Foster care the importance of empathy and can it be learned?

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Foster care the importance of empathy and can it be learned?

Foster carers the need for empathy

Foster carers require empathy

Foster carers are assumed to have a certain set of personal qualities. These seen as essential for the role. A quick glance at recruitment advertising and they are immediately apparent. Patience, compassion and understanding would probably be at the top of most people’s lists. But perhaps the number attribute called for its empathy. Those other qualities are so closely related that most people would offer them up as a definition of empathy. Work is being done to understand what this might be at a more fundamental level. Most of us have an understanding of empathy on an emotional level: sympathy for people who are going through a divorce or genuine pleasure when hearing about another person’s good fortune. 

A study conducted at UCLA has identified brain differences in the brains of empathetic individuals. These show up even when the brain is at rest. Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine led the research: 

“Assessing empathy is often the hardest in the populations that need it most. Empathy is a cornerstone of mental health and well-being. It promotes social and cooperative behaviour through our concerns for others. It also helps us to infer and predict the internal feelings, behaviour and intentions of others.”

The results suggested that even when the brain was resting and people were not asked to imagine a situation that would take in the feelings of others, a difference in brain activity between those who were more empathetic and those judged to be less could be detected. The difference was sufficient to allow the researchers to predict which people would score more highly on the questionnaire designed to measure empathy levels. 

Foster ways to develop empathy.

The prevailing opinion has been for a long time that empathy is an inherent quality. Research is now tending to suggest that it can be learned. That it is possible to help a child to develop an ethical code. And, significantly, that it can be taught to small children through reading. If this is the case, the implications are important and profound for groups such as foster carers. For those caring for very young children – especially those that have experienced trauma before coming into care – this could mean these children could have profoundly different lives as adults: lives that enabled them to create and sustain positive relationships. 

When very young children have stories read to them, they are able to participate (this is something that foster carers can do which is hugely valuable). Children are given the opportunity to comprehend the story from the perspective of its characters. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist interested in the importance of creating empathy. It’s important because it can play a significant part in addressing issues that are a problem for wider society: bullying and the mental health of young people being just two important and pressing areas. Foster carers will be particularly aware that looked after children can be at risk from bullying and problems associated with mental health issues. Reading can be a game that allows role-playing and identification with others – even if they are fictional creatures. Again, foster carers can do invaluable work in this area and at the same time strengthen their relationship with a child. Reading together in this way enables a child to imagine a set of experiences as if they were that other person or creature experiencing them. It is this creation of an alternative standpoint that is significant. Michele Borba advises that there are three basic steps needed to develop empathy skills for young children through reading. Foster carers too can play a valuable part in encouraging the development of empathy if they employ these questions: 

1) Ask “what if.” Encouragement can be given to children to identify with different characters in a story by asking them “What if that happened to you?” 

2) Ask “How would you feel? This is a good question to ask of a child to get them to relate to a character’s experience. 

3) Ask to think about “you” instead of “me”. This enables a child to think about someones else’s perspective. 

For more information relating to empathy visit:

Considering fostering? Rainbow has opportune opportunities in Hampshire, London, Birmingham and Manchester. 

Rainbow has been rated ‘Outstanding’ in all areas by Ofsted. We now need new foster carers from all backgrounds and walks of life. If you have worked professionally with children that could be an advantage but it is not essential. What is important is an interest in supporting a child so they can achieve at school and become well-rounded individuals. To foster, you do not have to have your own home. And your sexual orientation if a member of the LGBT+ is not a bar to fostering – nor is your age. To foster with Rainbow you must be over 21. So whatever your ethnicity or cultural background, we would be delighted if you apply to foster with us.

To discuss your application and learn more about all the other fostering opportunities we can offer, please call 020 8427 3355

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