An Application of Empathy Development Methodology for Use by Teachers

Key Principles

This project proffers that empathy can be developed in literature classrooms through the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) in bibliotherapy.

What is Bibliotherapy and Why Use It?

Bibliotherapy is “the process of using books to help youth and adolescents think about, understand, and work through social and emotional issues.” (Miller, 2009) That is to say, there is great power in a good book. By discussing literature students can actually undergo social and emotional development.

Bibliotherapy has three primary goals: (1) to illustrate characters and problems so that readers recognize that their lived experience is shared by others in order to make them feel less isolated. For example a student with a disability who has never met another person with a similar disability may feel isolated but by reading texts that feature a character that they identify with, they may feel less isolated in their experience. (2) To evoke changes in values and attitudes such as empathy and tolerance. This can be done by introducing students to perspectives that differ from their own; a rural white student who has never met a person of color may struggle to empathize with the experience of victims of racial violence, but by conducting bibliotherapy using texts with characters of color, the student may better be able to recognize their shared humanity and better identify with individuals dissimilar to themself. And (3) to induce cognitive changes such as increased critical thinking, problem solving, and resourcefulness. This can be done by asking students comprehension questions and challenging them to interact deeply with the text, perhaps coming up with solutions to problems or inserting themselves into situations as they read.

This process can be done through large or small group discussion but can also be done through self-guided reading, writing exercises, or art projects.

Bibliotherapy is a different way of looking at class discussions that can be integrated simply with small steps such as including questions that invite the reader’s perspective and invite students to challenge and be challenged by the story.

What is CBT and DBT?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic treatment that challenges unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving to help improve a practitioner’s mood. In the simplest terms, sometimes we think things or do things that hurt us, but CBT can help us learn new ways of thinking and behaving to circumnavigate these bad habits. In this project, the main take away from CBT is the idea of “cognitive distortions” or ways of thinking about situations that are stilted by interpretation and not based on fact. Bibliotherapy techniques will be used to help students challenge the cognitive distortions they observe in the text to help them extrapolate to their own ways of thinking. For a complete list of cognitive distortions as defined in this project, please visit this link to The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center.

Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) is more focused on interpersonal relationships. The main take away from DBT is the development of a consistent dialectical philosophy, that is to say, developing the idea that there are multiple points of view on every issue and topic and that there is no absolute truth which is particularly relevant to both literature and empathy. Students who are able to recognize that there are multiple points of view will be better capable of recognizing the points of view of others.

Selecting Texts

The most important thing when it comes to selecting a text to use for this process is that the students are comfortable with it. Beyond that, there are different nuances in the criteria depending on the specific group goal, but overall the text needs to be: on the students’ reading level, be engaging and clear, and demonstrate diversity. Often texts are chosen that demonstrate coping skills but because the focus of this project is on in classroom application, we are focusing on texts that are more general. For your classroom, try to choose texts that feature diverse characters and perspectives and do not lock students into a single point of view.

Proceed to Step 2