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Roots of Empathy

Anti-Bullying Program Taught by an Infant
Posted on 06/13/2016

The Roots of Empathy program was delivered in Mr. Lessard's grade 4 classroom. The program has been delivered in our school for several years now. The Roots of Empathy programme began in 1996 when Mary Gordon, child advocate and parenting expert, started the program with 150 kids in Toronto. Her goal was to help create a society where people were kind to one another and thought it would be best to start with children who are just developing their social skills

The idea of Roots of Empathy is very basic. Children will learn based on observation and interaction with their classmates and a “teacher.” The “teacher” is an infant, ranging from two months to four months at the beginning of the school year. The infant visits a classroom of elementary school children accompanied by a Roots of Empathy facilitator and the infant’s mother. Through the course of the school year, the children are able to witness the baby grow and change. Further, the students are able to observe several different emotions conveyed by the baby that they might not recognize as easily in children their own age. For example, the baby may start crying and the facilitator will ask the children for a reason as to why the baby is crying. From this observation, the students will understand what type of different actions upset the baby and may then relate these actions to future situations when they see that someone else is upset. In short, it develops their skills to recognize and investigate emotions; it makes them more aware of others around them and their emotions. Another tactic that helps the children learn is that they watch the loving relationship between the parent and the baby (said to be the “ideal model of empathy”). The students witness how the parent meets the baby’s needs. These visits take place an average of nine times a year per classroom. In addition to the parent-infant visits, the facilitator will stop by the classroom before or after each visit to reinforce the newly observed concepts.

The incidence of bullying and aggression experienced by school children is problematic. Beyond the fact that no child should ever be made to feel vulnerable, insecure, threatened or victimized by violence, aggression in the school environment can inhibit learning and create interpersonal problems for children. Moreover, a high level of childhood aggression is problematic in the long term as it is a significant predictor of adult criminal behaviour and other anti-social behaviours.

It is often overlooked that in 85 per cent of school bullying episodes there are onlookers and bystanders (Pepler & Craig, 1995). These witnesses, our children, are being adversely affected. Unlike other programs that address bullying by targeting the victim or bully, Roots of Empathy works universally with the whole class. The program teaches perspective taking skills that enable all students to gain insight into how others feel and develop a sense of social responsibility for each other. In the ROE classroom, children are empowered to challenge cruelty whether it is in the form of bullying or meanness.