Bringing empathy into the classroom

Bright idea: One kindergarten teacher found an unlikely solution to behaviour problems in the classroom: bringing in infants

Melanie Gordon

A grade-four class is gathered around a blanket, intent as Mei, a six-month-old baby girl, stretches to reach a toy. One boy smiles and cheers baby Mei on: “Come on, come on!” His brow furrows with concern as little Mei does a face plant, and then relaxes after she’s comforted with a reassuring look and pat from Mom. When Mei finally triumphs and reaches the toy, the kids clap and squeal with delight. This scene is an almost daily occurrence with Roots of Empathy, an award-winning program developed by Newfoundland-born educator Mary Gordon.

The program, which has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama, among others, aims to teach children about caring and nurturing by observing and discussing infant development and babies’ attachment to parents. As a young kindergarten teacher in Toronto in the ’70s, Gordon saw huge gaps in children’s learning potential and dedicated her career to finding ways to level the playing field. Her first step was convincing the Toronto Board of Education to put parenting centres in certain inner-city schools in 1981. She went out into the community to talk parents into checking out the centres and found that toting a friend’s baby along on her recruitment calls was effective: Babies are people-magnets, and reluctant parents were drawn in as they listened to her pitch. As the parenting-centre programs evolved, the staff observed a similar phenomenon with inner-city kids: Interacting with babies had a magically calming effect on older children. Gordon realized that observing babies and loving parent-baby relationships was ideal for building a child’s capacity for empathy. And empathy, Gordon believed, was the basis for not only the good parenting that she wanted to support, but also a building block for creating a kinder, more caring society.

In 1996 she launched Roots of Empathy, a classroom-based program where parent-baby pairs visit an elementary school class nine times over the course of a school year, starting when the baby is two to four months old. A trained instructor accompanies the families and meets with students separately to discuss the baby’s development and changing needs. The instructor helps label the baby’s emotions, and teaches kids to relate these emotions to their own feelings and others’.

“It’s my belief that empathy can’t be taught, but it can be ‘caught,’” says Gordon. “This little baby and the attachment relationship with the parent helps children find the humanity in the baby. That helps them to see the humanity in themselves and each other.”

Nine different studies support Gordon’s theories, proving that Roots of Empathy reduces aggression and increases social and emotional understanding among students. Neuroscientists at Toronto’s York University and the University of Washington in Seattle are now planning studies which will use brain-imaging equipment to study the behavioural development of school children before and after participating in the program.

Gordon has received many accolades for her work, including the Order of Canada. Roots of Empathy is now in the US, Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand and it’s still expanding. A preschool version, Seeds of Empathy, has also been launched in Canada and the US.

“Roots of Empathy is now more than just a school program,” says Gordon. “It’s a movement. We’re trying to change the world child by child – and the lever that does this is empathy.”

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