Crying for Empathy

09 JUL 2014

Roots of Empathy classroom-baby Mei-photo (c) Melanie Gordon
Baby Mei leads a Roots of Empathy class     Photo © Melanie Gordon
In thousands of schools around the world, children between the ages of five and 12 take lessons from a newborn baby. The result? Increased emotional intelligence, understanding and empathy towards classmates, and less bullying and aggression
It looks like an ordinary year five classroom in the Lucas Vale Primary School in the London borough of Lewisham. Colourful posters and artwork cover the walls and hang from the ceilings. A group of ten and 11-year-olds talk and laugh as they get up from their desks. A woman walks in with a baby in her arms and immediately the chatter dies down. The children gather around a green blanket and burst into a welcome song: “Hello baby Sienna, how are you today?”

I’m witnessing a Roots of Empathy session in action. It’s unusual education on all levels. The subject matter isn’t maths or literacy but empathy, and it’s not a teacher but an infant who guides us. Instructor Suzanna Fix had warned me ahead of the session: “On the green blanket empathy is caught, not taught. The baby’s mood is infectious. Her feelings are recognised and shared by all the pupils, and the boys are just as involved as the girls.”

In the classroom, her words ring true. Some of the boys seem embarrassed to sing and try hard to look disinterested. They succeed only briefly. Sienna’s mother, Lori Knight, makes her way around the circle and holds up her baby in front of each pupil. Sienna smiles and every child in the room smiles back at her.

Since the launch of the programme in Canada in 1996, its mission has been “to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.”

When founder and educator Mary Gordon first brought a baby into a classroom, she was convinced it would help solve what she saw as one of the world’s big problems: the lack of human empathy. Guiding young learners through a journey of personal discovery and a greater understanding of their classmates’ feelings could, she believed, have a lasting effect. Ultimately, she hoped it would create a generation of responsible citizens, responsive parents and emphatic leaders.

“At this age, children can be quite selfish, but I see random little acts of kindness that they never used to show”

Eighteen years on, some of those theories and effects have been confirmed through research. More than half a million school children have followed Roots of Empathy and its little sister programme Seeds of Empathy for toddlers. The programme has spread from North America to New Zealand, the Isle of Man and Ireland, with translated versions being rolled out in Germany and the Spanish-speaking world.

Bullying

Independent comparative and randomised controlled studies have measured the behaviour of children taking part. Almost 80% of Roots of Empathy students worldwide show “increased peer acceptance” and two in three show “increased pro-social behaviour traits”. Researchers at the University of British Columbia also looked at specific types of aggression, and all studies showed a significant decrease in bullying levels. Data published in Healthcare Quarterlyshows that the positive impact lasts for at least three years after the programme ends. The same research team is currently conducting a follow up study in Manitoba province and early findings suggest that Canadian children who took part in the programme six years ago still benefit from the effects. The full results are expected next year.

In the UK, the programme started in 2010 in partnership with the charity Action for Children, which helps support vulnerable and neglected children. Last year, Scotland became the first country to deliver Roots of Empathy in every council area, following £1.2 million of Scottish Government funding. North Lanarkshire Council’s Psychological Service conducted its own study into Roots of Empathy last year, which showed that the programme significantly increased empathy and reduced aggression in Scottish students. It is also being rolled out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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