School libraries: empathy in action

School libraries have the power to positively impact the development of empathy in children, says our Programme Manager Victoria Dilly.

School libraries have the power to positively impact the development of empathy in children and young people. Well-resourced libraries not only house the stories we all know and love, but they’re filled with new books and adventures just waiting to be discovered. They hold a hive of information about the world around us and can be a huge support to pupils as they navigate their way through life — in school and outside of it. And with a school librarian leading the way, pupils can discover a love for reading to last a lifetime and can learn the vital critical literacy skills needed to find and process information.

The school library is often a refuge for pupils seeking escape from the busy and sometimes overwhelming playground. It’s a great place to find solace and support, with a school librarian on hand to help. As a reader, you can sometimes feel isolated if few of your peers share your love of books — but in the library, you’ll find others just like you and this can be really powerful for children who can often feel like they’re the ‘only ones’. And of course, between the pages of the books being read, children can discover worlds full of people just like them and escape to worlds away from the stresses and strains of daily school life.

I’ve seen some wonderful examples of how a school library can develop children’s empathy. Older pupils helping younger pupils to practice their reading skills through book buddying schemes has a hugely positive impact, not just on literacy levels, but also on pupils’ ability to emphasise and understand each other’s struggles. They don’t just develop their reading skills; an effective book buddy scheme enables pupils to develop new friendships and share their worries.

I recall one Year 9 pupil saying ‘I want to help out with book buddies because I know how it feels to find it difficult to learn to read’. Another girl asked if she could carry on reading with her buddy after the scheme had finished for the term because it helped her confidence and also because she said it made her feel ‘understood’.

Pupil librarians who provide support and understanding for others, who grow in confidence and emotional intelligence, demonstrate a brilliant example of how the school library can facilitate the development of empathy. Very often, pupil librarians have been on the receiving end of a lack of empathy — their role in the library provides a great antidote to this.

Book groups often take place in the school library run by the school librarian, a teacher or a teaching assistant. Giving pupils the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions about their reading can be a powerful way to develop empathy; not just through the narrative of the stories they’ve read but also through the varied experiences of those pupils participating in the book group. Identifying with characters is one thing, but when we share our reading experiences we can identify with each other too. A lively book group conversation can lead to the development of positive communication skills, where respect and listening to others’ opinions is a key stepping stone to empathy.

As we battle ever increasing concerns around empathy and related mental health issues that our children and young people face, we must remember that school libraries are perfectly placed to provide necessary support. Pupils having access to a space in school where they feel able to be themselves, engage in positive learning and personal reading and where they are supported by caring trained staff is surely the least should expect in all our schools.

Happy empathy day!

My recommended empathy reads

With so many books written that help encourage and create empathy, it’s impossible to fit them all on one list. Empathy Lab have put together a wonderful list to mark this year’s Empathy Day and encourage us to #ReadforEmpathy.

An all-time favourite of mine, which I think should be included on every school reading list and in every classroom, is Wonder by R J Palacio — a story that epitomises kindness and unsurprisingly sparked a kindness revolution.

Here are just a few more that will encourage empathy and transform the way you see the world and the people who live in it!

  • The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Dawalt and Oliver Jeffers A wonderful picture book telling the story of Duncan’s crayons and their various disagreements. Brilliantly illustrated and full of humour each crayon shares their frustrations which many young readers will identify with. A great book to introduce discussions around friendship and how we resolve conflict.
  • Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex tells the tale of Orange, who always feels left out. His fruit bowl friends find a way to help him fit in even if it means making some adjustments. This is a great poem to read aloud with striking illustrations, celebrating how different we all are and how we can work together to achieve acceptance.
  • The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu is a beautiful picture with a gentle narrative sharing a story of kindness, dreams and family set against the backdrop of the Turkana people in North Africa. Etabo’s heart’s desire is to be a camel racer and he dreams every day of winning camel races. With the help and kindness of his sister, one day he achieves his dream though not in the way he imagines. This is a great story to inspire kindness, belief and holding on to hope.
  • A Story like the Wind by Gill Lewis is a simply stunning illustrated story of refugees fleeing their wartorn homeland. Words and illustrations intertwine to tell the story of Rami and his fellow travellers sharing a fable to escape their peril and reignite their hope against tyranny. A story everyone should read which will leave you feeling full of empathy for refugees and encourage hope for the future even in the face of great struggle.
  • The Best Medicine by Christine Hamill is a wonderfully written story about facing an unbearable situation that will be all too familiar for many readers. Told with heart and humour, tears and laughter this a down-to-earth, funny, emotive story which will have you laughing and crying at the same time. After all, when everything in life is just about as bad as it can be, the only thing to do is find the ‘funny’ in the situation and laugh through the tears.
  • I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson is a well-written thriller told from the unique perspective of a 14 year old girl with cerebral palsy. Jemma is unable to communicate and we see through her eyes the reality of living with disability and the impact on those around her. The great plot and believable characters bring the narrative to life and you will think differently about disability after reading this book.
  • We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd is a fantastic story of celebrating love, family and friendship. Relatable characters and a convincing narrative give create a realistic reflection of life and its many trials and tribulations seen through the eyes of 9 year old Sydney, who especially worries about her Mum who has dwarfism. Warm hearted and uplifting this story gives positive messages of self-belief and shows that families come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare is inventive and moving with moments of humour and beautiful descriptions throughout. It deals sensitively with mental health issues, focusing on a young boy’s desire and determination to help his father recover from depression. The story is beautifully told, and we see that sometimes it’s the fear of the bad things in life that make them even worse, rather than the actual bad thing itself.