Roots Of Empathy

Teaching kids empathy reduces aggression and boosts test scores.

Roots Of Empathy

Photo: Gerri Photography


The lunch bell rings. A tough-looking grade 8 boy – a head taller and two years older than his peers, sporting a shaved head and neck tattoo – stands up. Instead of rushing out, he volunteers to try on the object proffered by the Roots of Empathy facilitator: a plush baby carrier edged in pink piping. He turns to the visiting parent: she has spent the lesson discussing her baby’s temperament with the students, lamenting a little that he isn’t very cuddly and prefers to ride in the carrier face out. The boy asks to have the baby placed in the carrier, face in. Mom is nervous but complies. Amazingly, baby snuggles right up while the boy sits and rocks him quietly. When they’re done, he turns to the adults in the room and asks, “If no one has ever loved you, do you think you can still be a good father?”

This is just a single scene from one of the 2,200 classrooms across the country offering the Roots of Empathy (ROE) program last year. It paints a poignant picture that becomes even more powerful when we discover that this big, scary looking grade 8 kid has experienced life trauma no human should ever have to endure: when he was just four years old, his mother was murdered in front of him. As caring community members we may well ask ourselves how we can possibly hope to repair the damage done to this boy’s spirit. Roots of Empathy is aimed at doing that, and more.

Roots of Empathy is an award-winning classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy.

When kids are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others, they are less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt others. Research proves that increased empathy also helps boost test scores by promoting a positive, cooperative learning environment in which children feel more confident, have greater motivation and make better connections with those around them.

The baby as teacher

Once a month for nine months during the school year, a parent and their baby – about two to four months old at the outset and one year old at completion – visit a classroom of students for an hour. Each visit is mediated by a certified ROE facilitator who also delivers pre and post visit instruction, for a total of 27 lessons in all. By engaging in discussion and pre-visit activities – like holding a doll to practise holding the baby – students are prepped on themes such as neuroscience (the exponential human brain development in the first year), safety, temperament and communication.

During the parent/baby visits, students closely observe their baby’s behaviours and name the baby’s emotions while identifying and reflecting on their own similar feelings. They get to experience the baby’s milestones, struggles and successes, as well as her increased attachment to her parent first hand. Post visit activities can include group discussions, art making, dramatic role-play, journaling, etc., which helps students contextualize, personalize and internalize each lesson.

Perhaps the most profound element of the program, however, is the way in which the pure openness of the baby herself speaks directly to the heart of every person in the classroom. Every baby acts from a simple perspective of love for all, without judgment or the burden of socialization. When she reaches out she doesn’t see the differences in the children gathered around her – who is wearing nicer clothes or has tidier hair – she only responds to their essential nature. Even more amazing is that these babies will consistently go to those children who are troubled or feeling alienated – like our grade 8 boy – because they intuitively feel they are needed.

Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers not only because they model concentration, perserverance, frustration, growth and change in the most concrete ways as they struggle to learn to sit up or crawl on their own, but most importantly because they express an inner wisdom in their ability to naturally show empathy where it is most needed. As each student in that classroom develops a relationship with the baby, they see their own best selves reflected back to them in their ability to love and be loved in the most uncomplicated way.

Teaching to the heart

From the Roots of Empathy perspective, empathy sits at the foundation of academic and social success simply because in order to truly learn, you have to care, listen and communicate effectively. The program focuses on explicitly building emo-tional literacy in kids– the ability to engage in meaningful conversation about how they feel, what is important to them and what tools they can use to manage their feelings while respecting those around them.

The stages of empathy development start with self-awareness: the ability to ask and answer the question, “How do I feel?” about any particular situation. The next step is to name emotions based on those feelings – moving beyond simply sad, mad or glad to more sophisticated labels like worried, frustrated or perplexed. Building children’s emotional fluency or ‘feeling vocabulary’ empowers them to make connections between their internal experiences and their external world and then to further understand how one directly affects the other. Finally, children learn how to attribute those same feelings to others and to respond according to that understanding.

Empathy belongs in the classroom

Making the leap from acknowledging the value of empathy as an innate quality to recognizing it as a teachable skill is altering the nature of our classrooms. Studies of primary classes prove that Roots of Empathy consistently reduces undesirable aggressive student behaviour like bullying, angry outbursts, conscious exclusion or gossiping by up to 67% while successfully increasing desirable empathy-related behaviours like helping, sharing and cooperating. What makes these findings even more relevant is that the control group – students who had not experienced ROE – consistently showed an increase in aggressive bullying type behaviours of up to 50% over the same year. What this tells us is that offering empathy-related lessons in the classroom is not really as much an option as it is a necessity.

Developing emotional literacy in our kids takes time, resources, and a willingness to go beyond the traditional methods of ‘chalk and talk’ to create a more experiential learning environment where feelings are acknowledged and named, and tools for managing those feelings appropriately are explicitly explored. As members of our community, even very young children have a significant role to play and at an early age can begin taking responsibility for shaping the nature of their immediate emotional landscape: will they be friend or foe, nasty or nice, helper or hinderer?

We know our kids depend on us to teach them the basics, like how to talk, dress themselves or be polite. They also look to us to teach them the attitude of empathy that will serve to make them kinder, more ethical adults. In the long run, helping our children develop a richer emotional fluency empowers them to become better learners, and ultimately better citizens.


Extending the Lessons at Home

Often as parents, teachers or caregivers we address children’s ‘bad’ behaviour – whining, screaming, hitting – without considering how they are feeling. Helping them to build a greater scope of emotional literacy – using appropriate language to express their feelings of hurt, anger, or loneliness – fosters a more positive, collaborative relationship. The best way for kids to learn these emotional skills is to internalize an attitude of empathy by watching and emulating their models – that’s you – and getting plenty of opportunities to practice these skills:

Self-awareness – How do I feel?

Collaborative problem solving – This is important to me, what is important to you?

Consensus building – Find the similarities in our points of view.

Conflict resolution – Everyone’s concerns are valid.

Making connections – I care about how others feel.

Teamwork – Working together we can achieve more.

Communication – I use my words to clearly state my feelings.

Author: Sasha Korper

Sasha Korper is dedicated to helping kids have more fun while they learn. She works and lives in Northumberland with her husband and youngest daughter.

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