Five social innovations that can help cultivate empathy in children

Is it possible to teach empathy? Empathy is a very complex range of emotional states including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling. Recent research suggests that teaching these “soft skills” and cultivating the social-emotional intelligence of children, is just as important as cognitive development in the school curriculum if we as a society want to prepare children for being future leaders.

Here are five social innovations that shouldn’t be missing from any classroom taking this challenge seriously.

Peace First – Teaching young leaders peacemaking

Empathy, conflict resolution, problem solving, teamwork, communicating effectively, forming positive relationships. These are all the skills that build the foundation for a peaceful society. Teaching these skills in an effective way is what Peace First, a primary school-based curriculum, was developed for.

Peace First provides ways to teach children how to create peacemaking strategies and promote peace in ways relevant to their daily lives. Rather than policing violent behaviour and conflict, Peace First provides a way for children to learn and live compassion, peace and empathy from an early age.


Integral to the programme is the view that children are natural problem solvers and creative thinkers.

The Peace First Curriculum was originally developed in 1992 in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Now in its 4th revision, the Peace First curriculum includes the experience and perspective of teachers and students at every stage of design.

How you can join in Ireland

The curriculum and individual activities and games to use in a class room are available in a cost-free, easy-to-use online format with a suite of resources, lessons and games you can begin using in your classroom today.

Peace First operates successfully all over the US, is currently piloting a programme in Ireland and is looking for more primary schools interested in joining. Training will be taking place later this year.

Learn more about PeaceFirst

Register to bring Peacefirst to your school

AsIAm – Teaching us how to build a more inclusive society

AsIAm is an Irish Social Enterprise with one vision: Making our society more autism friendly.
Its secondary school programme AsIAm teaches children to understand Autism better, to realise that it is an invisible condition, to understand the challenges and the strengths of people with the condition, and also to see students with Autism as students, just like other students, first.

50% of children with Autism are being bullied, 80% are long-term unemployed. This has nothing to do with the condition but with how society reacts to it, says AsIAm founder Adam Harris who was diagnosed with Aspergers himself.


The programme involves a once-off 90-minute workshop as well as ongoing support and access to resources.

What makes it so difficult to talk about Autism is the fact that you can’t really see it and that it’s a spectrum, where no two people are the same (much like the rest of the population if you think about it!) We need to build an understanding for the differences which many people with Autism have and there is no better place to start than with young people, as they can bring this knowledge forward in their careers, community and family life in the future.

How you can join

If you’d like to bring the workshop to your school, as a teacher or a parent, you just need to register your interest on ChangeX and we can have a chat and see how it would fit with your school.

Learn More about the Autism Awareness School Programme

Register interest to bring AsIAm to your school

Start a school garden with Grow It Yourself International

We all have an understanding of what empathy is and we can also easily imagine what a school garden project might look like, but what brings the two together? We can learn that from Mick Kelly, founder of Grow It Yourself International, who has established the term ‘Food empathy’:

Food empathy is about a better understanding of where our food comes from which leads to more appreciation for food, especially for healthy and fresh food. If children grow their own fruit and vegetables they are more likely to consume healthy food over time.

National recommendations are that children should consume 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The most recent national survey (IUNA 2005) shows that only 25pc of our children are meeting that recommendation.

(Also see this Irish Times article on the GIY school campaign)

Giving kids the chance to grow their own vegetables in the school garden, yard or a nearby allotment and making growing food part of the school schedule is a great opportunity to build food empathy. Teachers or volunteers can help to teach classes on a regular basis. The GIY group in Crumlin/Walkinstown has brought that benefit to their local primary school. The driving force behind the project, changemaker Claire O’Brien, set it all up in her spare time:

I love the project and I am so proud of it. It’s just great to see the enthusiasm of the children. The school lessons allow us to pass on our love of gardening, the understanding of where food comes from and the healthy life that comes from that, to the next generation. I can’t think of anything better. I see the impact it has with my own two kids. They will eat what they have grown and even love kale now.


Learn more about GIY

Start a GIY group

Register interest to join the GIY school programme

Playworks – Teaching kids to play

One of the innovations on ChangeX that gets overwhelming feedback is Playworks, a primary school programme developed in the US and first brought to Ireland by Ashoka Ireland 3 years ago.

Playworks presents a fun, simple and effective way to ensure children in your school are getting the most from break time. At the same time it brings structure into the otherwise rather chaotic school yard.

Kids at school are out on the yard for 3-4 hours a week and often very little is organised for them. I think there is a huge opportunity here to develop skills, promote health and wellbeing and improve activity levels. That’s not just going to happen for all children of its own accord, some children need support. We have a collective responsibility to make it the best experience possible for as many children in our school but it also needs to be; easy and manageable for staff.

This is why Paul Knox introduced Playworks to his primary school in Dublin and became an advocate and trainer for the programme in Ireland. How does it work?


When break time starts, kids line up before they go out and join different games that are set up across the school yard. The games are facilitated by coaches, older children who also learn leadership skills this way. Playworks provides simple tools and strategies for dealing with conflict and treating each other with respect.

The motto of Jill Vialet, who founded the programme in 1996 under the name Sports4Kids: “Play matters”. Paul’s school came up with their own motto: “Every kid plays every day”.

In 2013, Playworks is directly serving 185,000 students in 23 cities in the US, and another 275,000 through training services. Playworks is also now up and running in many schools across Ireland.

How you can join in Ireland

Before introducing the programme to a school, teachers attend workshops or can visit an Open Day to see how it works.
Galway Education Centre is a Playworks hub hosting training events and acting as the central point for all things Playworks in the West of Ireland. In Dublin, Castaheany Educate Together provides training and support to local schools

There are upcoming trainig days planned before Christmas, register your interest now on ChangeX to save your seat.

Learn more

Register for Playworks training

Roots of Empathy – Invite a baby to your school lessons

Does the picture of a baby being a teacher sound ridiculous to you? That is exactly the idea behind the innovative programme Roots of Empathy that was developed in Canada in 1999.

In this experiential learning session, a parent brings his or her baby to a classroom on 9 occasions over the course of a school year. A Roots of Empathy instructor uses the baby to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This “emotional literacy” taught in the programme lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms.
The belief Mary Gordon, who founded the programme that has reached 600,000 children worldwide is this:

The questions we ask are more about what you think and what do you feel and what are your dreams. They really get to the emotional life of the child. It’s not enough to teach their minds we have to teach their hearts. The idea of social emotional learning has to have a safe pocket in schools.

Research has shown that Roots of Empathy has a dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren: An increase in pro-social behaviour in up to 65% of participating students and a decrease in aggression in up to 39% .

How you can join in Ireland

Led by Barnardos and the H.S.E West, the programme is now running in over 200 schools across Ireland but there could be more. Barnardos helps schools in Ireland to get the programme started.

Learn more about Roots of Empathy

Register your interest to bring Roots of Empathy to your school

These are just five innovations on how you can bring new teaching methods for fostering empathy in children to the classroom and eventually to our society. Have you come across more beneficial ideas that have shown an impact in cultivating empathy at an early stage of a child’s development? Let us know about them in the comments below.

In order to learn more about all these social innovations and more ideas around improving education in your community, visit

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