Empathy growing big roots
Kids help kids learn to care
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Saturday, Jun 07, 2014 06:00 am
It’s been 10 years since a unique program has been offering its services to St. Albert kids and organizers say that its roots are showing and still growing. The proof is right there in the emotional literacy of its participants.
“To hear a little guy… last year at our baby celebration get up and say those words, ‘I learned that a crying baby is not a bad baby. A crying baby is a baby with a problem.’ It’s stunning!” exclaimed Shannon Reddick, the program co-ordinator for Roots of Empathy in St. Albert and Edmonton. “I think everybody should hear that statement and learn it and understand it.”
The young boy she was referring to was in Grade 2 at the time.
Roots of Empathy is “an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy,” according to its website at www.rootsofempathy.org.
The way it works is it enlists the help of newborns only two to four months old at the start. They become “Tiny Teachers” who, along with a parent and a trained Roots of Empathy instructor, periodically visit classrooms of students from kindergarten to Grade 8. During these sessions held every three weeks throughout the school year, the students are coached to observe the baby and learn to understand its development and its feelings.
The objective is to reduce aggression levels among the participants while giving a boost to their social and emotional competence and increase their overall empathy.
Reddick said that it works wonders. “When you’re teaching empathy to children, you can talk about empathy. But when you have that baby sitting in front of them … we get them to learn to read the baby’s feelings, learn body language in the baby’s face. It’s easy to start talking about the baby and their feelings and how we would want others to treat our baby and then it just springboards off to how we want to treat each other and how we want others to treat us. It’s just an incredible place to start!”
“One of the big slogans in Roots of Empathy that our children will learn is ‘Love grows brains.’”
According to her and Kathy Alves, the local manager of mentoring for Roots of Empathy’s national and international programs, the participating students do indeed become more empathetic and less provoked to physically, psychologically or emotionally hurt others.
“I became involved with the program 10 years ago when there wasn’t research,” she said, adding that she is also a Roots of Empathy instructor. She said that over that timeframe, she has been excited to see research come out on how the program affects neuroscience, brain development and attachment in relationships in some very positive ways.
“I would say that the evolution of everything catching up with us has been exciting to see. We’ve done research all around the world with the same results coming in. It reduces aggression and increases pro-social behaviour over and over again. It’s just been so consistent!”
Carolyn Parkes, the national manager of program integrity explained that one of its biggest benefits is that it starts as a seed with each child but then branches out throughout the community. There’s a ripple effect, she said.
“The program isn’t just for students. It has an impact on the families that are involved and on the classrooms and the school administration. That’s what keeps me going: knowing that this isn’t about one baby in a classroom and it’s not about one classroom full of students. It’s about how all of these people are part of their wider circles of community. Understanding someone else’s feelings is at the core of how we treat other people. If we can be more caring and more thoughtful, isn’t that a better place to be?”
Roots of Empathy originated in this country and has since expanded to others including the United States, New Zealand and Scotland. In Alberta, it has reached almost 100,000 children since it first started in 2002. There are close to 40 programs running annually throughout Edmonton and St. Albert.
Reddick added that this is the time of year when they hope to sign up new Tiny Teachers. She urged expectant parents to consider Roots of Empathy for their newborns’ first year. Those who are interested can call her at 780-721-3388 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.