For your consideration: Could Canada’s Roots of Empathy program work in Nebraska?

By Mary Kate Gulick

Second graders interacting with a baby in a Seattle Roots of Empathy session.

I walked into the second grade classroom at West Woodland Elementary School in north Seattle with no defined expectations. My sister and her 10-month-old baby girl, Stella, had been participating in “Roots of Empathy” here since the beginning of the school year. It was early June, and this day would be their last session. I was invited to observe.

Well, it’s not entirely true to say I had NO expectations. To be honest, I think I expected some touchy-feely hippie nonsense about how the class should channel the baby’s unspoiled spirit.

What I found instead was an innovative approach to eradicating bullying and preventing child abuse with a compelling evidence base.

Roots of Empathy: The Program

The program was started in Toronto in 1996, by educator and child advocate Mary Gordon. Since its inception, the Roots of Empathy program has reached 450,000 children in Canada, Europe and three states in the U.S. – California, New York and Washington state.

The cornerstone of the program is a  classroom experience where a parent and baby from the community visit an elementary school, and a trained instructor guides students through an observation of their interactions.

“After seeing how effective the program had been in my son’s school, I decided I’d like to try to bring the program to the school where I work,” said Rebecca Young, a Roots of Empathy Instructor in Seattle, Washington.

The parent and baby visit each month of the school year, and the students remark on how the baby has grown, new emotions being exhibited and their own experiences with those emotions.

“I am constantly amazed at how much love is generated by the students toward ‘their’ baby in the ROE classrooms and by the level of empathy that is built up over the year,” said Rebecca. “I also love that we have this opportunity to take 30-40 minutes a week to have discussions in school about empathy which I consider as important as any other subject being taught.”

Baby as teacher

In the Roots of Empathy program, the baby is the teacher, showing schoolchildren to understand the perspective of the baby and label the baby’s feelings. The Roots of Empathy instructor guides students to extend this lesson further, giving them a better understanding of their own feelings and the feelings of others.

“With each family visit, the instructor leads the children in noticing how the baby is growing and changing over the course of his or her first year of life,” reads the Roots of Empathy Website. “The children also watch the loving relationship between the parent and baby and see how the parent responds to the baby’s emotions and meets the baby’s needs. The attachment relationship between a baby and a parent is an ideal model of empathy.”

The evidence base

Nine independent evaluations in the last 13 years have documented a number of positive outcomes they attribute directly to participation in Roots of Empathy. Students who participate in the Roots of Empathy Curriculum demonstrated lasting:

  • Increased social and emotional knowledge
  • Decreased aggression
  • Increased pro-social behavior (such as sharing, helping and including)
  • Increased perceptions of the classroom as a caring environment
  • Increased understanding of infants and parenting

Read the full research summary.

What the results mean

While the first four bullets above bode well for preventing bullying in school and helping kids develop their social emotional competencies, it’s the last bullet that I find most interesting.

Wouldn’t a child who has an understanding of infants and parenting at an early age carry that knowledge into adulthood?

Wouldn’t they be more likely to have positive interactions with their own children one day?

And wouldn’t they be less likely to abuse or neglect a child?

Would Roots of Empathy be an initiative that works to reduce future child maltreatment in Nebraska? It certainly looks promising.

The follow-up studies have looked at students three years after participation, and have observed the initial gains hold. We don’t yet know that they would hold until adulthood, but it’s a distinct possibility – and common sense would support that possibility.

Rebecca’s experience teaching Roots of Empathy to 2nd and 4th graders reflects  what the research says kids are learning. “Students in ROE classrooms will tell you very clearly how much work is required to raise a baby, how to keep a baby safe, how love grows brains, how to soothe a crying baby, how to put a baby safely to sleep, and how to communicate with a baby who isn’t yet able to talk,” said Rebecca.

It sounds like these kids have taken away some lifelong lessons about healthy interactions with young children. 

Stella’s day in class

Baby Stella looks around at her second-grade friends at her last Roots of Empathy class

At West Woodland, Stella is pleased as can be to see her second-grade friends. She has been coming here for 9 months, so she’s comfortable with the group. The children sing a welcome song to her, and her mom carries her around the circle of eager faces. Each child reaches out and gently pats Stella’s hand or strokes her hair. She is loving the attention.

Then the instructor leads the children through observations about Stella’s growth and development.

“She’s much more relaxed than she used to be,” says one child. “She’s not clenching her fists.”

“Look, she’s turning around to look at her mommy because she wants to make sure what she’s doing is OK,” says another.

There’s plenty of commentary about Stella’s wild hair, and plenty of tangents (these are second-graders, after all), but there’s also a lot of insight. They know when she’s nervous or uncertain, and modify their behavior to make her more comfortable. They can see when she’s happy, and their natural response is to do more of what’s making her happy. They’re responsive. They’re engaged. They are kind.

“I feel like I really did get to watch the kids develop a genuine sense of empathy for Stella,” said mother Jeannie Yandel. “It was pretty great to get to watch a couple dozen second-graders consider how a baby’s experience was like their own.”

And that’s kind of the point.

It might seem like this piece is just an excuse to post pictures of my adorable niece, but I am going somewhere with this. Our kids need empathy. The epidemics of bullying and violence in school-aged children – and the abuse and neglect children experience at the hands of their parents – are largely the result of a failure to empathize. An ever-growing absence of the ability to process thoughts through the filter of “What if this was happening to me?”

Roots of Empathy is one solution that’s been put forth to address this. I think it could be effective in Nebraska. What do you think?

This post is the opinion of the author only meant to generate discussion and explore new ideas. Roots of Empathy is not a program of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Cradle to career, Middle Childhood
2 comments on “For your consideration: Could Canada’s Roots of Empathy program work in Nebraska?
  1. that will only work if the other person is somehow charismatic and/or popular or at least respected by others. otherwise he or she will end up being bullied by the bully and his friends, too, which is what most people fear and which is sadly also why most people don’t step in.

  2. Judy Priess says:

    Our center would love to be a pilot for Seeds of Empathy in Nebraska!

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