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Animals and Babies: How the vulnerable teach us empathy and compassion

By Avril Anne Gaastra

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Compassion and empathy have historically embodied what are considered to be some of the best elements of humanity. The processes whereby we come to know the internal stage of another and respond with sensitive care are of enormous importance for our life together (Batson, 2009). It is not surprising, then, that in recent years, there has been growing interest in the potential of empathy and compassion as critical values to foster in children. Yet despite this growing recognition, there remains relatively little information addressing how empathy and compassion might be addressed in teaching. An overriding argument of this thesis is that education in and for caring values — in this case empathy and compassion — has critical significance for personal, social and global wellbeing.

To investigate how these values might be taught, this study explores approaches to developing empathy and compassion within two primary school programs. The programs are The Roots of Empathy (RoE), a social and emotional learning (SEL) program that draws on the presence of a baby to foster empathy development in students, and the Voiceless Animal Clubs, which sought to develop in students the values of compassion and respect for animals. Guided by themes and models drawn from the literature on empathy and compassion, this thesis develops an approach for analysing empathy and compassion in these programs, which construes them as a synthesis of cognitive, affective and behavioural elements. 

To explore these issues, a qualitative research approach has been employed, and two case studies developed based on each of the programs. The two case studies were informed by interviews with four Roots of Empathy instructors, and five Animal Club teachers, and were supplemented with secondary and contextual material. The purpose was not to evaluate the programs, but to identify and explore some tangible ‘signposts’ within the teaching of empathy and compassion, which may have application in other settings.

Throughout this thesis, two key arguments are developed and these are elaborated in the final chapter, along with some potential implications from this study. Firstly, two types of approach are explored with reference to their significance within the teaching of empathy and compassion. It is argued that a focus on ‘relationships of caring’ with vulnerable others, (in this case babies and animals) offers an engaging and experiential model for empathy and compassion education; and further that the concept and practice of ‘compassionate advocacy’ offers a means for supporting important outcomes for students and for society. Secondly, it is argued that the teaching of compassion and empathy would benefit from specific attention to developing their cognitive, affective and behavioural elements and that this, in turn, would support the development of empathy and compassion as authentically felt and acted-upon values.


Katie Carroll

Date 2010
Publisher Melbourne Graduate School of Education
Location of Publication Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Degree Masters
Language English
University The University of Melbourne
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animals in culture
  2. Birds
  3. Cats
  4. Children
  5. Dogs
  6. Empathy
  7. Fish
  8. Horses
  9. Mammals
  10. Rodents
  11. Schools
  12. teaching