By Shawna Gamache
We are halfway up the steps to Olympic Hills Elementary, and already my 11-month-old is giggling in anticipation. We sign in at the office, wave hello to the lady at the front desk, grab our visitor passes and walk about five feet before we are spotted.
“Hi, Baby Quinn,” chimes a second grader coming in from recess. A teacher I have never seen before stops us with a big grin. “That’s the Roots of Empathy baby, isn’t it?” Quinn beams from my arms, her little feet kicking happily against my side.
What is Roots of Empathy?
Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Roots of Empathy was created in 1996 by Mary Gordon, an internationally recognized and award-winning social entrepreneur, author, educator, child advocate, and parenting expert. In 2007, Seattle became the first US city to host Roots of Empathy. The program is now offered in schools in 11 different countries around the world on 3 continents.
How Does It Work?
The heart of the program is a community family with an infant (2-4 months at the beginning of the program) and parent who visit a selected classroom every three weeks over a school year – for a total of 9 visits. During the visit, a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a lever which the Instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The Instructor, who follows a curriculum, visits the classroom both the week before and the week after each family visit – for a total of 27 Roots of Empathy classes.
Why a Parent and Baby?
Children witness the attunement of the parent and infant in that most influential first relationship: a living example of empathy. The program uses this attachment relationship to demonstrate how the parent regulates the baby’s emotions. Children are coached to understand and regulate their own emotions and begin to help their friends do the same. Children learn an appreciation for the uniqueness of individuals, their opinions, beliefs, and contributions; differences are acknowledged and celebrated. Through shared feelings and discussion, students discover how they are alike. As children come to understand the injustice of being left out, they become advocates for others.
Does it work?
The program has been widely evaluated across three continents for over 15 years and is proven to result in improved empathy, increased emotional understanding, decreased aggression and bullying and improved pro-social behavior among participating students. Research also demonstrates that these improvements are sustained and even strengthened over time.
We make it to Ms. Doss’ third-grade classroom and I open the door. “It’s Baby Quinn and Mama Shawna!” shouts one child. The rest of the kids murmur and point, jostling into place around a green felt blanket. We squeeze in alongside them, waiting for the class to calm down enough to sing their greeting song.
We walk the circle, and each of the 28 kids, strangers just eight months ago, reaches out to squeeze Quinn’s foot as they sing her hello. Then we sit down and their hands shoot into the air. They are eager to find out what’s new with Quinn this month, to guess what she’s eating and how she’s feeling, how long she is sleeping and whether she has taken her first steps yet.
When I heard about the Roots of Empathy Program last September, I thought it sounded innovative. Having a local baby come into the same classroom once a month for a school year would help kids learn about growth and development, and let them connect and empathize with that baby as they watch her change.
The program also has a proven anti-bullying effect, and I wasn’t sure at first how that would play out. Roots of Empathy was created in Canada in 1996 and has been in Seattle on a pilot basis just for only the past two years. I was lucky to find out about it from PEPS, which helps the program find parents and babies.
Each family visit is sandwiched by a classroom visit with a volunteer teacher, who preps the kids on infant development and more before each visit, and then helps them deconstruct what they saw and learned and felt afterwards.
Over these nine visits, I have watched as the empathy these kids feel for Quinn transfers over into other areas of their conversations and lives. Reflecting on what makes Quinn sad, one girl seamlessly moved into a story about her little sister, and how she gets sad when her sister is in trouble. A boy brought in his stuffed raccoon to show Quinn that he too feels safer sleeping with a transitional object.
All of the kids want to make sure I am holding Quinn enough, that I’m telling her I love her every day. They remind me how important it is to kiss her and make her feel safe. They tell me my affection helps her brain to grow and make connections.
On this day, our last in the classroom, the kids have each written a wish for Quinn. They want her to be strong, happy and surrounded by love. They read their wishes aloud to her, their faces serious and hopeful. Quinn listens intently, waving and clapping happily.