Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Crying for empathy: Babies as teachers in classrooms

In thousands of schools around the world, children between the ages of five and twelve take lessons from a new-born baby. The result? Increased emotional intelligence, understanding and empathy towards classmates, and less bullying and aggression.

It looks like an ordinary Year 5 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 10- 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, how are you today?”

I am witnessing a Roots of Empathy session in action. It is unusual education on all levels. The subject matter is not maths or literacy but empathy, and it is not an educational professional 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 particularly true. Some of the boys seem embarrassed to sing and try hard to look disinterested. They succeed only briefly. 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.

On the green blanket empathy is caught, not taught.

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 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.

Eighteen years on, some of those theories and effects have been confirmed through research. Over 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.

Interest has been expressed from around the world, but Gordon says growth will be deep rather than broad: “We are not impressed with massive scale just to count numbers; we are impressed with the impact. We don’t measure impact by geography but by research that shows us how the programme is having a positive impact on the children and their environment and shows the ripple effect of the programme.”

Eighty per cent of Roots of Empathy students worldwide show ‘increased peer acceptance’.

Independent comparative and randomised controlled studies have been undertaken to measure changes in the behaviour of participating pupils on different continents. Eighty per cent 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. The positive impact has proven to last for three years after the programme ends and new data shows that Canadian children who had the programme six years ago still benefit from the effects.

In the UK, the programme started in 2010 in partnership with the charity Action for Children. Last year, Scotland became the first country worldwide to deliver Roots of Empathy in every council area. That widespread implementation was enabled by £1.2 million worth of Scottish Government funding. The programme is also being rolled out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

North Lanarkshire Council’s Psychological Services conducted its own study into Roots of Empathy last year, which showed that the program significantly increased empathy and decreased aggression in Scottish students. Some 83% of Scottish teachers with Roots of Empathy in their classrooms strongly agreed or agreed that as a result of the program, pupils are more inclusive or accepting of others who are different from themselves, relating to culture, race, special needs or gender.

The programme is most frequently implemented in schools in resource-poor areas — those with the highest level of children requiring additional academic support or that report problems with bullying or aggressive behaviour. At Lewisham’s Lucas Vale Primary School, 43% of pupils do not have English as their first language and 40% are eligible for free school meals (compared to the Department for Education’s national average of 18% of pupils in all state schools in England in 2011).

We can see the results in the classroom. The programme has broken down barriers between the students and their teachers.

The school’s inclusions officer Sophia Kirton was quick to spot the potential of the programme: “When we started Roots of Empathy in two of our Year 5 groups last year, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity,” she says. “We can see the results in the classroom. At 10 and 11 years old, the students are at that age where they are going through a lot of changes. The programme has broken down barriers between the students and their teachers. It has enabled them to talk about their own personal experiences more, and they are able to use these skills in all of their learning.”

Today’s session at Lucas Vale is the seventh family visit of the school year. In total, the family visits nine times. In the weeks before and after each family visit, a trained Roots of Empathy instructor facilitates preparation and evaluation sessions. A different theme is explored each month: from crying to caring and planning, emotions, sleep and safety.

This afternoon baby Sienna ‘teaches’ the group about communicating. When she makes a crying sound, the children are encouraged to discuss why that might be. “She cries because she can’t yet speak to tell us how she feels,” offers one boy. “Or maybe she is hungry or tired,” says another boy.

Instructor Suzanna Fix puts two plastic balls in front of Sienna. “Remember what happened when we did this last month?” she asks the class. Many kids raise their hands, keen to share their insights. “She got frustrated because she could not pick up both!” It takes just a few seconds for baby Sienna to grab a ball in each hand and bang them together. The classroom erupts in celebratory cheers. Fix relates the action back to the neuroscience in child development: “She is making a connection in her brains right now which relates the movement to the sound.”

In Roots of Empathy, students learn that ‘love grows brains’.

In Roots of Empathy, students learn that “love grows brains”. Through the recurring family visits, the children become interested in the brain development of the baby. Each ‘tiny teacher’ has to be 2 to 4 months old at the start of the school year, so that the students can observe the greatest learning period of a person’s life span.

The volunteering parents are found locally in each place to reflect the neighbourhood’s diversity. They can be mums, dads or single parents as long as they are at ease in their parenting role, so they can provide a working model of responsive and responsible parenting to the students.

The instructors on the programme are trained volunteers, who often have a background in social work, psychology or teaching. Fix is a trained social worker who has been leading Roots of Empathy classes for the past four years, in both Seattle and London. Like all instructors, she coaches her students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the ‘teacher’ and — just by being physically present — acts as a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and those of others.

Fix says that aside from some minor lexicon differences (she once spent an entire session in London talking about ‘diapers’. which the students only knew as ‘nappies’), Roots of Empathy works equally well on both sides of the Atlantic. “The programme just creates moments for empathy to be demonstrated. We are modelling it. A child might share something and we always respond with a thank you, not praise, because we want to emphasise that there is no good or bad answer. Kids all engage at different levels and some topics can be harder than others. We create a safe environment for them to open up.”

