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.
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 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.