The PEAR Institute: Using Art and Literature to Build Empathy

This post is part of a series about the workshop presentations delivered at the ACT Skills Summit.

Melina O’Grady, School Support Coach and Trainer at The PEAR Institute, shared with workshop attendees how empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person – underpins the Connect skills of social awareness & relationships, communication, and teamwork, and how drama, literature and film can be powerful tools to teach about empathy.

Empathy works in two ways. First is biological empathy, in which humans innately mirror the feelings of another human. A good example is when seeing someone stub their toe and wincing in response. We do this without thinking. The second is cognitive empathy, which builds off of biological empathy and is developed over time through experience and reflection. This type of empathy utilizes curiosity, listening skills, mindfulness, and imagination.

Attendees learned the six habits of highly empathic people:

  • Be curious: ask questions, consider another person’s perspective, strive to understand
  • Be a radical listener: share something of yourself, listen carefully, reflect back what you hear
  • Challenge prejudice and find commonality: rethink beliefs, be open, no judgement, cross lines of difference
  • Experience someone else’s life: read books and stories, listen to audio books, watch and discuss films, explore fiction and nonfiction, role plays or theater projects
  • Develop your imagination: write original stories, poems, plays, create original music or visual art that tells a story
  • Inspire action: collect stories and find places to share, host screenings or events, encourage dialogue and community action

Videos were shared which illustrate how empathy sounds and how it differs from sympathy. Attendees reflected on where they see empathy in their own programs or organizations. They also engaged in a storytelling exercise where they “stepped into someone else’s shoes” by acting as that character in the story, thereby using drama to take on that character’s perspective.

“Empathy starts from a place of knowing who we are and using that knowledge to build bridges to other people and their experiences,” Melina of PEAR commented.

The PEAR Institute partners with school districts, out-of-school-time programs and youth-serving organizations to promote social-emotional development in the service of student engagement, academic achievement, and life success. PEAR’s integrated student support system includes tools and services, all based on scientific research, that can be used across educational settings to better understand the non-academic picture of students. Boston After School & Beyond and PEAR have collaborated to align these tools and services to support the ACT Skills Framework.

All materials used at the workshop can be found here.