Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. The ability to see and feel things as others see and feel them is central to competent parenting and successful social relationships in all stages of life. When children are able to understand another person’s point of view and respect their feelings, aggressive behaviour is less likely to occur.
Roots of Empathy is an award winning, evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Roots of Empathy was founded by Mary Gordon in 1996 in inner-city schools in Toronto. The program has since been implemented in schools across Canada and is poised for international implementation. The experiential nature of the program results in learning which is likely to be long term and behaviour changing. Roots of Empathy uses the universal access point of public education to deliver public health messages that can prevent infant injury and abuse, advance optimal early childhood development, and reduce violence/aggression. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. Children are prepared for responsible and responsive parenting as they increase their knowledge about human development.
Roots of Empathy teaches emotional literacy. Children learn the names of the feelings as the baby’s cues are interpreted. The understanding of these feelings is anchored for students by the memory of the baby’s demonstration of feelings. Students are encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and feelings by using music, art, and writing as vehicles for self-exploration. The kindness of the students shines through their work. This learning is the connection of hand, heart, and mind and is far more likely to be deep and long lasting then is the typical instruction where a teacher speaks about feelings. All students have their feelings validated and the classroom becomes a safer place to say what they feel.
Perspective taking, the cognitive aspect of empathy, is developed in children as they are coached to understand the baby’s situation, and is reinforced in the discussions of the literature used in the program and in the discussions in the reflective activities.
Experiential and Interactive Approach
The Roots of Empathy program uses a concrete, hands-on, interactive approach, demonstrating empathy by means of observing the loving relationship between a parent and infant. The idea of using a live baby to bridge learning to students is, perhaps, unprecedented. There have been other programs that have attempted to teach parenting through the live model of a parent and baby, but these programs have focused on the physical aspects of parenting or the responsibility of parenting. The Roots of Empathy program goes far deeper because not only does it educate about the physical aspects of parenting and the onerous responsibility, but it fosters the development of empathy in the students (a core component to successful parenting).
Problem Solving is core in the Roots of Empathy program as children collaborate on authentic issues, such as effective strategies to comfort a crying baby.
Roots of Empathy has been identified as an anti-bullying program in many schools. Because children are taught to understand how others feel (empathy) and are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and inactions, social responsibility rises and incidents of bullying fall.
Culture of Caring
The classroom is a window on the future. Children learn to care for one another, their world and their future. Building good citizens in the classroom today will lead to a civil society tomorrow.
Roots of Empathy builds participatory democracies through consensus in the classroom.
Activities are designed to help children work on consensus building and collaboration. Children gain experience working in small groups that are not determined by their level of reading or their math skills. These new arbitrary groupings allow children to reinvent themselves. Reticent children who normally don’t speak in class are fearless contributors in these safe groupings. There are no wrong answers in a Roots of Empathy classroom. Instructors are trained to thank children for their contributions rather than praising them. When adults evaluate a child’s comment the result is extrinsic motivation for the child. In Roots of Empathy classes, because the children work on the principle of intrinsic motivation, the tone is friendly, participatory, and levels of social trust rise.
Roots of Empathy operationalizes the concept of social inclusion when it breaks stereotypes by involving members of marginalized groups, such as families from racial minority groups and religions and babies who are physically challenged.
Roots of Empathy teaches neuroscience to the youngest students so that the next generation of parents will understand that early experiences are crucial to brain development and that as parents they can mediate them for a baby’s optimal development. The program that babies are affected by every experience, good and bad, and that early learning is dramatic and there is no unimportant moment in a child’s life. During the visits students will often snap their fingers in recognition of synaptic connections in the baby, as a result of sensory stimulation. The brain is an experience dependent organ, which learns seamlessly.
Roots of Empathy brings fathers into the classroom as live and in colour models of male nurturance. Fathers bring their baby to school and discuss with the children in an open and honest manner how they feel about being a father, the joys as well as the frustrations. It is rare for a child to have authentic insights into how adults actually feel. The emotional integrity of all of the Roots of Empathy family is one of its strongest suits.
English as a Second Language
Roots of Empathy has been especially recommended by School Boards for classes that have high levels of students for whom English is a second language. Language learning has been extremely successful in Roots of Empathy classes because of the concrete nature and emotional component of the program.
Safety and Public Health Education
We have been successful in creating awareness of risk factors to babies. Children are sensitized to the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Shaken Baby Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, second hand smoke, as well as cause and effect thinking around accidents in their own lives.