Professor Dolan with acclaimed Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is patron of the UNESCO Centre for Child and Family Studies at NUI Galway.
Nov 15 2016 Posted: 15:10 GMT

NUI Galway and Penn State experts to address UN Symposium on Positive Youth Development

Empathy. Could this one word – one concept – be key to changing outcomes for young people around the world? 

Tomorrow (16 November 2016) a UN High Level International Round Table Symposium will hear from experts on positive youth development. The message from the UNESCO Chairs at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) and Penn State USA will be that teaching empathy to young people can counter problems such as drug addiction, crime, gang membership, early pregnancy and youth radicalisation.

“2016 has seismic political shifts, with debate often focused on race, on immigration, and segmenting populations into different groups. From Brexit to the US election campaign, the narrative has been divisive in terms of individual and community identity. It’s been a story of them and us,” explains Professor Pat Dolan, UNESCO Chair for Children Youth and Civic Engagement at the National University of Ireland Galway, who will address the roundtable event in New York.

“This sense of ‘them and us’ is the antithesis to what young people need. Rather, imbuing empathy in young people can be one of the most positive and instrumental steps we can take. It can raise social and emotional competence and give youth the ability to navigate in what can be a challenging and difficult world.”

Professor Dolan pointed to the marked differences in the views of the young and old in recent major political decisions. “To avoid alienating our young people, their voices need to be heard.”

Professor Dolan, in collaboration with a fellow UNESCO Chair, Professor Mark Brennan at Penn State USA, is leading a project for UNESCO and the UN to develop models for empathy education for youth - by youth - for use in school and community settings. They are also developing innovative models of youth as researchers, which are being developed by young people themselves.

To this end, Professor Dolan has developed an innovative research technique where young people become the researchers themselves. Acclaimed Irish actor Cillian Murphy is patron of the UNESCO Centre for Child and Family Studies at NUI Galway, and has provided his support in workshops with young researchers on topics such as homelessness and LGBT.

“Empathy education plays a critical role in providing youth with a respite from the problems of self and the realisation that you are not the only one in the world with a problem. We need to make an active effort to change community structures that create an apathetic view of youth and instead engage their empathy and acknowledge and value youth that are strong in all areas not just athletics or academics,” said Professor Brennan of Penn State.

Professor Dolan added: “Exciting emerging research from neuro-science shows a positive connection between empathy education in children and youth and better academic performance – this has been coined as "Firing Gandhi Neurons".

Professors Dolan and Brennan also point to the Roots of Empathy programme which originated in Canadian schools, led by Mary Gordon. Children, around the age of either or nine, were visited in the classroom monthly by a baby and parent for the duration of the school year. The programme was based on the idea that children can learn about attachment, empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication all from a baby. 

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