk in your shoes’ or in the shoes of others who have less than they do.
The structure for good storytelling technique can be complicated, but we can condense the lesson plan into two parts:
Describe an obstacle.
Share whether there was a solution.
Don’t feel that you have to have a happy ending to every story. As we all know, life is sometimes like that.
One of the most effective ways to generate empathy is showing photos of children or adults suffering around the world. Going back in time to when I was a young girl in fifth grade, I can still replay the footage in my mind of President John F. Kennedy getting shot. It was the coming-of-age moment for TV, marking the first time such a major breaking news story was shown with ongoing live coverage. Those are images I will never forget.
Sadly, with more than twenty million refugees around the world with no country, no resources, and no home, we will never have a shortage of such photos that give us the opportunity to understand suffering.
Shifting to a positive note, photos of courage and heroism can be both inspirational and a lesson in empathy. Show your children the picture of the man who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks in Beijing in 1989 after troops had suppressed protests in Tiananmen Square. Who was that brave person, and where did he go? Would your children dare to walk in his shoes?
So, as a parent or teacher, make use of these resources to cultivate a motivation to learn and develop empathy. Let those photos stir questions about what individuals in an image are thinking or feeling. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, if not more, when it comes to sparking empathy.
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