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

Year 5’s teacher Juliet Uzur has been with her class for two years in a row. She has witnessed a change in her pupils since the Roots of Empathy programme started last September. “They are more vocal about how they feel. Ms Fix has got a way of getting them to talk about their feelings and that continues after the visit ends. We had one session talking about grief, and a boy who used to get really angry in class opened up. He shared with us that his grandfather had killed himself. The other children were very respectful. At this age, children can be quite selfish, but I see random little acts of kindness that they never used to show. They have become a bit more caring towards each other. It has been really nice.”

At the Roots of Empathy headquarters in Toronto, Mary Gordon and her team have developed a research-based curriculum for each primary grade. Gordon continues to work with universities to undertake longitudinal studies, with children studied at every single grade level. Her research questions could have a direct effect on the way the programme will be delivered to students in the future: What is the ideal dose? Do they need it once or twice to maintain the change? And what is the ideal age?

Students build better friendships throughout their school life. That is protective to them: it is their bulletproof vest.

So far, studies show that the intervention is similarly effective at every grade level. Gordon says that it depends on the preference and objectives of the school what year they choose for the programme. “If you want evidence of reduced bullying, you offer the programme to 8 to 10 year-olds who have started to bully, so you can see evidence clearly,” she explains. “But if you are interested in pure prevention, then the younger the child, the better. Students will be able to build better friendships and relationships throughout their school life. That is protective to them: it is their bulletproof vest.”

Ultimately, the programme is all about relationships, says Gordan. “What is comforting and hopeful is that even a 5-year-old is able to understand that we all share the same feelings. Roots of Empathy studies the first and most important relationship in life and children completely understand this. It is as adults that we sometimes get lost in other goals.”

The programme’s methods and content are the same everywhere, apart from the country-specific children’s literature and storybooks that accompany the sessions. The twelve programme pillars include emotional literacy, as well as related themes like perspective taking, temperament, attachment and male nurturance. For the oldest students, teen pregnancy is also discussed as part of the wider theme of planning for a baby.

Gordon has been widely recognised for her work in the fields of education and parenting. She was also awarded the prestigious Ashoka fellowship for leading social entrepreneurs and has given several TEDx talks about cultivating empathy in children.

Experiencing an emotion by its very nature requires cognitive skills.

Critics of the Roots of Empathy programme argue that using up valuable school time to teach empathy is time away from teaching cognitive and academic skills. Gordon disagrees with this view and cites a body of research on the role of empathy in education that shows that there is a strong connection between the understanding and experiencing of emotion and cognitive ability.

In her book Roots of Empathy, changing the world child by child, which was first published in 2005, she puts it as follows: “Experiencing an emotion by its very nature requires cognitive skills. To arouse your nervous system, you have to be aware that something has changed in your environment and be able to understand and interpret its implications for you. We do this every day, some of us more skilfully than others.”

World leaders and spiritual leaders alike have been calling for the recognition of empathy as a crucial skill that we should teach our children. President Barack Obama declared a “national empathy deficit” in 2008, arguing that a lack of empathy was the essential deficit that exists in the United States.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Dalai Lama approved of Roots of Empathy when he and Gordon met in Canada. His teachings have long called for the ability to recognise the feelings of others: “True compassion […] is based on the simple recognition that others, just like myself, naturally aspire to be happy and to overcome suffering, and that others, just like myself, have the natural right to fulfil that basic aspiration. The empathy you develop toward a person based on recognition of this basic fact is universal compassion.”

Earlier this year, an independent advisory group to the UK Government conducted a six-month review of England’s education system. In its report, Making Education Work, the committee concluded that the school curriculum needs more emphasis on “team working, emotional maturity, empathy and other interpersonal skills”, which it says are “as important as proficiency in English and mathematics in ensuring young people’s employment prospects”.

Many people still think that school success is only measured by test scores.

Rolling out the programme in Britain was a natural step for the Roots of Empathy team, says Gordon: “Schools in the UK have the appreciation of social and emotional learning. The Commonwealth view on education takes the view that schools are places where you develop citizenship. That is not the case everywhere, as many people still think that school success is only measured by test scores.”

Bringing empathy into education and parenting in different countries has revealed interesting insights: “What surprised me the most is the universality of Roots of Empathy parents and babies”, reflects Gordon. “I knew that the children would be the same everywhere, but I did not anticipate that the adults would be so alike too. When I personally recruited the first parents all those years ago, I thought they must all be exceptional. But guess what? There is something about being a parent that makes you want your loving relationship with your baby to help children develop empathy. It is an incredibly powerful thing.”

[Photo: ‘Tiny Teacher’ Sienna plays peek-a-boo with one of the students at Lucas Vale Primary School in Lewisham, May 2014. Photo by Danielle Batist]

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