Headmaster, Robert Upton, writes a weekly blog post.

The most recent post is below and past posts can be found using the links on this page.

climb into someone else's shoes

First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." You could be forgiven for thinking that Atticus's advice in the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is more aligned to ‘Silence of the Lambs’. However Atticus is suggesting that in order to fully appreciate the views of others we must put ourselves in the other person's place.

Over the last decade I have noticed a change in children’s ability to “climb into someone else’s skin”. Speaking very generally I do believe children do not empathise as well as they used to. I point the finger of blame partially at the development of technology and the changes in behaviour that it has brought about. The screen has become the vehicle through which much communication occurs, either in text or increasingly through moving image and audio. The explosion of social media has offered many benefits but I see a number of challenges, particularly for children.

The need to drive up the number of ‘friends’ they have online seems to be a huge focus for many children these days. Clearly their digital profile is important to them and I understand this is the modern way. However I do worry that the balance is too much towards the digital world and children are not making the most of potential opportunities to develop their interpersonal skills more and in particular their ability to empathise. I believe the growing use of digital communication with the reducing levels of empathy is a poisonous menu and one that educationalists must address.

When I was a young boy I was rarely inside. I spent the majority of my free time either playing football with my friends or building camps “down the Stream”, a stretch of common land some distance away from the house with a stream meandering down its length. I would regularly meet new children and was thrown in to situations requiring my interpersonal skills. Sometimes interactions led to frustration or tears but I am certain that these were formative days for me as I learnt to understand how other people felt and adjust my behaviour accordingly.

I heard recently that the risks to children these days are no different from the risks when I was that boy playing at the Stream. Apparently society is just more aware of the dangers. Whether or not this is true, I am certain many children are not being exposed as frequently to the type of face-to-face interactions with their peers in an adult-free environment that I had.

At Yateley Manor we are planning to tackle the issue of empathy. We know that children at Yateley Manor already demonstrate good levels of empathy. I witnessed a boy in Reception this week, on his way for second helpings at lunch, pull back and allow a boy in Nursery to go first, understanding how he might have felt. This type of behaviour happens daily at school but there is always room for improvement and we intend to really focus on empathy, to explicitly teach how to empathise.

With empathy comes a greater level of responsibility and an understanding of our place in society. In turn this leads to better behaviour, and it is this with particular reference to the digital world that I am most keen to develop. With children using social media more and more we must teach them to empathise so that they behave responsibly when online. It is not acceptable to ‘spam’ another person by deliberately sending them communication repeatedly over a period of time to annoy them. It is not acceptable to take a photograph of another person, annotate it with words or pictures and then publish it to others. It is not acceptable to set up false email accounts so that unpleasant comments can be posted about a video posted by another online. These are hypothetical situations but none would occur if the user had greater empathy for others.

Even today I misjudge situations. Sometimes I think I have read somebody well and make a decision to behave in a certain way, believing to be acting in their best interest. We do not always read others correctly because we are human and the art of empathy is complex. At Yateley Manor we will endeavour to improve the levels of empathy in the children through our curriculum.

Empathy is akin to sympathy, but whereas sympathy says, “I feel as you do,” empathy says, “I know how you feel.”  In other words, empathy enables us to use our heads more than our hearts and allows us to appreciate another person’s feelings without becoming emotionally involved with him.”

(R.W. Armstrong, 1955)

Robert Upton