On a wet spring morning, a group of kindergarten kids sits criss-cross-apple-sauce around a green blanket laid out on the floor of their classroom. On the blanket sits eight-month-old baby Cassandra, a sky blue barrette in her hair, quietly peering up at her young friends as if to greet them, catching some of their eyes and shyly smiling.
“(She is) happy,” exclaimed five-year old Isabella. “She is smiling.” “She wants her mum,” added Brooklyn, when baby peeked over her shoulder to make sure mom was near.
Cassandra is a Roots of Empathy program baby at Highlands elementary in North Vancouver. Every three weeks she visits the classroom with her mother, sitting on her forest green blanket while 21 bright-eyed five- and six-year-olds study her every coo, giggle and move. During these visits, baby Cassandra becomes the teacher, imparting emotional literacy and empathy to her students.
Founded in 1996 by award-winning Ontario educator and child advocate Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy is a classroom program that aims to foster the development of empathy in children. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood baby and parent who make regular visits to the classroom throughout the school year. A trained program instructor visits along with the family, guiding the children as they observe the relationship between the baby and parent and baby’s development. The instructor reinforces teachings in further classroom visits.
Through this model of experiential learning, the baby helps the children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. In short, the kids learn to be kind.
The program’s vision is to change the world, child by child. The evidence shows it just may be working. More than a decade of independent research has shown the program significantly reduces bullying and aggression among children, raises their social and emotional competence, and increases empathy.
“(The program) shifts a focus away from acting aggressively towards others, to really caring for others,” said Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has evaluated the program in separate studies. Schonert-Reichl says that, among kids who don’t get the program, a typical pattern is for the kids to get more aggressive over the course of the school year, forming in-groups and out-groups, putting down out-group members. By contrast, Roots of Empathy kids are seen by others as more inclusive and kind.
Highlands kindergarten teacher Elizabeth McFarlane has seen seeds of change in her classroom. “I’ve seen a willingness for kids to help one another without being asked to do so,” she said. “We have one little girl in the class with a broken arm, and one boy helped her to get her pencil . . . and some paper and her chair. He wasn’t asked to do that,” she said. “I’ve seen a willingness to be more connected with how other people are feeling.”
With strong results under its belt and accolades building – including a prestigious 2011 Manning Award for Innovation – Roots of Empathy has quickly expanded globally and is now offered in six countries, with others working to launch imminently. The program has reached more than 450,000 children to date.
Roots of Empathy is part of a global movement that views the adoption of “social and emotional learning” programs by schools as critical to individual school and life success and to the creation of civil, caring societies. Research shows that SEL programs result in a significant increase in positive peer relationships, empathy, social engagement and other healthy social outcomes, and a decrease in bullying, drug use and other problem behaviour. As an added bonus, SEL program students consistently outperform their peers academically – by a whopping 11 percentile-points, according to a recent mega-study of 270,000 program students.
“It’s not just the fluffy, feel good kind of stuff of education,” says Schonert-Reichl. “We now have really strong, rigorous research backing this.” The research includes recent neuroscience that has debunked 200 years of prevailing wisdom that humans are, by nature, chiefly self-interested and brutish. Recent findings show that people are “wired for empathy.” But, like language development, empathy needs to be nurtured in order to flourish.
Roots of Empathy is not yet offered in every B.C. school, and coverage varies across districts. In North Vancouver, the program is currently in 20 of the 25 public elementary schools, and in West Vancouver it is in seven of 14. In those schools that have it, the program is frequently offered in only one classroom per year. In bigger schools, that translates to less than five per cent of the student population receiving the program per year.
Back in the Highlands classroom, the program instructor – in this case, school principal Arlie Thompson doing year-long double-duty – is coaching the children to notice how Cassandra communicated her feelings about This Little Piggy.
“She was laughing!” exclaimed Connor. “She was a little bit sad, but then she got happy,” added Kimi.
The visit wraps up and the kids grab their jackets, line up at the door and head out for recess. As the sound of a playground argument wafts in from outside, one could be forgiven for questioning whether these kids, with the aid of a baby, really can change the world. But something that happened at baby Cassandra’s last visit provides a glimmer of hope.
Last month, when Cassandra was not yet the adept sitter she is now, she at one point tumbled over, adopting a startled look. All the kids laughed. All except one, that is. A horrified look overtook five-year old Andy’s face, and he said, loudly: “guys, stop laughing at her.”
The instructor gently clarified that the friends were laughing with Cassandra, not at her. But the point was not lost on the adults in the room. A five-year old had, in no uncertain terms, told all 20 of his classmates – 20 of his future neighbours, colleagues and professional and political comrades and competitors – to stop making fun of a fellow human being.
And so the program grows.