ROOTS OF EMPATHY
For more than 10 years, students across Canada have benefitted from a simple, but elegant program called Roots of Empathy. Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based prevention program developed by Mary Gordon. Roots of Empathy is being implemented in our Seattle community as part of a three year pilot funded by the Kirlin Charitable Foundation and the John and Nancy Sabol Foundation. This is the first pilot of Roots of Empathy in the United States; there is hope and expectation that the program will expand statewide and nationally.
Mary Gordon often asks Roots of Empathy students, a simple question, “What can you tell me about your baby?” Hands shoot up, children who appear to be disconnected suddenly sparkle, language flows, and children are engaged as they describe their baby. The Roots of Empathy program revolves around nine classroom visits from an infant and a parent. During these visits, a trained instructor guides the students to observe the infant’s developmental changes, engages the parent in a conversation about the experience of parenting, and helps the students connect their own experiences to the experiences of the baby. The students learn about temperament and attunement, brain development and human development, safety and the responsibilities associated with caring for an infant.
The benefits of Roots of Empathy have been measured by numerous scientific studies that show that students who are exposed to this program have a decrease in aggression and an increase in social skills. The benefits have also been recorded anecdotally in the art work, the photographs and the stories of thousands of children who participate in the program. Together, this evidence tells a compelling story of how Roots of Empathy reaches children through their hearts and provides a fundamental experience of caring and loving and a vocabulary of emotions that equips them for responding in empathic ways. Mary Gordon explains this succinctly when she says, “Empathy is not taught, it must be caught.”
The Roots of Empathy team, the instructor, the teacher, the principal, the parent and the baby, work together to ensure that this engagement leads to a deeper understanding of feelings and a better sense of how to treat one another with respect and empathy. The infant and parent visits are the heart of the program, but relationships define the fundamental framework for learning.